March 19, 2009

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Historic Photos of Boston, text and captions by Timothy Orwig, Turner Publishing, 2007, 206 pages.

The word “demolished” and its variants, like “reduced to a parking lot,” appear far too frequently in this book — bringing to my mind other words, like “crying shame.” To wit: “In 1808 John Quincy Adams laid the cornerstone for the Boylston Hall and Market … shown here shortly before its 1888 demolition.” It’s a beautiful building that must have taken a great deal of work to create (and without the help of today’s machinery), never mind the Adams connection. There’s a picture of the Boston and Lowell Railroad Station in 1871, “paneled with oak and floored in marble” and “demolished in 1927.” Then there’s Adams’ home that was replaced with a hotel in 1897.

Despite the requisite moments of silence, I deeply enjoy this book and the way it preserves some of Boston’s history. It’s really a walk through American history — watch as cars replace horses, as top hats go away, as wires and signage sprout on every street. It’s fun to look at pictures of places I’ve been — the Common and Faneuil Hall, etc. — but even without that connection I’d still have pored over these photographs, watching in amazement as yesterday becomes today but unable to pin down just when it happens.

The pictures are big and clear, courtesy of the Boston Public Library and City of Boston Archives; kudos to author Timothy Orwig for digging them up and artfully arranging them. There are pics of famous residents and visitors — Amelia Earhart on tour, Johnny Kelley at the 1935 Boston Marathon, and the like — but my favorites are more mundane: a watering station in 1922 labeled “COOL WATER FOR TIRED and THIRSTY HORSES,” which apparently was an innovation made by the Massachusetts SPCA; a wide shot of hustle and bustle along Park Street next to the Common 100 years ago; the site of the 1919 molasses spill (“Rather than repair the leaks in the tank, the company had painted it brown to hide them”); and “A schoolboy in suspenders watches as city workers sweep up trash in the North End in 1909.” It’s our gain that these slices of life were captured and preserved and are now presented in a nicely sized hardcover for your coffee table.

I especially like the shots of history within history. The Old State House was built in 1712, so it’s now about 300 years old. Fascinating to see a picture taken when it was 170 years old, behind horse-drawn carriages — it was, even then, an object of history to be revered, though to my eyes now it seems youthful at that time. “Bostonians rallied to prevent Chicago from buying and moving it” in 1881. That building was their history, and now they and it are our history. One photo, two levels of history, from our perspective. The same goes for a 1909 photograph of Paul Revere’s house, which had been built in 1680.

Turner Publishing is on a tear with this Historic Photos thing: Historic Photos of Connecticut and Historic Photos of Maine came out in 2008, Historic Photos of Oklahoma just last month, and there are many others. No New Hampshire — yet — but I recommend you check www.turnerpublishing.com to see if there’s one for any part of the country you’re connected to. Historic Photos series: A+ —Lisa Parsons