Monday, December 28, 2009

From Snow Sculptures to the Paris Salon and Beyond

1893 sketch of Henry Hudson Kitson and Theo Alice Ruggles at work in their studioHenry Hudson Kitson and Theo Alice Ruggles at work in their studio in 1893. This sketch, which first appeared in The Illustrated American, was reproduced in a June 25, 1893 Boston Globe article—"Tale of Art and Love"—that described their partnership and forthcoming marriage. (Click on image for a larger view.)

In 1885, 14-year old Theo Alice Ruggles made a snow sculpture in the yard of her family's Brookline home on Harvey Street (now 30 Upland Road). This was no ordinary snowman. It showed a recumbent horse in the act of rising from the ground, and it attracted notice in the neighborhood and beyond. People from Boston were said to make the trip out to Brookline just to see it.

Encouraged by admiring visitors, Ruggles' parents tried unsuccessfully to enroll her in art school before finding a young sculptor, Henry Hudson Kitson, willing to take her on as a student. It marked the beginning of a journey that would lead in just a few years to the Paris Salon, to partnership and marriage with Kitson, and to recognition as one of the most accomplished woman sculptors of her day.

1893 portrait of Theo Alice RugglesPerhaps most remarkably for a woman in that era, Theo Ruggles Kitson became one of the leading sculptors of war memorials in the United States, with statues, busts, and reliefs on display from coast to coast commemorating the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I.

Theo Alice Ruggles was born January 29, 1871. She was the daughter of Cyrus W. and Anna H. Ruggles. Her father, a successful businessman, was also Brookline's postmaster and the station master in town for the Boston & Albany Railroad. As a young girl, Theo enjoyed sculpting images out of clay at the family's summer home and letting them bake in the sun.

In the wake of the attention the snow sculpture brought to Ruggles and her work that winter of 1885 her parents sought a place for her in the school of the Museum of Fine Arts. The school turned her down as too young, as did other art schools and several private tutors.

1888 sketch of Henry Hudson KitsonHenry Hudson Kitson, who became her teacher and later her husband, was a native of England who had come to the United States as a teenager. He was 20 years old when he began working with Ruggles. When a commission took Kitson to Paris in 1887, his young student—accompanied by her mother—followed so that she could continue her studies.

In Paris, Ruggles learned from and worked with Kitson and also studied with French artists, including Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret and Gustave Courtois. In 1888, she had one of her sculptures accepted for the Paris Salon and the following year, while still a teenager, she became the first American woman sculptor to receive an award at the Salon.

Kitson and Ruggles were married in 1893, after their return to the United States. She had four works exhibited that year at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. In 1895, she became the first woman (and youngest member) in the new National Sculpture Society.

A Harper's magazine profile published that year said of her:

Though one of the youngest women who are known through their work in the art world, Mrs. Kitson has had the most successful career of any woman who has undertaken the profession of sculpture.

The Volunteer: Theo Ruggles Kitson's Massachusetts Memorial at the Vicksburg National Military ParkTheo Ruggles Kitson (as she became known) completed her first military sculpture—a statue of Revolutionary War naval hero Esek Hopkins in Providence, Rhode Island—in 1897.

Her 1902 Civil War monument ("The Volunteer") in Newburyport, Massachusetts became the model for the Massachusetts memorial at the Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi (shown at left). The first monument erected at Vicksburg, it was also the first of more than 60 statues, busts, and reliefs created by Kitson for the Vicksburg park between 1903 and 1920 .

The Boston Globe saw "The Volunteer" as a new kind of statue:

....a departure from the conventional soldier, which stands on a variety of pedestals in cemeteries and parks at 'present arms' or some other parade ground attitude. The figure is as much a departure from such figures as is the real American volunteer soldier from all previous soldiers in any land.

This spirit of volunteerism, continued the Globe,

is manifest in every line of the figure and it is really remarkable that a woman should be the first to note and portray in sculpture this strong characteristic of the American volunteer soldier, when it is the very thing that every foreign military critic first notices and always has noticed and commented upon. The trouble has been that the traditional solider of sculpture has been too hard to pull away from and Mrs. Kitson was the first who had the courage to give exact expression to the very qualities for which the volunteer soldier has always stood.

Author Polly Welts Kaufman, in her book National Parks and the Woman's Voice: A History (University of New Mexico Press, 2006), saw a different motivation in her description of the dedication of the Vicksburg statue :

Theo Kitson saw her Civil War sculptures as providing an opportunity for reconciliation and healing, not for the commemoration of heroism. Kitson herself was chosen to unveil the statue, but she insisted that a Confederate woman assist her in the unveiling. Alice Cole, the daughter of a Confederate soldier, joined her.

Kitson was also responsible for the first Civil War monument to feature a woman serving the troops. A memorial to nurse Mary Bickerdyke showing "Mother Bickerdyke" serving water to a wounded Union soldier, it stands in Galesburg, Illinois.

Theo Ruggles Kitson's statue of Civil War nurse Mary BickerdykeTheo Ruggles Kitson's statue of Civil War nurse Mary Bickerdyke stands in front of the courthouse in Galeburg, Illinois.

In 1904, Kitson received a commission from the University of Minnesota for a statue memorializing graduates of the university who were killed in the Spanish-American War. Dedicated in 1906, it became known as "The Hiker." The Gorham Company of Rhode Island made dozens of casts of this statue, including some after Kitson's death. Examples of "The Hiker" can be found today in several New England cities and towns and in other parts of the country, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, Maryland, Louisiana, Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan, Texas, Arizona, and California.

The Hiker: Wakefield, MA version of Kitson's most famous and widely-reproduced statue commemorating the Spanish-American WarThis version of Theo Ruggles Kitson's most well-known statue "The Hiker"one of dozens around the countrystands in Wakefield, Massachusetts.

Other examples of Kitson's work in Boston include memorials to Thaddeus Kosciuszko in the Public Garden and (with her husband) to Patrick Collins, second Irish-American mayor of Boston, in the Back Bay.

Theo and Henry Kitson separated in 1909, though they never divorced. She continued to work, out of studios in Framingham and elsewhere. She also contributed, along with other notable women, to columns in the Boston Globe about such issues as women's education. Theo Ruggles Kitson died in Boston in 1932.

A Local Sculptor for a Local Hero
Albert Edward Scott, a Brookline newsboy and graduate of the Devotion School, was the youngest American soldier to be killed in World War I. Scott, known as "Scotty," lied about his age to join the army at 15 and was killed in France in 1918 at the age of 16.

Scotty's fellow newsboys raised $2,000 for a plaque in his honor. Brookline native Theo Alice Ruggles, well known by then for her war memorials, was chosen to create the Scotty memorial to be placed in the wall of Town Hall.
Kitson's plaque in memory of Brookline's Albert Edward Scott, youngest U.S. soldier to die in World War I
The plaque was dedicated on October 29,1921. William Jennings Bryan, former secretary of state and Democratic presidential nominee, was the main speaker. The 300-strong Keith Boys Band was brought up from New York on a Navy destroyer to perform. The Boston School Committee gave newsboys the afternoon off to attend the ceremony, and the Boston Elevated agreed to transport all newsboys to the ceremony and back home for free with their newsboy badges.

Kitson's plaque, based on a painting by Gale Hoskins, depicts the death of Scott in the woods west of Paris. It was removed from the old Town Hall when the building was replaced in the 1960s and now sits on the back side of a later memorial to Brookline soldiers who gave their lives in war.

Additional Photo Credits
"The Volunteer"

Sunday, November 8, 2009

In the Line of Fire: November 15th at 2 pm

In the Line of Fire:
Brookline Police Who Gave Their Lives
in Service to the Town

Fall Meeting of the Brookline Historical Society

Sunday, November 15, 2009, at 2 pm
at Brookline Town Hall, 333 Washington Street
(Refreshments will be served)

Boston Globe 1904: Murder of Joseph McMurrayIn the long history of the Brookline Police Department, two officers -- Joseph McMurray in 1904 and Joseph O'Brien in 1930 -- were shot and killed in the line of duty while responding to crimes.

Brookline Detective Kenneth McHugh, a 31-year veteran of the police force and unofficial department historian, has conducted extensive research into the cases of these two officers. Det. McHugh will tell their tales in an illustrated presentation as part of the Fall Meeting of the Brookline Historical Society.

Following the meeting, Det. McHugh will lead a tour of the Public Safety Building, headquarters of the Brookline Police and Fire Departments.
Brookline Public Safety Building

The Fall Meeting will also include a demonstration of the Historical Society Web site, first place winner in this year's New England Museum Association's Publication Awards Competition.
Brookline Historical Society Web Site

Monday, November 2, 2009

November 1915: Brookline Votes for Representative Town Meeting

On this date in 1915 Brookline Town Meeting as we now know it was voted into existence.

On November 2, 1915 Brookline's voters overwhelmingly approved a change from traditional town meeting to a limited or representative town meeting in which "town meeting members" are elected by voters to represent them in the town's legislative body.

Brookline thus became the first town in Massachusetts to adopt this variation on the traditional New England open town meeting. (In an open town meeting any registered voter in attendance can participate in decisions.)

Today, 39 of Massachusetts' 298 towns operate under the representative town meeting system. The others retain the traditional open meeting format. (There are also 53 municipalities in the Commonwealth with a city form of government.)

Representative town meeting was proposed as early as 1897 by Brookline's Alfred D. Chandler (1847-1923) as a means of dealing with the growth of the town's population. By 1915, Chandler later wrote, only about 20% of the electorate could fit in the 800-seat Town Hall where town meetings were held.

The town meetings were therefore controlled by the first to arrive, or the strongest, and often by the least responsible, creating a situation that sapped the 'vital feature of the town system of government' which has so long been recognized and is practicable in small towns, but is unavoidably lost in large towns.

Alfred D. ChandlerChandler's proposal was taken under consideration in Brookline in 1900 but not adopted. Instead, Newport, Rhode Island in 1906 took up the idea and became the first municipality in New England to install a representative town meeting form of government. (Chandler served as a consultant to Newport.)

Members of Newport's 195-member Legislative Council came to Brookline in 1914 to describe their experience as Brookline debated whether to follow their lead. In January 1915 a petition was presented to the state legislature, and later that year the legislature passed "An Act to Provide for Precinct Voting, Limited Town Meetings, Meeting Members, a Referendum, and an Annual Moderator in the Town of Brookline."

The final step—approval by the town's electorate—took place in November by a vote of 3,191 to 1,180. The final town meeting under the old format took place on December 15, 1915, two days after a plan dividing the town into nine precincts for the new system was formally adopted.

On March 7, 1916 voters elected 27 town meeting members from each of the nine precincts. Stormy weather and a lack of competitive races for town-wide offices kept turnout to 40% of registered voters, reported the Boston Globe .

In addition to the 243 precinct representatives, the new legislative body would include: any state senators and representatives living in town; members of the Board of Selectmen; the town moderator, town clerk, and town treasurer; and the chairs of the Board of Assessors, the School Committee, the Library Trustees, the Walnut Hills Cemetery Board, the Water Board, the Parks Commission, the Planning Board, the Tree Planting Committee, the Gymnasium and Baths Committee, and the Registrars of Voters.

Interior of 1873 Town HallThe first town meeting under the new format took place on March 21, 1916 in Town Hall. A railing across the width of the meeting hall restricted the front part of the room to town meeting members. (Brookline police checked their credentials before letting them through.)

The nearly 400 seats reserved for spectators were packed. (Any registered voter could speak, though only town meeting members could vote.) "The efficient manner in which Brookline's first meeting, under the new limited town meeting act was conducted in Town Hall last evening, influenced a great many of the citizens in the belief that the experiment will be successful," reported the Boston Globe.

Also among the spectators were representatives from other towns who were considering the new format for their own communities.

Representative town meeting continues to be the form of government used by Brookline today. There are now 16 precincts with 15 town meeting members each. Town meeting today also includes members of the Board of Selectmen, the town clerk and moderator, and any state senators or representatives who live in town.


* The portrait of Alfred D. Chandler is from A History of Brookline, Massachusetts, from the First Settlement of Muddy River Until the Present Time: 1630-1906 published in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the town. Chandler's grandson, Albert D. Chandler Jr. (1918-2007) was a professor of business history who Fortune magazine called “America’s preeminent business historian.”

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dial Phones in Brookline: A New England First

Photo: An early dial telephoneBefore smart phones, before cell phones, before keypads and answering machines and area codes, before much of what think of when we think of telephones today, Brookline played a part in the introduction of a major innovation in telephone technology.

At midnight on the night of July 14, 1923, some 1,800 customers of the Aspinwall exchange office on Marion Street become the first in New England to be able to make calls themselves without having to speak first to an operator.

The customers had been supplied with new dial telephones (like the one at left). Phone company representatives visited people's homes to show them how to use the new devices, and instructions were distributed in flyers and through the newspapers.

The method is very simple [according to instructions published in the local paper]. You remove the receiver from the hook and listen for a steady humming sound known as the dial-tone, which is the equivalent of the operator's "Number, please?" After hearing this dial-tone, which comes on the line almost as soon as you place the receiver to your ear, you place your finger in the hole through which the first letter of the central office designation appears and turn the dial around to the finger stop. Then remove the finger and let the dial return to rest.

The newsreel below shows how the dialing method was explained to customers in another city several years later.

Direct dialing was made possible by new automated switching technology installed in the Marion Street exchange office. Prior to the change, callers would tell an operator the number they wanted to call, and the operator, plugging jacks into switchboards, would manually make the connection for them.

Photo: The old Marion Street telephone exchange officePhotos: the entrance arch from the exchange office as it appears today
Automated switching equipment was available as early as 1896, but the dominant Bell System resisted the change. Bell's first dial phones were installed in Norfolk, Virginia in 1919, four years before Brookline. The new equipment spread slowly to other parts of the country. The last manual phones in the U.S. were not converted to dial until 1978.

Further Reading

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Movies Come to Brookline (Part 2)

The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline's first (and only remaining) movie theater, opened on December 30, 1933. Its survival is a tribute to the efforts of many to save the theater from forces that more than once threatened to shut down this local and regional treasure.

The struggles of the '70s and '80s were not the first times the Coolidge had to fight for its existence.  In fact, the opening of the theater back in 1933 came only after many years of opposition to the very idea of a movie theater in town.

This second of two blog posts tells the tale of the pre-Coolidge years and of the determined resistance -- equally as determined as more recent efforts to save the theater -- that kept Brookline theaterless much longer than nearby communities.

(Part 1 covered the years up to the town-wide movie referendum of 1923. Part 2 picks up with the story of that event.)

The People Vote
Public opinion played an important part in Brookline's continuing rejection of applications to build a motion picture theater in town. Vocal opponents, including clergymen, educators, and ordinary citizens, made themselves heard from the start.

Several times during the 1910s, as documented in Part 1, the Board of Selectmen polled those in attendance at hearings to gauge popular views. In every case sentiment ran against allowing a theater, and the Selectmen followed suit.

In the spring of 1923, with two new proposals before the Board, the Selectmen decided to put the question to a non-binding town-wide vote.

The Selectmen, very properly, [wrote the Brookline Chronicle] have the right to ask 'do the few persons who attend hearings on motion-pictures represent the views of the town as a whole?'

The ballot was set for April 24th. (There was already a special election scheduled to elect a replacement for the recently deceased town treasurer. In the end, the treasurer race received far less attention than the movie vote.)

The opposition mobilized quickly. An anti-movie meeting at the library drew 200 people. The Parent-Teacher Organization passed a resolution urging a No vote. A full-page ad -- "NO Moving-Pictures for BROOKLINE! -- was taken out in the Chronicle.

Proponents seemed far less organized.

Illustration: Anti-movie advertisement from the 1923 referendum
The referendum received extensive coverage in the press, not just in the Chronicle but in the Boston papers as well. Space was provided for people on both sides of the question to express their views.

Opponents focused primarily on the movies' detrimental effect on children and the threat a movie theater posed to the residential character of the town. Proponents saw a boon to the town's business and convenience for residents who otherwise had to travel to other towns to enjoy a picture show.

"A number of moving pictures in Brookline Village--indeed a single moving-picture theater as an entering wedge for others which would inevitably follow--would begin the metropolitization of our community," wrote Harvey Cushing in the Chronicle, "and would in time completely alter its character and its desirability as a place of residence now so much sought after...."

"I am convinced," Walter D. Allen, Secretary of the Brookline Board of Trade told the Globe, "that a first-class picture house at Coolidge Corner, properly regulated, would stimulate trade. Business men would receive the matinee trade that now goes to Allston. Why should we consider children alone? Are not grown ups, elderly people unable to travel afar, to be considered?"

[See Having Their Say, below, for more examples of what opponents and proponents were saying before the referendum.]

In the end, it wasn't close. Brookline voters on April 24th overwhelmingly rejected the notion of a movie theater in town, 5,634 to 1,659. The two existing theater proposals were withdrawn. A third that was in the works was never submitted. There would be no attempts to bring the movies to town for another six years.

The Tide Turns
In July 1929, John F. Fleming presented a proposal for a moving picture theater at the intersection of Washington Street and Brookline Avenue. "During the past five years," Fleming told the Board of Selectmen, "there has come about quite a change in the sentiment of our Brookline people in regard to the wisdom of granting licenses for moving picture theaters in Brookline."

But the Board, the 1923 vote very much in mind, refused to consider any such proposal without another referendum. The following spring, a movement spearheaded by the Coolidge Corner Merchants Association began organizing to bring the movie question back to the ballot.

A vote was set for November 4, 1930. This time, proponents were prepared. Local merchants led the effort, sending circulars to customers and handing them out to residents. Signs urging a Yes vote appeared in store windows. Opponents, said the Chronicle, were made up of older residents who had been in opposition in 1923.

Illustration: Ad urging a Yes vote in the 1930 referendumThe population had changed and, as one letter writer pointed out, so had the movies. Talking pictures had come on the scene. Big studios had taken control of the industry. Perhaps most important was the implementation in March 1930 of a production code, commonly known as the Hays Code, that introduced the kind of censorship and control of content that Brookline movie supporters had urged and opponents had derided as impossible to achieve.

On November 4th, 80% of registered voters went to the polls and showed that times had, indeed, changed. Nearly 20 years after a theater was first proposed for Brookline, the Yes votes carried the day 8,219 to 6,884.

Opening the Gates

Within a week of the referendum, six groups had presented proposals for a total of eight theaters in town. The Board of Selectmen deferred discussion until January by which time the number of proposals had grown to 14.

One was for a new building on the site of the Beacon Universalist Church on Harvard Street, the eventual site of today's Coolidge Corner Theatre. But the Church proposal did not make the first cut. Instead, the first license for a movie theater in Brookline was granted to George W. Wightman and the Paramount-Publix Company for a building at the corner of Beacon and Charles Street.

Later that year, a second license was granted for a theater in Brookline Village, at the intersection of Washington and Pearl Streets.

The Wightman project ran into trouble, further delaying the long-awaited opening of a theater in town. In November 1931, the license was revoked, but the Selectmen left the door open for Wightman to pull a new deal together.

Illustration: Sketch for George Wightman's proposed theater at Beacon and Charles Streets
In February 1932, a new plan for the Beacon Universalist site was put forth, calling for a remodeling of the church into a theater instead of construction of a new building. It would be an independent theater called the Brookline Neighborhood Theatre -- Wightman had called his theater the Coolidge Corner Theatre -- and the church would receive half of the profits as rent.

But the Selectmen still seemed to hold out hope that the Wightman plan would come together. Discussions dragged on until June 1933 when Wightman announced he could not secure financing and the license was provisionally guaranteed to the Harvard Amusement Company for a theater on the site of the Beacon Universalist Church.

M.J. Shapiro and Son, a specialist in theater construction, was named general contractor in July and finally, after more than two decades of waiting, Brookline had its own movie house in December of 1933.

Having Their Say

Voices, pro and con, from the debate leading up to the 1923 moving picture referendum

"Motion pictures are pure dope for children. They require no thought; you simply look and look." - Mary McSkimmon, Principal, Pierce School

"Pictures give children a distorted view of life and this is not fair to them." - Gilbert Pierce, President of the Central Council of the Brookline Parent Teacher Association

"Is it not possible for a 'model town' like Brookline to find a representative group of citizens of sufficient character and intelligence to supervise the management of such a theater? With such a committee in charge and with parents and teachers alive to their responsibilities, let us have a community picture house in Brookline." - Pro Bono Publico"

But if the theater or movie 'fan' feels that he must have his favorite amusement, are there not theaters and movies galore in Boston, Roxbury, Brighton, and Allston? Why not go when they are already established and let Brookline be free from some of the objectionable features in the business." - George B. Foster

"The Jews are opposed to eating pork, well, let them go without. You are opposed to motion pictures, well, stay away. But if the Jews, being a majority in your locality, undertook to prohibit the sale of pork there, what would you say? This is tyranny. I am a free American, and I kick." - Frederic Cunningham

"It may be said that children go already. They will go three times as often when the movie is just a step down the street." - Ann C. Hoague

"It seems to me parents should be able to rule their children about the number of times in a week a child should attend." - Long A Tax-Payer

"What youth needs and thrives on in its hours of recreation are light, air, sunshine, activity. Brookline abounds in these opportunities in its playgrounds and gymnasium. The movie means darkness, except for one illuminated spot, trying on the eyes." - E.B.S.

"Why in all this talk against movies isn't a mother's view considered? In reading the list over, I guess almost everyone is perfectly able to go at any time out of town for their amusement, while you take a mother who is too tired to go nights, but might want to go with her own children in her home town. You know there are lots of respectable people who can only afford 'movies' for their amusement but have to stay at home, as carfares amount to so much." - A Mother

"Most teachers of children realize that one of the chief enemies of education at the present time is the moving picture theater because of the strain upon the nervous system of the children and the weakening of their mental powers. How dull must lessons seem after the abnormal thrills of the movies!" - Mary A. White

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Movies Come to Brookline -- At Last!

The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline's first (and only remaining) movie theater, opened on December 30, 1933. Its survival is a tribute to the efforts of many to save the theater from forces that more than once threatened to shut down this local and regional treasure.

The struggles of the '70s and '80s were not the first times the Coolidge had to fight for its existence.  In fact, the opening of the theater back in 1933 came only after many years of opposition to the very idea of a movie theater in town.

I won't tell the theater's story here. (See the Coolidge's website for more on its history.)  Instead, I'll tell the tale (in two parts) of those pre-Coolidge years and of the determined resistance -- equally as determined as more recent efforts to save the theater -- that kept Brookline theaterless much longer than nearby communities.

Boston and the Early Days of the Movie Business

Until 1910 or so, the movie business in Boston -- and in the U.S. in general -- targeted a largely immigrant and working class audience. Theaters were clustered downtown and in poorer neighborhoods. But as theater owners sought the more affluent, middle-class family trade that began to change.

In the years before World War One, "new theaters opened in virtually every major residential neighborhood surrounding the city," wrote film scholar Russell Merritt in a case study of the early movie business in Boston.1

By the end of 1913, moving picture theaters had been approved in Dorchester, Roxbury, Back Bay, Cambridge, Somerville, Newton, Belmont, and Watertown.

But not in Brookline.

Illustration: Globe Headline, 1911As early as 1911, the Board of Selectmen rejected applications to build theaters in town. In October of that year, two Catholic and two Protestant pastors convinced the selectmen to turn down proposals for two theaters in Village Square. (The Boston Globe noted that this was the third time the board had gone on record as opposed to a movie theater.)

Rev. Michael T. McManus of St. Mary's of the Assumption expressed concern about the unwholesome influence a motion picture theater would have on the many young St. Mary's parishioners who lived a short distance from the proposed locations.

This argument about children would continue be at the forefront of opposition in the years to come.

Standing Firm in Opposition

In January 1913, a group led by Max Talbot proposed to build a theater on Washington Street between Brookline Avenue and Pearl Street (where 10 Brookline Place is now). The petitioners promised to show only high quality pictures and offered to have the selectmen, or a committee they would appoint, approve all pictures before they were shown.

The Talbot group's application was rejected. Again, local clergy played a part in rallying opinion against the theater, even urging their parishioners from their pulpits the Sunday before the meeting to stand against the granting of a license.

An Exception is Made

Although there were no movie theaters in Brookline until 1933, there were public showings of motion pictures.

On January 2, 1914 -- almost 20 years to the day before the opening of the Coolidge Corner Theatre -- the Brookline Friendly Society held a town-approved show in its headquarters in the Union Building at the corner of Walnut and High Streets.

The Friendly Society, predecessor of today's Brookline Community Foundation, was a charitable organization that included boys' and girls' club among the many services it provided.

The show was a big event. There were about 300 in attendance, mostly children who regularly took part in activities at the Union Building. Massachusetts Governor-Elect David Walsh attended and was introduced by the chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

The movies, reported the Boston Globe, included "From the Mine to the Mint" (about the making of U.S. coins) and three reels about the adventures of Robinson Crusoe. The Brookline Chronicle noted that "the most popular among the pictures shown depicted the adventures of wild animals escaping from a circus train."

As was typical of motion picture shows in that era, the films were interspersed with other entertainment. "Between the reels [said the Globe], J. Wesley White sang sea songs, Miss McNeil of Brookline gave a fancy dancing exhibition and P.A. Rogers played xylophone solos."

The Friendly Society continued to have regular movie shows in its 400-seat hall on Friday and Saturday afternoons and evenings for some time after. Admission, according to one account, was 5-cents for children and adults and 3-cents for members of the Society's boys' and girls' clubs.

Movies were also shown in other halls and outdoors on the Cypress Street playground for July 4th celebrations and other special occasions in the 1910s and 1920s. But opposition to a commercial theater remained firm.
In the spring of 1915, a group led by former selectman and state senator John A. Curtin proposed building a theater in Coolidge Corner at a cost of $150,000-200,000. The Chronicle editorialized against it a few weeks before a public hearing on the petition:

"Such amusement places may not deserve all of the charges that have been brought against them, there may be good as well as bad ones [said the editorial]...

"It does not necessarily follow from the fact that a community is densely populated, and within the zone of an overflowing city population, that it must surrender its individuality as residential community and succumb to the amorphous, promiscuous conditions of city life...

"A moving picture theatre at Coolidge Corner may in itself be unobjectionable, but it will break a precedent and result in other moving picture theatres on Beacon Street and elsewhere, and the future of these streets will be doomed."

The following week, a letter from "A Citizen," noting the availability of motion pictures theaters in other communities, argued otherwise:

"I am an occasional patron of this form of entertainment and would like the privilege of being able to attend one in my own town with my own townspeople...[W]hat force can there be to the suggestion that what is desirable for our people outside of Brookline is not good for them inside the confines or their own town?"

A hearing was held before the Board of Selectmen in April. A representative of the Harvard Congregational Church spoke in favor, as long as there was strict censorship of what was shown.

Rev. John Sheehan of St. Mary's spoke against. "As soon as a picture house comes to Coolidge Corner one will come to Village Square," said Sheehan. "Once a picture show gets in one can say all he likes about censorship, but there will be no adequate censorship."

The selectmen polled those at the hearing to gauge public opinion. 60 voted No; 48 voted Yes. The Board rejected the application.

Other proposals continued to come forward, and be turned down. One came from Nathan H. Gordon, an early partner of Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer fame. (Gordon and Mayer both lived in Brookline at one time in the 1910s.)

Gordon's 1916 proposal called for a $350,000 theater with 2,000 seats at the corner of Harvard Street and Webster Place. It won overwhelming support from the Brookline Board of Trade whose members voted 137-40 in favor of the plan. It was rejected by the Board of Selectmen.

In the spring of 1919, it appeared the tide might be turning. Three new proposals were put forward, all within a few blocks of each other in Coolidge Corner. (One was for conversion of the Beacon Universalist Church, the building that eventually became the Coolidge Corner Theatre.)

The Brookline Chronicle sensed a change in the air:

In refusing to grant motion picture licenses here the Selectmen have been guided by public opinion. Since the last refusal, opinion appears to have swung the other way. The opinion of the town as a whole now seems to be strongly in favor of a picture house, provided, of course, it be a first-class enterprise, properly supervised.

Advertisement in favor of movie theater
The paper misjudged (or maybe opponents were just better organized). Hundreds of residents showed up at the May 6th hearing and when the Board polled those in attendance the vote was 203-85 against approving a theater. All three proposals were rejected.

That more or less put a halt to efforts to bring a motion picture theater to Brookline until 1923. Then things heated up again, and the issue was put before the whole town for a vote.

I'll continue with the story of 1923 movie referendum and its aftermath in Part 2 tomorrow.

1 "Nickelodeon theaters, 1905-1914: building an audience for the movies" in The American Film Industry, revised edition, edited by Tino Balio. University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, p83-102

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Real Life "Make Way for Ducklings"

Make Way for Ducklings coverA mother mallard trying to lead her brood of ducklings across a busy street is aided by a policeman who stops traffic to let them pass.

It's a famous scene, of course, from Robert McCloskey's classic children's book Make Way for Ducklings. But it also describes an actual event that took place on Beacon Street in Brookline in 1919 -- more than two decades before McCloskey's award-winning book appeared in print.

The tale was told in the August 16, 1919 edition of the Brookline Chronicle. ("Mallard Moves Large Family: Shows Rare Intelligence in Crossing Thoroughfare.")

A pair of mallards, reported the Chronicle, had been observed each summer for four years flying from the Muddy River to Hall's Pond to make their nest. When the ducklings had hatched and were ready to fly, the whole clan would make its way back to the Muddy River to live.

Photo: Hall's Pond, 2007This particular year the ducklings -- ten of them -- hatched later than usual, on June 24th. Something happened to one of them during the night of the 26th, however, and the next morning the mother duck -- "evidently realizing that the place was unsafe, and doubtless with the happy memory of the Fenway and of the river with its sheltered islands" -- set out on foot with her not-yet-flying family.

At eight o'clock that morning [reported the Chronicle] she set out on the long journey, followed by the nine little ones, then only three days old and so tiny as to be hardly distinguishable in the long grass. Up the bank they went, and down the nearby alley, and a few moments later the astonished gaze of the traffic officer stationed at the corner of Beacon and Carlton Streets beheld them preparing to cross the wide main thoroughfare. Much amused and greatly interested, he stopped all traffic on the busy street until the duck, quacking continuously, had conducted her brood safely to the other side.

A second policeman on the scene escorted the mallards up Carlton Street and down Colchester Street to the Fenway.

But here the greatest difficulty of the journey was encountered, for the railroad tracks had to be crossed in order to reach the river. To go over the bridge [the Carlton Street Footbridge] was impossible for such little creatures, nor could they step over the high rails of the double track. Mother Duck became anxious. She led the little ones down to the bank; she urged them vociferously; she (so the eye-witness describes it) went close to the rail and 'rolled' herself over it, calling the ducklings to follow. And at last they did. Imitating her maneuver with all their tiny strength, they 'rolled' or pushed themselves over the same way.

Joyfully they scrambled up the opposite bank, across the path and the strip of grass, and in another moment they were splashing in the river, where they swam and paddled about, seeming entirely at home and nothing daunted by their extraordinary adventure.

We are inclined to think of a duck as one of our most stupid creatures [continued the story], but can a bird be thought dull who could plan and execute such a move as this? People may say it was merely the instinct of preservation. But still one wonders how that mother duck, who had always until now flown the distance between pond and park, high above the housetops, knew so surely what streets would take her there and make the shortest possible journey for those tiny ducklings. And besides, why did she choose the only crossing within half a mile where there was a traffic officer!

Could this story have been the inspiration for Robert McCloskey's classic tale? It seems unlikely. McCloskey was five years old in 1919, and didn't come to Boston (to study at the Vesper George Art School) until 1935. But he did have this to say about the origins of the story:

I had first noticed the ducks when walking through the Boston Public Garden every morning on my way to art school. When I returned to Boston four years later I noticed the traffic problem of the ducks and heard a few stories about them. Then the book just sort of developed from there."

It's possible the Brookline tale is one of the stories he heard. Or it may be that, in a time of more ducks and less traffic, incidents like this were not uncommon.

One final note: 90 years later, Brookline people are still coming to the rescue of ducklings in need. See this story, first brought to my attention via the Brookline TAB blog.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Wheelmen Take the Corey Hill Challenge

Illustration: Bicyclists climb Corey Hill during their visit to Boston for the annual meeting of the League of American Wheelmen. From Harper's Weekly, June 5, 1886Boston was the Hub of bicycling in the United States in the 1880s. The Boston Bicycling Club, the first in the country, was founded in 1878. Five years later, Outing, a Journal of Recreation labeled the city "the bicycling paradise of America." Wheelmen, as they were sometimes called, came from all over to ride "the beautiful roads that have rendered Boston the metropolis of bicycling."

One of the high points in metropolitan Boston-- literally and figuratively -- for local and visiting riders alike was Corey Hill in Brookline. Wheelmen strove to become the first to make it to the top of the hill and, after that barrier was broken in 1883, to set a new record time or simply challenge themselves to conquer the steep incline.

Bicycle manufacturers and sellers even promoted in advertisements the fact that their bicycles had made it to the top of Corey Hill.

Illustration: This bicycle ad in the June 1884 issue of the Yale Literary Magazine notes that the Rudge Light Roadster is the only bicycle that has ever been ridden up Corey Hill
"The hill is one of the steepest and longest in the vicinity of Boston," wrote the Boston Daily Globe on July 29, 1883, shortly after the first successful ascent "and hundreds of wheelmen have unsuccessfully tried to ride up."

The length of Corey Hill is 2300 feet [continued the Globe article], height 199 feet; average grade, one foot in 11.41. On the last 158 feet the average grade is one feet in 7.85 feet, and for the next 170 feet lower down the rise is one foot in every 7.87 feet

Illustration: a Victor Tricycle, top, and Rudge Light Roadster, bottom, were the first tricycle and bicycle to climb Corey HillW.W. Stall, a Boston bicycle and tricycle dealer, was the first to make it to the top, in July 1883. He rode a Victor Tricycle like the one shown in the ad at left.

Later that month, H.D. Corey (fittingly enough) became the first to make the climb on a bicycle, a Rudge Light Roadster similar to the 1887 model pictured at left below. Corey was a noted Boston wheelman. (The following year he would become one of the first to ride a bicycle down Mt. Washington, the highest peak in New England.)

Annual Corey Hill climbs, organized by the Boston Bicycle Club, were held for the next several years. The 1886 event, part of the League of American Wheelman gathering in Boston, attracted particularly large crowds. (See the Harper's Weekly illustration at the top of this story and one from the Boston Globe below.)

Organized climbs were not the only way to attempt the hill, of course. The 1886 Cyclists' Road Book of Boston and Vicinity included Corey Hill as part of Route Five, starting at Trinity Church in the Back Bay. "The view from the top of the hill well repays for the labor of ascending it, on foot if necessary," said the guide, noting that the final, steepest 158 feet "is what generally bowls over the cyclist."

Illustration: Cyclists climb Corey Hill, Boston Globe, May 28, 1886

Saturday, July 4, 2009

She Was His "Yankee Doodle Gal"

Agnes Nolan in 1907Agnes Nolan was one of 18 children of a Brookline letter carrier and his wife. Her father had his moment in the spotlight in 1905 when no less a figure than President Theodore Roosevelt intervened after John Nolan lost his post office job (and source of support for his large family).

But the real celebrities in the Brookline family were Agnes and three of her eight sisters, all of whom appeared on stage.

Agnes and her sisters Lola, Alice, and Grace were all members of the company of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” George M. Cohan—arguably the most popular entertainer of the period. Agnes' stage career was brief, but she made big news locally and nationally in 1907 when she and Cohan were married.

The marriage—his second and her first—was planned, fittingly enough, for the Fourth of July though it actually occurred on June 29th.

The Nolans of Brookline

John J. Nolan began working for the postal service in Brookline in 1875. He was reportedly the first to deliver mail directly to individual homes in town. (Prior to 1864 postage only paid for post office-to-post office delivery; home delivery began in the big cities and spread slowly to other communities after the Civil War.)

Nolan was also the one to lay out the routes Brookline letter carriers used when free home delivery finally reached town.

In 1899, however, Nolan was dismissed from the postal service for drunkenness. As his son-in-law, Boston American columnist George Holland later described it:

The appropriate figure of speech would be to say that he had crooked his elbow.

Perhaps we could blame it on the monotony of trudging up to the same front doors.

A swinging door was different. Off his route, John Nolan found swinging doors and they opened on a warming atmosphere where, for a time, one could relinquish the responsibilities that came with the largest family in New England.

116 Brooks StreetWhether or not it was the largest in New England, Nolan's family was certainly large. He and his wife Mary had 18 children (17 according to some accounts). Three died very young, but all of the others—with 29 years separating the oldest and youngest—lived with their parents in a succession of Brookline homes.

They were at 116 Brooks Street in 1900 and 38 Gorham Avenue in 1903. Later Brookline addresses for the parents included 149 Winthrop Road and 19 Green Street.

Nolan went to work in the coal business after his dismissal from the postal service, but his plight eventually came to the attention of U.S. Congressman Samuel Powers in whose district the Nolans lived. Powers brought the case to the attention of President Roosevelt in the White House, noting that:

It is claimed that the Department at the time of his discharge promised to reinstate him if his subsequent conduct should justify such action. The accompanying letters and certificates conclusively show that Nolan has been absolutely free from habits of intoxication ever since his discharge.

The congressman also enclosed a photo of the family, which he had advised Nolan to have taken, to show the president that Nolan "is not an adherent to any doctrine of race suicide."

(Roosevelt was said to be obsessed with the concept of "race suicide" a concern that English-speaking whites, through declining birth rates, were not keeping up with immigrants and other minorities. See Chapter VII, "Race Suicide," in Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race by Thomas G. Dyer, LSU Press, 1992).
Nolan Family Portrait
In March 1905, Roosevelt issued an order reinstating Nolan to the postal service. According to Holland, the president telephoned the postmaster personally and Nolan was back on the job the next day.

The Nolan Daughters on Stage

By 1905, Lola, Agnes, and Alice Nolan, who began their performing careers under the stage name of the Merrill Sisters, were part of George M. Cohan's theater company.

Cohan has been called the father of the American musical comedy and "the man who owned Broadway." After beginning his career in vaudeville with his parents and sister, performing as The Four Cohans, he turned to the theater in 1901.

A writer, director, and performer, he produced more than 80 Broadway shows and wrote more than 1,500 songs over four decades.

Pamphlet Promoting Little Johnny JonesLola joined Cohan's company first. Agnes and Alice auditioned for the 1904 New York production of "Little Johnny Jones," Cohan's first Broadway hit. (It was the show that introduced such standards as "Yankee Doodle Boy" and "Give My Regards to Broadway.")

Cohan was reportedly smitten with Agnes' vitality—and the audacity she showed in asking for $25 a week for chorus work, more than the going rate. She and Alice were added to the company. (A fourth sister, Grace, later worked for Cohan as well.)

In February 1907, Cohan divorced his wife, the actress Ethel Levey. In April, it was announced that he and Agnes Nolan would be married on July 4th, Cohan's purported birthday. (Birth records show that he was born on July 3rd, but the "Yankee Doodle Boy" always claimed he was "born on the Fourth of July.")

In the end, the marriage took place a few days ahead of schedule, in Freehold, New Jersey, before a justice of the peace. As the New York Times reported on June 30, 1907:

An automobile accident last Monday detained the couple, who were taking a short trip, for several hours in Freehold, and during that time they decided to get married. They returned to Freehold yesterday and were married by the justice.

Agnes's sister Alice and Cohan's long-time partner, producer Sam Harris, were the only witnesses. Alice Nolan and Sam Harris would marry later that year, and the two couples would build adjacent homes in Great Neck on Long Island.

Agnes Cohan in 1921Agnes Cohan, conforming to the wishes of her husband and her parents, retired from the stage after her marriage. She and Cohan had a son and two daughters.

In 1942, Warner Brothers released Yankee Doodle Dandy, a musical biography of Cohan that won a Best Actor Oscar for James Cagney. Agnes Cohan was not a character in the movie. Cohan had stipulated that the film make no mention of his first wife Ethel Levey, and the filmmakers instead created a composite of the two wives to serve as Cohan's love interest in the picture.

The film was shown to the Cohans in a private screening. George was ill with cancer; he died in November of that year at age 64.

Agnes Cohan outlived her husband by nearly 30 years. She died September 10, 1972 at the age of 89. She had been living in Queens in obscurity and in poor health for 10 years. Neighbors told the New York Times she was devoted to television and had few visitors other than family. Most of the neighbors did not know who she was.

Times reporter Laurie Johnston described Agnes Cohan's funeral. About 60 people attended the service at Our Lady of Martyrs Catholic church in Queens in contrast, noted Johnston, to the thousands who filled the streets around St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan for George Cohan's funeral.

"I wanted to see if there were any celebrities," whispered a woman in purple wool as she slid into a pew and dropped to her knees beside a friend [wrote Johnston]. She was to be disappointed.

A few years before Agnes Cohan's death, the musical biography George M. opened on Broadway. (Joel Grey, like Cagney before him, won a Best Actor award—a Tony—for his portrayal of Cohan.) Agnes Nolan Cohan, as well as Ethel Levey, were restored as characters in the play.

In a 1970 television version of the play, Agnes was played by Blythe Danner, better know to today's audiences, perhaps, as the mother of Gwynneth Paltrow.

Agnes Nolan's mother Mary died in 1921 and her father John in 1929. Several other members of the Nolan family, in addition to the four sisters, had careers or ties to the entertainment industry.
  • Alice Nolan Harris last appeared on stage in a Cohan revue in 1910. She died in 1930 at the age of 42.
  • Loretta (Lola) Nolan, who continued to use the stage name Lola Merrill, married the actor Frank Otto and appeared in an act with him for many years, often in Cohan and Harris productions. The last surviving of the many Nolan children, she died in 1974.
  • Grace Nolan Landy had a brief acting career. She died in 1938 at the age of 47.
  • John F. Nolan, the oldest son, worked in the Boston post office for 28 years before leaving in 1913 to manage the Cohan and Harris Theater in New York. He died in 1923.
  • Raymond Nolan (1893-1967) moved to California and was a still photographer for 20th Century Fox Studios for many years.
  • William Nolan (1892-1953) was an editor at the Douglas Fairbanks Studio and worked on several Fairbanks films including The Thief of Baghdad.
  • Dorothy Nolan Holland (1895-1971), the youngest child, married George Holland who was a playwright and longtime "Boston After Dark" columnist for the Boston American. They continued to live in Brookline.
  • Another brother, Matthew Nolan (1879-1955), also remained in Brookline. He was not in the entertainment business; he was a Brookline firefighter for 45 years before retiring as Acting Deputy Chief in 1947.
Five of the Nolan Sisters

Friday, June 26, 2009

Historical Society Website Wins Award

The website of the Brookline Historical Society has been named a first place winner in the New England Museum Association's 2009 Publication Awards Competition.

The site, designed and maintained by Historical Society volunteer Larry Barbaras, was the top choice of the judges among websites from museums with annual budgets under $250,000.

"The access to great content made this site a standout," said the judges in announcing the award. "The site succeeds because the quantity and quality of the content makes the site feel like a useful destination and encourages engagement. The judges appreciated the straightforward interface that encouraged browsing.

The New England Museum Association's annual Publication Awards Program recognizes excellence in design, production, and effective communication in all aspects of museum publishing. Entries are judged by a panel experienced in publication, design, marketing and communications. Awards are given to those entries which most effectively present their message to the intended audience.

The Brookline Historical Society is a non-profit community organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of Brookline's diverse history. The Society's website ( includes hundreds of historic photographs, maps, articles, program highlights, and information about Brookline's past.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Brookline in the Flu Pandemic of 1918-19 (Part 2 of 2)

From the front page of the Brookline Townsman, October 5, 1918

When the influenza pandemic struck Brookline in the fall of 1918 it affected all aspects of life in town as officials and residents alike struggled to control its spread, to provide care for the ranks of the sick, and to maintain daily life with so many unable to fulfill their usual roles.

Last week, Part 1 of this two-part report looked at Camp Brooks, the open air hospital on Corey Hill where merchant seamen from Commonwealth Pier in Boston were treated. This second part looks at the impact of the pandemic on the town of Brookline in general.

Influenza in the Town of Brookline

Camp Brooks, the tent hospital established by the Massachusetts State Guard to treat some of the worst cases among the merchant seamen, did not serve Brookline townspeople. The camp was isolated from the town. Guardsmen patrolled all approaches, and no visitors were allowed.

Influenza nonetheless spread among the population of Brookline, as it did in communities throughout the state. The first local person to die from the disease, police officer George T. Driscoll, succumbed on September 10th, the day after the camp opened. He had been sick for two weeks, though his illness had not been reported as influenza at first.

The initial outbreak was met with caution but with confidence that it could be kept under control. "To one who is forewarned and prepared, there is no real cause for alarm," said the Brookline Chronicle on September 14th

For the individual, his or her course of action is simple [advised the paper]. Until it is evident that the epidemic has been checked or has run its course, it would be well to avoid crowds, to keep outdoors as much as possible, sleep with windows open, eat sanely and in general lay in just as large a stock of health as possible.

A week later, as it became clear how easily the disease could spread from person to person, debate over how to respond intensified and the paper's tone, while still optimistic, changed.

Whether the schools are kept open or are closed, whether or not the doors of moving picture houses and other places of assembly are shut, there will still be open other avenues of infection. We are in a state of siege and might as well accept it.

On September 24, as the number of deaths continued to rise, the schools were ordered closed, as were the town swimming pool and gymnasium. Shortly after, public gatherings of many kinds -- at churches, meeting halls, billiard parlors, bowling alleys and other places -- were banned. Public funerals could only be held with a permit from the town. A flier outlining how to avoid the disease was circulated to local households.

Health care facilities and medical personnel in town were soon overwhelmed. An emergency call for more doctors and nurses -- "to attend the many patients now suffering for want of the simplest care" -- was issued. There was concern, too, that with whole families afflicted people could not take care of their own. "When hundreds of families are affected at the same time, and this not in a single town but on all towns, we suddenly outgrow our social clothes, and then we suffer from exposure," reported the Chronicle.

The Brookline Friendly Society, a social service agency and the forerunner of today's Brookline Community Foundation, sprung into action. Volunteers cooked broth in a kitchen set up in the Society's headquarters at the corner of Walnut and High Streets. Other volunteers collected "custards, jellies, fresh eggs, and other dainties" made by people in their own homes. These, along with broth and milk, were distributed to needy families every afternoon. Forty-nine automobiles were made available to the Society by local residents to help with the distribution.

Only the sick people themselves can tell what a help this was [reported the Friendly Society in its 1918-19 Report], but the expressions of appreciation were many. Extra food was sent to families where the breadwinner was ill, and extra clothing, particularly underwear, was bought when it was necessary.

In early October, town officials began to quarantine homes where cases of influenza had been found. On October 12th, the Brookline Townsman reported that:

Agent Ward [of the Health Department] assisted by other municipal officials has quarantined several hundred homes in Brookline, placing a red card on the front and rear of every house containing persons suffering from the disease. In addition a white card has been placed on the door of each sickroom which prevents all but doctors and attendants entering. In order to enforce the quarantine authorities have power to station policemen outside the house or seize the buildings but so far such action has not been necessary here.

The number of people who were sick had an effect on all kinds of activities. (There were more than 2,600 cases reported between September 1918 and the end of the year, out of a population of 37,000, although the actual number was probably considerably higher). The police and fire departments, reported the Townsman, were crippled, and dozens of Town Hall and post office employees, as well as those of private businesses, were unable to report to work. The Chronicle urged residents to be patient:

If telephone service is poorer, if the street cars run less often, if only one clerk is behind the counter when there should be two or three, if any of the ordinary daily services that we look for as a matter of course are less well performed than usual, remember the numbers on the sick list and have patience with those remaining who are doing double duty.

Advertisements in the Brookline papers showed how local businesses tried to cope with the crisis, to reassure customers, and, perhaps, in some cases, to take advantage of the situation.

Advertisements, The Brookline Chronicle, September & October 1918

By mid-October the worst of the epidemic seemed to have passed in Brookline. The ban on public gatherings was lifted on the 19th. The schools re-opened on the 23rd. (They were closed an extra week in January, part of an extended Christmas break, as a precaution.)

There continued to be cases, and a few deaths, in November and December and in 1919, though it was uncertain whether later cases were part of the same deadly strain of the flu. Overall, it appears that between 125 and 150 people -- and maybe more -- died. (Precise numbers are hard to come by; some Brookline residents were hospitalized and died in other towns and were not counted in the Brookline numbers, while some who died in Brookline were not residents of the town.)

"That Brookline has suffered no worse may be due in part to the promptness with which the program of prevention was adopted," wrote the Chronicle on October 12th. "Most of these steps were taken here before they were taken in other communities, and they have proved their value."

Then, too, [continued the paper] Brookline has had the very great advantage that its 'congested' districts, its quarters of houses in which families are crowded beyond the minimum requirements of health, are comparatively slight. Although the epidemic, like the agents of Herod, spared no class or quarter, it is essentially a crowd disease, and where the congestion was the greatest its incidence was most heavy.

Such an epidemic as this tests our social institutions, shakes our confidence in their sufficiency. It tries out our organizations for the protection of public health, raises questions as to whether the work of doctor and nurse might not be as much of a public concern as that of soldier and firemen and whether they ought not to be frankly in public rather than in quasi-private service. And it also raises, or should raise, a question or two about public living conditions and housing.

A Flu by Any Other Name....
The deadly flu virus of 1918-19 was widely but inaccurately known as "the Spanish Influenza" and is still frequently referred to by that name today.

According to the book “Hunting the 1918 Flu” by Kirsty Duncan, the misnomer was the result of more reports of the flu coming out of Spain than other countries because Spain was neutral in the World War and did not have the press censorship that other European countries had. But the flu did not originate in Spain nor was it more prevalent there than elsewhere.

(There was also a widespread but untrue belief at the time that the virus had been spread by agents of Germany in the waning days of the First World War.)

Accounts from the period also frequently used the now archaic term "the grippe" or, less frequently, "the grip" in their reporting on the influenza pandemic.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Brookline in the Flu Pandemic of 1918-19 (Part 1 of 2)

The great flu pandemic of 1918-19 killed tens of millions of people worldwide, including an estimated 45,000 in Massachusetts and 675,000 in the United States. It's impact was felt everywhere, including in Brookline.

More than 125 residents of the town died. Schools were closed for four weeks right after the beginning of the school year. Homes of the afflicted were quarantined. Public gatherings at churches, meeting halls, soda fountains, billiard parlors, bowling alleys, and funerals were banned.

At the same time, quick reaction by local authorities was credited with limiting the impact more than in other communities. And at an open air hospital on Corey Hill, new methods of care were developed, methods that medical personnel then took to facilities elsewhere in the state and around the country.

This first of a two-part look at Brookline in the 1918-19 pandemic tells the story of Camp Brooks, the open air hospital on Summit Avenue. Erected literally overnight in September 1918, the camp became a focal point in Massachusetts' battle against the deadly disease.

Part 2 will look at the impact of the flu pandemic on the town of Brookline as a whole.

Camp Brooks and the Influenza Outbreak of 1918

Boston was one of the epicenters of the pandemic. After first appearing elsewhere in the spring of 1918, influenza erupted late that summer in more virulent form among merchant marine trainees in Boston Harbor. (There were major outbreaks around the same time in the port cities of Freetown, Sierra Leone and Brest, France.)

Noted surgeon William A. Brooks had opened the Brooks Hospital at the corner of Summit Avenue and Lancaster Terrace in 1915. At the time of the flu outbreak Brooks was both Surgeon-General of the Massachusetts State Guard and medical director of the recruiting service of the Shipping Board. He was called in to deal with the sick seamen.

I knew that the hospitals in Boston at that time were pretty well congested [he later wrote], and did not see how we could possibly place as many sick persons as we had.

Under Brooks' direction, the Brookline company of the Massachusetts Guard was called out on the afternoon of September 9, 1918 to erect a tent camp on the east side of Corey Hill between the Brooks Hospital and Corey Hill Park. Town Engineer Henry Varney and other town officials also pitched in. By just after midnight, the camp had been laid out, tents had been set up, sewage connections had been made, lights and water had been turned on, and the first patients had been admitted.

Researchers Richard A. Hobday and John W. Cason, writing about Camp Brooks in the May 2009 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, described conditions at the hospital:

The treatment at Camp Brooks Hospital took place outdoors, with “a maximum of sunshine and of fresh air day and night.” The medical officer in charge, Major Thomas F. Harrington, had studied the history of his patients and found that the worst cases of pneumonia came from the parts of ships that were most badly ventilated. In good weather, patients were taken out of their tents and put in the open. They were kept warm in their beds at night with hot-water bottles and extra blankets and were fed every few hours throughout the course of the fever. Anyone in contact with them had to wear an improvised facemask, which comprised five layers of gauze on a wire frame covering the nose and mouth. The frame was made out of an ordinary gravy strainer, shaped to fit the face of the wearer and to prevent the gauze filter from touching the nostrils or mouth. Nurses and orderlies were instructed to keep their hands away from the outside of the masks as much as possible. A superintendent made sure the masks were replaced every two hours, were properly sterilized, and contained fresh gauze.

Other measures to prevent infection included the wearing of gloves and gowns, including a head covering. Doctors, nurses, and orderlies had to wash their hands in disinfectant after contact with patients and before eating. The use of common drinking cups, towels, and other items was strictly forbidden. Patients’ dishes and utensils were kept separate and put in boiling water after each use. Pneumonia and meningitis patients used paper plates, drinking cups, and napkins; paper bags with gauze were pinned to pillowcases for sputum. Extensive use was made of mouthwash and gargle, and twice daily, the proprietary silver-based antimicrobial ointment Argyrol was applied to nasal mucous membranes to prevent ear infection.

Thirty-five of the 351 patients treated at the hospital died, a much lower rate, according to Brooks, than in indoor hospitals despite the fact that the open air hospital took in some of the worst cases. Only eight of the more than 150 doctors, nurses, aids, orderlies, and other workers at the camp developed influenza, and five of those were thought to have been exposed to it outside the camp.

The combination of fresh air, sunlight, and a "high standard of personal and environmental hygiene" employed by the Camp Brooks staff may have played a large part in their success compared to other hospitals, report Hobday and Cason. And, indeed, those same standards and plan of organization were adopted successfully elsewhere. "[A]s members of 'The Brooks Teaching Units,' these doctors, nurses, and aids have established military hospitals in eight other cities in our Commonwealth," reported the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in December 1918. "The strict adherence of the members of these hospital personnel to these military orders contributed in very large part to the success of the undertaking."

The Camp Brooks tent hospital remained in place for a little more than a month, until the worst of the epidemic had passed in Boston. A year later, with support from throughout the state, Brooks established the Brooks Cubicle Hospital on Corey Hill to provide a more permanent facility to apply the same principles of treatment that had been used at Camp Brooks.

Further Information

The Influenza Pandemic 1918 (The American Experience, PBS)
The Influenza Pandemic 1918 (The American Experience, PBS)