Throwback Thursday: Boston’s Odd, Old Tourism Slogan

"You don't know beans until you come to Boston."

You don’t know beans until you’ve been to Boston. Over time, cities can run through a lot of identities. A bustling industrial town can become a symbol of urban blight. A city for hippies can become a mecca for techies. Tourism slogans can be a useful way of tracking the shifting ways that cities project themselves to outsiders. Boston is, of course, still known as “Beantown.” But back in the day, it was more than just a quirky nickname. It was a major selling point for the city—something to write home about. The slogan, “You don’t know beans until you come to Boston,” appears on dozens of old postcards collected by the Boston Public Library.

Baked beans in molasses had long been a traditional dish in Boston. But one frequently proposed theory on the origin of beans as tourism strategy points to 1907 when Boston threw a festival called “Old Home Week.” The event encouraged former residents who had left Boston to come back and visit for a week-long celebration. The city advertised heavily all over the country and printed one million stickers with a picture of two hands joined over a “typical Boston bean pot,” as the Boston Globe called it. beanpotStickers themselves were so new that the Globe put the word in quotation marks. These “stickers” were evidently quite popular:

“There is no doubt that it is going to be a very popular medium for booming the Boston old-home week observance, and the first edition of 1,000,000 is not likely to last very long. Already, orders for large quantities have been received and several thousand are to be taken west in a day or two.”

It was soon afterward that the clever phrase “You don’t know beans…” began appearing on postcards. By the early 20th century, it seems, beans had become a dish worthy of regional snobbery. We talked about our beans in the way New Yorkers these days brag about pizza or southerners talk about barbecue. Those days are mainly gone. Baked beans in molasses aren’t the traditional Sunday meal they once were around these parts. Beantown has stuck as a nickname, but outsiders often have to ask why.


Type “Why is Boston” into Google and autocomplete will suggest “Why is Boston called beantown?” Maybe if we revived these postcards, it would clear up the confusion.