Tag Archives: Boston

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

On the Eve of Prohibition in Boston: January 1920

“Let’s have something.”  Jake turns back from the bar, and pulls a quart of whisky from his pocket.

“$10 . . .” he sighs.  “A full Hamilton, this one cost me.”

You examine the label in the dim light.  It’s not even one of the better brands.  The bartender glances at the bottle of whisky, smiles, and places three tumblers, each filled with ice, on the mahogany of the bar.  Jake takes the hint, pours three glasses, and you toast to the memory of John Barleycorn, who, to those opposed to Prohibition, has come to personify intoxicating liquors and all the revelry associated with them.

You smell the whisky as it swirls in the tumbler and take in the press and din of the crowd beyond the bar.  Hundreds of John Barleycorn’s mourners crowd the dance hall of the American House Rathskeller.

A 1918 Boston City Directory Ad for the American House

Recreating the image of a wake to the letter, all are dressed in elaborate mourning garb.  Through the press of the bodies, you catch glimpses of a black coffin set atop a table near the hall’s entrance.  Candles have been placed in bottles at each end.  On the wall behind the coffin, a banner with a skull and crossbones has been placed.  As you sip your whisky, you read its words:

“In memory of John Barleycorn.  Not dead – only a trance.  Born BC?, Dead 1920?”

You gently push through the crowd and, in a moment or so, notice that the body of John Barleycorn is actually a collection of empty bottles.  As you examine them, a woman approaches and adds her own to the pile.

1920 Fashion - Boston Globe, 1/16/1920, Pg. 7

“What’s yours?  She asks, slightly slurring her words, while she eyes your tumbler.  “Whisky.”  You hold it up, realizing it’s now half-empty.  She chitters before her friend pulls her back into an animated conversation a few feet away.  You press back to the bar, where Jake is still talking to the bartender.

“I’ll lose my job tomorrow.”  he tells Jake.  You learn his name is Joe.  You watch Joe’s eyes instinctively fall to your tumbler.  His is still, or more likely, once again full.  “We’ve been holding on since the ‘Thirsty-First’ of June.”  He continues, takes a gulp, with sad eyes.  “The Volstead Act is going to put me out of work.  Tomorrow is the last nail in the coffin.”  You try not to look at the coffin behind you.  It’d just be too sappy.

He’s talking about the National Prohibition Act, of course, which takes effect at midnight on January 17, 1920, tomorrow night.  The “drys”, temperance workers, have finally succeeded in the prohibition of the manufacture, transportation, or sale of any beverage containing alcohol.  On the “Thirsty-First of June”, i.e., July 1, 1919, about six-and-a-half months ago, over President Wilson’s veto, the Wartime Prohibition Act took effect, which banned the sale of intoxicating liquors.  So convinced were liquor dealers that the prohibition was temporary that they, in most cases, closed shop temporarily until the surely forthcoming reversing order would again enable the sale of alcohol.  It didn’t come, and in fact, only got worse when the Volstead Act came along, which established a legal definition for “intoxicating” liquors, provided stiff penalties for prohibition violations, and took effect at midnight on January 17, 1920.

Advice on the New Laws - Boston Globe, 1/17/20, Pg. 1

“See that man over there?” Joe asks, over the rim of his tumbler.  “He’s a field agent for the Internal Revenue Department.”  We look in the general direction of the coffin, at a man standing alone, stiffly excluded from the surrounding conversations.  You notice a notepad and pencil clutched tightly in his right hand, where others are holding drinks and bottles.  His cheeks are still red from the frigid cold outside.  We nod back to Joe.  “He’s here to take notice of my stocks,” he continues, indicating his many bottles behind the bar, “he’ll be back tomorrow night to make sure these are gone.”  As we watch him, his eyes meet yours and narrow.  He turns and walks toward the entrance, his notepad clutched to his chest.  Several revelers turn to look at him as he abruptly jostles past them.

1920 Fashion - Boston Globe, 1/16/1920, Pg. 7

“I’ll need to hide these or pour them into the gutter before midnight tomorrow.”  Joe says, mostly to himself.  Frank offers to buy a bottle.  “Are you kidding?”  Joe responds.  “By next week, these’ll be scarcer than a penny in your change for the Elevated.”  He’s referring to Boston’s subway system, which is contemplating a fare increase that would bring the cost of a trip to an even dime.  “You’d do best to home-brew your own wine.”  Joe continues.  “That’ll still be legal, as long as you don’t sell or move it. . . .”  he reflects.  “But that won’t.”  He indicates the quart bottle of whiskey that Jake empties into our three tumblers.  Joe adds another cube of ice to each.

You catch yourself looking for the man with the notepad.  He’s gone.  “Have you seen the Copley Square tonight?”  Jake changes the subject, referring to the hotel in Boston’s Back Bay section, across town.  Joe shakes his head, “Been here all night,”  he says.  “I passed the drys on the way over – the National Christian Endeavor Society. . . .”  he reflects for a moment over his whisky.  “They were putting a sign over in Central Square in Cambridge – ‘A Saloonless Nation in 1920’.  It said.”

“They’re getting ready for tomorrow night.”  Jake offers.

“Yeah,” you all say, almost in unison.

“Happy New Year.”  Joe says.

How street dirt can change the world

Historical fiction, like any genre of fiction, relies on a solid, engaging storyline, but it’s just as important to get the details right.  Flub those and you’ll quickly lose credibility with readers.  Readers seek out historical fiction to escape into another world, and another time.  Who wouldn’t want to send this coming Monday a few centuries into the future?

I write a local history column for the town newspaper.  While researching a topic,  I came across a fascinating bit of lost lore – the daily act of street watering in the late nineteenth century.   So, say you’re writing a story and it takes place in a New England mill city – Lowell, Massachusetts will do, or even Boston.  A young boy, six or seven years old, races down a city street bordered by tall brick buildings, peopled by horse-drawn carriages and women in leg-of-mutton sleeves.  The men, extravagantly mustachioed, turn to look at your boy.  Some reach up to grasp their bowlers as a cooling breeze arrives from the east.  It’s July 1894.  Your boy, call him a good 19th century name like James, needs butter from the store.  It’s not far; there were far more neighborhood stores then.  He races along.  His mother needs the butter for a cake.  And the cake needs to be made before Father returns from work.

When you read the scene, you’ll expect to see horses, and carriages, and lots of elaborate (and less than sensible) dress; you might even expect to see cobblestone lanes, streetcars, and the occasional newspaper boy hawking the latest editions of the Boston Globe or Lowell Sun.  But would you expect to see a street watering cart?  Probably not.  Street cleaning survives today in the form of street sweepers, slow-moving, tank-like vehicles that present excellent opportunities for modern day drivers to dart around before oncoming traffic closes the chance.  In Victorian-era cities like Boston or Lowell, it took on a whole new importance.  While today’s road dust consists of seasonal waste (like road sand or fallen leaves) and litter, Victorian-era road dust contained a long-forgotten nineteenth-century component – horse waste.

Scollay Square in Boston, 1883

The pollution of Victorian cities was not the auto exhaust so bemoaned today, but quite literally horseshit, or the dried dust from it.  As James runs to the store, any one of the horses that he passes could leave behind as much as 25 pounds of . . . exhaust daily, which dries into the roads, becomes pulverized by hooved, heeled, and wheeled traffic, and gets blown into the airborne dust that finds its way into Victorian homes, clothing, and lungs.  As an aside, the Sanitary Division of Boston’s Street Department towed 30,478 loads of street sweepings to sea in 1894, each load weighing one-and-a-half tons.  Although the street dirt contained house refuse, street litter, and sometimes seasonal waste such as fallen leaves, the largest component was horse excrement.

So, what does this have to do with James‘ run?  As he runs to the store, he dodges foot traffic, horse traffic, and fresh, moist horse deposits along the way.  Add to that the fashionable wheelmen and wheelwomen (now called bicyclists) who have seized upon the decade’s latest trend and are pedaling through the road traffic, and the scene starts to come together.

But, what does the road feel like, under his shoes?  He’s in a city in Massachusetts, which in 1894, most likely means that the road is graveled, or as the more technical terms calls it, macadamed.  This affects the sound of James‘ footfalls against the road as he runs, the feel of the road through his shoes, even the speed at which he can run.

But, there’s another thing to consider.  As James runs along the road, let’s call it Main Street, his shoes crunch across the gravel.  It’s July 1894, one of the hottest, driest summers in memory.  And one of the windiest.  Victorian-era roads are dusty – unless they’re watered.  And Lowell and Boston both have healthy street watering budgets.

So, instead of kicking up dust, James’ footfalls crunch through the moist gravel, and splash through puddles in the road’s uneven surface, as the heat of summer weighs down his clothes in the humidity.  Fashionable young ladies chide him as puddle droplets find and dry into their dresses.  There’s a moist earthy smell in the air.  He takes care as he steps around street car rails and larger stones in the road, slippery perils to both pedestrians and wheelmen.

Some graveled roads are watered by the street watering cart as much as twice daily.  On his trip to the store, he may pass a paved road, a luxury in 19th century Massachusetts.  If James were running along say, Boston’s prestigious Beacon Street, his shoes would clack along freshly washed, freshly swept pavement.  But even there, no less than 16 cross streets intersect his route.  As he passes each graveled cross street, he strides across a strip of dust and mud left by crossing hooves and wheels.

We are all products of our environment.  The setting where you place James as he runs to the store will determine his life experiences, his story, and even his speech.  Perhaps as he runs along Main Street, he’ll notice that there’s a strip of dry gravel on each strip of the road that has not been watered.  Many northeastern cities considered following Chicago’s example, leaving these strips dry to accomodate wheelmen and wheelwomen, who worried about losing a tire (and/or bruising a limb) on a wet, slippery rail or stone.  Perhaps, he’ll find himself on a road in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1894, freshly sprinkled to the dismay of clergymen he passes who passionately complain that any labor on a Sunday desecrates the Sabbath.

There are so many details you can work into any scene.  I see the writing as “the coming together” of the research process.  When you come down to it, the research process can be even more interesting and fun than the writing itself.  But, there is a balance.  Too little detail and the story lacks authenticity – and the ability to engage your reader through the window of time.  Too much detail and the story drowns.  If James takes 25 pages to get to the store and back, your readers, and perhaps even you, will have lost interest in the cake, James‘ father, and any other subplots your larger story explores.  But, a few well-placed details will help take your reader to that place and time you are trying to re-create and succeed in helping him or her push that inevitable Monday morning meeting decades, or even centuries away.


  • Annual Report of the Street Department – Boston, Mass. Street Dept., pp 72-74, 1895.
  • “Puritans of Somerville.”  The Boston Daily Globe.  11 May 1897: 1.
  • “Mud or Dust?”  The Boston Daily Globe.  29 June 1897: 2.
  • Report of Commission on Street Cleaning and Waste Disposal, the City of New York, p. 44, 1907.