Boston - A Woman's City
( Originally Published 1916 )
The Sunday observance law which John Hancock found, to his annoyance, could be invoked even against a man of power, provided that "all persons profaning the Lord's Day by walking, standing in the streets, or any other way breaking the laws made for the due observance of the a Lord's Day, may expect the execution' of the law upon them for all disorders of this kind"; and the city still gives a general impression of respect for the Sabbath. As long ago as 1711 Increase Mather told the Bostonians that a great fire of that year had come as a punishment for not observing the Sabbath with sufficient strictness, and his admonition was promptly heeded and, so it would seem from appearances, has been heeded ever since—although, one regrets to observe, without noticeable results in the way of fire prevention.
The city does not, however, give the impression of being particularly religious. It religiously celebrates Sunday with fish-cakes and brown bread, but it is without the general tramp-tramp-tramp of church-going feet that is heard on the Sabbath day in that city with which it is most often compared, Edinburgh. There is considerable church-going : it should not be forgotten that Boston has long been the center of Unitarianism and that it has become the stronghold of Christian Science; but the general impression of the city and its streets on Sunday is of a sleepy quietude with comparatively few people stir-ring about. But not all Boston is at church or at home, for in pleasant weather the principal roads leading back into the city are, at night, aflame with motor lights. It used to be that the Sabbath began on Saturday at sunset, and "upon no pretense whatsoever was any man on horseback or with a wagon to pass into or out of the town" till the time of Sabbath observance was over. Well, at least the horses had a day of rest. But on the entire subject of Puritan-ism, with its varied inhibitions, one cannot but think of that illustrative antithesis of Macaulay, perhaps quite unfair but at least quite unforgetable, that the Puritans hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.
The difficulty of even now getting food on Sunday in Boston is really amusing: of course, the hotels are open, but many restaurants, even such as cater to three-meals-a-day custom, close tight during all of Sunday!—and this, not merely in the business section, where closing would be justified, but in localities where hosts of people, students of the myriad educational institutions, and temporary dwellers, without home ties or home facilities, are wholly dependent upon these local restaurants. Restaurant-closing is a survival of Sunday observance; Boston, except as to its own individual appetite, would fain remember the Sabbath day to keep it hungry.
Restaurants, by the way, average better and cheaper in Boston than in other great American cities. In no respect, indeed, is the city more admirable than in being a place where people of limited means but excellent tastes and desires may live economically and at the same time with self-respect: and this comes largely from the influence of the innumerable army of students, and visitors of the student class, and unmarried and self-supporting women. The general atmosphere of Boston is one of a pleasant economy which need not at all be associated with poverty.
The shopping districts have a number of attractive little restaurants and tea-rooms, managed by women or by philanthropic societies of women, where a type of food is offered which may, perhaps, be described as hygienic health food. There are also "laboratories" and "kitchens" and "food-shops"; not names that would attract one, I think, except in New England. Apparently, the next generation of New Englanders are not to be "sons of pie and daughters of dough-nut."
Also, one notices that there are very few restaurants open after the generally announced closing hour of eight, and one is inclined to say that the fingers of one hand, and perhaps even the thumbs alone, would number the places where after-theater suppers are openly offered. One restaurant freely advertises, without arousing comment or protest, that it is the "one bright spot in Boston" after theater closing. There are two or three hotels that cater to late comers, but there is little to attract those who would drop naturally into a cheerful restaurant but who balk at going formally to a hotel. As soon as the theater is over, the audiences scurry into the sub-way. Those who do not go to the theater are sup-posed to be in bed by ten o'clock or so. It gets late very early in Boston.
A curious effect of Sabbath observance that lasted until far into the 1800's was the omission by the theaters of Saturday night performances. The first breaking from the old ideals came in 1843, when the Tremont Theater of that time reluctantly gave a Saturday night performance to please the many visitors who had come to the city for the Webster oration at the dedication of Bunker Hill Monument. (It was in this theater, three years earlier, that Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson together watched the dancing of Fanny Ellsler, when, so the tale runs, Margaret whispered ecstatically, "Ralph, this is poetry !" to which came the Paytone+One's fervent response, "Margaret, it is religion!")
It is curious, with Boston's theaters, to find that several of the best-constructed or most popular—the terms are not necessarily synonymous—are on streets that amaze the visitor with the impression of being shabby or narrow or hard to find, such as Eliot Street or Hollis Street, or Tremont Street in a section where it suddenly loses its excellent appearance; naturally, this sort of thing does not strike a Bostonian, because he is used to it: it is like a man knowing his way familiarly about in his own backyard, although it would merely mean unattractive exploration for a stranger. The theater which, more than any other, appeals to the "best families" and for which it is the tradition, though by no means the general practice, to "dress," is on a narrow, back, out-of-the-way street.
The venerable Boston Theater—soon, so it is under-stood, to be torn down, after a long, long existence—has its main entrance, on Washington Street; but a secondary and highly interesting entrance, from the best part of Tremont Street, is through a long tunnel-like foot-passage, and then an actual underground passage beneath a building; and another theater, close by, has an entrance even more interesting, this being a hundred yards or so of subterranean passage, lined with mirrors, not only under buildings but underneath a narrow street; although one is so apt to associate underground passages, at least in an old city, with sieges or escapes or romance.
The old Boston Theater was opened in 1852, and the first words delivered from the stage were those of a poem written for the occasion, that had won a prize of one hundred dollars; one of the actors reading the poem, and the author of the lines being Par-sons, Longfellow's Poet of the Wayside Inn. Even as late as that, the Saturday night closing tradition was still so generally adhered to that for quite a while no Saturday night performances were given in this theater; there were just five evening performances a week.
This city was particularly associated with the life of Edwin Booth. His very first appearance on any stage was at the old Boston Museum (now destroyed), in 1849, when he played Tressel to the Richard the Third of his father, Junius Brutus Booth. In the good old days, although there was no rivalry with the busy "movies," the theaters had a way of giving satisfyingly crowded evenings, and that particular performance of "Richard the Third" was accompanied by a farce of the decidedly un-Shakespearean name of "Slasher and Crasher." Another evening of two performances, "The Iron Chest" and "Don Cesar de Bazan," this time in 1865 and at the Boston Theater, was to Booth tragically notable, for it was on that evening that his brother shot President Lincoln.
Those who, in the course of the many years of its existence, have come to know the Boston Theater, with its circling Auditorium and big steep galleries, and to love it on account of its boasted acoustic qualities, would have been incredibly amazed had they been told long ago, that the time was to come, in its theatrical career, when acoustics would not count : yet that time has really come, for it has been turned over to the "movies," pending destruction.
Among the many memories associated with the theater is that of the great ball given here in honor of the Prince of Wales, afterwards Edward the Seventh, in 1860, when the wealth and fashion of Boston came here to do him honor. I have somewhere seen it noted that some fifteen hundred tickets were subscribed for, for that literally princely ball at the Boston Theater; one thousand for couples and the other five hundred for additional ladies accompanying them, thus making two women for each man, which would seem to point out that even long ago Boston was a woman's city.
At any rate, Boston is a woman's city now; not that women are collectively of more importance than men, but that they are of much more than usual importance : there is no other city in which women are relatively of such consequence. Yet it is not distinctively a suffragist city, and, surprisingly for a woman's stronghold, the women anti-suffragists are very active.
More than in any other city, women go unescorted and without question to theaters and restaurants. So many women are independent, so many women are employed in stores and in offices, that, more than in other cities, 'respectable women alone on the streets at night are a common sight, and they attract neither comment nor attention. They have what Barrie calls the "twelve-pound look." They are well-set-up, well clad, carefully shod, precise, good-looking: they go quietly about their business in a way that makes other people go about theirs. And it has worked out with perfect naturalness, through the safeguarding of respectable women, that the city government and the police see to it that those of another class are very slightly in general evidence. This does not at all mean that Boston is any better than other cities, but that a different situation as regards women in general makes for a different treatment of the entire subject of women. I know of a lonely woman, not beyond middle age, and what Bostonians call well-born, who, all of her relatives being dead, and she being deaf and very sensitive, spends almost every evening in the summertime sitting, until eleven o'clock or so, on a bench in the Charles River Parkway, looking out over the water; and I do not know of any other large city where a woman, not old, could sit on a bench in a public park, without attracting the slightest attention whatever.
The fact that so many women are so eminently cap-able of taking care of themselves brings about the natural consequence that they are freely permitted to take care of themselves; for example, in other cities one of the rarest sights is to see a woman carrying a heavy traveling-bag, but here in Boston it is a sight so common as to attract no notice whatever. In the daytime or at night-time you will frequently see a well-dressed woman, an independent feme sole, walking briskly along, heavy bag in hand; and I do not mean carrying the pleasant little Boston shop-ping bags but literal valises, and I have not infrequently seen a woman carrying not only one big valise but one in each hand.
On the average, too, this being a woman's city has had a not unnatural result upon woman's dressing, it being, on the average, not quite so merely attractive or charming as it is in most cities. There is a great deal of highly excellent dressing on the part of the women, but it is excellent and good in the sense in which a man's dressing would be deemed good : it is not quite so much a matter of following the fashion as of wearing good clothes of good material; and, as with the men, the women are likely to keep their excel-lent clothes until they begin to show wear, instead of being quite so subject as are the women of other cities to what would be termed the whims of fashion. Boston has an extraordinary number of well-tailored women, but perhaps it may be said that it is mostly a matter of excellent grooming. There is a smaller proportion of women in Boston than in other cities who dress merely to flutter along a fashionable promenade to please the eyes of observers.
I noticed at the street door of a fashionable shop where they sell nothing more intimate than hats and millinery, a sign such as I never saw in any other city, for it bluntly reads, "No admission for men"! And it is not an emergency sign, for it crowded season, but is permanently lettered on brass. Imagine such a sign on a hat shop on Bond Street or the Rue de la Paix, or in Berlin, let us say, where the Emperor William loves to go out and buy his wife's hats and surprise her with them, and then expects her to simulate joy!
A marked result of the unusual consequence of women here is the unusual importance, both relatively and in themselves, of women's clubs; and the women show that they can excellently equip and excellently manage their clubs. One, the Women's City Club, has had the excellent taste to acquire for its club-house a building that is one of the finest examples of American town-house architecture; it is a house built by Bulfinch, and is one of a pair of balanced mansions, each with the distinguished bow-front of Boston and each with a beautifully pillared and fan-lighted door-way. This club-house is at 40 Beacon Street, and looks down on the pool and the elms of the Common, and it is worth becoming familiar with not only to see how excellently the women chose a headquarters but also to see what was the kind of house that Bulfinch won his fame in building.
The front hall is broad, with a small reception room at one side, and from it there starts upward, with a charming curl to the top of its newel-post, a most graceful, aerial, spiral stair which mounts up and up, a thing of ease and lightness and grace, toward the great round cupola or lantern that throws down its light from the roof for the entire stair. The rail is mahogany, the balusters are white, and the steps are white, with a crimson carpet.
What was originally the dining-room is the large room at the front on the main floor, and it swells finely into the swell of the great window-bow. The rear wall of this room curves backward in exact balance with the curve of the front, and its two mahogany doors are set into the curve, thus producing the effect of an oval room even though the side-walls are straight. A fireplace, in staid setting of white and green marble, faces the door. The windows are large and mahogany sashed, with dark heavy curtains hanging straight down from up above the window-tops and caught aside with rosetted holders of brass; these club women aiming constantly to keep up, in adjuncts, with the excel-lent effect that Bulfinch with his architecture began. The doors, six-paneled and broad, are of mahogany, and those that are in the curve at the back of the room are themselves curved to fit it, such being the designer's completeness of detail. The door in the hall opens in two flaps and is broad enough to permit the guests to walk in to dinner two by two, in the old-fashioned formal way.
Behind the dining-room is the great old kitchen, with its open fire-place, its ovens, and its queerly built-in iron-domed concavities. Ascending the main stair, whose tread and rise are a delight, we enter an ante-room with a lovely, mellow marble mantel, and from this room pass through an opening with fluted pillars into what was the great drawing-room, this being an oval room, rich in fine Greek detail, with exquisite mantel, exquisitely molded cornice and exquisitely designed oval ceiling; a room by an American architect of which an American may be proud!
The house was built to be heated by wood fires, and a niche in the hall marks where an iron urn originally stood, which received its heat from a fire in the cellar for the heating of the hall, such being the method in use before the days of modern furnaces and furnace pipes; and it is interesting to remember that almost all of the houses we now see on Beacon Hill were built back in the days of wood fires, when the wood was sawed on the sidewalk and stored in the cellars, or in woodhouses in the yards; and that not only were there primitive methods of heating, and also of lighting, but that there was even no public water supply until less than three quarters of a century ago, and that almost all of these old houses still have wells in their cellars, even though the wells may in the course of time have been filled up.
In a sense Bulfinch, the architect of the house of the women's Club, made Boston. He gave the city a high standard of architectual distinction. He gave it architectual individuality. He gave it the type of dwelling of which this club-house is such an admirable example. And not only did he admirably design dwellings and set a high standard which other architects were glad to follow, but he also gave to America its general type of State House. As the honored architect of the State House of Massachusetts he was called to Washington to take charge of the Capitol there, and his ideas as to public buildings have been followed throughout America. Any city would have the right to be proud of this great man, and so it is particularly pleasant to remember that not only was he an American but that he was so much so that as a small boy he watched the battle of Bunker Hill from the roof of his father's house.
It is interesting that when, toward the close of his life, Bulfinch was asked if he would train any of his children in his own profession, he naively replied that he did not think there would really be enough left for any architect to do ! The different cities, he went on, and the principal States, were already supplied with their principal buildings, and he hardly thought there could be enough building to do in the future for a young man to make his living as an architect.
Perhaps it was from remembering that Boston is a woman's city that I thought of its being the home of Alice Brown, and there came the further thought that not only are the homes of writers of the past worth noticing, but also the homes of writers of the present day, especially when, as in the case of Miss Brown, the present day writer is one whose work is of grace and distinction. Naturally, I did not much expect to find the name of Alice Brown in the telephone directory; there would be "John Brown" and "James Brown" and other Browns, but not likely the one as to whose home I had become interested. Still, the telephone book was handy, and I might as well look.-And I realized as never before that Boston is a woman's city, for, each with her separate telephone number, there were nine Alice Browns looking up at me, so to speak, from the page ! Nine Alices with name so Brown, as the old song almost has it l Fascinated, my eyes wandered up and down the columns, and I noted telephones for women Browns innumerable : three Annas, three Berthas, four Lauras, no fewer than twelve Marys, and an ever-lengthening list leading to Katharine and Sarah and Alice and Inez and Corah and Daisy and Lillia and Lilliah, up to one hundred and nineteen in all, and many a Browne more with and `e" to follow!
And as other names of the directory would be like Brown, I thought of how thin a telephone book would be Boston's if all the women's names were taken out! And even with the nine Alice Browns, the name of Alice Brown the writer is not to be found. But her house is on Beacon Hill, at 11 Pinckney Street; a brick house, prim, pleasant and precise, with iron-railed steps leading up to a curve-topped entrance-way.
That Boston is a woman's city came to me, just a few days ago, in still another way, for a Bostonian friend handed me a letter, just received, and said that I really ought to use it because it was so typical of old Boston and she knew that the sender would not be displeased if she should ever know it had been published. The writer of the letter is one of two elderly maiden sisters, who always dress in heavy black silk, and whose hair is still done in the prim, old-fashioned way of Civil War times, and who still live in the old house, in its still aristocratic neighborhood, in which they were born.
"I walked home," thus part of the typical letter runs, "doing several errands on the way, and most of the evening I was reading to my sister, and this morning I awoke early, lighted my candle and read until I had to get ready for breakfast!" She read by candlelight ! What a picture in these modern days ! "Then settled down comfortably to tackle a tableful of monthly bills waiting for the checks to pay them, stopping long enough to look over a list of kitchen furnishings that the cook had ordered and to write a Christmas poem which my sister had been composing, from her dictation!" What charming old-fashioned sisterly sympathy—and a Christmas poem! "Now it is one o'clock, and I haven't begun my bills, and there are the- dinner chimes. We dine at one" (old-fashioned again!), "myself, my sister's attendant and her secretary, and sometimes"—what a touch!---Pour stately black cat."