Saturday, August 21, 2010

Saving Boston Common

Boston streetcar traffic, Tremont Street, 1895
It's easy to look at the huge, green expanse of the Boston Common in the middle of Boston and imagine that it was always obvious that it would remain pristine and untrammeled.  But in the late 19th century, the Common came close to being pillaged to support an improved transportation system in the city.

Public transportation in Boston in the 1880s consisted of a number of competing horsecar companies, which ran horse-drawn conveyances over rails through the city streets.  The system was fragmented, and often competing horsecar lines laid parallel tracks next to each other in the congested city.  The  speed of the horsecars was about 5 mph, which limited the maximum commuting distance from the city center to about 4 miles.

There was a clear desire to speed up transit and reduce congestion but it was not clear how that was going to happen.  Cable systems were being built in San Francisco and elsewhere--but cable could not easily be adapted to Boston's topography:   winding, crooked streets, the incursions of the river and the sea, and the looming Beacon Hill.

Electric car lines installed in Richmond, Virginia in 1887-1888 seemed more promising, but it was too expensive for multiple competing horsecar companies to take on.

Eventually, an entrepreneur by the name of Henry Melville Whitney acquired 5 million square feet of land along Beacon Street in Boston and Brookline, with a plan to build housing and a street rail line along the boulevard from Brookline to the center of the city.  When the existing horsecar firms did not demonstrate interest, he engineered a buyout of all their stock, and the West End Street Railway Company came into existence.

At the time of the acquisition in 1887, West End owned 8,400 horses, and 200 miles of track.  By 1892, two-thirds of their track had been converted to electric operations, and by 1894, 90%.  Boston had faster, cheaper, and better public transportation than any other US city.

But West End was a victim of its own success.  Increased travel speed was followed by further city population growth and expansion of the city to the "streetcar suburbs" in Dorchester and elsewhere.  There was pressure on West End to add so-called "rapid transit" to its system--either by subway or elevated line.  Whitney actually won a charter for an elevated line--but study convinced him that it was not suited to the inner city.

A city Rapid Transit Commission (which included Congressman John Fitzgerald, later Mayor of Boston) was formed in 1892.  They held 51 public hearings and traveled to the major European cities with rapid transit systems.  Fitzgerald didn't like the "buried-alive" feeling of being in the London tube, though he was more impressed with the "cut and cover" subways that were very close to the surface.  The RTC made a series of recommendations which included a subway under Boston Common to reduce the major congestion on Tremont and Washington Streets.

Painting by Childe Hassam, Boston Common at Twilight
City dwellers had a significant emotional attachment to the Common, but the growing suburban population of 1893, frustrated by transportation delays, pressed for several alternative solutions:  widening Tremont Street by chopping off the end of the Common, adding an elevated line along the edge of the Common, or laying tracks directly across the Common itself.

West End's proposal wasn't much better--building a subway under the Common but seizing 4 acres for a switching yard and station, cutting down 100 trees, covering the entire subway area with cement or brick, and building 330 ventilation holes, each surrounded by an iron fence 19 feet in circumference!

There was a huge uproar from Bostonians led by the Boston Evening Transcript, and including Julia Ward Howe as a key protestor.  The Transcript said it would be like subdividing Bunker Hill into housing lots.

In 1894, the legislature held hearings and prepared an act (that would be approved by voters in a referendum later that year) that would authorize the city to build subway lines under Tremont and Washington Streets,  a transit bridge to Charlestown, and a transit tunnel under the East Boston harbor.  A private firm would also be authorized to build an elevated line from Charlestown to Roxbury.

The trolleys coming into the inner city would enter the tunnel instead of tying up narrow Tremont Street with tracks and congestion.  And construction of that first subway tunnel was just like the Big Dig--they built it in the middle of the living city!  Each night, they would dig 12 foot wide strips on Tremont Street, and then cover them and shore them up with timbers.  In the daytime, traffic down Tremont could continue unabated, and the workers could continue with digging and construction underneath.

Boston streetcar entering Park Station 1897
Amazingly enough, the project was brought in on-time (opening in 1897 and wrapping up construction in 1898) and under budget.  The city retained ownership of the line, and West End (which became Boston Elevated Railway Company in 1897) leased the right to operate the electric trains through the subway.   In that first year, Park Street Station became one of the busiest railroad stations in the world--serving 40 million passengers in its first eleven months of operation.

Boston thus became the first city in the U.S. to implement a policy of public ownership of rapid transit lines.  The relationship with the private monopoly to operate the trains continued until the 1920s, when rising costs and growing competition from automobiles resulted in losses for Boston Elevated and the city took over operations.

NOTE:  The remaining provisions from the 1894 act were quickly completed--the bridge to Charlestown opened in 1899, the elevated electric line from Charlestown to North Station opened in 1901,  and the East Boston transit tunnel under the harbor opened at the end of 1904.

 Illustration Credits and References

The two photographs in this post were found on the website of "Perfessor" Bill Edwards, Ragtime Era Nostalgia.  The first shows streetcar traffic on Tremont Street in 1895, and the second shows an open streetcar entering Park Street Station via the new tunnel in 1897.

The painting by Childe Hassam, Boston Common at Twilight, shows both the beautiful Common and the streetcars lined up on Tremont Street, and was painted in 1885-86.  Hassam's studio was here on Tremont Street.

Information about the history of Boston's public transportation comes primarily from Charles W. Cheape's Moving the Masses:  Urban Public Transit in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, 1880-1912.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1980.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Predictions from 1900

Telephone operator circa 1900
In the December, 1900 issue of the Ladies' Home Journal, engineer John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. made 29 predictions for the next 100 years.  Some seem silly or shortsighted.  (Air travel is only seen as a military action, for example.)  But here are a few that were right on target.

Prediction #4:  There Will Be No Street Cars in Our Large Cities. All hurry traffic will be below or high above ground when brought within city limits. In most cities it will be confined to broad subways or tunnels, well lighted and well ventilated, or to high trestles with “moving-sidewalk” stairways leading to the top.

Prediction #6:  Automobiles will be cheaper than horses are today. Farmers will own automobile hay-wagons, automobile truck-wagons, plows, harrows and hay-rakes. A one-pound motor in one of these vehicles will do the work of a pair of horses or more. Children will ride in automobile sleighs in winter. Automobiles will have been substituted for every horse vehicle now known. There will be, as already exist today, automobile hearses, automobile police patrols, automobile ambulances, automobile street sweepers. The horse in harness will be as scarce, if, indeed, not even scarcer, then as the yoked ox is today.

Prediction #8:  Aerial War-Ships and Forts on Wheels. Giant guns will shoot twenty-five miles or more, and will hurl anywhere within such a radius shells exploding and destroying whole cities. Such guns will be armed by aid of compasses when used on land or sea, and telescopes when directed from great heights. Fleets of air-ships, hiding themselves with dense, smoky mists, thrown off by themselves as they move, will float over cities, fortifications, camps or fleets. . . . Huge forts on wheels will dash across open spaces at the speed of express trains of to-day. They will make what are now known as cavalry charges. . . . Rifles will use silent cartridges. Submarine boats submerged for days will be capable of wiping a whole navy off the face of the deep. Balloons and flying machines will carry telescopes of one-hundred-mile vision with camera attachments, photographing an enemy within that radius. These photographs as distinct and large as if taken from across the street, will be lowered to the commanding officer in charge of troops below.

Prediction #9:  Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later. Even to-day photographs are being telegraphed over short distances.  Photographs will reproduce all of Nature’s colors.

Prediction #10:  Man will See Around the World. Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span. American audiences in their theatres will view upon huge curtains before them the coronations of kings in Europe or the progress of battles in the Orient. The instrument bringing these distant scenes to the very doors of people will be connected with a giant telephone apparatus transmitting each incidental sound in its appropriate place. Thus the guns of a distant battle will be heard to boom when seen to blaze, and thus the lips of a remote actor or singer will be heard to utter words or music when seen to move.

Prediction #18: Telephones Around the World. Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn. By an automatic signal they will connect with any circuit in their locality without the intervention of a “hello girl”.

Prediction #21: Hot and Cold Air from Spigots. Hot or cold air will be turned on from spigots to regulate the temperature of a house as we now turn on hot or cold water from spigots to regulate the temperature of the bath.

Illustration Credits and References

The illustration at the top of this post is of a telephone operator ca. 1900, from Encyclopedia Britannica

Watkins' predictions can be found in full here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Mad Men of an Earlier Era

1905 ad for Colgate's Violet TalcIf you're a Mad Man watcher, you'll know that we don't get a lot of the back story of Sterling Cooper's founders.  But assuming that Bert Cooper (played by 79 year old Robert Morse) is about 75, that means he was born about 1890, and graduated from college about 1911. This was just in time for him to go and work in the fledgling advertising industry.  Although the J. Walter Thompson agency had been founded near the end of the Civil War, what we think of as modern advertising really got its start in the early years of the century.

Prior to the late 19th century, advertising was largely a means for delivering information.  Printing companies often did the design and layout, and many ads used only words.  But in the 1900s, a number of forces came together to result in the development of modern advertising.

  • Rapid growth in technology spawned new printing techniques and new manufacturing techniques.  
  • The growth of mass-marketed consumer products was breathtaking, and companies needed a way to get their message out.  
  • The population of the country was growing at a rapid clip, and there were thousands of magazines and thousands of newspapers to carry the messages.
  • A real middle class was emerging.
The first true consumer culture in the U.S. was birthed in the 1900s.  Because products were being developed so rapidly, advertising was often used to raise awareness of the category.  For example, Colgate promoted the idea of regular toothbrushing, Gillette of daily shaving, and Kodak the concept that everyone should document his/her life.

Technology was also changing packaging--both in the type (the wax-sealed carton or wax wrap for crackers that we still see today in the Ritz box) and in the use of packaging to provide brightly colored brand recognition.

Department stores had developed in US cities in the latter half of the 19th century, but by the 1900s they were adding features that you would still recognize if you grew up in the fifties--soda fountains, lunchrooms, beauty salons, and spacious women's restrooms (with real space for resting!), and advertising promoted all of these features.

In the 1900s, copywriters, artists, designers, and account executives became part of every ad agency's mix.

Advertising and retailing techniques were introduced that are still in use--an enormous customer database at Sears (maintained on index cards and used to segment customers for mailings), advertising jingles, coordinated national campaigns, familiar characters, four-color graphics, advertising in local newspapers, fixed pricing, clearance sales, gift with purchase, pretty girls handing out samples, and even the investigation of fraudulent advertising.

Illustration Credits and References

The ad at the top of this post consumed the entire back cover of the August 1905 issue of The Redbook Magazine.  (Author's collection.)  It appears in four-color print and features a new package for Colgate's Violet Talc and a key benefit for the woman who buys it:  "the new sifter cannot injure soft hands and manicured fingernails, as do the old-fashioned boxes."

The second ad, also from the author's collection, was on the back cover of the June 8, 1905 issue of Life Magazine. While it is not as colorful as the previous ad, the emphasis on filtering and aging, and the well-known tagline, are both techniques visible in beer advertising today.

Information in this post about advertising comes primarily from Bob Batchelor's The 1900s, part of the American Popular Culture Through History series (Greenwood Press, 2002).