Tag Archives: Boston

Boston’s Immigrant Experience in 1900 – Anticipation & Hope Amidst Confusion & Exploitation


Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

SS Canopic lands in Boston on October 17, 1920

Imagine the anticipation of these folks aboard the SS Canopic as it docked in Boston over 90 years ago.  Were your grandparents or great-grandparents among these immigrants, who had perhaps spent more than a week aboard ship traveling to a new life?  How long had these families planned, sacrificed, and prepared for this moment as they watched Boston come into view?

I find photographs like this one, from the Boston Public Library’s Flickr Photostream, particularly inspiring.  A good number of my ancestors immigrated through Boston’s ports between 1869 and 1909.  In fact, my own second-great-grandparents came across the Atlantic on that same SS Canopic eleven years before the photograph above was taken.  Some relics from my family’s immigrant experience remain – a diary entry from July 25, 1869, written in my 2nd great-grandfather’s elaborate hand, recording his arrival into Boston; and a Victorian-era trunk that carried my great-grandmother’s belongings from the Azores when she arrived at Boston in 1907.  Relics like these help us imagine their immigration experience, but don’t really provide a lot of detail.

Surviving records like censuses or ships’ manifests tell us where, whence and when they arrived; they will even tell us who they arrived with.  And later records will tell us where they intended to settle and what they did for occupations.  But, unless stories have been passed down the generations, or otherwise recorded in diaries (or maybe even in rare newspaper accounts), we can only guess at the lost tales which might have told us what they experienced in that time between when their ship docked and when they “got settled”?

From Ancestry.com, this ship's manifest lists immigrants arriving to the port of Boston from Portugal's Azores Islands.

This ship's manifest lists immigrants arriving to the port of Boston from Portugal's Azores Islands. The ship, the SS Canopic, is the same that is pictured above. Lines #14 & #15 contain the registries for my second-great-grandparents.

To learn more about the immigrant experience for my ancestors, I first came across the website of the Ellis Island foundation.  So much is available about the Ellis Island experience in New York, which is important to me too.  My four-year-old grandfather, his parents, and younger brother all came through Ellis Island in 1913.  He never spoke of the experience (and probably didn’t remember much of it), but the records available do provide meaningful insight into what he and his family might have experienced there.

What’s sometimes forgotten is that Boston was also a major immigration port during Ellis Island’s active years.  Unlike Ellis Island, Boston’s immigration inspections were not concentrated in any one place.  Immigrants passed through the East Boston, Charlestown, and Commonwealth (South Boston) docks.  Each had a room equipped for immigrant inspections, which were carried out by federal US immigration officials.  These inspections could be quite daunting.  In my mind’s eye, for comparison, I imagine myself passing through an immigration checkpoint at a foreign airport in a non-English speaking country.  Like an immigration checkpoint today, the public was not allowed in the inspecting room or even on the docks.  This was designed to prevent the coaching of arriving immigrants.  While immigrants awaited the entry inspections,  they waited in general waiting rooms, which were segregated according to the class of service by which one arrived.

Arriving in Boston in 1890, my great-grandfather, Matthew McNamara, and his three brothers (all aged between eight and fourteen years old) were to continue to New York to meet their parents and younger siblings who had immigrated in 1888. The family was reunited after my second-great-grandparents managed to save the funds to purchase the four additional trans-Atlantic tickets.

Family members were never allowed within the waiting rooms, but people holding custom passes – generally those “favored” by immigration officials – were allowed into the waiting rooms to “advise” the immigrants amidst what was frequently a sea of hopeless confusion.  These favored individuals were mostly employees of transfer companies and had a reputation for bilking immigrants out of their money under false pretenses.  Many were representatives of immigrant banks, who helped immigrants coordinate onward travel by converting prepaid travel into valid stateside tickets.  Officially, they charged no additional fees for these services.  Unofficially, this wasn’t always the case.

Many arriving immigrants spoke little English and were unfamiliar with the cultures and even the geography of Boston.  The very young, or those who gave suspicious addresses and who seemed to be arriving to see friends in or near Boston might be detained until their friends were notified to call for them.  But, most were released after primary inspections cleared them and their baggage. Upon release, arriving immigrants walked into the same crowds as any cabin passenger, which could prove to be quite bewildering.

The option did exist for immigrants to wait within the waiting rooms.  However, eventually, they would have to leave and they had no way of knowing whether their own friends or relatives would be among the many people in the crowds outside.  Sometimes, a representative from one of the humanitarian private societies, e.g., the North American Civic League for Immigrants or the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) among others, would be available to search the crowds for them, calling out the names of persons given to him by the arriving immigrants.  This helped some, but the experience of leaving the immigrant inspection area and meeting one’s loved ones on the other side must have been daunting and disorienting.  A lot of concern was voiced for the safety and well-being of the immigrants.  The Commission on Immigration was created to look into these concerns.  The Commission was particularly concerned about the situation of young women, of whom there were many and who were considered to be especially vulnerable.

Published in Harper’s Weekly - November 7, 1874.

Emigrants board an America-bound steamer in Hamburg, Germany

Many immigrants arrived with addresses given to them by someone in their villages; often, these addresses were incorrect or outdated.  In 1913, the Commission on Immigration learned of a Polish girl (in the parlance of the time, this could have been any unmarried female under 25) in 1913 who arrived on the Cleveland and reported her father’s address at 51 Beckford Street in Roxbury.  Commission investigators, later looking into her well-being, learned the man did not live at that address, and no one there had ever heard of him.  What happened to his daughter after she arrived at the address was never learned.

In November 1913, the Commission learned of another Polish girl who arrived on the docks at Boston’s Commonwealth Pier, on the ship Hanover, and gave a South Boston address.  An immigrant banker took her to his Salem Street establishment in the North End, charged her 75 cents and then put her on a street car leaving her to find the South Boston address alone.  The Commission never learned anything more about her.  In another case, during the same month, the Commission looked into the case of a Lithuanian girl, 21 years old, who had arrived on the ship Laconia and gave an address of 164 St. Clair Street in Boston.  One of the Commission’s investigators later tried to find that address to verify her safe arrival only to learn that no such street existed within the city.

The Commission did not only look into cases of young women.  In one investigation, they placed one of their own investigators in a cab with four immigrants – two men and two women.  An immigrant banker at the docks demanded $1 each from each of the immigrants “for the fare” of the cab he located for them.  The cab driver later demanded 50 cents each from the immigrants as he reached their respective destinations.  The legal fare for the ride was 50 cents in each case.  To add to the overcharging, the investigator, the last to be in the cab, provided the driver with an address he could not find.  After a cursory attempt, the driver gave up and left the investigator on the road amidst a “crowd that gathered around him”.  Frequently, cabmen became responsible for the welfare of immigrants who became lost in a sea of people, unable to find their friends and relatives.  Some proved to be trustworthy; some didn’t.

Many immigrants with final destinations outside Boston came with orders for railroad tickets that had been purchased abroad or sent from relatives and friends in the United States.  What wasn’t widely understood was that these orders needed the approvals of steamship company officials and also needed to be exchanged at the railroad ticket office.  One man, from Poland and with an ultimate destination in Michigan, arrived in Boston with his ticket already purchased and managed to get his ticket stamped and signed on the dock, which was two of the requirements, but did not realize he needed to exchange that ticket for another on the dock.  On the train to Michigan, without the right ticket, he was charged $11 by the conductor.  The average wage for a working man at the time was about 25 cents an hour.

Even if they managed to find a reliable ride to their final destinations, concerns existed around luggage handling and even getting food.   Confusion abounded about luggage requirements and fees.  In a complex fee structure (not unlike today’s airline fees), immigrants with continuing tickets were allowed one piece of baggage free of charge, but the procedures for additional pieces of luggage and for checking luggage through to its final destination were complex and far from uniform.

Immigrants continuing on from Boston most often bought food from the lunch counter on the dock.  Investigators from the Commission on Immigration found that hot food, or even hot coffee, could not be found on the docks.  They came across one vendor, who had a contract to sell food to immigrants awaiting additional questioning, selling 10-cent bottles of sarsaparilla for 25 cents, 10-cent packages of canned meat for a quarter, and 5-cent loaves of poor quality, stale bread for a dime.  Without much competition, immigrants had little choice but to shell out the exorbitant prices.

Armenian-Americans in Boston, 1908; Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library's Photo Collection via WikiMedia Commons

Reading through accounts of immigrants’ first moments in the United States provides some interesting insights into what my own ancestors might have experienced as they arrived in Boston and prepared for their onward journeys to other destinations within Massachusetts.  Regardless of which port your ancestors came through, each had a story.  Some have been preserved in official records or family diaries – or maybe through the oral history passed down through the generations within a family.  In our lives, so much is influenced by our surroundings – our schools, towns, states, and even the country where we spend our childhoods.  It’s interesting to ponder that someone so long ago sought to seek a better life amidst more opportunities, and that this choice, from decades before we were born, influenced our own lives to such a great extent.


1918: Spanish Influenza invades Massachusetts

From The Boston Globe; 19 October 1918, Pg. 7

During the first weeks of the Epidemic, almost 4,000 people died in Boston as a result of the Spanish Flu.

As summer became autumn in 1918, the Spanish Flu struck hard at the eastern shores of New England.  Cases emerged in Boston, Brockton, Quincy, and Gloucester and at Camp Devens.  By mid-September, 21 flu-related deaths were reported in Boston alone.  By October 1, 85,000 cases had been reported statewide and the city was experiencing deaths at a rate of about 200 a day.  Doctors, health officials, and scientists rushed to control and find a treatment for the influenza epidemic as they watched victims die within days, or even hours, of the appearance of their first symptoms.

John Owen, my grandfather, was just 17 years old and living in Lawrence, Massachusetts at the time.  He remembered seeing the wagons come around the streets of Lawrence to collect the bodies of those who had fallen victim to the flu.  As he explained it, the horse-drawn wagons would approach from the end of the street and collect bodies placed on the sidewalks, or carried out from houses.  Coffins became scarce at the height of the epidemic and workers were forced to pile the bodies one atop the next, and carry them to mass graves.

By Uncredited photographer for St. Louis Post Dispatch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With masks over their faces, members of the American Red Cross remove a victim of the Spanish Flu from a house in St. Louis, Missouri.

From National Archives and Records Administration

Street car conductor in Seattle not allowing passengers aboard without a mask. 1918.

As influenza cases and death tolls mounted in Boston and statewide, panic emerged.  Misinformation and fear abounded.  What were the symptoms of the flu?  How could it be distinguished from the common cold?  The US Public Health Service soon released a pamphlet, informing the public that the Spanish Flu came on suddenly, striking the victim with pain and soreness throughout his body, especially in the eyes, ears, back and head.  Some experienced dizziness and nausea; most suffered fevers as high as 104°F that lasted as long as four days.  The US Public Heath Service advised that flu sufferers looked sick and likely would have bloodshot eyes, a runny nose, and a cough.

From The Lowell Sun, 27 December 1918, pg. 11

As the flu season progressed, advice to those nervous about getting sick was offered from many sources.

Beyond the pamphlets, schools became a means of disseminating information about the disease to children and their families.  During the height of the epidemic, the National School Boards Association advised the worried public to avoid sick people, crowds, and badly ventilated places, to keep warm, and to change from wet clothes quickly.  This is familiar advice, even for us today.  Local papers took it a step further, perhaps sensationalizing their advice somewhat, in order to attract more readers.

To slow the spread of the disease, public buildings, schools included, in Lawrence and many other New England cities and towns were closed.  Haverhill, Massachusetts went a step further and prohibited its schoolchildren from attending motion picture houses or other public meetings during the epidemic.  In Marblehead, Massachusetts, the high school building was converted into a hospital by the Board of Health in October 1918.  Boston’s Committee of Public Safety asked school teachers to attend flu victims; most did as schools were closed indefinitely.

From: CDC, released into public domain

This May 29, 1919 photograph showed rows of tents that had been set up on a lawn at Emery Hill in Lawrence, Massachusetts where victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic were treated.

During the epidemic, fresh air was thought paramount in protecting against infection.  Open-air emergency camps were set up in many Massachusetts cities and towns to treat the infected.  The first opened on Brookline’s Corey Hill on September 9, 1918.  Gloucester, Ipswich, Brockton, Waltham, Haverhill, Springfield, and Barre soon followed.  My grandfather would have also seen Lawrence open its own emergency camp for flu victims from the city, as well as cases from the neighboring communities of Methuen, Andover, and North Andover.  Controversy surrounded the opening of the Lawrence camp, named Emery Hill, which had been a large dairy farm that supplied milk to nearby residents.  Though the residents objected loudly to Lawrence’s Mayor Hurley; in the end, Lawrence city officials protested that they had little say in the matter.  They maintained that the state had chosen the site and was running the hospital.  By October 12, 1918, the camp had 150 patients.

In the end, more than one in every four people in the US suffered some form of the Spanish Flu, and within one year, the average life expectancy for a US citizen was shortened by 12 years.   Worldwide, more than 50 million people died – more than three times the number of lives claimed by World War I.

The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 is frequently overlooked in discussions about the history of the United States.  Does your family have a story about its experiences with the epidemic?  Did you lose any family members to it?


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!

 


In His Words: Charles Dickens’ Perspective on New England and Public Transport, 1842

We New Englanders have long called Boston “the Hub”.  And there’s a sense, just barely concealed, that we’re really referring to the hub of the universe, and not merely the hub of the state or region.   Undoubtedly, New England has a strong regional identity that includes the ubiquitous image of the “proper Bostonian” as well as a rich, well-known history that stretches back, at least from a European perspective, almost four centuries.  So, when one thinks about Massachusetts during the Victorian period, images of God-fearing, long-hemmed, be-hatted New Englanders walking to white, steepled churches in verdant town commons emerge.  Great Britain, whose long-reigned monarch gave the period its name, surely corners the market on the prim manners and complex social rituals associated with the Victorian era.  But, from an American perspective, how was New England viewed during the Victorian period?

By From an oil painting by R. J. Lane [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Dickens, ca. 1840

Enter Charles Dickens to provide us some perspective, from one of Queen Victoria’s most well-known subjects, no less.  When Charles Dickens and his wife made their first trip to the United States and Canada in 1842, he was barely 30 years old, nearly three years away from publishing A Christmas Carol, and almost two decades from publishing A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.  Even with his early works, however, Dickens, by 1842, had already amassed a large following in New England.

The long-time Justice at the Lowell Police Court, Samuel P. Hadley, a ten-year-old boy at the time, recorded his memories of the Dickens visit to Lowell, Massachusetts years later for the Lowell Historical Society.  He recalled Dickens’ early novel, The Pickwick Papers, and how Lowell had grown enamored with the rich scenes and contagious humor displayed by Dickens in the work.   Judge Hadley, like many Lowell residents of the time, had taken turns reading the book aloud with his family, and recalled watching his father convulse with laughter, until they had to close the book and stop reading, not being able to stand any more.  He also recalled spilling tears over Little Nell Trent, the angelic and virtuous young heroine who met a tragic fate in Dickens’ novel, The Old Curiosity Shop.

While visiting Boston in early February 1842, Dickens took a one-day excursion to see the factories of Lowell, a young city barely 20 years into its existence at the time.  Very little documentation of the visit exists in the Lowell papers of the day.  Dickens made no friends with the reporters when he failed to notify them of his coming visit.  His recollections of the trip survive mostly in his travelogue, American Notes for General Circulation, published later that year.  He used the travelogue to discuss his perceptions of American culture, and provide some interesting insights into how our Victorian-era ancestors were viewed by the English.

Q:  What were Dickens’ impressions of rail travel in the United States?

A:  Dickens noticed that the American railroads had no distinct first and second class carriages like their British counterparts.  Rather, he remarked that the railroad cars were divided into gentlemen’s cars (where everyone smoked) and ladies’ cars (where no one did).  He also noted, nineteenth-century perspective clearly exhibited, that “as a black man never travels with a white one, there is also a negro car”, which he went on to describe as a “great, blundering, clumsy chest”.

He found the railroad cars to provide a “great deal of jolting, a great deal of noise, a great deal of wall, not much window, a locomotive engine, a shriek, and a bell”.  The cars, he said were like “shabby omnibuses, but larger, holding thirty, forty, or fifty people.”  For warmth, the cars were equipped with a stove, he noted, fed with charcoal or anthracite coal, which was red-hot and “insufferably close”.  Through the light of its embers, one could see fumes co-mingle with the tendrils of smoke wafting in from the gentlemen’s car.  Gentlemen did ride in the ladies’ car, when they accompanied ladies.  Also, some ladies travelled alone.

Q:  Victorian-era people have a reputation for being rather standoffish, even stiff in their rigid, long-hemmed clothes.  What did Dickens think of the Americans he met on the train?

A:  Dickens bristled at the informality exhibited by the train conductor (“or check-taker, or guard, or whatever he may be”).  As he explained:

“He walks up and down the car, and in and out of it, as his fancy dictates; leans against the door with his hands in his pockets, and stares at you, if you chance to be a stranger; or enters into conversation with the passengers about him.”  He also found it odd that “everybody” on the train “talks to you, or to anybody else who hits his fancy.”

Q:  And the American intellect?

A:  Dickens wasn’t impressed.  He noticed that when upon learning he was an Englishman, Americans asked how the US railroad compared to its British counterpart.  In his travelogue, Dickens presents this rather comical exchange:

“If you are an Englishman, he expects that the railroad is pretty much like an English railroad.  If you say “No,” he says “Yes?” (interrogatively), and asks in what respect they differ.  You enumerate the heads of difference, one by one, and he says “Yes?” (still interrogatively) to each.  Then he guesses that you don’t travel faster in England; and on your replying that you do, says “Yes?” again (still interrogatively), and it is quite evident, doesn’t believe it.  After a long pause he remarks, partly to you, and partly to the knob on the top of his stick, that “Yankees are reckoned to be considerable of a go-ahead people too;”  upon which you say “Yes,” and then he says “Yes” again (affirmatively this time) ; and upon your looking out of window, tells you that behind that hill, and some three miles from the next station, there is a clever town in a smart location, where he expects you have concluded to stop.  Your answer in the negative naturally leads to more questions in reference to your intended route (always pronounced rout) ; and wherever you are going, you invariably learn that you can’t get there without immense difficulty and danger and that all the great sights are somewhere else.”

Dickens noted that politics was much discussed aboard the train, as were banks and cotton.  He also noted that, as today, “that directly [after] the acrimony of the last [presidential] election is over, the acrimony of the next one begins”.

Q:  And the landscape of Victorian-era New England?

A:  Dickens found the rail very narrow in the United States – with the forest closing in tightly, almost claustrophobically, on the train.  Where a view could be had, he saw only “stunted trees: some hewn down by axe, some blown down by the wind, some half fallen and resting on their neighbours, many mere logs half hidden in the swamp, others mouldered away to spongy chips.”

Q:  And the picturesque lakes and ponds we treasure today?

A:  “Each pool of stagnant water has its crust of vegetable rottenness; and on every side there are the boughs, trunks, and stumps of trees in every possible stage of decay, decomposition, and neglect.”

Q:  And the idyllic New England townscapes we imagine as even more pristine in Victorian times?

By Boston Directory [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1852 B&L RR Schedule, Showing Dickens' Route from 11 Years Earlier.

A:  “Now you emerge for a few brief minutes on an open country, glittering with some bright lake or pool, broad as many an English river, but so small here that it scarcely has a name; now catch hasty glimpses of a distant town, with its clean white houses and their cool piazzas, its prim New England church and school-house; when whir-r-r-r ! almost before you have seen them, comes the same dark screen: the stunted trees, the stumps, the logs, the stagnant water.”

So much for an appreciation of the wetlands protection act.

Dickens appears to have viewed the towns along the Boston to Lowell route – Somerville, Medford, Winchester, Woburn, and Billerica, to name a few, as hinterlands on civilization’s edge.  He noted stations “in the woods” where it seemed “the wild impossibility of anybody having to get out is only to be equalled by the apparently desperate hopelessness of there being anybody to get in.”

On arriving in Lowell

Dickens thought it odd that no gate, policeman, or signal marked the railroad crossings.  As his train rushed through the last crossing before Lowell, he noticed only a wooden arch (“rough”, in his words) with these words of caution: “When the bell rings, look out for the locomotive.”  He found his arrival into Lowell startling as the train raced through the darkness under a wooden bridge and emerged into the blinding brightness of the main thoroughfare of a large town (probably Lowell’s Merrimack Street).

He watched as tradesmen looked up from their trades, people leaned from their doors and windows, boys stopped playing with kites and marbles, pigs stopped burrowing, and horses reared up,  as the train pulled into the station in a shower of burning sparks, screeches and groans.

Dickens had arrived in Lowell – to see the factories of a manufacturing town that, at approximately 21 years old, was “only just of age”, in his words.

Next Post:  Dickens thoughts on Lowell, the City.


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