Blast from the Past Observations on Boston

I’ve penned a few travel books, and I’ve tried to steer clear of some of the genre’s most pernicious peccadilloes, which include describing foodstuffs as “scrumptious” and hotel lobbies as “exquisite.” I’ve been guilty of a few transgressions in my time and I’m sure that I’ve used breathless prose as a proxy for a more original or thorough description.

Most of today’s mainstream guidebooks and travel blogs tend to trot out the same “Buy this! Stay here! Visit this festival marketplace!” recommendations, which can be rather annoying. With that in mind, I took advantage of the wide world of Google Books to dig around for a few old-school Boston guidebooks that represent a bit of wheat-amidst-the-chaff in the older tradition of late 19th century and early 20th century travel guidebook writing.

1. Rand McNally and Company’s Handy Guide to Boston and Environs (1904)

This particular guide was just one of the many guidebooks offered by the Rand McNally Company in the early 20th century, and they were designed to serve as the requisite complement to their city street maps which were all the rage at the time. The author (authors?) are uncredited for this eighth edition of the Boston guidebook, but things get started with a bit of unapologetic boosterism in the introduction: “Boston, the beautiful Puritan City, has many gateways through which the pilgrims, upon whatever errand bent, may enter her goodly precincts.”

Oh, there’s more, as this next bit of hyperbole would put even the most dedicated chamber of commerce to shame: “There is no city in the world where the spirit of hospitality is more boundless, or where the spirit of hospitality is more boundless, or where all that pertains to the comfort of the guest is more accessible.” Wow. Wow. Wow. If I read (and believed) this introduction, I would expect nothing less than a red carpet welcoming me at ever hostelry, dining room, and subway entrance.

The work goes on to describe the city’s parks and squares, “Theaters and Other Amusements”, and there’s even a long, leisurely sauntering jaunt offered in the “Tour of the City” section. The most curious and prophetic section here offers the observations of “a recent writer”, who remarks that “Copley Square, at certain hours of the day, presents the aspects of a new Latin Quarter, so conspicuously does the student element predominate in the throngs that cover its pavements.” Even then, the presence of college students loomed in this “Latin Quarter”.

2. King’s How To See Boston (1895)

Eighty-two years before Oliver Koppel published his first Let’s Go guide as a Harvard undergraduate, another son of Harvard College published his guide to Boston. Moses King graduated from Harvard in 1881, and he published his first guidebook, Harvard and its surroundings, when he was still a student. King decamped to New York in 1894, and before he passed away in 1909, he wrote more than 20 guidebooks, including works on the Back Bay, Newton, Providence, and Cincinnati.

King’s 1895 guide to Boston was well-received, and in the introduction, he makes it plain that his guidebook is a truly egalitarian affair: “The plan contemplates a dozen or more easy half-day routes, usually on foot or by street-cars-, because the book is prepared for the masses of the people. However, persons of wealth who roll along in carriages will find it not less useful.”

The guide is a rather remarkable find, and King’s long narrative tour through the South End is a mini-masterpiece, complete with detailed description of the massive Chickering Piano Factory and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. The work holds up surprisingly well, and it is a testament to King’s eye for detail and informed wanderings.

3. Old Boston Taverns and Tavern Clubs (1917)

It’s hard to overestimate the role of the common (or uncommon) tavern in the life of the early days of Boston. They were places to obtain information about ships arriving in Boston Harbor, items of casual gossip, and of course, in the late 18th century, they were places where a range of soon-to-be patriots gathered to discuss their plans for revolution.

This intriguing volume was penned by Samuel Adams Drake, and it was meant as a guide to some of these most storied spots, including the Green Dragon and the Bunch of Grapes. The book offers a lively tour through this aspect of Boston history, and the book is peppered with literary allusions and piquant descriptions, such as the breezy passage that tells the tale of Jean Baptiste Julien, the creator of the first public eating-house in Boston.

Drake also has little good to say about the drinking establishments of his own time, noting in the introduction that “No words need be wasted upon the present degradation which the name of tavern implies to polite ears. In most minds it is now associated with the slums of the city, and with that particular phase of city life only, so all may agree that, as a prominent feature of society and manners, the tavern has had its day.”