Did you know that Jingle Bells was composed by James Lord Pierpoint in Medford, Massachusetts in 1850? It’s claimed that the town’s 19th century sleigh races inspired the song, and that it was originally written as a Thanksgiving, not Christmas song. Why “jingle bells”? Music historian James Fuld informs that the horse-drawn sleighs of the Victorian era, passing on its snow-covered streets, moved very quickly and in almost complete silence, and needed to “jingle” their bells as they approached intersections to alert other sleighs of their presence. The first modern traffic light didn’t see an American street until 1914.
But, as our ancestors “dashed through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh”, what did they see as they passed “over the hills” and “laughed all the way”? In the horse-centric world of Victorian-era cities, they would have seen streets that looked much more residential (read: less congested) than today’s downtown area roads. In Lowell, Massachusetts, for instance, if your sleigh got ‘upsot’ by drifting into a snow bank, as the song’s lesser known second verse narrates, your great-grandparents would have seen some fairly gnarled and mistreated trees surrounding them. On Lowell’s Dummer Street, which connects the city’s Acre neighborhood with its historic downtown district, Great-Grandpa would have seen lots of trees – with some uses that would be considered quite unorthodox today.
He would have seen some trees used as hitching posts for horses, some used as trolley poles, and some even used for billboard supports! All of these uses caused significant damage to trees in Victorian-era cities. On two of Lowell’s downtown area streets, the aforementioned Dummer Street, and Dutton Street (one of the thoroughfares leading into the downtown area), he would have seen lots of trees, like the one below, with severe damaged caused by . . . well, hungry horses. When the horses weren’t otherwise occupied pulling sleighs or wagons through the city’s streets, they were often tethered to trees while their owners attended to downtown business or called upon friends. The horses, hungry and bored, would then gnaw on the trees, which caused some fairly significant damage.
Sometimes, cities provided hitching posts for travelers to hitch their horses. When they didn’t, people improvised. In the Dutton Street photograph at right, you’ll notice a hitching ring protruding from the tree’s severely damaged trunk. City foresters of the era advised that tree trunks should be enclosed to a proper height in wire netting and, evidence of what this looked like appears in the Broadway photographs below. One might surmise, however, that the true intent behind protecting that tree, rather than roadway beautification, was to protect the tree’s use as a trolley pole.
Billboards existed even in Victorian times, and they vexed city residents even then. Billboards escape mention in Pierpoint’s Jingle Bells, but the use of trees as billboard supports persisted in Lowell as least as late as 1905, when the city passed its own sort of early Highway Beautification Act. By the end of 1906, the city forester’s department had spent considerable resources removing the billboards from city trees. It’s said that Lowell’s Branch Street and Dutton Street had the most cases of signs attached to trees.
Can’t you just picture dashing through the snow on a road such as this one (below) from Lowell’s Middlesex Village a century ago? Just add a little snow and some windows glowing with gaslit lamps inside, and you’d have a scene fit for a Thomas Kinkade painting. But – this photograph, taken in 1906, doesn’t actually show a winter scene. Instead, these trees are lifeless due to poisoning by “illuminating gas” – the same gas used, in an era before electricity was common, to power lighting in houses. According to period sources, a considerable leak from a gas main could kill a group of trees in a single night. Even a very slight leak could kill trees over a long period of time.
As I ponder the third verse of Pierpont’s jingle, and how it recounts the narrator’s rival laughing at him after he falls from the sleigh:
“A day or two ago, the story I must tell.
I went out on the snow,And on my back I fell.
A gent was riding by, In a one-horse open sleigh.
He laughed as there I sprawling lie, But quickly drove away.”
I feel I have a better idea of just what the fallen sleigh rider saw as he looked up at the long ago night sky, past his tormenting rival and into the branches beyond. I can also envision the trunks of the trees outlining the roads he walked as he made his way home to his gas-lit home and his waiting family.
Happy Holidays, Readers! And Best Wishes for a Successful 2012!
3 thoughts on “If you were to walk . . . or race a sleigh through Downtown Lowell’s Streets – 1906”
Wow, I never knew the history of “JIngle Bells” until now– very interesting, especially that it was originally meant as a Thanksgiving song. Stronge to think that in pre-Civil War New England, Thanksgiving was a much bigger deal than was Christmas.
Forgot to wish you a very Merry Christmas, Ryan!
Thanks, I’ve enjoyed your blog this year! Merry Christmas to u & yours.