Past Occupations: Ice Cutters in Massachusetts

This 1852 drawing, from Gleason’s Drawing Room Companion, shows ice harvesting on Spy Pond in Arlington, Massachusetts in the mid-19th century (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the days before refrigeration, ice was a valuable winter cash crop for enterprising businessmen.  Ice was a year-round staple in most households, and many families would give up food before they would give up ice.  As a region, New England was well-known for its quality ice.  The region’s severe cold coupled with its deep ponds produced hardy, compact ice that became quite valued for the 19th-century ice trade.

During heat waves, people depended on the harvested ice to cool lemonade and make cocktails even more appetizing, as a retreat not only from the life’s concerns, but from the heat too.  Also, iced water flavored with lemon peels had long been a 19th-century staple of Sunday school picnics.  There were other uses of ice too.  Ice was used to protect food and drink from spoiling, and it was also used to preserve bodies before burial.

Ice, due to its nature and its weight, was expensive and difficult to transport.  The ice of New England was viewed as among the purest and clearest ice available, and the region frequently produced ice crops that were thick, and as clear as crystal.  Even middle-class families considered regular visits from the ice man within their means, along with calls from butchers and grocers.  During the summer, restaurant owners and barkeepers needed steady deliveries of ice.  Private citizens did too.  Students were known to take small pieces of ice to suck on as they walked to school.  When local supplies fell short in terms of quantity or quality, the expense to bring ice in from Western Massachusetts or from New Hampshire was considerable.

The best ice for harvesting was thought to be between nine inches and one foot thick.  If the ice was to exported long distances, the recommended thickness grew to about 20 inches.  Before harvesting the ice, any snow was cleared off its surface by a wooden scraper dragged across the ice by a horse.  A second scraper was then drawn across the ice, which used a steel blade to scrape away the ice’s porous upper layer, which averaged about three inches.  After the snow was cleared, and the porous layer of the ice was removed, another horse then dragged a plow across the ice to cut a set of three-inch deep grooves across its surface.  Soon after,  a series of cuts was made in the opposite direction, thus creating a checkerboard pattern across the ice.

A stereoscopic view showing a scene from the Minnesota ice harvest (Source: Robert N. Dennis collection via Wikimedia Commons)

After the squares were marked off, the manual labor started as men took out hand saws and sawed out rows of ice blocks, each about 30 feet square.  After the first block was removed, the subsequent ones would either be taken out or thrust under the others.  Once the first few blocks were removed the work became easier as an ice spade could be dropped into the grooves to wrest the remaining  blocks of ice free.

The blocks of ice were sometimes floated through the canal, where, at the shore, they would be hoisted out.  Sometimes, they were hoisted free from the river, jerked with a hook at the end of a pole.  All blocks were then slid on sleds, which carried them away to the ice houses.

The ice blocks were then taken to ice houses, where they were cut into smaller ice cakes and raised up into the houses by steam-powered elevators.  At the top of the elevator, men then pushed the ice cakes into their final resting positions within the ice house.  As long as the ice kept moving, its weight could easily be managed by one man.  If the ice stopped, though, its weight of nearly one-half ton could require as much as four men to get it moving again.  The ice house itself was a huge wooden building with no windows that typically stood near a pond or riverbank.  Ice houses measured from 100 to 200 feet long, and were wide too.  The largest boasted capacities of some 20,000 tons of ice.  To better insulate the ice during warmer weather, the walls of ice houses were filled with sawdust.

Today, the once-familiar scene of ice cutters harvesting ice on area lakes, ponds, and rivers has gone the same way as the vision of the ice man delivering his blocks of ice along city streets.  Gone too are most of the ice houses where the ice was once stored.  What remains are the images and memories of the ice harvesting trade in history books, and in the family histories of those who count these men among their ancestors.

A late-19th century view of an ice house in Newburyport, Massachusetts (Photograph by H. P. McIntosh via Wikimedia Commons)


The Day a Cyclone hit Lawrence, Massachusetts – 1890

On a summer morning in July 1890, the cyclone hit Lawrence, Massachusetts suddenly and without warning.  What we would today call a tornado or microburst began as soft showers advancing across the city as people made their way to work on Saturday, July 26, 1890.  As nine o’clock approached, the clouds thickened and darkened the sky.  The rain intensified.  Fifteen minutes later, a funnel cloud appeared in the skies above Lawrence.  The wind picked up.  Then, the noise started.  Later, survivors learned that those sounds were nearby houses being torn apart.

Most Lawrence residents confused the commotion for noise coming from the city’s textile mills or from the city’s busy streets.  Chaos emerged as they realized a cyclone was crashing down onto South Lawrence, sending trees, houses, and other debris flying  through the air and across the city.  In just three minutes, twenty-five houses were completely destroyed.  Another 25 received serious damage.  Dozens of people were wounded, and eight people lost their lives.

St. Patrick's Church of Lawrence, Massachusetts, after the 1890 Cyclone (From the Boston Globe - July 27, 1890)

St. Patrick’s Church of Lawrence, Massachusetts, after the 1890 Cyclone (From the Boston Globe – July 27, 1890)

The cyclone struck Lawrence just west of Broadway, a main route connecting the city with Andover.  The houses on the west side of Broadway escaped with minor damage and downed tree limbs.  St. Patrick’s Church, the Catholic Church at the corner of Salem Street on Broadway’s east side, wasn’t so lucky.  It suffered broken windows and a lost roof on one of its transepts.

Damage caused by the 1890 Lawrence Cyclone (Courtesy:  Illustrated American, 1890)

Damage caused by the 1890 Lawrence Cyclone (Courtesy: Illustrated American, 1890)

Far worse, though, was the damage to the neighborhoods off Broadway.  Among the first casualties of the 1890 Lawrence cyclone was the saddest.  Mary Lyons, 24, was outside as the cyclone approached her Emmet Street home.  Fearing for her child, she ran inside her home just moments before the winds dashed her house from its foundation and broke it apart.  Her husband, James, was just a few feet further away, in a neighboring field, and just steps behind his wife.  The winds proved too much for him and he was blown aside, never reaching the house.  Outside, pinned to the ground just feet from his home, he was forced to watch it break apart with his family inside.  When the winds died down minutes later, he regained his footing, ran for his home and, with other rescuers, found the body of his wife, with a beam that had fallen across her forehead.  As they pulled her from the wreckage of the house, they found the Lyons’ young daughter underneath her, very alive and clasping her mother’s body while crying “mamma, mamma”.

The cyclone next crossed Salem Street’s overhead railroad bridge where Michael Higgins, who was working the bridge’s switch house, was blown more than 150 feet away.  His body was later found with a broken neck.   He was 23.  The winds next hit the house of Deacon William Cutler, who lived on the corner of Salem and Blanchard Streets.  The four people in the house at the time survived with just minor injuries.  One daughter narrowly escaped death by hiding under the family’s piano.  Another of Deacon Cutler’s daughters, Helen, just 11 years old, wasn’t so fortunate when she was carried down an embankment by the cyclone and struck by debris.  She died a few hours later.

A view of houses on Springfield Street, Lawrence, after the 1890 cyclone.  (Courtesy:  The Illustrated American, 1890)

A view of houses on Springfield Street, Lawrence, after the 1890 cyclone. (Courtesy: The Illustrated American, 1890)

Soon after the cyclone bore down on the Cutlers’ home, the wind shifted, sending the cyclone spiraling toward Springfield Street, where the heaviest devastation was recorded.  The houses there were either torn down entirely, blown over on their sides, or had entire walls torn out.  There, Elizabeth O’Connell, 32, died when she was crushed to death by the debris of her collapsing house.  Her eleven-year-old daughter, Mary Ann, affectionately known as Mamie, died with her.  After Springfield Street, the cyclone flattened a grove of trees on Union street, before demolishing another six houses on Portland Street.  On Portland Street, among the debris, Elizabeth Collins and her six-year-old daughter, Annie, were found inside their house.  Hannah Beatty, 10 years old, was also found nearby.  All died of suffocation after being trapped under debris.

Some stories of miracle cases were told where death had been averted.  A bundle of rags blowing down Springfield Street in the aftermath of the cyclone turned out to be the baby daughter of Mrs. Elizabeth O’Connell, covered in dust and plaster, but otherwise unharmed.  Another Springfield Street resident, Mrs. Lizzie Holdeworth, was sitting in her house as the winds bore down upon South Lawrence.  She heard a crash, but lost consciousness before she could react.  When she came to, she was trapped under a pile of beams, unable to move, or to even make a noise.  A rescuing party, arriving hours later, chopped her free.

The names of the eight victims of the 1890 Lawrence, Massachusetts cyclone, as recorded in the municipal death records.

The names of the eight victims of the 1890 Lawrence, Massachusetts cyclone, as recorded in the municipal death records.

In the aftermath of the cyclone, Lawrence set upon the ruined district around Springfield Street and started clearing the debris, and planning funerals for the dead.  Half of the cyclone’s victims were parishioners of St. Patrick’s Church.  Owing to the fact that cyclones are somewhat rare in the New England region, thousands of sightseers were reported to have descended upon South Lawrence in the days following the cyclone to view the damage.  Many remarked that the loss of life was very low for such a damaging storm.  This, of course, was no solace to the family and friends of the eight victims who lost their lives during the Lawrence Cyclone of 1890.


Lowell’s Franco American School and its Connection to my Family History

Lowell’s Irish and French Canadian populations long had an uneasy relationship.  I grew up hearing about it, a century after the French Canadians first starting appearing in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the 1870s.  By the time the French Canadians began arriving in Lowell, the Irish Catholics – who had started appearing a generation earlier – had been winning some hard-fought political control over their circumstances and had started arguing for labor reform in the city’s textile mills.  The French Canadians, newly arrived to Lowell, were not looking to jeopardize their chances of finding employment in the mills by becoming involved in the Irish efforts at labor reform.  As a result, the Irish viewed the French Canadians as strike breakers, and the French Canadians resented the Irish for making their quest for lasting and steady employment more difficult.

French Canadian family arriving from Montreal, 1913 (Via Wikimedia Commons, via Popular Science Monthly, Volume 83)

Gradually, as newer waves of emigrants arrived – among them the Greeks, Polish and Portuguese – the resentment between the Irish and French Canadians began to ebb as they formed an uneasy alliance against these newer groups who, like them before, so needed work that they were willing to act as ‘strike breakers’ when labor discussions turned toward reform in the years surrounding the turn of the twentieth century.  But, the tensions never really faded away entirely.

As both populations became ‘more American’, and less ‘Irish’ or ‘French Canadian’, their US-born children almost began to forget about the original divides between the two groups.  Almost.  Many mill town family trees, mine included, show evidence of marriages uniting children of the Irish with children of the French Canadians.

When Peter Foisy, of French Canadian descent, married my Great Aunt Catherine McNamara, of Irish Catholic descent, in the mid-1920s, a sense of scandal rocked the family – for a few reasons.  He was older, by more than 20 years.  He was divorced.  And – he was French Canadian – one of ‘them’.  For similar reasons, a sense of scandal also rocked his family, when their son divorced his wife to marry a woman young enough to be his daughter.

Soon after their marriage, Catherine became pregnant – which wasn’t really a surprise to anyone since Peter had left his first wife since she hadn’t wanted children.  Their daughter, my Aunt Emily, was born in 1927, and the family lived happily, until 1929, when Peter died at the age of 47.  My Aunt Emily, was just two years old.

Grandma Foisy - the only photo I've seen of her.

Grandma Foisy – the only photo I’ve seen of her.

Decades later, I grew up hearing the story of how Aunt Emily’s French-Canadian grandmother tried to convince my aunt’s newly widowed mother to place her in the Franco American Orphanage in the months after her father’s death.  The stories led me to envision this woman as a ‘wicked witch’ sort of grandmother.  And, years later, when I found her photograph among my aunt’s things, that image wasn’t exactly disproven.

The Franco American School, as seen from Pawtucket Street, (By Emw, via Wikimedia Commons)

English: Frederick Ayer, Industrialist

English: Frederick Ayer, Industrialist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The orphanage, to me, as a child hearing the story, seemed like it would have been a big, scary, lonely place to send a newly fatherless toddler in the late 1920s.  Now, after the passage of a few decades and a chance to further study the Franco American Orphanage, it turns out that it wasn’t such a desolate, lonely place after all.  The original building, shown above, dates to the 1870s and was built for Frederick Ayer, one of Lowell’s most prominent nineteenth-century businessmen.  Today, his former estate, once known as the Ayer estate and later as the Franco American Orphanage and School quickly became one of Lowell’s most recognizable landmarks on the corner of School and Pawtucket Streets.  Frederick Ayer, in life, was a successful Lowell businessman whose business pursuits included partnering with his equally well-known brother, J.C. Ayer, in his patent medicine business.

The building which once housed the J.C. Ayer Co. still stands on Lowell's Market Street.  On the building's Central Street side, the company's painted advertisement is still visible (Photo by Author.  Oct. 2011)

The building which once housed the J.C. Ayer Co. still stands on Lowell’s Market Street. On the building’s Central Street side, the company’s painted advertisement is still visible (Photo by Author. Oct. 2011)

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate bought the Ayer estate in 1908 and soon received Cardinal O’Connell‘s blessing to open an orphanage to serve the orphans of the city’s growing Franco American population.  Father Joseph Campeau, OMI, who was pastor at St. Joseph’s parish, helped found the orphanage, with the help of the Sisters of Charity.  They had their work cut out for them, trying to refurbish the estate and turn it into an orphanage and school.  The estate had been vacant since 1890, when Ayer had moved to Boston.  In the end, they succeeded in renovating the estate, and the nuns welcomed the orphanage’s first sixteen orphans on October 15, 1908.

The orphanage prospered, and as times changed, it began to admit day students as early as the 1950s.  The number of day students continued to grow through the 1960s, when the Franco American Orphanage officially became the Franco American School in 1963.  Fifteen years later, in 1978, the Franco American School discontinued its boarding school services and moved to the day-student-only format that continues through today.

By the time I came around, the Franco American School had stood on Lowell’s Pawtucket Street for decades, where it still provides a Catholic education to the city’s youth.  Although additions have been added to the original Ayer estate over the years, the front building, the original, still retains much of its original historical charm.  Fortunately, very little remains today of that initial resentment between Lowell’s earliest Irish and French Canadian populations, except when recalled in family stories and old newspaper articles.  My aunt passed away in 2004, and never lost pride in either heritage – although I think she more readily claimed her Irish Catholic background just to spite that French Canadian grandmother who almost sent her to the orphanage all those years ago.


The Valentine’s Day Storm of 1940.

The Valentine’s Day Storm of 1940 crossed Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts within just a few days in February 1940.  Locals said it was the biggest storm to hit the region since the New England Hurricane of 1938, some 15 months before.  The first flurries started on the morning of Valentine’s Day, before progressing into a steady snow with strong winds as the afternoon wore on.  The storm didn’t stop until the morning of the next day when 14 inches of fresh snow lay across the area.  The drifts reached six to eight feet in some places.  Some reports described the drifts as approaching ten feet high.

Boston commuters learn of significant train travel delays during the Valentine's Day snowstorm in 1940.  (Via Boston Public Library, Flickr)

Boston commuters learn of significant train travel delays during the Valentine’s Day snowstorm in 1940. (Via Boston Public Library, Flickr)

The storm stalled train travel for hours on all of New England‘s railroad systems, and stranded many in Boston on Valentine’s Day.  Many Lowell residents attending the ice carnival at the Boston Garden were trapped in Boston after all train service was cancelled  after the 8:45 PM train left the station.  Many of the stranded spent idle hours over the next day or two at hotel bars, still clothed in their dinner jackets and evening gowns that they had been wearing on the night of the storm.  Those lucky enough to score hotel rooms paid steep premiums.  When the rooms ran out, hotel owners were required to provide cots in their lobbies and ballrooms to accommodate those made ‘temporarily homeless’ by the storm.

The storm also stalled trolley car and bus transportation, and all plane service was cancelled for three or four days. In the city, all of Boston’s major department stores closed on the 15th, something that hadn’t happened in 14 years, not even in the New England Hurricane of 1938.   The roads became so bad that Boston city police enforced a ban on all automobiles entering the downtown area.  And, snow removal efforts became further hampered by the large amounts of automobiles that had stalled and subsequently abandoned on the streets.

A fireman digs out his fire truck in the 1940 Valentine's Day storm.  (via Boston Public Library Flickr)

A fireman digs out his fire truck in the 1940 Valentine’s Day storm. (via Boston Public Library Flickr)

In Lowell, hundreds of public and private employees fought in the days following the storm to free the city from the vast amounts of snow covering city streets.  Snow removal moved slowly in Lowell.  In the aftermath of the storm, the city dispatched 30 plows, two bulldozers, and a 10-ton tractor to clear the snow.  Similar to the situation in Boston, they found many of the city’s main streets – Merrimack, Central, Bridge, and Rogers – all blocked with cars that had stalled in the storm.  By the 16th, even in the downtown section, huge drifts of snow remained piled high on the edges of the streets.   The Lowell Street Department estimated that some 200 streets remained blocked with snow, even on the 16th, two days after the storm had hit.  Like Boston, by the end of the second day after the storm, many of the stalled cars on Lowell’s city streets had been cleared out, allowing plows to finally complete their rounds.

In the end, the Valentine’s Day storm of 1940 claimed 31 lives in New England.  In the days following the storm, the number was feared to be much higher while searchers scoured the seas for the ten-man crew of the lost 49-foot dragger “Palmers Island”, which had sailed from New Bedford before the storm.   Three days after the storm, the Coast Guard took the “Palmers Island” in tow, some 120 miles south of Block Island, RI.  The dragger, with crew aboard, returned to New Bedford on Sunday, February 18.


Fire Alarm Signal Boxes

Fire alarm signal box in Ridgewood, New Jersey (Photo Credit: Wikipedia via Ben Schumin)

In a world before text messages, the internet, televisions, radios, and even telephones, fire emergencies were signaled with fire signal boxes.  Not everyone could signal a fire.  Fire signal boxes were locked, and alarms could only be activated by keyholders.  Alarms were to be activated from the box located closest to the fire.  Keyholders confirmed that a fire was indeed burning before activating the box by unlocking it, pulling down the slide or hook inside once, and letting it go.  After activating the alarm, keyholders listened for the bell inside the box to begin ringing, which indicated that the fire alarm signal had been successfully sent to the fire department.  If no sound came, keyholders pulled the lever inside the box again.  And if this didn’t work, the keyholder moved to the next closest box and tried again.  If the bell inside the fire signal box was ringing before the hook was pulled, this meant that the alarm had already been given at another box.  Once the bell did ring, the keyholder remained at the box until the fire department arrived and released the key.  Keys were never to be lost, or turned over to anyone other than the fire department‘s chief engineer.  Police also had keys to the boxes.

Each station of the fire department was assigned a set of fire signal boxes that it was expected to respond to, but the department’s chief, first assistant, and protective company were expected to answer all alarms, regardless of which box they were sent from.  When the alarms were signaled, any companies not responding were asked to remain at their houses for at least thirty minutes unless they were dismissed by telegraph signals.

A partial list of signal box locations in Lowell, Massachusetts (Source:  1888-89 Lowell City Documents)

A partial list of signal box locations in Lowell, Massachusetts (Source: 1888-89 Lowell City Documents)

To a society where telephones were new and untried technology, and other forms of twentieth-century communication technology were still decades away, fire signal boxes served as a lifeline to the city’s fire department.  The signal boxes provided citizens with peace of mind.  When they were in need, the boxes were the quickest and easiest way to reach help.  However, beside providing help in emergencies, fire signal boxes also provided a service later offered by radio, and more recently by TV and the internet.  They were used to announce the cancellation of school sessions.  Two strokes at the fire signal boxes, repeated three times at 7:45 AM, or at 1:15 PM meant that the following session of school was cancelled.  And, they also helped people set their clocks.  The bells were struck once daily, at 1 PM.


Past Occupations: Lamplighters in Lowell, Massachusetts

Gas lighting early 20th century (via Wikimedia Commons)

Lamplighters turned night into day.  A staple of the urban Victorian streetscape, the nostalgic image persists of a lone man, walking a darkening city street as dusk descended behind him, extending his staff to ignite each dark, cold lamp stem to life with a small flame.  He would light the way along the lonely city lanes, so that those who were out after dark would not lose their way.

A lamplighter stood on his street corner, leaning on a long brass-tipped staff.  There, he would watch the time.  As dusk approached, he  hefted the end of his staff to light the street lamp overhead.  He would then walk quickly from one side of the street to the other, lighting the street lamps as he went.  When all the lamps were lit, the lamplighter was done for the night, until daybreak approached, when he walked the streets once again, to extinguish the flames.  Lamplighting wasn’t known to be a particularly grueling job, but most lamplighters were assigned routes of 70 to 80 lamps each.  They were paid about $2 a day.  Unlit gas jets within the lamps were known to immediately draw taxpayer complaints to the department’s superintendent.

The amount of work required to do the job varied by season.  The number of lamps rarely changed, but the work required to complete the route and light them did.  After the lamplighters extinguished their street lamps, they ate breakfast and then starting cleaning.  Cleaning was the most work.

In practice, in Lowell – a city of about 78,000 residents in 1890, the whole lamplighting system worked a little differently.  Up through the 1880’s, Lowell’s Department of Street Lamps employed a foreman, five other men, and 28 boys.  All under the direction of the city’s fire department chief, Edward S. Hosmer, the boys were charged with lighting almost all of the city’s 876 gas-powered lights.  Only 35 gas-powered streetlights in the city’s outskirts were lit by one of the five men employed by the Department of Street Lights.  When these men weren’t going out to parts less travelled to light these street lamps, they cleaned the lamps, and set, fitted, and sometimes reset posts, as needed.

Lamplighter

Lamplighter (Photo credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis)

By 1888, 876 gas lights still dotted Lowell city streets.  They were beginning to be replaced by electric lights, but the city was still adding more gas lights than it was turning off.  The city also had 397 gasoline and kerosene-powered lights, and was gradually replacing these with gas-powered lights as gas mains were laid in the streets.  Through the 1880’s, the Lowell Police Department was charged with putting the lamps out as the wee hours of the morning approached.  In 1887,  the police complained that this rather cumbersome duty not only distracted them from other more important duties, but also provided criminals with a way to predict when and where the patrolmen would be busy.  The police were required to extinguish 850 lights each night, 750 at 1 AM, and another 100 at 3 AM.  Most of these lights were outside of the city’s main downtown area, where electric lights had begun to be substituted.  Sometimes, it took as much as three hours a night for a policeman to extinguish his lamps on a given night.  The remaining lamps on the outskirts were extinguished by the Street Lamp Department’s regular men.

The Lowell Police got their wish granted in 1890, when the Department of Street Lamps no longer hired boys to light the street lamps or required policemen to extinguish them.  On July 1, 1890, five men were hired into the Street Lamp Department, bringing its total headcount to 11 men.  The city was divided into 10 districts, each having 90 to 106 lamps.  Each of the ten districts was assigned to one of the men; the last man acted as the group’s foreman.  Immediately, the new system gained favor as it was found to lead to better cleaned lamps and also decreased the number of frozen or broken lanterns, which were more quickly reported.

English: Illustration from Volume 2 of The Yel...

English: Illustration from Volume 2 of The Yellow Book, “The Lamplighter” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The job of the lamplighter was not an altogether solitary one.  The warm months brought company to the lamplighters as they made their rounds.  “Bug cranks”, or “naturalists” as they were more politely known, followed after the lamplighters to collect moths, millers, and beetles that had been attracted to the flames and had lost their lives.  Lamplighters could earn an extra quarter, or even a half-dollar, if they brought especially rare specimens to these bug collectors.  Lamplighters recalled that the oddest folks were met in the mornings.  One lamplighter recalled meeting an old man each morning, rain or shine, who followed the horse railway track, with his eyes never leaving the ground.  Each morning, he searched the ground for valuables that had been lost from passengers’ pockets as they caught, got off, or rode the horse railway.  He was known to find coins, jewelry, opera glasses.

Another lamplighter recalled finding a woman late one night.  Asleep and leaning against one of his street lamps, she held an infant in her arms.  The lamplighter stopped and roused her lightly.  She started at once and rose to her feet.  She begged the man that he not take her, and tried to convince him that she had not hurt the child.  She told him that, after she had reached the city the day before, her husband had left her and ran off with their money.  He had left her and their child on the streets in October.  The lamplighter was a sympathetic man and took her home, housing her for a few nights until her family arrived to get her.  In the end, the woman’s family sent a “pretty little present to remember her by.”

With the coming of electricity, lamplighters began to disappear from the Victorian city streetscape.  As electricity came to the cities, the task of lighting the roads depended more on some invisible someone flicking a switch at the electric company, rather than a team of men individually lighting each street lamp.  In the years leading up to the twentieth century, electric lights continued to replace their gas- and gasoline-powered counterparts.  In 1888 alone, 33 electric lights were added to the 119 that had been in place in Lowell when the year began, not including the eight electric lights on Fort Hill Park by 1888, which ran during the summer months.  The number of gas street lamps continued to decline as Lowell progressed into the twentieth century.  By 1909, Lowell had outsourced the care of its remaining gas lights to an outside provider.


Macaroni and Cheese? For Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving Dinner in 1883

Was Thanksgiving dinner different during Victorian times? If you were to sit down at a Thanksgiving table in 1883, you would see the familiar turkey and cranberry sauce and pies. But, what might surprise you would be, first, macaroni and cheese, and next, the meal that arrived when the Victorians called for macaroni and cheese.

Thanksgiving postcard circa 1900 showing turkey and football player. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Macaroni and cheese in a white bowl.

What Victorians called macaroni and cheese, we would more readily recognize as a sort of lasagna.  Above, a photo of macaroni and cheese, the present-day variety.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1883, macaroni was said to be an acquired taste, and was still unfamiliar to many. To make macaroni and cheese, housekeepers were advised to boil the macaroni, then mix in a tablespoon of canned tomatoes, and then add a layer of freshly grated cheese.  On top of this, successive layers of boiled macaroni, canned tomatoes, and grated cheese, were added until the serving dish was filled.  When the resulting meal was delivered to the Thanksgiving table, it might be more familiar to us as a sort of lasagna instead of the macaroni and cheese we know.

Not surprisingly, if you were to venture into the kitchen, the meals most familiar to us would be somewhat unfamiliar in their preparations.  Soon after arriving home with the Thanksgiving turkey, housekeepers were advised to dress the turkey, and then bathe it several times in a mixture of salt and water.  After washing it a few times, and after preparing a brisk, healthy fire, the turkey was roasted.  Two hours was the suggested roasting time for a ten-pound turkey.  The dressing was made of bread crumbs, butter, salt, pepper, thyme, sage, sweet marjoram, and one egg.  It was kept moist by adding in some hot milk.  Many liked chopped onion or sausage to be added.  As the turkey roasted, it was basted with butter,water, and later, pan drippings.  Before bringing the turkey to the table, many added fried oysters to the plate.

Before the advent of canned cranberries, the preparation of this Thanksgiving tradition was a source of anxiety for many.  One writer claimed that there was no fruit that was “more widely abused.”  To prepare a quart of cranberries, housekeepers were advised to have a pint of cold water and a quart of sugar at hand.  After washing the berries, housekeepers were advised to add them and the pint of cold water to a granite saucepan, and begin cooking them slowly.  Hard boiling would ruin them.  As the berries cooked, the sugar was to be added in slowly.  As the berries, water, and sugar melted into a syrup, more sugar was added.  The mixture was never to be stirred and took about 45 minutes to prepare.

As they are today, pies were a Thanksgiving Day staple too.  Two varieties, mince and pumpkin, were the most popular.  Most advice of the time assumed that just about everyone knew how to make a good pie crust and that any country woman worth her salt could make a top-rate mince or pumpkin pie.  In the country, mince meat would need to be made long before the Thanksgiving Day holiday.  In the city, it could always be purchased, whenever needed, at the grocery store.  To make a pumpkin pie, a housekeeper needed a pint of stewed pumpkin, strained through a sieve.  To this, four eggs would be added, along with a quart of milk and some spices and sugar.  After baking, the pie was sprinkled with powdered sugar and brought to the table.  Other familiar sights filled out the Thanksgiving table of 1883.  Mashed white potatoes, roasted sweet potatoes, celery, pickles, and bread were all there.  So were sweet cider, raisins, nuts, and black coffee.  Cole slaw was another popular component of the Thanksgiving Day meal.

Like parents today, Americans living in Victorian-era Massachusetts, worried about how to entertain the little ones.  One Boston Globe writer advised involving the children in making their very own Thanksgiving Day creation.  The writer advised providing the children with a large moulding board and a tin pan, far away from the kitchen.  With the pan on the moulding board, the children were to add 12 tablespoons of white flour, some water and a handful of raisins.  After this, they added four tablespoons of sugar , some molasses, vanilla flavoring, cinnamon, and allspice. One egg later, the concoction was ready to cooked on the stove for two to three hours.  The writer advised saving the eggshells for ornamentation.  The smell of burnt pastry was the sign that the children’s creation was done.  It wasn’t edible, of course, but children could then be escorted outside to the woodshed, where a helpful adult would dismantle their concoction with a sledgehammer or axe.

Thanksgiving Day — Arrival at the old home, 1858

One look at Thanksgiving Day advice for 1883 shows that the Thanksgiving meal hasn’t changed much in the last 130 years, even if the preparation of the meal, and diversions for those not involved in the preparations, have.  Sure, Thanksgiving dishes of macaroni and cheese and cole slaw might seem strange to us today, but the turkey and cranberry sauce were still the mainstays of the Thanksgiving meal even then.  And, hasn’t the Thanksgiving meal always been about the turkey and cranberry sauce?