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A Walking Tour in Boston’s North End

[Copyright 1999 Mary Lee Cox]

THE NORTH END OF BOSTON
The Oldest Neighborhood, the Newest Residents

 The North End is the oldest Boston “neighborhood.”  This walk through a colorful, historic, intriguing area recalls women who managed large colonial households and businesses, wrote, practiced as physicians, attempted social reform on large and small scales, and founded dynasties.  There is no unifying motif in these lives, except perhaps that of the broadest historical time span and the story of Boston in a nutshell,  Here are the newest immigrants, the hardest work, poverty and prosperity, Lady Bountiful style charity and local, grassroots mutual aid.

 For the earliest settlers, the North End was a short ride in a dory from the markets of Boston.  A very few years later it was a walk over the Mill Creek bridge to the Haymarket.  Filling in Mill Creek was Boston’s earliest land reclamation project.  At the foot of the center of the Northern area of the peninsula, Copps Hill,  were the main docks of Boston Harbor.  .  The high part of the North End was initially a stylish neighborhood.  In the eighteenth century Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson lived here, surrounded by other Tories in large houses.  There were also small businesses. Paul Revere and his family lived here, near his silversmith and metal working operation.  Most of the Tory residents fled during the Revolution, and the character of the area changed when the first Irish immigrants arrived in the 1830’s.  The still-remaining old houses became tenements housing four or five people in one room.  The Irish were fleeing the famine in their own country; and here - after many trials - they prospered.  Many of them then moved on and were followed by other newly-arrived groups:  Jews from eastern Europe, Portuguese, and Italians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  The street pattern of this area is pre-Revolutionary, with paths to the harbor and the burying ground on Copps Hill.  The buildings, though, are now largely early twentieth century multiple family dwellings.  Look up at the rooftops as you walk and note the terraces and gardens of urban outdoor living.

 The North End is always changing, but it maintains at present a strong Italian-American character.   Hanover Street and its surrounding smaller streets offer walkers aromas of baking bread, fresh coffee and canollis in comfortable pastry shops, tiny seafood eating places and trendy Tuscan restaurants.  The Freedom Trail brings tourists to the Paul Revere House and the Old North Church, yet the street life remains authentic and the neighborhood a close-knit one.  If you come during some weekends in the summer, you may meet a procession bearing a statue and celebrating a saint’s life, hear the music and taste the food that goes with the local celebration.  Hanover Street is another steep walk.  There are many places to sit, rest, and watch the world pass.  As in other parts of Boston, rest rooms in restaurants and coffee shops are restricted to the use of patrons.  The only public rest room in the North End is in the gift shop next to the Old North Church; lines are long.

 The route outlined here is not the standard approach to the North End.  It starts along the harbor and climbs the back of the hill into the last bit of its colonial history, North Square.  This back way has less interesting streets at its beginning, but ends up in busy Hanover Street for a coffee and pastry break half way through.  The better-known Freedom Trail approach is up Hanover Street.  The geographic area is very small; it would be difficult to lose one’s way.

Begin at the Aquarium T Station.  When you exit, walk to your right down Atlantic Avenue, walk through Christopher Columbus Park and down Commercial Street, following the harbor and enjoying the view. Along the way you pass massive granite buildings, once wharf warehouses and now renovated as apartments.  Some have their own marinas.  Walk as far as Lewis Wharf, one of the first of the old buildings to be reclaimed, where Elizabeth Bishop spent her last years.

1.. Elizabeth Bishop [1911-1979]
An important American poet, Bishop was educated in Massachusetts, but spent many of her productive years in Brazil.  She was a Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry in 1955, for Poems North and South: A Cold Spring.  Her poetry has been called “mysterious” and “imaginative.”  She translated women’s work from the Portuguese language, and also wrote short stories.  A very private person, she spent the last years of her life in an apartment in Lewis Wharf, overlooking Boston harbor.

Cross Commercial Street and walk up Fleet Street to Moon Street.  Turn left on Moon Street.

2.. Sarah Kemble Knight [1666-1727]
A Boston business woman, Knight supported her family in comfort with her shop on Moon Street.  We don’t know the exact location of the shop, there were many small businesses serving the waterfront area here, when North Street was the original shore line. Sarah Knight made a long trip, entirely on her own, from Boston to New York City in 1704.  The reason for her adventurous trip is not clear.  She traveled through a wilderness with long, potentially dangerous distances between settlements.  On this journey she  kept a journal, detailing and commenting on available food, lodging, guides for hire, and scenery.  Her diary was found and published more than a hundred years later.  Knight has been called “America’s first travel writer”, and her journal is still available in reprint.

Continue down Moon Street to where it ends in North Square, and stop in Rachel Revere Park, across from the Revere house.

3. Rachel Revere [745-1813]
A few letters from Rachel to Paul Revere remain; her life has to be imagined.  In front of you is her house.  She was Paul Revere’s second wife.  He was a widower with six young children when they married.  Together they had nine more, and more than fifty grandchildren.  Hers would have been a demanding and busy life, requiring competent management skills and a calm disposition.  She supervised Revere’s apprentices as well as the education of her children.  Revere wrote loving poetry to her, and had her picture done in miniature, a portrait he could carry with him.  Gilbert Stuart did portraits of both of them in old age; Rachel’s face looks out serene and happy from under her lace cap.  The portraits hang in  Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  When Rachel and Paul lived in this house, it was already a hundred years old, and it was a larger house.  A third story had been added.  The house has been restored to its seventeenth-century appearance.

The Mariners House is also in North Square. providing services to seamen and women.  A Seaman’s Aid Society was originally established in North Square by a group of women including Sara Josepha Hale.  One of their intentions was to help sailors’ wives as well as the sailors themselves.  This building and its activities are a later outgrowth of the organization.

4.  Sara Josepha Hale [1820-1879]
Hale came to Boston, leaving her family behind in New Hampshire,  when she was offered the job of editor of the Ladies Magazine.  It was a difficult decision, but her efforts to support her children alone had not been successful.  This job looked like her big chance, and it was. Her success with the Boston publication led to her appointment as editor of Godey’s Ladies Book in Philadelphia.  Hers was a conservative and influential voice for the traditional place of women in society, although she also advocated  higher education for women, including education as physicians.  With the Ladies Book, her opinions on the proper sphere for women were read nationally.  In 1853 Hale wrote The Women’s Record, a compendium of the accomplishments of women beginning in classical times; she listed 2,500 women.

North Square was also the site of several of the early day nurseries for the children of working mothers.  Some of these nurseries were funded entirely by individual women; others by groups such as the Boston Children's Friend society. One of these women was Caroline Dall.

5.  Caroline Wells Healey Dall [1822-1912]
A social reformer and one of the organizers of the Boston Women’s Rights Convention. Caroline Dall preached in Unitarian churches in the 1870’s, then turned her efforts to practical help for other women.  She opened one of the earliest day nurseries in the North End for the children of working mothers.  Boston women early recognized and responded to the need of working women for day care for their children.

Turn left on Prince Street out of North Square, and walk one block over to Hanover Street, now the principal shopping street of the neighborhood.  One of the early locations of the Boston Children’s Friend Society was at 83 Prince Street.  Walk up two blocks to St. Stephen’s Church, on your right.

6.  Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy [1890-1995]
Rose Fitzgerald was born in a house (no longer standing] on nearby Garden Street.  She was baptized here at St. Stephen's Church in 1890, when the North End was still largely an Irish neighborhood and the Fitzgeralds the leading political family of Boston -  her father “Honey” Fitz was the mayor of Boston.  Rose is said to have planned to go to Wellesley College.  Her father and the local bishop opted instead for a small religious college for women.  Thereafter her energy and intelligence centered on her family and her church for her long life.  Married to Joseph Kennedy, she had nine children, among them a President of the United States.  Her funeral was held here at St. Stephen's also; her great grandchildren were pall bearers.

Cross Hanover Street and continue up it to the Paul Revere Mall, or the Prado, with its statue of Revere on horseback at the Hanover Street end.  Along the brick walls at the end, on your left, are a number of memorial plaques.  One of them commemorates three women.

7.  Harriot Kezia Hunt [1805-1875]
Harriot Hunt was a lifelong resident of the North End.  She first studied medicine with two English doctors, “to learn the science of prevention,” after the doctors had cured her sister Sarah.  While this was not formal medical education, it was similar to men’s medical education of the time, and she practiced as a physician in Boston the rest of her life.  Dr. Hunt was accepted to Harvard Medical School in 1850 (when she was 45 years old), but withdrew when the male medical students staged a protest riot.  Three years later, the Female Medical College in Philadelphia awarded her an honorary degree in recognition of her work; she was delighted to be able, at last, to put “MD” after her name.  She gave free lectures on health to Boston women, emphasizing diet, bathing, exercise, rest and sanitation.  She attended the first national women’s rights convention in Worcester and the New England Women’s Club was first organized at a meeting in her parlor..  From 1852 to 1872 her annual tax payments were accompanied by a letter of protest about taxation without representation; these were printed in local newspapers and brought some of the earliest publicity to the woman suffrage movement.

7. Charlotte Sanders Cushman [1816-1876]
One of the most popular actresses of the nineteenth century, Cushman was internationally famous for large dramatic parts:  Lady Macbeth, Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, and a gypsy fortune teller, Meg Merrilies.  She also appeared in thirty “trouser roles,” playing a male character.  She was born in Boston and first appeared in Boston’s Tremont Theater, followed by the New York and London stage.  Cushman was adored in Boston, a perfect lady never followed by a hint of scandal despite her glamorous stage life, a woman devoted to her family.  She was a prudent investor of her fortune, and retired from the stage at the age of thirty-six to winter in Rome.  She returned to Boston in 1870 for the last years of her life.  Her constant companion after her retirement was Emma Stebbins, an American sculptor (an example of her work is the statue of Horace Mann in front of the State House).  The room intended to be the art library in the Boston Public Library is the Cushman Room.

Walk through the Mall to Christ Church (Old North), passing 21 Clough Street, the brick house on your left, built around 1715 as one of a row of six similar brick houses.  The outline of the gambrel roof on the side shows where a “half house” once stood.   This house  was owned by Benjamin Franklin and lived in by his sister and favorite correspondent Jane Franklin Mecom.

8Jane Franklin Mecom [1712-1794].
Jane’s letters form part of the Franklin papers.  She was a lively and humorous writer, and said to be Ben’s favorite sister; certainly their correspondence was lifelong.  Her letters provide insight and information about the life of women in Boston in the eighteenth century.

Walk up the steps in front of you and past Christ Church to Salem Street.  Christ Church is well worth a visit.  It is still a functioning Episcopal Church and visitors are welcome.  Sit in one of the square box pews and think about keeping your family warm - there is no heat in the church - and quiet through the customary three-hour-long sermons. Paul and Rachel Revere were married here.

If you can do another short hill climb, go up Hull Street directly across from the church to Copps Hill burying ground, with its magnificent harbor views and old slate gravestones carved with death's heads and hour glasses.  Note the dates on many of the stones marking women’s graves; silent witnesses to the deaths of women during their child bearing years; one in twenty childbirth's resulted in the mother’s death, and five to six pregnancies were the norm.

Further down Salem Street, on the corner of Bennet Street, the Boston Public Library had a local branch in the school.  Here Edith Buerrier, a librarian, and Edith Brown, an art teacher, started a club for young women called the Saturday Evening Girls in 1908. .

9.   Edith Guerrier [1870-1958] and Edith Brown [1872 - 1932]
Edith Guerrier managed the boys and girls reading rooms at the public library branch then located in the North Bennet Street School.  She organized story hour groups and later the Saturday Evening Girls Literary Club.  Edith Brown taught drawing at the North Bennet Street School.  The girls group met on Saturday evenings;  it’s probable that the name was something of a sendup of the “Saturday Morning Girls” group of pre-debutants in Back Bay.  Looking for activities to expand their initial literary plans, Edith Brown initiated a pottery class.  The young women created successful and salable items, and a wealthy Boston woman, Helen Osborne Storrow [1864-1944] provided the group with funds to set up a larger studio, with Edith Brown as the designer and supervisor. The new pottery was opened in 1915, on Nottingham Hill in Brighton.  At that point the name was changed to “Paul Revere Pottery” (a North End connection remained).  Paul Revere pottery pieces now command high prices from collectors of Arts and Crafts ceramics.  The most sought-after pieces are marked “SEG” - the earliest work from the Saturday Evening Girls.  Both Guerrier and Brown moved to Nottingham Hill and lived at the pottery.

Return to Salem Street and walk down.  22 Salem Street was Sophie Tucker’s first home in America.

10.  Sophie Tucker [1884-1966]
When Sophie Tucker’s mother brought her three-year-old from Russia to Salem Street, this was the principal shopping street of the Jewish community in Boston.  Sophie, at that time “Sophie Kalish” was a singer and actress whose powers of projection and raucous voice brought her fame initially in the 1909 Ziegfield Follies.  Her signature song was “Some of These Days,” and at the end of her life she was still appearing on television as “the last of the red hot mammas.”  Sophie may have started to sing, informally and probably loudly as ever, here.

At the corner of Salem Street and North Bennet Street is the North Bennet Street School, still providing training in the skilled trades; it is highly selective and prestigious.  This school is one of Pauline Shaw’s lasting contributions to American education.

11.  Pauline Agassiz Shaw [1841-1917]
One of the daughters of Louis Agassiz, the biologist, and Elizabeth Agassiz’s step daughter, Shaw’s charitable work began with the financial support of a group of day nurseries in the North End.  The Sunny Side Nursery was at 65 ½  Green Street.  In 1881 she raised funds and purchased an existing building here on the corner of Salem Street, and opened the North Bennet Street Industrial School.  Initially community services, such as showers and meals,  were offered in addition to vocational classes  A spin-off of the school, another of Pauline Shaw’s initiatives, was the Civic Service House on Salem Street.  This vocational guidance center was the first of its kind in the United States.

 Walk down North Bennet Street back to Hanover Street.  There are many places here and on Salem Street for rest and refreshment.  You can return to the Blue Line Aquarium T stop by taking Prince Street to North Square, and retracing your steps, or walk down Hanover Street and follow the signs across the Big Dig construction site to the Orange Line T stop at Haymarket.