Cambridge's story in the later part of the nineteenth century follows the same pattern as that of many American cities. Rapid development in industry caused rapid growth in population and in the gap between rich and poor. The 1870's and 1880's saw a new culture of wealthy elite, but also an increase in philanthropy. Cambridge shared America's concerns about corruption in business and government that were the hallmark of the Gilded Age. By the late 1880's through the turn of the century, The Progressive Era had taken root in Cambridge, marked by many types of reform movements that tried to address the problems of an industrial society. The changes in these decades included more technological advancements, changes to higher learning, movements for greater social equality, and programs to improve the public welfare.
In the previous A Very Brief History of Cambridge article, we saw how much of Cambridge became a modern industrial city. Meanwhile, Harvard was growing and changing in its own ways. Throughout the nineteenth century, the school made a number of additions that aided both research and their classes, and incidentally brought new ideas and experiences to the public as well – at least the sector of the public with leisure time. An example is the Botanic Garden, founded in 1801.1 The Harvard Observatory was founded in 1839; four years later, the sky blazed with a comet that became known as the Great Comet of 1843. The event was frightening to many people who didn't understand that comets are natural and not supernatural, but to the scientific-minded, it was a sign that Cambridge needed to invest in a high-quality telescope. A group raised money to buy and install a fifteen-inch refracting telescope, which was at the time the second largest in the world.2
Professor Louis Agassiz founded the school's Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1859, to house a collection of objects that he felt was important to make available both for scientific advancement and for teaching purposes.3 The museum began as a personal project of his, and for some time, many people called it the Agassiz Museum4 (Since 1998, however, it has been a part of the Harvard Museum of Natural History).5 Then, in 1866, philanthropist George Peabody founded Harvard's Peabody Museum, one of the first-ever museums of anthropology.6 The educated and wealthy elite of Old Cambridge were able to collect from all over the world for their own pleasure, but this was also the era when people began to show real interest in cultural artifacts as things to be valued.
Technological changes continued to modernize the city. In 1889, both Boston and Cambridge began work on electric street trolleys, making them the second and third cities in the country to do so.7 Additionally, some city-wide advancements in technology and engineering were performed specifically for the public good, like building sea walls on the dirty banks of the Charles.
While technology, industry, and the spread of information all had noteworthy developments in the nineteenth century, social movements also made significant progress during this time. A few of the landmarks were that Cambridge public schools went co-ed in 1846, and they became racially integrated in 1855 in accordance with a new state law. In the 1880s Maria Baldwin, an African American who had graduated from a local teaching program, surprised the school committee by applied for a teaching position at a Cambridge school. At first, many were hesitant to give her the position, but she was qualified, and she became first female teacher in Cambridge.8
Higher education was another matter. For many years, tensions grew between a faction of people who firmly believed that women should be admitted to Harvard alongside men, and another faction who found the idea of mixed-sex education abhorrent. In 1878, Radcliffe college was born as a compromise. At Radcliffe, women would be educated by Harvard professors with the school's blessing, but they would not be Harvard students and they would receive a “certificate” that was not a Harvard degree.9 By that point, there were already a number of coeducational colleges and a handful of women's colleges, but they were strongly in the minority.
Progressive movements were, naturally, steeped in the culture of their times. Nineteenth-century advocates of women's rights in government believed that women would be a calming, humanizing force on an increasingly cold and brutal world. While the underlying premise of this belief is based on rigid gender roles, in some cases, the idea was right.
In 1841, Dorothea Dix, a school teacher, visited the East Cambridge Prison to begin teaching women's Sunday school classes there, and found that the conditions were abjectly inhumane. The prisoners were neglected in damp, unheated cells, and sometimes they were beaten or left without clothes. She began what was to become a nationwide campaign to create separate institutions to care for the mentally ill. Before Dix's reform efforts, many mental illness patients who were not self-sufficient and whose families could not care for them had been put into prisons.10 This was one of the many reform movements that took place in that era, as people took stock of the new structure of society now that much of the nation lived in cities and much of the economy was industrialized.
Another example of a national reform movement having direct implications in Cambridge was the temperance movement. Anti-alcohol activists cited the effect of drunkenness on families on communities, pointing to many incidents of saloon violence and a few local murders, but also the phenomenon of saloons wielding a big and corrupt influence on local government.11 When Massachusetts gave cities the option to stop providing liquor licenses in 1881, Cambridge debated the subject for five years, but in December of 1886, the temperance advocates won, and they continued to win in yearly votes on the subject until 1933, at the end of Prohibition. If nothing else, the “no-license law” did dramatically decrease the number of arrests from drunkenness – because people drank in Boston and the Boston police arrested the rowdy ones on their way home.12
In the 1870's, some cities in the United State and England began experimenting with the idea of a systematic organization or association of charities. Cambridge's Associated Charities was formed in 1881 and incorporated in 1883, with the aim of ending poverty by addressing its causes. It had offices throughout the city, trying to identify the needs of the population and inform related charities.13 One such charity was the Cambridge Young Women's Christian Association. The book Cambridge Sketches by Cambridge Authors, which includes several essays I have cited in Cambridge Considered, was published in 1895 by the group as a fund-raiser and an awareness-raiser while they attempted to secure a building of their own. The YWCA provided shelter for women, and taught girls and women of all backgrounds domestic and workplace skills.14
From the 1870's through the 1890's, Cambridge saw a blossoming of public-minded organizations. The groups founded during those years included two hospitals, two medical clinics, a home for orphans, the Home for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, several kindergartens, several homes for senior citizens, and numerous religious and civic organizations.15 Perhaps the most interesting of these groups is the Cambridgeport Union Flower Mission, which provided flowers to the homes of people who could not afford luxuries.16
The Progressive Era continued in the first few decades of the twentieth century, and Cambridge was to change in many more ways as the years went on.
1Leavitt, Henrietta. “The Agassiz Museum.” Merrill, Estelle, ed. Cambridge Sketches by Cambridge Authors. Cambridge Young Women’s Christian Association. (Boston: The Pinkham Press, 1896), 143.
2Leavitt, Henrietta. “The Harvard Observatory.” Merrill, Estelle, ed. Cambridge Sketches by Cambridge Authors. Cambridge Young Women’s Christian Association. (Boston: The Pinkham Press, 1896), 133.
3Leavitt, Henrietta. “The Botanic Garden.” Merrill, Estelle, ed. Cambridge Sketches by Cambridge Authors. Cambridge Young Women’s Christian Association. (Boston: The Pinkham Press, 1896), 126.
6 Peabody Museum website.
7 Sutton, S.B. Cambridge Reconsidered: 3 1/2 Centuries on the Charles. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1976),62.
8 Sutton 79.
9 Gilman, Arthur. “A Chapter of Radcliffe College” Merrill, Estelle, ed. Cambridge Sketches by Cambridge Authors. Cambridge Young Women’s Christian Association. (Boston: The Pinkham Press, 1896), 183-4.
11 Foxcroft, Frank. “Cambridge as a No-License City” Merrill, Estelle, ed. Cambridge Sketches by Cambridge Authors. Cambridge Young Women’s Christian Association. (Boston: The Pinkham Press, 1896), 229.
12Sutton, S.B. Cambridge Reconsidered: 3 1/2 Centuries on the Charles. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1976), 82.
13 Houghton, Elizabeth. “The Charities of Cambridge” Merrill, Estelle, ed. Cambridge Sketches by Cambridge Authors. Cambridge Young Women’s Christian Association. (Boston: The Pinkham Press, 1896), 238.
14Merrill, Estelle, ed. Cambridge Sketches by Cambridge Authors. Cambridge Young Women’s Christian Association. (Boston: The Pinkham Press, 1896), xii.
15 Houghton, 240-3.
16 Houghton, 243.