Sunday, August 17, 2014

"Antiques & Horribles" on the Fourth of July

Firehouse on Washington Street, 1891
Photo credit: Brookline Historical Society
This recently discovered photo shows the old firehouse on Washington Street, at the corner of High Street, in 1891. Flanked by two wooden commercial buildings, the firehouse (replaced by the current building in 1908) is decked out for the Fourth of July.

But on closer examination, something seems odd.

Closeup of firehouse


The bunting looks twisted and sloppily hung. The flag is facing the wrong direction. It's also bunched up on the lower left — not exactly proper flag decorum — and the white stripes look...well...not so white. And there's a stuffed figure of a fireman on the top, in front of the tower. (Compare it to this photo of the same firehouse decorated a decade or so later.)

And yet, according to an account in the Boston Post, "The building occupied by the Hose 1 and Engine 1 companies was the most tastefully decorated in the town, and was awarded the prize of $10 as such."

What's going on here?

An Old Tradition
The answer may lie in an old New England tradition: the Antiques & Horribles parade on the Fourth of July. The Antiques & Horribles — sometimes shortened to the "Horribles Parade" — was an annual event in Brookline and many other towns in the second half of 19th century and into the early 20th century. It's still celebrated in several towns today.

Local residents would dress up as "antiques" — figures from the past — or "horribles" — characters in strange and often grotesque or macabre guise. The horribles, according to Yankee Magazine, "used elaborate costumes, masks, blackface, cross-dressing, and other disguise to illustrate gender and class reversal. Their satire and broad parody were often aimed at authority, women, and foreigners."

The tradition probably began in the 1840s — the earliest known example is in Lowell in 1851 — as a parody of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts.

Ancient and Honorables on parade, 1920s
Members of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts on parade.
1920s photo from the Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library
The "Ancients & Honorables," as they are called, are "the oldest chartered military organization in the Western hemisphere." Formed in 1638 "to train young gentleman officers for service in the various militias of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," the company has taken part in Independence Day celebrations since the earliest days of the nation.

By the middle of the 19th century, the Ancients and Honorables, by then a largely symbolic organization, were ripe for parody. Here's how UCLA linguist William Matthews (in the journal American Speech, October 1940) described the rise of the "Horribles" as a reaction to the Ancients and Honorables:

As it became a body of eminent citizens who had the taste for military organization, of course practically every member was an officer of this of that other regiment; and the members personally were not snappy young cadets with reputations to make and physiques that needed no making, but solid burghers who had gone beyond their youth in becoming eminent by activities that did not involve keeping the body in fighting condition.

The result was that on such occasions of state as called for a parade of the... "Ancients and Honorables"...the variegated display of diverse uniforms on unathletic figures looked comic to a visitor who had not been brought up to reverence the Company's high status.

So a time came when it was customary in country villages to burlesque it by a Fourth-of-July parade of..."Antiques and Horribles"...Nowadays, "Antique" is omitted from the title; but it is still customary that part of the costumes try to look as antiquated as possible while others try to look as frowzy as possible.

According to Yankee Magazine, "the disorderly and drunken training days that characterized the last years of compulsory militia service" may also have had something to do with the rise of the Antiques & Horribles.

Antiques & Horribles in Brookline and Beyond
Brookline's 1891 Independence Day celebration, like those of other years, began at 7 am with an Antiques & Horribles parade.  It started at the corner of Washington and Cypress Streets, marched down Washington through Brookline Village to the firehouse, and then west on Boylston back to Cypress and Cypress Field.

The Post reported that the parade "was not up to the standard of those of former years" though Brookline's own paper, the Chronicle, said it was "exceptionally good."

Boston Post article on 1891 parade
Boston Post, July 6, 1891

Although no pictures of that year's parade have come to light, it seems likely that the odd decoration of the firehouse was done in the spirit of the Antiques & Horribles. Perhaps it was changed to a more respectable display after the morning parade. Or maybe the report of it being "tastefully decorated" was tongue-in-cheek.

The Antiques & Horribles photo below from Brookline in the late 1890s or early 1900s gives a sense of the comedic turn these parades often took. It shows a float whimsically promoting flying machine races on Corey Hill, the "Brookline Liquid Air Railway", and other municipal "advancements" such as car rides 50 years in the future from the "City of Brookline" to "Boston Village."

Less whimsical to modern eyes are several characters in blackface, all too common in this era. Prizes awarded in 1891, in fact (in addition to the firehouse), included characters dressed as "Negro minstrels" and a "colored boy on a donkey." 

https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search/commonwealth:5425kd428
Photo credit: Brookline Public Library
Click on the image for a larger, zoomable view at Digital Commonwealth
A second photo, from Brookline's 1889 Fourth of July celebration, shows several oddly-dressed characters (including a honeymooning couple with a mustache peeking out from behind the "bride's" veil) amid baseball players and soldiers in antique uniforms. (See the full zoomable photo at Digital Commonwealth)

Characters on Fourth of July 1889
Photo credit: Brookline Public Library

Two more examples, from other Massachusetts towns, give a better sense of the "horribles" costumes typical of these parades.

Antiques & Horribles, New Bedford
Figures at an Antiques & Horribles parade, New Bedford, MA
Photo credit: New Bedford Free Public Library
Antiques & Horribles, Andover
"Horribles" on a float, Andover, MA
Photo credit: Andover Historical Society

Horribles Parades Today
The tradition of Fourth of July Antiques & Horribles parades spread beyond New England. There were versions in New York City's Harlem, in California, Texas, Arizona, Hawaii, and elsewhere. The Ancients and Honorables themselves held a 7 am Antiques & Horribles parade on July 4, 1896 on board the steamship Servia as they marked Independence Day on their way to visit England.

The parades had largely died out by the middle of the 20th century, although some towns have continued or revived them. Contemporary examples, usually minus the satire of earlier days, include parades in Marblehead, Gloucester, Beverly Farms, Winthrop, Danvers, and New Silver Beach (North Falmouth), all in Massachusetts, and Glocester in Rhode Island.

The term "parade of horribles" has also taken on a metaphorical sense in the legal arena, reaching all the way to the United States Supreme Court, as recounted in a column by former Boston Globe language columnist Ben Zimmer.


NOTE: The commercial buildings on either side of the firehouse in the 1891 photo have their own stories to tell. More about those in a later blog post

Thursday, May 8, 2014

"Blake Park" Walking Tour — Sunday 2 pm

Blake Park logo
In 1880, Boston banker Arthur Welland Blake engaged Frederick Law Olmsted to draw plans for the subdivision into roads and lots of the Blake family estate on Aspinwall Hill.

Olmsted and his firm drew numerous plans for the Blakes over the next 15 years, but they were never executed. The estate remained something of an anomaly: a large tract of open land, renowned for its landscaping, in the heart of a community rapidly developing as a "streetcar suburb".

It wasn't until 1916 that land was sold, roads were laid out — somewhat differently than Olmsted had envisioned them — and the development of "Blake Park" was announced with some fanfare.

Death and financial scandal delayed development for another decade. Finally, in 1925, with both Blake and Olmsted long dead, a new largely middle-class neighborhood began to emerge, populated by the families of bankers and brokers, doctors and lawyers, salesman, college professors, contractors, and local merchants.

This free, 90-minute walking tour will tell the story of the transformation (in fits and starts) of this part of Brookline from a private estate to a residential neighborhood that remains largely as it was when first built.

The tour begins — rain or shine — at 2:00 pm in front of the main entrance to Brookline High School on Greenough Street.
Washington Street entrance to Blake Park in 1916

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Patriots' Day: "William Dawes" in Brookline

Please join the Brookline Historical Society on April 21st for our annual Patriots' Day celebration at the Edward Devotion House, 347 Harvard Street in Coolidge Corner, Brookline.  

Schedule of Events:

9:15-9:30 a.m.  Children's activities and music on the lawn: Make a simple period toy and listen to Fife and Drum music.

9:30 a.m. 
Patriots' Day ceremony, including the annual reading of the Governor's Proclamation of the Celebration of Patriots' Day.

10:00 a.m. The expected arrival time of William Dawes!  Watch him ride up Harvard Street on horseback to warn citizens of Brookline about the British Regulars' move towards Lexington and Concord.  

The Devotion House will be open for visits immediately after William Dawes' departure.

Free and open to the public
Fun for the whole family


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Beaconsfield Terraces Walking Tour: Sunday, 10 am

Frances Terrace
Frances Terrace, Beacon and Tappan Sts.
The Beaconsfield Terraces, on the south side of Beacon Street from Dean Road to just beyond Tappan Street, were one of the more unusual developments to follow the creation of the Beacon Street boulevard in the 1880s.

Built by Eugene Knapp, a wool merchant, in the early 1890s the terraces were a residential complex in which people owned their units but shared ownership of a 6-acre park, stables, a playhouse (known as the Casino), tennis courts, a playground, and a central heating plant.

A bell system connected the houses to the stables so that people could call for their horse and carriage. Today, only the residential buildings (Richter, Frances, Marguerite, Fillmore, Gordon, and Parkman Terraces) remain.

Learn more about the Beaconsfield Terraces in this one-hour walking tour, Sunday, April 6th, at 10 am. The tour begins — rain or shine — outside the Star Market at 1717 Beacon Street. For more information, contact the Brookline Historical Society: 617-566-3747 or brooklinehistory@gmail.com.
Richter Terrace.
Richter Terrace, Beacon St. and Dean Rd.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Real Scoop on Sealey's Ice Cream / Sealey's Lunch

Sealey's logo Sealey's Lunch, which closed a year ago this month after many years on Cypress Street, was a neighborhood institution beloved by generations of area residents and students and staff at Brookline High School.

News stories at the time of the closing followed local lore in reporting that Sealey's had been around for just under a century, founded as Sealey's Ice Cream by a man named Sealey in 1914.

I set out to learn more. Research showed that, in fact, there never was a Mr. Sealey and that the history of the little luncheonette didn't go back quite as far as the stories assumed.

But the real story of Sealey's — uncovered via town records, newspaper accounts, and interviews with the children and grandchildren of early owners — reveals a colorful past and one basic truth: the characteristics that made Sealey's a local institution up until the end — a warm atmosphere and proprietors who knew and cared about their customers — persisted across seven decades and several changes of ownership.

Saying Goodbye
It was big news locally when Sophie and Tony Vessiropoulos announced the closing of Sealey's Lunch, on Cypress Street just off Route 9, at the end of March 2013.  Longtime customers turned up to say goodbye. The Tab, the Globe, and WCVB-TV all covered the news — in words, pictures, and video. Social media carried fond farewells.

Montage of stories about Sealey's

Why would the departure of a small local eatery garner so much attention?

It says something, of course, about the importance of local institutions to community and sense of place. It says something, as well, about local history: for even in a town with as rich and varied a past as Brookline's it's the little stories that really tell it like it was for the people who lived here.

But what was the history of Sealey's? It took a good bit of digging, but here is some of what I found.

Sealey's Beginnings
1919 atlas map

Sealey's building in 2013
The brick commercial building at Boylston and Cypress Streets as seen in a 1919 atlas and as it looked last year.

The block of stores that rounds the southwest corner of Boylston and Cypress Streets was built between 1913 and 1914. The first occupant of 147 Cypress, the storefront that would become Sealey's, was the Boylston Bakery, run by a Bavarian immigrant named Jacob Umscheid.
Help wanted ads for Boylston Bakery
Boston Globe help wanted ads for Boylston Bakery, 1920 & 1921

Lloyd Seaman
Lloyd Seaman before he opened
Sealey's Ice Cream in Brookline
(Photo courtesy of Vicky Hubbard)
Sealey's—then known as Sealey's Ice Cream—first occupied the space
in 1936. The founders were Lloyd and Rhoda Seaman.

Lloyd Seaman was a former stunt pilot, one of many young men who took up flying in the wake of Charles Lindbergh's historic 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. He ran an air taxi service between Boston Airport (later Logan Airport) and the Islands until his plane, and his livelihood, were lost in an accident.

His wife Rhoda, the former Rhoda Page, was the daughter of the longtime gardener of the Charles Sprague Sargent estate in Brookline and a 1928 graduate of Brookline High School.

After the loss of his plane, Seaman worked for a time at the Neapolitan Ice Cream factory in Cambridge before opening Sealey's in Brookline in June 1936.

The opening included an offer of a free sherbet cone for every child accompanied by an adult. It was announced with an article and an advertisement in the Brookline Citizen.
1936 Sealey's ad
Advertisement in the June 26, 1936 Brookline Citizen
The Citizen described the "unique arrangements" at the new ice cream specialty shop.

Customers may watch all the stages of preparation, which includes the use of cream high in butter fat content, and the use of fresh fruit flavors in season. The black and white motif of the booths and tables is followed throughout the shop and gives an air of cleanliness to the whole store.

The Citizen also noted that Rhoda Seaman was in charge of booth and counter service and that "Every package of this distinctive ice cream that is sent out is packed in an insulated bag to insure proper condition at the time of serving."

Rhoda and Lloyd Seaman
Rhoda and Lloyd Seaman in their flying days (Photo courtesy of Vicky Hubbard)

But if there was no Mr. Sealey where did the name Sealey’s come from? The Seamans’ daughter, Vicky Hubbard, solved the mystery. Her father, she told me, made up the name as a combination of his own last name and that of his best friend Fred Beardsley.

Lloyd Seaman and Fred Beardsley
Lloyd Seaman, on the right in the photo at left, and his friend Fred Beardsley in later years. A combination of their last names gave Sealey's Ice Cream, later Sealey's Lunch, its name.
(Photo courtesy of Vicky Hubbard)


Sealey's stayed under the proprietorship of the Seamans for only a short time. Not long after founding the store Lloyd Seaman, perhaps driven by the same restless spirit with which he took to the air, left Brookline and Sealey's for Panama. His family followed soon after, and for a dozen years the Seamans made and served ice cream for the crews of thousands of ships passing through the Canal Zone.

Italian Ice Cream
The second owner of Sealey's, starting in 1937, was an Italian immigrant named James (born Giacomo) Malerbi. Malerbi was the youngest of 13 children. In March 1915, four months before his 17th birthday and two months before Italy entered the First World War, his family sent him to the United States to avoid the draft.

Malerbi lived at first with his sister Orlinda and her husband Dante Baldi in Boston. Baldi was an ice cream maker, working for the C.C. Whittemore catering company in Boston. Malerbi, too, went into the ice cream business and worked for a time for the same Neapolitan Ice Cream factory in Cambridge where Lloyd Seaman had worked. It’s uncertain if they knew each other, but Malerbi took over Sealey’s after Seaman left for Panama. He owned the store for more than 20 years.

Sealey's ad, 1937
Advertisement (right) in the Brookline Citizen, July 1937. The “Former C.C. Whittemore Foreman” referred to was most likely James Malerbi’s brother-in-law, Dante Baldi.

James Malerbi’s grandson Robert Malerbi lived with his family at 126 Cypress Street, across Boylston Street, in the 1950s. He remembers his grandfather running across the street to the shop to bring back ice cream for dessert after family dinners. But most of what he knows about Sealey’s comes from stories his father Robert would tell.

My father said they did a tremendous business with the wealthy people making ice cream cakes. He also used to tell stories about high school kids hanging out at the store during the war. They couldn’t always make ice cream during the war [because of shortages], but the kids would hang out there anyway.

A Neighborhood Institution
Murivian ad for Sealey's
Sealey’s regularly took out ads in the Murivian, the Brookline High School yearbook, including this one from the 1940s
James Malerbi sold the store in 1958. The new owners were Louis and Rose Tanzi. The Tanzis had owned the Mobil station on the northeast corner of Cypress and Boylston Streets — where Audy Mobil is today — before moving across the street and into a very different kind of business.

The former owner gave them a hand. “Mr. Malerbi worked with my parents when they first took over,” says Carol Ross, the Tanzis’ daughter. “He stayed on with them to help for a while. He taught my father how to make ice cream.”

Under her parents’ stewardship Sealey’s was open for breakfast and lunch, in addition to serving homemade ice cream. Two of her aunts also worked at the store, says Ross, and she herself worked there each summer.

In those days, a lot of the big homes around there were rooming houses, [she recalls]. There were people who came in and had breakfast every morning.

Some of them, she noted, asked if they could pay on Friday, which was payday, and her father said “Sure” and didn’t even write down an amount. (A customer told a similar story about the Vessiropoulos family when Sealey’s closed last year.)

The last big group he got was the high school kids getting out of school. He would close around 4 in the afternoon.

Rose & Louis Tanzi
Sealey’s was also popular with town workers. “I remember many a day,” says Ross, “when there were snowstorms and my father had a cot” — the Tanzis lived in Jamaica Plain — “and he would sleep there and open early for the people who worked all night clearing snow.”

“My parents loved Brookline. A good part of their lives focused on Brookline. They made many friendships that lasted long after they left.”

Rose & Louis Tanzi (above) with the cake presented to them at a farewell party thrown by customers 
after their retirement from Sealey’s in 1970 (Photo courtesy of Carol Ross)

Renamed Sealeys Lunch, the business passed through several more owners between the Tanzis and the Vessiropoulos family, the last owners. It’s gone now, but holds a special place in local memory and in the history of the neighborhood it served for more than 75 years.

Sealey's Goodbye Logo

(This article originally appeared in the members' newsletter of the Brookline Historical Society)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Tab Hunter, Young Love, BHS, & The Spirit of St. Louis

A couple weeks ago a friend forwarded a link to a curious piece of Brookline trivia for sale on eBay.

It was a 1957 photo of the Brookline High School auditorium showing a group of students being addressed by Warren Bartlett, housemaster of the school's Lincoln House, and the young movie and recording star Tab Hunter. (The seller has placed a watermark on the online image and didn't want it reproduced, but you can view it here.)

Tab Hunter: Young Love
Today's high school students may never have heard of Tab Hunter, but he was quite the heartthrob in 1957. Hunter established himself playing a young soldier in the 1955 Word War II drama Battle Cry.  The following year he co-starred with Natalie Wood in two movies: the Louis L'Amour western The Burning Hills and the romantic comedy The Girl He Left Behind.

Like many young actors today, Hunter then went into the recording studio. His 1957 hit "Young Love" spent six weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts. (You can listen to it here; tastes have certainly changed.)

But what was Tab Hunter doing at BHS?

The eBay offering showed a note taped to the back of the photo that said Hunter came to Boston to promote the Warner Brothers movie The Spirit of St. Louis starring Jimmy Stewart. But why would Hunter be promoting a movie he wasn't even in, and why at Brookline High?

Hunter himself explains in his 2005 autobiography Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star. It seems Jack Warner, head of the Warner Brothers studio had Hunter under contract and wasn't happy about his recording success.

At first [wrote Hunter], Jack Warner wanted to suspend me for making money for anybody other than him. Money was always on his mind, but that winter he was particularly concerned about having spent more than $6 million on Billy Wilder's film biography of Charles Lindbergh, The Spirit of St. Louis.  He hit on a unique way of exploiting me and, in the process, teaching me a lesson in humility.

The Lindbergh biopic, it seems, had not proved appealing to young audiences, so Warner sent his young star on a 24-city tour to drum up excitement for the film. But the tour may not have turned out the way Warner expected.

Every place I stopped on the Spirit tour, radio stations, theaters, colleges, high schools — the response was the same. "Yeah, yeah, we know —he landed safely at Le Bourget. There was a fly in the cockpit that made the trip with him. Now tell us about 'Young Love.' " 

Warner Bros. was, in essence, paying me to make public appearances that drove sales of my records ever higher.

Hunter's appearance at BHS, reported on in the school paper, The Sagamore, fit the pattern.

Squeals and shouts must have been heard clear to Brookline Village, as Tab tried to tell the students about "Lindy" and the "Spirit of St. Louis." He presented an autographed copy of Capt. Charles A. Lindbergh's book, bearing the above title, to Lincoln House for the BHS library, as a memento of his visit. However, the demand for the "Tab Hunter autograph" has been so great that the book has had to be placed under lock and key, for all to see but not to touch.


Tab Hunter in The Sagamore
The Sagamore, March 8, 1957

After Hunter's departure, reported The Sagamore, students returned to class, but

who was in a mood to study? Teachers gave up trying to teach and make their classes concentrate, believe it or not, for Tab Hunter had been to BHS! 




Monday, February 17, 2014

Calvin Coolidge in Brookline - At Last!

To mark Presidents Day a few years back I started compiling a list of U.S. Presidents who had been in Brookline before, during, or after their presidency. I identified 7 at first including, of course, John F. Kennedy who was born here in 1917. The list grew with more research and had reached 21 when I last updated it on Presidents Day last year.

Calvin Coolidge
I felt sure that Calvin Coolidge, who had been governor of Massachusetts, must have been in Brookline at some time.  But evidence of Coolidge in town remained elusive, and I left him off the list.

Until now.

This morning, I found a reference to a letter Coolidge wrote to his father in 1908 from the Corey Hill Hospital where he was visiting his step-mother, Carrie Coolidge, while she was treated for an unknown ailment there.

I'll wait until I have more details before adding it to the full list, but there is no doubt that Coolidge makes #22.  (In the meantime, you can read about the other 21 presidents in Brookline here.)