I have sometimes wished it was my destiny…

In the spirit of Looking Backward, pointing you to this letter featured on the Paleofuture blog, written by Benjamin Franklin to the Reverend John Lothrop of Boston, May 31, 1788.

An excerpt:

I have sometimes wished it had been my destiny to be born two or three centuries hence. For invention and improvement are prolific, and beget more of their kind. The present progress is rapid. Many of great importance, now unthought of, will before that period be procur’d; and then I might not only enjoy their advantages, but have my curiosity satisfy’d in knowing what they are to be.”

The first card catalog?

In 1812, William Croswell, an “early nineteenth century eccentric”  – otherwise known for writing little-read, obscure books about astronomy, creating a well-received map of the stars (the first American star-map), and incurring debts to friends – was hired by Harvard to produce a new printed catalog for the library.

The library contained about 20,000 books, and was arranged by donor of the volumes.

Croswell apparently didn’t get on well with students, who played pranks on him including hanging a skeleton in the library. But he slowly and steadily progressed, until he had a list. He then began the task of putting it in a more logical order. Eventually in May of 1817 Croswell began cutting the list into strips, a task which took six weeks. Then he was able to arrange the slips under the appropriate headings.

Croswell eventually got fired for taking too long to finish the catalog.

But in 1840, librarian Thaddeus William Harris wrote that the Harvard Library should compile a slip catalog, listing all the collection’s titles on pieces of paper.

Harvard College Librarian Thaddeus William Harris urges in his 1840 annual report that a “slip catalogue” be created consisting of the title of every work in the library on pieces of card 6 1/2 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide.  Library historian Kenneth E. Carpenter (who put together a comprehensive history of the library in 1936 [PDF]) gives Croswell the credit.

Lists of a library’s inventory date back much farther, from writing on the walls to scrolls. Harvard at least claims their catalog is the first of its kind. The Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science says perhaps not and points back to Europe. The Harvard library was one of the first libraries to hire women, who hand-wrote many of the cards.

Photo via Library History Buff. HCL stamp in the lefthand corner stands for “Harvard College Library.”

Happy Lafayette Day?

An 1824 advertisement in the aptly named Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot advertising souvenirs of the Marquis de Lafayette.

In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution for his support against the British, sat in seclusion in France. He had been at odds with the French establishment since Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1824,  the American Congress passed a resolution inviting then-President Monroe to invite Lafayette to tour the States. Lafayette first arrived in New York, but traveled throughout the country to great fanfare. In Boston, he was greeted on the Common in “an occasion of special splendor, with a military review followed by a dinner for 1200 people under a marquee erected for the event.”

Festivities on May 20th, Lafayette Day conclude with the annual decoration of the Lafayette Monument (1924, the centennial of his visit) on the Boston Common.

Making way for sleighs during the Great Blizzard

A horse drawn sleigh, 18 March 1888, during the Great Blizzard via the Historic National Weather Service Archives.

Boston’s really really big blizzard dumped 40 to 50 inches of snow over Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York State. The storm, also called “The White Hurricane” arrived in Boston without warning (weather forecasters in the 19th century weren’t thought to be too accurate either). The spring had been unseasonably warm and few were prepared for a 36-hour snowstorm.

Cities like Boston and New York, which were more dependent on receiving outside food and supplies than rural areas, did worst. Snow stranded trains and winds downed telegraph lines — The Boston Globe‘s newfangled telephone remained a rare, surviving link to the outside world. Snow cleared from streets blocked sidewalks until men were hired to freight it away. Mass Moments says the blizzard had the belated effect of inspiring some major infrastructure investments, including burying lines and the nation’s first subway.

Clearing away snow wasn’t typical at the time, under less drastic conditions. The normal treatment for roads before the automobile was to use a snow roller to pack it down. Sleighs and wagons could ride on top of the flattened snow. The Brattleboro Historical Society has a fantastic article on the changing modes of snow removal, including one man’s memories of his father getting up to roll the nearby hills and photos of a horse-drawn wooden snow roll.

Primary Primary Sources

letter reads my dear miss mitchell, will you take the job of drumming up votesInvitation to Volunteer for student Government. Simmons College Archives via Digital Commonwealth.

We’ve got all the reading you need to make it through primary day. Advice to vote by.

Eat well. I see absolutely no reason a history blog can’t dig into its own archives. And so, for primary day, you can eat cake, again, election day cake.

Vote wisely. The Smithsonian has a fantastic history of ballot technology (paper to touch screen) with some tremendous images in its online exhibition: Vote.

Think deeply. PhD Octopus has quite a historiography on a small town election — when Frederick Douglass ran for membership in the transcendentalist debate society strangely called the “Town and Country Club.”

Reflect piously. Wall Builders has the text of an election sermon preached by the Reverend Foster before his Excellency John Hancock, Esq. Governour, His Honor Sam Adams Lieutenant Governor, et cetera on election day, 1790. A site with an agenda, but what an interesting document.

Follow through thoroughly. And Digital Commonwealth has some fascinating old election legislation, including a choice 1961 document on what to do if your ballot box is full.

Boston By Water

Reading up on Boston history, it becomes clear how much happened on the harbor — making today’s East Coast waterfront revitalization projects (New York, Boston, Baltimore) seem pretty thin in comparison.

In the early part of the twentieth century, writer William Stanley Braithwaite arrived back in Boston, looking for his first job. He recalls in his memoir, In the House under Arcturus: An Autobiography:

Crossing the harbor on the ferry-boat I beheld the huddled city in the autumnal morning sunlight; the gray shaft of the Ames Building towering beside the gilded dome of the State House on Beacon Hill, a symbol, I imagined it, of my spirit, lofty in its direction and reach, but unable in its repulsing granite surface to absorb and effulge the radiance of the morning sun. There was my native city, the city that I loved, veined with memories, though shadowed as they were with the sorrows of death and the shadows dissolving in the illuminated activities of play and school; and now I was to ask, nay, not ask, but demand of it, the right to labor in a man’s world.

Found in the thorough and pretty amazing Imagining Boston:  A Literary Landscape, by Shaun O’Connell.

The Offering of Old Maids

The Lowell Offering was published between 1840 and 1845 by women working in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. Organized by the Reverend Abel Charles Thomas, The Offering was arguably, according to Thomas, the “first magazine or journal written exclusively by women in all the world,” collecting reportage, humor, and fiction. Charles Dickens famously visited the Lowell Mills in 1842 and included this very positive account of the home and intellectual life of mill workers in his American Notes. He says of The Offering that its content “compare[s] advantageously with a great many English Annuals.”

The October 1940 edition begins with the ‘History of a Hemlock Broom: written by itself’ (“I grew daily more thin and bare and was at length thought fit for nothing but to sweep the back-room and door-steps. By and by, I was taken to brush out the heated oven, and this I could not long survive.”)

A recent blog post I can’t seem to recover argued how all young women in historical fiction are well ahead of their time in attitudes and behavior–unrealistically and perhaps unhelpfully so. Instructive reading on that point is, “Women’s Proper Sphere.”

And then, for further interesting reading, there’s ‘A Letter About Old Maids.’

MR. EDITOR: — I am one of that unlucky, derided, and almost despised set of females, called spinsters, single sisters, lay-nuns, &c : but who are more usually known by the appellation of Old Maids.

This woman, whose name is Betsey, goes on to write:

I have always had, and still retain, a great respect for the marriage state, and for thsoe of my friends who, from right motives, have entered into it. I believe, what I presume will not here be doubted, that it is an institution ordained by the All-wise Disposer of human affairs, for the promotion of the happiness of mankind in general: but I think it was a part of that wise design, that there should be Old Maids.

Besides being useful and necessary as a comfort to parents, Betsey beats out other terrain for Old Maids. Her cohort provides support to married sisters and become the pillars of social and moral causes.

Final words:

But all this reasoning in favor of them goes directly against old bachelors, for I do not see that they are either useful or necessary, at least not more useful for remaining single, (present company always excepted–) and had they been needed, more males would have been allowed to arrive at the age of bachelorhood.

Read more archived journals.

The phantom roads of World’s End

World’s End was once an island in the greater network of Boston Harbor Islands, but colonial farmers dammed the marshes separating the land from shore.

John Brewer, a Boston businessman, purchased ten acres of land in 1855 to build a summer residence, which became a large farming estate. Brewer continued to buy up land in World’s End and eventually commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted to design the grounds for a planned subdivision of 163 homes. (The 1850s were before McMansions but after subdivisions). The homes were never built, leaving four miles of empty carriage roads.

In 1945, the town of Hingham bid to locate the United Nations on the harbor peninsula. The site was reportedly a finalist. After another failed proposal to put a nuclear power plant on the land in the mid-60s, a conservation organization acquired the land for a park.

Image: One of Olmsted’s abandoned carriage paths on World’s End, photographed by Lee Friedlander as part of a retrospective on the work of the Brookline-based landscape artist.

The Beginning and End of the East Boston Immigration Station

Map showing the building footprint of the East Boston Immigration Station, in 1922 from the Atlas of the City of Boston.

Last month, advocates for East Boston’s immigration station  finally received a negative response to their quest for landmark status for the building, clearing the way for the structure to be torn down.

Massport’s Anthony Guerrero once explained the extent of the building’s serious deterioration this way:

“There was fire at a warehouse in South Boston on Massport property recently and since that fire the fire department has inspected all building on Massport property…Due to the deterioration of the former Immigration Station the building was given an X status which means if the building catches fire, firefighters are prohibited from entering.”

In memorium: The East Boston immigration station opened in 1920 on property purchased on waterfront Marginal Street in 1909. Originally officials planned to use one of the Harbor Islands to replace their rented quarters on Long Wharf but the Marginal Street facility was built instead and operated through 1954 as a processing point for new immigrants to the region. Passengers originally questioned on the steamboat docks arrived in the building for further interviews and to resolve paperwork irregularities, also, sometimes, to be interned.

Opposite, steps leading to East Boston were called the ‘Golden Stairs’ “because they represented the final climb to golden opportunity in America for countless Europeans.”

A view of the East Boston Immigration Station from the water, from the Globe Archives, c. 1922.

Originally one story, the immigration station acquired a second and third floor with a cupola to expand detention facilities for immigrants–up to 582. Despite amenities including a player piano and rooftop exercise area, the building was an uncomfortable place to spend long periods of time. Selina Chippendale spent 7 months in the station in the mid 1920s before deportation back to England:

“I had a horrible time at the immigration station… The place was storming with cockroaches, the food was not fit for pigs and there was no privacy. My bed consisted of two planks and I had no pillow. They call it a station but it was more like a jail, for there were guards at all doors.”

More Reading: The Boston Globe put together a gallery of archival images tracing the history of the building  with some incredible images of the decay of the interior today. A City of Boston report on the station includes a very thorough history (including the original quote above) and more images.