Saturday, January 29, 2011

Voice and Silence -- a photo essay

      Today, Cambridge Considered takes a brief detour from history into a portrait of Cambridge today. It was warm, about 35 degrees Fahrenheit, so I set out with my camera around mid-day with the idea to take a few pictures of famous graves at Mount Auburn Cemetery. I learned a few things along the way. First, wearing a camera around your neck in Harvard Square means that the Children's International fund-raisers will try very aggressively to get your attention. Sorry, I'm not a tourist and I've heard your pitch before. Second, Mount Auburn cemetery in the snow is far too pretty to focus just on famous people.

     On the way to the cemetery, I encountered a small demonstration on Brattle Street. The protesters were lead by a few enterprising folks with megaphones. Like at many protests I've seen, every time the leaders introduced a new chant, it took a few repeats before the rest of the crowd caught on and said it all correctly and clearly.

    Politics aside, the small crowd made me think of a few phrases we've all heard tossed around: "vocal minority" and "silent majority." Correctly or incorrectly, many people take the size of a demonstration to represent the size of the body of people who believe in a cause. Of course, there are all kinds of factors that influence who will stand in the street and wave a sign.

Until the mid-20th century, the phrase "silent majority" had no political meaning at all. It referred to the dead. Mount Auburn Cemetery, founded in 1831, is America's oldest landscaped cemetery, and it is a National Historic Landmark. Here's a sampling of scenes from the cemetery today.

 Even more photos can be seen at Cambridge Considered's photo album.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Very Brief History of Cambridge, 1800-1900, part II: Immigration and Industry

      As noted last time, I am dividing the 19th century into several posts. I want to stress that no century is more important or more worth studying than another, but it happened that it was most convenient to do it this way for the 19th century. The subjects of immigration and industry in Cambridge in the nineteenth century are closely related, as immigration provided a new workforce, and they are also the main reasons that Cambridge changed size and shape over that century. Most immigrants to the city settled in Cambridgeport or East Cambridge, and these areas were also the centers of local industrial growth. Now, let's take a closer look at these topics.

     Nineteenth-century immigration changed and diversified the character of the city because it was different from previous immigration. Generally speaking, early immigrants to Cambridge were English. In the first part of the nineteenth century, almost all immigrants to Cambridge were Irish or English.1 In the second half, immigrants also came from Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Russia, Poland, Latvia, Armenia, and Lithuania, and Canada, particularly French-speaking Canada. The ethnic makeup of the city also included some Asian immigrants, some African Americans, and a small number of Native Americans.2 The new residents of the area came looking for new economic opportunities. One of largest immigrant groups was the Irish. Ireland had long been impoverished, and in 1845, a blight struck the country's potato crops, causing widespread devastation known as the Great Hunger or the Irish Potato Famine. 

      Immigrants brought their own cultural traditions, including religion. In 1831, a group of Catholics in Cambridge began to raise money to build their own church, so they would no longer have to cross into Boston to attend Mass. In 1842, their project, St. John's Roman Catholic Church, was finally completed.3 The Catholic church took care of the Irish population with charities and social programs, but as its constituency was mostly poor, its efforts had mixed success. Irish immigrants were sometimes passed over for jobs because of widespread anti-Irish prejudice. Irish Catholics were viewed as drunk, stupid, unskilled, and sick. “Paddy” became a standard buffoon character in popular jokes and in newspaper humor columns.4 In both Boston and Charlestown, the early nineteenth century saw anti-Irish rioting, and in 1834, a mob burned down the Ursuline convent and Catholic school in Charlestown. In Cambridge, people acted with as much prejudice, but less violence – the city never had an anti-Irish riot.5
      The waves of immigration also caused new diversity in the economic makeup of the city. In the first two centuries that Cambridge was settled by Europeans, most immigrants, even the somewhat ascetic Puritans, were at least moderately well-off. However, the majority of immigrants to the area in the mid- and late nineteenth century were poor.6 Like much of the American North, Cambridge was swept by industry in the later part of the 19th century. 7 Immigrants filled a need for cheap unskilled industrial labor. They also took jobs as domestic servants. All but the poorest of native New Englanders refused to take jobs with such low pay and equally low social status.8

       Industrialization in Cambridge rescued Cambridgeport and East Cambridge from floundering attempts at becoming centers of trade in the early part of the nineteenth century. The major industries in these areas included soap making, furniture making, and meatpacking. As the century progressed, the areas developed even further. Migration from rural areas increased as people gave up their small-scale farms in the rocky New England soil and took jobs in factories instead.9 In 1860, Cambridge was one of the forty largest American communities.10 The Panic of 1873-78, which at the time was the worst economic depression in American history, didn't hit Cambridge very hard; the city's economic growth paused, and then resumed at its regular rate.11 The growth was not limited to major industries. Cantabrigians bound books, made musical instruments, engines, industrial-scale boilers, and cars, laid railroad track, and built bridges.12 However, industrialization was a mixed blessing. For example, in the 1890s, East Cambridge typified a dirty modern city. Meatpacking and fertilizer were among the most offensive of the many industries that contributed to the odor and uncleanliness of the area.13
        By 1896, the population density in Cambridge was greater than in Boston.14  Apartment buildings of varying quality sprung up all over the city by the end of the century. Many of them were the crammed, sometimes rickety buildings we think of as tenements.15 Cambridge developed big-city Industrial Age problems, such as dangerous workplace conditions and living conditions. By the late nineteenth century, many people began to try to correct these kinds of problems, through legislation, charitable organizations, and other methods. 

Coming next at Cambridge Considered: A Very Brief History of Cambridge, 1800-1900, part 3, Progress and the Progressive Era

1Seaburg, Alan. Cambridge on the Charles. (Cambridge: Anne Miniver Press, 2001),  100.
2Seaburg 100.
3Sutton, S.B. Cambridge Reconsidered: 3 1/2 Centuries on the Charles. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1976), 57.
4Sutton 58.
5Sutton 58.
6Sutton 55.
7Sutton 55.
8Sutton 56.
9Sutton 55.
10Seaburg 98.
11Sutton 75.
12Seaburg 101.
13Sutton 64.
14Sutton 55.
15Sutton 65.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Very Brief History of Cambridge: 1800-1900, Part 1 -- Cambridge Changes Shape and Size

I would hate to imply that one century had more to it than another century, or that the history of one period is worth telling at a greater level of depth than another. Still, I am dividing the 19th century into several posts. The story of Cambridge in the 19th century includes a few large concepts, and while they are interrelated, they also deserve detail on their own.

Cambridge Changes Shape and Size

      Cambridge started out sprawling but barely settled. As centers of population emerged in the outlying areas of the village, they began to break off and form their own towns. The areas of Shawnsin and Cambridge Village became Billerica and Newton, respectively, in the seventeenth century, and Cambridge Farms became Lexington at the beginning of the eighteenth.1 By the nineteenth century, Cambridge's outline roughly resembled what it is today. Yet, the town's population was growing: it went from around 2,000 in 1810 to around 8,000 in 1840.2 This speedy growth rate was three times the growth rate of Massachusetts during the same period. At the beginning of the century, if you had told a local that the population would be growing that way in his or her lifetime, he or she would probably have assumed – incorrectly – that Cambridge was finally going to take off as a center of trade, like Boston.

      On January 11, 1805, Congress certified Cambridge as a port of entry, the idea being that trade could be conducted up the Charles River, and not just from the Boston Harbor. The “Cambridgeport” area, as it came to be known, briefly became the focus of economic energy in the town, with speculators buying up land in anticipation of a boom. The area's population began to increase in that decade, and soon there was a schoolhouse, fire society, and church for the residents. However, in 1807 Congress passed a trade embargo, banning trade with foreign countries. The isolationist move was a national controversy, with most of the opposition coming from the trade-oriented North, and its effects were felt strongly in Cambridge. Speculators fled from Cambridgeport as land values plummeted.3

      As more bridges were built for trade with Boston, and as industry began to overtake trade as a leading economic force, the areas of Cambridgeport and East Cambridge raced for development. For the rest of the century, Old Cambridge, Cambridgeport and east Cambridge were distinct sections of town and rivals for importance.4 Cambridgeport, after being crushed by the Embargo Act, got an early start on developing industry, beginning with furniture and glass factories in the first few decades of the century.5 East Cambridge development was boosted by the construction of the Canal Bridge in 1809, approximately where the Museum of Science is today. Estates and marshland gave way to industry and denser residential settlement. Many new residents of the area commuted to jobs in Boston over the bridge.6 In 1816, the Middlesex County Courthouse moved to East Cambridge from Old Cambridge, because Andrew Craigie, a speculator in the decline of his career, donated the land for a new building.7

      Many in Old Cambridge felt that their area was the proper center of the city, even though this was becoming less and less true. Central Square, which was more a part of Cambridgeport, was becoming the true commercial downtown.8 In 1830, Old Cambridge had a successful movement to enclose the Common, meaning that the roads going through it became pedestrian paths, making the Common more like a public park. Its original purpose had been for grazing animals, but that was less of a public need by that point. In the early 19th century, people in other areas of the city used the roads that went through the Common for transporting goods.9 North of Harvard Square was sparsely settled, but there were very productive clay pits and brickyards in that area,10 and the Common contained good routes to other towns in Eastern Massachusetts, so most of Cambridge was upset at the old section of the town for the enclosure.11

      The major enterprise of Old Cambridge was Harvard. Students and professors patronized local businesses, and the school itself was a major employer. Where religious leaders and prominent Loyalists had once been the big names in Cambridge, many prominent Harvard personalities rose to fame in the 19th century. The list includes poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, professor of modern languages, scientist and philosopher Louis Aggasiz, professor of natural history, poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who did his undergraduate and theological studies at Harvard, and Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, who introduced the smallpox vaccine to the United States and taught at the Harvard Medical school.

     By the early 1840's, many residents of Old Cambridge were so frustrated with the feuding with the other two sections, and felt so different from the rest of the town, that they petitioned to separate. Their proposition failed, and made other Cantabrigians aware of a need for a more efficient local government. Cambridge incorporated as a city in 1846, and so the three areas stayed under one government.12 However, that same decade was when immigration to the city began to rise. The flood of new national groups and expanding industrial character of Cambridgeport and East Cambridge provided new energy to the neighborhood tension as it continued through the rest of the century, quieter than it had been but still somewhat present.

1Sutton, S.B. Cambridge Reconsidered: 3 1/2 Centuries on the Charles. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1976), 20.
2Sutton 53.
3Sutton 40.
4Sutton 45.
5Martin, Mary L. and E. Ashley Rooney. Cambridge, Massachusetts Past and Present. (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2008), 9.
6Rooney 9.
7Sutton 45.
8Rooney 12.
9Sutton 47.
10Rooney 9.
11Sutton 47.
12Sutton 54.