Category Archives: minutiae

If you were to walk . . . Boston’s Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, 1886

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Faneuil Hall - circa 1903, via Wikipedia Commons

If you were to walk . . . Boston’s Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market 125 years ago, on the afternoon before Thanksgiving, you would encounter a large assortment of the city’s vegetable and meat merchants, selling their wares from the many wagons crowding the scene.  Today, although these merchants have long since moved on to other areas of the city, Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market are still a great place for people-watching.  Traversing its brick walkways, you’ll see commuters rushing for trains, tourists following the Freedom Trail, shoppers carrying bundles, and even street performers entertaining passersby.  But, even amidst so many reminders of present-day Bostonian life, the history of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market are still very evident.

Faneuil Hall, first built in 1742, has served as a marketplace since its beginnings and has witnessed speeches by historical figures such as Samuel Adams and James Otis as well as more recent lawmakers like Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who declared his candidacy for president there in 1979.  Quincy Market, built a generation later in the mid-1820s, accommodated the  growing demand for shop space on what was then Boston’s waterfront, and provided an indoor shopping pavilion for shoppers and merchants seeking staples like eggs, cheese, and produce.  Butchers selling meat began coming soon after.  Evidence has been found that the butchering occurred on site.

While researching posts for this blog, I found an article in an 1886 edition of the Boston Daily Globe that vibrantly captured life at Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market 125 years ago, in Boston’s Victorian era.  When looking through old newspapers, it’s rare to find such a vibrant first-hand account as the one below that shows Boston scenes that transpired so long ago.  What follows is a transcription of that account, from the pages of the Boston Daily Globe, November 25, 1886, Page 4:

Great Fun Buying Fowl.

The Market Jammed with Thanksgiving Shoppers – Sights Seen and Bits of Curious Conversation Overheard.

uincy_Market,_Boston,_from_Robert_N._Dennis_collection_of_stereoscopic_views_2

Quincy Market, Boston, via Wikipedia Commons

She had come to the market with her mamma the afternoon before Thanksgiving to buy a turkey, and for the want of anything else to do for a minute jumped upon some scales that stood empty on the sidewalk just back of the Cradle of Liberty.  She couldn’t manage the weights very well; but a rosy-cheeked, auburn-whiskered marketman, who doubtless looks as handsome as any in his Sunday clothes, threw himself into the breach.  The young woman weighed 132 pounds.

“That isn’t very much, ” said the marketman, becoming acquainted in spite of himself.  “I’ve got a daughter at home who is only 14, and she weighs 140.”

But 132 wasn’t bad, for the daughter of the old lady who was buying a turkey, besides being a favorite by her very looks and manner, was short and shapely.  She must have been solid, too.

There are a hundred funny things at the market the day before Thanksgiving, because the stalls of Faneuil Hall and Quincy market and the narrow alleys between the rough counters improvised in the streets are crowded from early morning till late at night.  The dealers are prepared for business.  They not only stock the stalls fully, but buy loads of fowl that are brought in from the country and get men to sell them on commission at the stands.  Perhaps twenty rows of these extend almost to the south sidewalk of South Market street, and perhaps 200 men, eager for a trade, stand by.  A thousand people throng around and purchase, if they can decide to do so.

It is an odd sort of person who doesn’t buy a turkey for Thanksgiving.  Here are a tall young man and a tall young woman, who looks like his wife, taking a lesson in social economy together.  They depend a good deal on the honesty of the man who is extolling the youth and beauty of his birds.  Here is a grey-haired matron who feels the breastbone of a turkey over with her black kid gloves to see if it is as soft as indifferently as if they could be bought for seventeen cents a pair.  Here is a stylish young maiden with a music roll on one arm and

A Turkey, or the Legs of One, 

sticking up, like the handle of a parasol, over the opposite shoulder.  Here is a fat woman, dressed in a shawl that must have been brought from the old country, looking the counters over again to make sure that she had struck a good bargain; and little Mamie, looking satisfied in spite of the big load of fowl she is carrying, trudges along by her side and tries not to get lost till after Thanksgiving.  Here is a policeman, majestic and self-possessed, paying for his dinner like other people out of a very ordinary-looking pocket-book; for why should the spirit of mortal be proud in a crowd like this?  Here is a large-eyed, dark-skinned Italian boy ruinously selling thirty-six bundles of matches for twelve cents; at the risk, too, of seeming out of place.  Here is a little man selling roasted chestnuts out of measures which have their inside bottoms half way up the sides.  Here is a slight, pale-faced dame, in gaudy plush bonnet and ill-fitting threadbare cloak, making her way homeward as well as she can with a live duck under each arm.  Here is General Nathaniel Prentiss Banks, inquiring the price of turkeys at a stand where they are thirteen cents a pound, and passing sedately on.

A well-kept elderly gentleman, who seemed to know a great deal, stood on the steps of Quincy Market yesterday and surveyed the crowd.  “There will be more of them here later,” said he, “when they get out of work.  These commission men have been here since 4 or 5 in the morning.  They sell for these fellows inside.  A good many seem to think they get better bargains outside.  Well, they do get fowl cheaper, but they get it poorer.”

“Oh, they are selling all the way from ninepence to eighteen and twenty cents a pound.  These fellows don’t make more than 2 per cent profit on the whole, though a good seller will clear $10 or $12 or even $20 a day.  It’s lively, though.  I suppose they will be all sold out by 9 o’clock.  Or, if there are some left, they go to the cold storage to be sold in sixty days, perhaps, or three months, at 4 or 5 cents a pound, for Sunday dinners at the boarding-houses or cheap hotels.  There isn’t any waste.”

A GLOBE young man did not loaf for half an hour in the crowd without catching some curious bits of conversation.

Artist:  Jean Béraud [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An 1880's Street Scene, Showing Period Fashions

Mrs. McCarty and Mrs. McIntyre

who both live over in the seventh ward, came face to face in the middle of Quincy Hall, dropped their turkeys in the sawdust, and shook hands.  “Well, now,” says Mrs. McCarty, “ain’t you a stranger.  Ain’t ye niver coming over?”  “Sure,” says Mrs. McIntyre, “I couldn’t tell where ye lived no more than a fool ; but Jamesie he told me it was number 15.  Has the old man got work, thin?”  “Faith, he has,” says Mrs. McCarty, “and the children won’t go hungry tomorrer.”

A rustic couple came down the hall looking this way and that, but faithfully keeping hold of hands.  A fat, good-natured fellow selling bologna sausage in one of the stalls saw them, and said to his companion in arms who was cutting up a rib:  “He needn’t cling to her so; nobody in her wants her.”

One of the marketmen outside very much hurt the feelings of a fine old Irish gentleman by talking to another customer because he wasn’t very quick to purchase.  “These are all young, as you can see, and you can’t do better than fourteen cents.”  remarked the marketman.  “I find no fault with your fowl, my friend,” said the old fellow.  “I know they were born yesterday; but if you don’t sell them cheaper now you will have to before night.  I don’t believe that bird weighs twelve pounds anyhow.”  “Oh, yes,” put in a neighboring marketman, in a low tone; “he’s all right with the scales.  I’ve been watching him all day.”

A sad-eyed lady approached a young man who rested for a moment on the big stone steps.  “Can you tell me, sir,” said she, “how much a 9¼ lb. turkey would come to at fourteen cents a pound?  I think he charged me too much.  But I was so confused with looking around that I couldn’t think.  I could do it out in a minute if I was home.”

“Let’s see,” replied the young man, slowly, “9¼ lbs. at 14 cents a pound.  Nine times 10 would be 90, and 9 times 4 would be 36; that’s $1.26.  Fourteen times 1/4 would be 3½; that’s 1.29½.  How much did he charge you?”

“He charged me $1.32,” said the woman not very disgustedly; “but that ain’t much.  I guess he can have it,” and she took her basket up and went away.

Two portly, well-to-do gentlemen, both on Thanksgiving errands, met near the door of Faneuil Hall.  One had made a purchase.  “That’s a good turkey,” said he proudly, “and it only cost ninepence a pound.  “Why don’t you try this man?”

“I think I will later,” replied the other.  “Er – we lost Dr. Withrow, didn’t we?”

“Yes,” said the first, “I guess it’s all right; though I can’t help thinking it would have been better if he had come right out and said in the first place that he’d better go.”

“Yes, yes,” answered the second again; “he’s done right.  Here’s this row coming on and there was a tempting offer.  It’s all right.”

“How your daughter has grown,” exclaimed the first as he hurried away.  The daughter was indeed a bouncing girl of 8.


Turkey Drovers – Traditions from Thanksgiving Days Past

Female wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) take...

Wild Turkeys, Image via Wikipedia

It turns out that wild turkeys are incredibly difficult to move across long distances.  In the days before refrigerated travel, a national roadway system, and even railroads, driving turkeys across long stretches of land was the province of men called turkey drovers.  From 1790 to about 1830, turkey drovers walked turkeys to market, literally, at a top speed of about one mile per hour.  In Massachusetts, this meant driving, or walking, a flock of turkeys from Central Massachusetts to the meat market in Brighton, just outside of Boston.

Each fall during the nation’s first decades, turkey drovers could be seen driving their turkeys across the lesser travelled byways of New England; the horse traffic of the day apparently proved a worthy distraction that slowed the driving of the turkeys even more.  Turkey driving was a dawn-to-dusk activity.  At the first sign of darkness, turkeys bolt for trees, ascend into them, and roost for the night.  For this reason, turkey drovers, usually travelled in covered wagons and took turns protecting the roosting turkeys from predators (both animal fauna and humans) as well as from simply wandering off.

Another peril in turkey driving: turkeys tend to crowd together when being driven and will trample each other.  To overcome this, men called shooers divided the turkeys into lots of up to 75 birds, and led the turkeys along their route using a long pole, with a piece of red flannel attached to the end.

So, when picturing the Thanksgiving Days of yore during this year’s holiday season, add the turkey drover and his large flock of turkeys to your conjured images.  Happy Thanksgiving, readers!

 


Slice of Victorian Life: Skunking with a Ten-Foot Pole

Modern 120-hole cribbage board

A Cribbage Board, Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes, when researching a column or even a post, a view into a slice of life from the past will emerge.  Today’s ‘slice of life’ comes to us from late 19th-century Bath, Maine.  As November wore on in 1895, skunking became popular in town.  Being a card player, ‘skunking’ makes me think of cribbage – specifically, winning a cribbage game by more than 30 points (or by more than 60, which qualifies as a double-skunk).  The men and boys of Bath, Maine, though, had a different activity in mind.  Skunking, to them, meant gathering together poles and guns, and a couple of lanterns, and setting off to hunt down skunks of the black-with-white-striped variety.  They soon discovered that guns left quite a mess; so, the preferred way to skunk was with, of course, a ten-foot pole.  Besides ridding Bath, Maine of its native skunk population (skunks were viewed as pests), they could then sell the skins for $1 to $2.50, and even sell the oil.  The skins, when dressed and dyed, were considered quite fashionable.

Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis)

Skunks, Image via Wikipedia

Source:

“Fall Fun.” The Bath Independent. Bath Me. 16 Nov. 1895, 3.


The Etiquette of Eating Olives – Victorian-Era Table Manners

Richelieu, by Philippe de Champaigne (detail),...

Cardinal Richelieu, Image via Wikipedia

There’s a story about the rather richly named Armand Jean du Plessis that circulated throughout Victorian-era New England during the 1880’s.  The story goes that du Plessis, better remembered by the world as the 17th-century Cardinal Richelieu of  France, once exposed an impostor pretending to be a nobleman by the way the man ate his olives.  Those watching this spectacle, the Cardinal included, were nonplussed when the impostor nobleman, upon failing to find an olive fork at the table, exposed himself as a fraud when he substituted an ordinary fork when procuring his olives.  The proper thing to do, the Cardinal and his tablemates knew, was to fish those olives from the dish with one’s fingers.

This story resonated with Victorian listeners.  Observing table manners provided a means by which one could identify the ‘uncultivated’ who were attempting to ‘rise above their condition’ and masquerade among the wealthier classes of society.  Mary Barr Munroe, writing for the March 2, 1889 edition of Good Housekeeping, reflected on some people-watching she herself had recently done in New York.  As she sat at a New York City restaurant she “saw a richly dressed woman with every evidence a lady, handle her knife, fork, and napkin in a way that bespoke anything but gentle breeding”.  At another table, she watched “a man take from his pocket a medicine bottle, shake it, pour out a dose and swallow it with evident disgust.”

Apparently, to the Victorians, the list of crimes against proper table manners was long.  Munroe advised that it was improper to:

  • Let food fall upon one’s clothes;
  • Grasp for food across the table;
  • Gulp one’s meal or tea down lustily;
  • Pick that same meal from one’s teeth moments later;
  • Smack one’s lips after finishing that meal (including any bits caught within one’s teeth);
  • ‘Loll’ at the table; and
  • Misunderstand the various utensils at the table, including butter knives, salt-spoons, sugar tongs, and napkins.
By Creator unknown. [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Group of people lined up in front of an 'Eating Saloon'

Other table faux-paus included ordering too much from the menu or not being able to find an item there to one’s liking.  In addition to the aforementioned olives, table manners grew specific depending on the type of food consumed.  A soft-boiled egg, for instance, could be eaten in the English manner, that is, directly from its shell, using a small egg cup and egg spoon.  Alternately, the soft-boiled egg could be eaten in the American fashion, by striking the egg against the cup and then pouring its contents within that cup.

Rules were prescribed for the consumption of celery too.  ‘Strictly finger food’, the Victorians advised.  To add salt, one should hold the stalk in one’s left hand, while shaking the salt dispenser over the celery with the other.  Always be mindful, etiquette advised, that a plate is positioned under the shaking effort in order to catch any errant salt.  Corn on the cob presented a specific challenge to Victorian table watchers.  Some advised that consumers of the corn should hold the ears in “pretty little doylies”; others thought this a perfectly absurd use of table linen.  Rules even existed for the ‘after-meal': one should never pile dirty dishes or fold spent napkins.

Some claim that table manners make a pleasant dining experience possible for all.  Others argue that they serve as a method by which the upper classes of society can identify and further ostracize the ‘uncultivated’.  Before the Victorian era and even before Cardinal Richelieu‘s day, table manners were observed during what today’s society calls ‘people watching’.  But, whether you consider them important or not, they do provide some interesting viewpoints into societies of the past and the interrelations of the classes within them.


The Civility of the Past – Our Ancestors’ Experiences with Public Transport

Do you commute to work using public transportation?  There’s a certain etiquette, a set of norms, that is easily observable when you are on the bus, the train, the subway, or even a plane.  There’s a prevailing thought out there that civility is a “thing of the past”.  But, was it?  Did our ancestors live in a world where people took just one seat on a horsecar, or politely inquired about the space beside a sitting passenger before sitting on the edge of their coats?  The answer is: “hardly”.

Books and articles written on etiquette can be a dry read, but they can also be a valuable and interesting source of insight into what everyday circumstances were like for our ancestors – and provide a perspective into just how little society, at least from the standpoint of social interaction, has changed in the last 120 years.  If etiquette books cautioned electric car (trolley) riders not to open the window next to them without first asking those seated behind them, then it’s likely that they did.  And, it’s also likely that the woman behind them, as her elaborately ringleted hair was assaulted by the twin furies of wind and road dust, thought of just how she would craft the next sentence of an etiquette book admonishing this.

James Henry Stark, in his Stranger’s illustrated guide to Boston and its suburbs, includes a list of horse railroad rules that had been established by the various Horse Railroad Companies of Boston by 1882:

Horse Railroad Rules:  

  • Getting on or off the front platform, riding on the steps, or talking with the driver is prohibited.
  • Never get on or off a car while it is in motion; notify the conductor, and wait until the car is stopped.
  • No disorderly or intoxicated person will be allowed to ride in the cars.
  • No smoking is allowed on the cars, excepting on the three rear seats of the open cars.
  • Full fare will be charged for children occupying seats which may be required by other passengers.
  • Articles lost in the cars may be inquired for at the offices of the different companies.
  • Peddling in the cars is prohibited.
  • No dogs allowed in the cars.
Truly, the list of rules reads eerily similarly to what might be encountered on an MBTA bus or subway car today.  A Good Housekeeping article on The Etiquette of Travel from several years later in 1889 provides similar insights, and also suggests that the behavior observed in Boston-area horsecars was not unique to just Boston.  Good Housekeeping advises that each traveler should not occupy more than one seat, fill seats around them with packages, or show a “disobliging spirit” when asked by a standing passenger to remove their things from those seats.  As I write the first draft of this post – on a rush hour commuter rail train heading into Boston – it’s obvious that this advice applies equally well to today’s public transportation ridership.
By Heywood, John B. -- Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Horsecar outside Scollay's Building in Boston's Scollay Square

The article also tackles the issue of a group of two or three people, turning over the seat in front of them (an option still available on some of today’s commuter rail trains) and taking over a space usually available for up to four people.  If you change out today’s baseball caps for Victorian bowler hats and today’s tight-fit jeans for yesterday’s long-hemmed corseted profiles, an image emerges of later comers milling about in the aisles, unsure whether to continue standing, or force themselves into a conversation among friends, in order to sit awkwardly among them, and likely ride backwards, facing the rear of the train.  If you’ve ridden the commuter rail for any time during the cold weather months, you’ve likely endured the discomfort of an oblivious seat companion brushing beside you and abruptly sitting atop your coat.  This appears to have been equally vexing to Victorian-era passengers, maybe even more so, in an age of long dresses.

For longer journeys, perhaps the present-day equivalent of a Boston to New York City journey by train, etiquette advised our ancestors to prepare their luncheons carefully and thoughtfully so that their companions would be spared the indignity of watching them eat chicken wings or legs with their fingers.  They were also advised to throw their debris, be they peanut shells or orange peels or even chicken bones, from their open windows – since the sight of these scattered across on trolley floors or window sills was considered unsightly.

When imagining or exploring the world of the ancestors we are researching, we sometimes consider it to be far more foreign or unfamiliar than it really was.  Our ancestors commuted just as we do now and faced situations that still ring familiar today.  Civility is not truly a “thing of the past”; rather, our perception of 19th century US culture probably incorporates a greater degree of civility than what truly existed.


If you were to walk . . . Boston’s Scollay Square and Tremont Street, 1895

Boston Scollay Square - John Winthrop Statue, 1897 via Wikipedia Commons

If you were to walk . . . through Boston’s Scollay Square and down Tremont Street, into what those alive in 1895 called “the congested district”, you would feel the crush of people and electric car traffic on what, even then, was considered a narrow road.  On this midsummer workday, as you walk southwest through the Square (in an area that now borders the rather bereft expanse known as Government Center), you see that the Square is actually a triangle, and oddly shaped at that, that makes the old-timers reminisce about the now-demolished Scollay building, whose footprint caused the irregular shape.

You escape the old men by pretending to study the statue of Governor John Winthrop, an early governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The statue is easy to study – since it dominates the Square.  Winthrop is depicted in bronze and granite, newly arrived in the New World, holding the colony charter in his right hand;  his left hand holds a Bible.  Behind him, the stump of a freshly felled tree stands, rope attached – presumably to the boat that had just brought him ashore.

Boston - Hemenway Building - Scollay Square, via Boston Public Library

It works; you’ve escaped the old men, no small feat in an age when sidewalks were uneven and clothes were constricting.  Their stories of the Scollay Square of yore fade into the hum of the traffic.  You pass by the statue, and onto the top of Tremont Street.  You pass by the Hemenway Building (tallest building, at left), at the intersection with Court Street.  It marks the site of a house that once lodged George Washington during his stay in Boston in 1789.  You pass other pedestrians, both afoot and aboard the electric cars.  Most are returning from work; some visit the area’s many banks, shops, theaters, newspaper offices, or railway stations.  As you brush shoulders with these other poor souls battling the foot and street traffic, you catch some rushed words about how grand the new subway will be, how it will push this mess of an electric car system underground, and ultimately how it will make both travel by street and by rail more efficient and reliable.

With Scollay Square at your back, the sidewalks of Tremont Street lead you past the Boston Museum at 28 Tremont, between the intersections with School and Court streets.  You step inside to escape the crush of humanity on the street and see the statues, paintings, even coins – standard fare for a museum, maybe, but you also hear that the Museum is Boston’s oldest theatre – dating to 1841.  One of the most prominent playhouses in the city, its fame these days lies in the introduction of foreign plays premiering in the US, including English comedies.  1,500 people can be seated inside.  The best seats will set you back $1 – some seats can be found for 50 cents or even less.

Boston's Tremont Street, 1895, via the Scientific American, 31 August 1895, Pg. 1

You next walk past the Massachusetts Historical Society, housed at 30 Tremont.  It’s likely open; its normal hours of operation are 9 A.M. to 5 P.M..  And, an added bonus, the admission is free.  Inside, such wonders await as an oak chair brought over on the Mayflower, a vial of tea purported to have been thrown into Boston Harbor during the Boston Tea Party, and even the sword of Miles Standish himself.  Its library, said to contain almost 40,000 books and over twice as many pamphlets, contains, within its collection, the largest trove of literature related to the Civil War anywhere.

Continuing along Tremont, you next approach the Granary Burying Ground, but you struggle to see the graves over the tops of the electric cars.  Established in 1660, the burial ground was originally part of the Boston Common, separated some time later by the construction of the town granary, which stood on the present-day site of the Park Street church.  If you manage to cross Tremont, to stand beneath the Burying Ground’s shady canopy, you’ll be able to make out some familiar names within its fences.  Paul Revere is buried there.  As is Peter Faneuil, who donated the market house and hall that now carried his name.  You’ll see the most prominent monument with the cemetery, one marking the graves of Benjamin Franklin’s parents.  More meandering will reveal the graves of the victims of the Boston Massacre, three signers of the Declaration of Independence, and nine governors of Massachusetts – colonial and post-Revolution.  Don’t think you can just walk in through the curve of the high, ivied gateway.  All would-be visitors are to apply for admission at No. 12 Beacon Street, at the office of the superintendent.

By Heywood, John B. -- Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

King's Chapel and Burying Ground - Boston, Tremont Street

Beyond the Massachusetts Historical Society building and the Granary Burying Ground, lies the King’s Chapel Burying Ground, and beyond that, King’s Chapel.  The Burying Ground, Boston’s oldest cemetery, dates its oldest burials to 1630.  A quick wander inside reveals the graves of many of Boston’s earliest prominent citizens.  You pause at the grave of Mary Chilton, who, as an eager 13-year-old, leapt from her boat as it approached Plymouth’s now-famous Rock in 1620, thus becoming the first European woman to touch land in Massachusetts.  The walls of Boston’s City Hall building (its entrance on School Street) frame the rear of the cemetery.  The dark granite wall of King’s Chapel, with its formidable stone tower, forms another boundary of the cemetery.  From across Tremont Street, the well-known Houghton & Dutton Department Store casts a long late-afternoon shadow across the graves.

Across the School Street intersection, you see the Parker Hotel (now the Omni Parker), first opened in 1855.  Inside, a room for the night, “with service and electric light”, can be had for $2, a fairly considerable sum in a day when nightly rates range from 50 cents through $3.  The hotel’s “European plan” rates do not include the cost of meals, a concept the hotel was the first to introduce to the US.  You next pass by the Tremont Temple, newly built just two years ago, near Tremont’s intersection with School Street.  The Temple sees most of its traffic on Sundays, but you might see concerts or lectures there on weeknights in its Lorimer or Parker Halls.  If you return on Sunday, you might even catch a sermon by its minister, Dr. Geroge Lorrimer.

By U.S. Stereoscopic Co. -- Publisher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Brewer Fountain - Boston Common

Past the Park Street Church, Boston Common emerges on the right of the street.  Its nearly fifty acres of green grass shaded by mature elms are certainly inviting, calling to you from behind its black iron fence.  Your eyes are drawn first to the Brewer Fountain, in place now for nearly 30 years.  But, there’s also McDonald’s, across the street at 132 Tremont.  McDonald’s, not of the type your 21st-century consciousness might recognize, sits near St. Paul’s Church and is a fashionable women’s clothing store.  Its light lunches at midday attract large crowds; some are shopping; some come just to watch the scene unfold.

Whether you opt for the merchandise-themed therapies offered by McDonald’s or choose to experience the aesthetic relaxation awaiting you at Boston Common, either is a welcome respite from the congested streets and sidewalks of Tremont Street.

By Walker [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Scollay Square Area, Boston - 1883


The Value of Living Memories, Lowell, MA: Circa 1865

For those of us born into Generation X, the earliest living memory of a family member we’ve likely been exposed to might stretch as far back as Prohibition, or the Great War, or maybe, for the older members of our generation, childhood memories of the Spanish-American War.  I write a local history column for the Billerica Minuteman.  In my research, I came across some living memory cassette tape recordings at the Billerica Public Library that date from the 1970’s.  But even these memories, from Billerica’s oldest residents of the 1970’s, date to the late 1890’s at the earliest.

Seven-year-old newspaper boy in 1914

What is harder to uncover is the living memory of generations that we haven’t met.  When you uncover photographs of your grandfather as a child, what sorts of stories would he have heard from the oldest members of his family?  As a family historian, I’ve come across lots of stories and artifacts passed down various branches of my family tree.  I often examine and ponder the Victorian-style trunk that carried my great-grandmother’s belongings to Boston when she was a young woman arriving from the Azores in 1907.  And, I’m fascinated to flip through the pages of a yellowed diary that my 2nd-great-grandfather purchased in Manchester, England, before boarding a ship that took him to the United States in 1869.  Inside, the most prominent yellowed page records, in his eloquent 19th-century handwriting, the date of his arrival in Boston:  July 25, 1869.

In genealogy, the holy grail is anything that helps us lay flesh upon the bones of the names, dates, and dry, yellowed records of the ancestors we are researching.  Sometimes, this takes the form of a treasured possession, or a diary, or a set of letters.  But, when these haven’t survived, the next best thing is the living memories of our ancestor’s contemporaries.  The trick is to find an author who has a lot in common with your ancestor – one who lived in the same area or performed the same occupation.

The history of my family has deep roots in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Five consecutive generations of my family have been born there.  So, naturally, I voraciously seek out any living memories of Lowell that have been preserved and that offer a window into the world my ancestors saw, felt, and experienced as they walked the streets of that long-ago Lowell.  The other day, I came across a fascinating article in an 1893 edition of the Lowell Sun, recounting the memories of a coal yard employee who spoke with the reporter about his memories of the city in the pre-Civil War era.

The article celebrates Belvidere resident Michael Moran’s 50 years of service in the coal yards of William Kittredge.  Like my ancestors, Moran was a laborer who had come to Lowell from Ireland, in 1846.  For nearly half a century, Moran worked for Kittredge, supporting his coal and wood businesses. Moran’s memories did not pre-date the construction of the Boston & Lowell railroad, but he did recall working with men who told him stories of the first coal being brought up the Middlesex Canal.  Moran recalled the days in Lowell before residents understood coal’s ability to heat their homes.  After Kittredge proved its worth to one Central Street merchant in an exhibition in his office, the merchant bought it on trial, put it in his grate at his Central Street office, and watch, frustrated, as the fire went out.  Enraged, the merchant threw the coals onto his lawn, and then watched, dismayed, as his lawn caught fire and burnt out.

Central Street; Lowell, Massachusetts - ca. 1875

Moran went on to recall the Lowell of the his younger years, including a Central Street with no sidewalks and lacking the Mansur and Canal blocks.  In his earlier days, shanties stood on Central Street in their place, which housed a few “traders”.  He recalled a Palmer Street before the Central Fire Station was built, and a pond that once occupied its site.  He had, in fact, cut across the site on his way home from buying a suit one night and fell into that pond.  Moran remembered a Lowell whose biggest restaurant was owned by Captain Marston and located in the Wentworth Block at the corner of Merrimack & Shattuck Streets.  Marston’s restaurant was a draw for Lowell’s theatrical crowd, where the most fashionable actors and actresses of the age could be seen before and after they took the stage.  Moran’s memories also included a youthful General Benjamin Butler, who to men of his generation, was viewed as a good friend to Lowell’s Irishmen. He also recalled the construction of the Carpet, Prescott, and Massachusetts Mills.

Benjamin Franklin Butler

The ability to access living memories of those whose lives are long past allows us a glimpse into the lifetimes of our own ancestors.  Reading accounts such as Michael Moran’s helps us visualize the Lowell of the mid-19th century, a time long lost from the living memory of society.  From a historian’s perspective, it’s interesting and helps provide some context as to how contemporary citizens viewed the city and its development toward the end of the 19th century.  For genealogists, these accounts help enliven our own family history records and put some context to our view of our ancestors’ lives.  What did they see as they walked the streets of their cities?  How did they view historical figures such as Benjamin Butler?  For us Gen X’ers, living memories captured in old books and newspaper articles are a form, a fascinating one, of time travel.