Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Brookline Village Bounty, 1836

Hundreds of fruit trees, berry bushes, grapevines, herbs, and flowers in the heart of Brookline Village? Hard to picture isn't it?

But an 1836 property advertisement in the Boston Post paints a delightful picture of just such a bounty in the block bounded by present-day Washington Street, Davis Avenue, Waverly Street, and Thayer Street.

The Grounds are extensive and filled with all the choicest fruit, flowering shrubs, vines, herbaceous plants, &c, adapted to out door culture—a part as follows: Several hundred ornamental and fruit trees, pears, peaches, plums, Cherries, apples, &c, all in bearing state—ten large strawberry beds, (will produce this season five hundred boxes—200 currant, red and white Dutch raspberry and gooseberry—from six to ten hundred rose bushes—many hundred herbaceous plants, Dahlias, &c—large bed of tulips—border of pinks. A Grapery, containing 21 different kinds, and will probably produce three tons this season—the fruit, vines, &c are all of the choicest kinds and selected with great care and experience, and all in the most flourishing condition.

Aerial view of former Isaac Thayer property in 2016
The area bounded today by Washington Street on the north, Davis Avenue on the south, and Thayer and Waverly Streets on the west was once filled with a wide variety of flora planted by the Thayer brothers. The star marks the location of the house, later 43 Davis Avenue, built by Isaac Thayer in 1832.
The ad — "COUNTRY SEAT FOR SALE AT AUCTION" — was placed on behalf of Isaac Thayer by the Boston auction house Coolidge & Haskell. (See the full ad at the bottom of this post.) Thayer and his brother Seth had bought a large tract of land a few years earlier and both brothers built houses near Washington Street.

Seth Thayer's house was on land belonging to the Davis family. (He wife was a Davis.) His brother Isaac's house was on Washington Place, later renamed Davis Avenue, on a part of the land purchased by the brothers. Here's how he described it in the ad:

The house is large and every way convenient—containing on the ground floor, two parlors with folding doors--broad entry from front to rear—sitting room—kitchen, washroom &c. It commands a view of the city and surrounding country, and of the travel on four great roads.

The house built in 1832 by Isaac Thayer as it appeared in the late 19th century under the ownership of Frederick and Lucy Beck.
Source: A History of the Beck Family (1907)
The "four great roads" likely refers to the Worcester Turnpike (now Route 9), the Brighton Road (now Washington Street) the Road to the College (now Harvard Street) and Cypress Street. For potential buyers wary of the proximity to traffic on these "great roads" the ad notes that the property is "entirely out of the reach of dust."

The property did not sell in 1836. Thayer advertised it again (with much less description) in May and June 1837. It was eventually sold to James Patten. (The date of the sale is uncertain.) A new Town Hall on Washington Street in 1844 and the coming of the railroad to Brookline Village in 1847 spurred extensive development in the neighborhood. The property was subdivided into many parcels in the following decades, no doubt with the loss of much of the horticulture.

The former Thayer house and its much reduced property were acquired by Frederick and Lucy Beck around 1869.

Former Thayer property in 1874
This partial map from the 1874 Brookline atlas shows the former Isaac Thayer property broken into several parcels filled with new development, especially on the Washington Street side. The large pink property marked F. Beck includes the original Thayer house.
Source: WardMaps LLC
43 Davis Avenue as photographed after the blizzard of November 1898
Source: A History of the Beck Family (1907)
Frederick Beck died in 1909 and his wife Lucy in 1915. The house was torn down shortly after that. The Berkeley Court cul-de-sac was developed on the site of the house in the early 1920s.

Berkely Court
Berkeley Court, off Davis Avenue, on the site of the former Thayer (later Beck) house. (Via Google Earth)
Thayer property 2016 map
The former Isaac Thayer property on a 2016 map (Via Google Maps)

Thayer Ad, Boston Post, 1836
This advertisement for an auction of Isaac Thayer's property appeared in the Boston Post on May 30, 1836. (Click the ad for a larger view)

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Virginia Aiken, Teenage Dealer of Electric Cars

On Memorial Day in 1912 a parade of 125 electric cars and trucks made its way from Brookline Avenue through the Back Bay to downtown Boston. At the head of the parade, as she had been in a smaller procession the year before, was 17-year old Virginia E. Aiken of Brookline.

Aiken was the niece of Day Baker, the head of the Electric Vehicle Club of Boston, with whom she lived on Winthrop Road. But the former Runkle School student was no mere figurehead. She was New England representative of the Buffalo-based Babcock Electric Carriage Company, responsible for sales throughout the six-state region.

Virginia Aiken promotional postcard
Promotional postcard for Virginia Aiken, Babcock Electrics
(Click image for larger view)
Aiken operated out of the Brandon Garage at 643 Washington Street, where she maintained an office, employed a stenographer and a bookkeeper, and kept several models of Babcock Electrics to demonstrate to prospective buyers.

1912 ad for Virginia Aiken's Babcock Electrics
Ad for Virginia Aiken's Babcock Electric dealership, Boston Post, May 9, 1912
1913 Map showing location of the Brandon Garage
The Brandon Garage at 643 Washington Street was Virginia Aiken's base of operation.
Source: WardMaps LLC
How did a teenage Brookline girl arrive at such an unusual situation for her age and gender more than a century ago?

Virginia Aiken
The Automobile Journal, 1912

Virginia Elise Aiken was born in Philadelphia on April 10, 1895, the daughter of Frank E. and Ada (West) Aiken. Her father was a freight inspector and her mother was a stenographer. Her father's father, Frank Eugene Aiken Sr., was a well-known actor and theater owner active mostly in Chicago, but at other times in Philadelphia and New York.

Aiken spent most of her childhood in Chicago. In 1910 or 1911 she moved to Brookline to live with her father's sister Viola and Viola's husband Day Baker and to take advantage of the better educational opportunities in the Boston area. They lived at 145 Winthrop Road. Virginia enrolled at the Runkle School and later at Miss Haskell's School for Girls on Marlborough Street.

Day Baker was New England agent for an electric truck manufacturer and a prominent advocate for electric vehicles. His efforts brought him into contact with Thomas Edison and he became New England representative of the Edison Storage Battery Company which made batteries for automobiles and trucks. (Edison's 22-year old son Charles was one of the ushers at an 18th birthday dance thrown for Aiken by her aunt and uncle at Brookline's Gardner Hall.)

A lengthy 1912 profile of Aiken in The Automobile Journal told how she obtained a license and drove thousands of miles, most of them in electrics. And as the Boston Globe reported:

For some months she has been seen in her pearl gray Victoria around the congested streets of the city, driving in and out among carriages, wagons, street cars and great trucks, or on the streets and boulevards of the suburbs. People have stopped and wondered at the ease and grace with which she handled her automobile, but she always smilingly disclaims any especial skill and replies "You know, it's no trouble to operate; you don't have to crank it, nor do you have a whole lot of levers about which to think: it is so simple to run—it's electric."

But her interest in cars, reported The Automobile Journal, went beyond driving.

Now, Miss Aiken is practical and she began to study the electric carriage with keen enthusiasm. Instead of merely giving attention to the maintenance and care she went back to rudiments and systematically acquired knowledge concerning the battery and the motor. She studied electrical subjects carefully and mastered each with its particular reference to vehicles. She was fortunate in having her uncle as an adviser and under his direction she was able to apply her knowledge to good advantage.

Constantly using the electric machines she met with all conditions that might be encountered and it was with extreme satisfaction that she solved all problems and successfully met every situation. The girl did not hesitate to work about the cars whenever necessary. She found delight in mechanical work and did it surprisingly well.

When Francis Babcock, founder of the Babcock Electric Carriage Company, visited Boston and met Aiken he suggested she become his New England agent and helped set her up in business. Aiken told the Boston Globe she planned to use the profits from the business to pay for her education.

The budding entrepreneur also understood the value of good marketing. She put half of the profits of her first sale into promotion, including newspaper advertisements and engraved notes. "[T]his, and her energetic work, [reported The Automobile Journal] brought to her other customers."

Electric vehicles were sometimes marketed specifically to women, and Aiken's unusual position as a female agent may have helped. She was interviewed by the Boston Post for a July 1912  article that ran under the headline "Miss Aiken's Advice to Women Motorists."

"Why, yes, [she told the reporter] I know it does you good to ride in an electric—it has done me good—don't I look the model healthy electric young woman? Seriously, I do believe that it gives one good health, a good appetite and good control of one's nerves to operate an electric vehicle.

I have in mind a Newton lady who has one of our cars—she drives it herself, charges it with a mercury arc rectifier in her own little garage and looks after her battery herself. She takes great enjoyment in looking after all these little details herself. The out-of-door air exercise that she gets in caring for her car and the long rides which she takes almost daily keep her in the best of health.

No, you newspaper men cannot too strongly urge the driving of electric automobiles by the ladies of Boston as a health-giving and enjoyable method of regaining and keeping health, but it does not end with the health question. The convenience of making calls, shopping, attending church and social functions are all points that are worthy of mention—but of course good health is always a strong argument.

The 1912 advertisement below for Aiken's display at the Boston Auto Show illustrates how Babcock Electrics were marketed especially to women. ("The Runabout for Misses. The Victoria for Ladies".)
Boston Post ad for Virginia Aiken's dealership
Ad for Virginia Aiken's display at the Boston Auto Show Boston Post, March 3, 1912

Many articles about Aiken were published in 1912, in the Boston newspapers and in trade publications like The Automobile Journal, Motor Age, and Electrical World. But her dealership was apparently short-lived. A later article in The Automobile Journal about her Fall 1912 exhibit at the electrical show at Mechanics Hall in Boston, said

While Miss Aiken will retain an interest in the Buffalo electric, it is her intention, after the electric show, to devote the most of her time to studies and music, believing that the proportions to which she has brought the business warrant placing it in the hands of a large automobile sales establishment. Full details of this move will be announced later.

I have not been able to find any such later announcement but there were no further mentions of her dealership after 1912.

Engagement announcement Boston Post
Boston Post, March 30, 1918
In 1918, Aiken's engagement to a Harvard Medical School graduate named Lawrence Weld Smith was announced in a brief article in the Boston Post. The announcement noted that, in addition to Miss Haskell's School (a college preparatory school for girls in the Back Bay), she had attended the Farmer School of Cookery (founded by Fanny Farmer). By 1918, she was back in Chicago where, the article said, she was active in Red Cross work.

The Aiken-Smith marriage never happened. Instead, on Christmas Eve 1919 in Chicago, Aiken married a Swiss immigrant named Robert (or Roberto) Tranquillo Pellandini. They had a daughter, born in Chicago in 1921, and lived for several years in Mexico where Robert Pellandini's family had business interests. (Virginia Pellandini took Swiss citizenship and had to reapply for U.S. citizenship when they returned in 1925.)

The Pellandinis were frequently on the move. They lived, at various times, in Chicago, Mexico City, Easton, Brockton, and Lincoln, Massachusetts, and Lorain, Ohio, before settling in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Robert had several jobs, as listed in directories and census records, including sales manager for a shovel and tool company and accountant with the Ford Motor Company. No further career information is listed for Virginia.

Robert Pellandini died in 1980. Virginia Aiken Pellandini died, at age 92, in Hot Springs in 1987.
Gravesite of Robert and Virginia (Aiken) Pellandini
Memorial Gardens Cemetery, Hot Springs, Arkansas


Sunday, July 10, 2016

A Long History of Girls Basketball at BHS

I saw a notice in my Facebook feed today that the Brookline High Girls Basketball coaching staff is kicking off its version of Basketball Night—coaching sessions for 3rd through 12th grade girls—at Schluntz Gym tomorrow night. By coincidence, just yesterday I had come across the picture below, showing BHS girls practicing basketball way back in 1902.

BHS Girls Basket Ball 1902
Image credit: Harper's Weekly (Click here for larger view)

The image is from an article on "College Girls and Basket-Ball" in the February 22, 1902 issue of Harper's Weekly. BHS is the only high school pictured, along with images from Wellesley, Smith, Bryn Mawr, and Newcomb College in New Orleans.

The location is uncertain. My best guess is that it's behind the 1893 high school building, the first built on the current site. That would put it approximately where the courtyard and the auditorium wing are today. (The rise in the background would be the beginning of Aspinwall Hill.)

Basketball was "the most popular sport with women across the United States in the first years of the twentieth century," wrote Paul John Hutchinson in a recent doctoral dissertation at Boston University.1 That certainly appears to have been the case at BHS.

An 1898 report from the Committee on Physical Training of the Brookline Education Society reported that

The game of basket ball is at present very popular. It is a game which both sexes may play, but is especially appropriate for the girls. Several outfits for this game have been provided. The committee is not yet ready to report on the benefits of this plan.

In February 1898—just seven years after the game was invented by James Naismith in Springfield— an exhibition of BHS girls basketball was the closing event at a Town Hall demonstration of games and gymnastics engaged in by students in the Brookline schools.

By the early 20th century, the Brookline girls basketball team was playing in competition against other local high schools and even occasionally against college teams. 

Brookline - Dedham Girls Basketball 1904, Boston Globe
Boston Globe, February 19, 1904
BHS - Radcliffe Basket Ball Game 1904
Boston Globe, December 14, 1904

Apparently, not everyone was in favor of girls playing basketball. In 1901, Prof.William F. Bradbury of Cambridge Latin School, responding to a favorable report by BHS teacher Arthur W. Roberts, spoke in opposition:

I have had some experience in Cambridge with basket ball [said Bradbury], and I find it makes the girls rough, loud-voiced and bold.

Let's be thankful his view did not prevail, and look forward to more loud-voiced, bold, straight-shooting girls on and off the court.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Civil War Photos of Brookline Soldiers

On April 22, 1861— ten days after the attack on Fort Sumter — the men of Brookline gathered to sign their names on a document promising to "enroll themselves for the purpose of acquiring a knowledge of military drill and discipline, under the orders of the Military Committee of the Town."

When it came time for 24-year old Julius A. Phelps to sign he added, next to his signature, "Ready to go."

Phelps signature

The next man to sign added ditto marks next to his name, and several more townsmen followed Phelps' example, indicating they too were "Ready to go."

Fourteen months later Phelps was dead, one of the first of the Brookline men to give his life in defense of the Union. His name is one of 72 on the Civil War memorial installed in the old Town Hall in 1884 and now on display in the lobby of the current Town Hall.

Phelps memorial

Until recently, I knew of no photos of Phelps. In fact, I had come across photos of only one of the 63 enlisted men whose names are on the Brookline memorial. (The nine officers, from more prosperous and prominent families, were more well documented.)

I was pleased, then, to find Phelps and four other Brookline men in this montage of soldiers from Company A of the 1st Massachusetts Infantry. It's from the collections of the Brookline Library and has been digitized and made available on the Digital Commonwealth website. (Click on the image for a zoomable version.)

Company A, 1st Massachusetts

Who were these men? Here is what I have been able to learn about them.

Julius Phelps
Julius Augustus Phelps was born December 27, 1836 in Leominster, the son of Sumner and Dolly Phelps. His father was a farmer. By 1860, Phelps was living in Brookline with his older brother David and David's wife and young son. Both brothers were carpenters.

Phelps enlisted as a private on May 23, 1861 and was mustered into Company A of the 1st Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, organized at Camp Ellsworth in Cambridge. The 1st was engaged at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) and was deployed in the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia in the spring of 1862, seeing action at Yorktown, Williamsburg, Eltham's Landing, and Seven Pines.

Phelps was shot and killed at the Battle of Glendale on June 30th. He was 25 years old. His name is on the family gravesite at Evergreen Cemetery in Leominster although it is not clear if he was buried there or somewhere in Virginia.

Frank Getchell
Lewis Getchell
Brothers John Franklin (Frank) Getchell and Lewis (or Louis) Gould Getchell were born in Hallowell, Maine, sons of Isaiah and Dorcas Getchell. Their father was a stonecutter. John was born December 21, 1838 and Lewis March 24, 1841.

Both brothers were living in Brookline at the outbreak of war, as was an older married brother, Isaiah. Frank, a carpenter, and Lewis, a blacksmith, enlisted together as privates in Company A on the same day as Phelps.

Lewis was shot and killed at the Battle of Seven Pines on June 25, 1862. He was 21. He was buried at the Seven Pines National Cemetery.

Frank survived the Peninsula Campaign and was promoted to corporal in November 1862. He died of disease in Falmouth, Virginia on February 3, 1863. He was 24. He was originally buried at Fitzhugh's Farm and was later reinterred at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

Another older brother, George, an officer with the 1st Maine Infantry, also died in the war. Their brother Isaiah continued to live in Brookline along with his family and his widowed mother. He had a carpentry shop at the corner of Beacon Street and Summit Avenue.

Joseph Turner
Joseph W. Turner was born in Derby, England in 1835, the son of Joseph and Sarah Turner. The family emigrated to the United States in 1842 and settled in Philadelphia. In 1854, they moved to Brookline where the father established a knit goods business. It was one of two manufacturing concerns in the town, according to Harriet Woods' 1874 Historical Sketches of Brookline.

Joseph and his younger brother Fergus both worked in the family business, Joseph Turner & Sons. The two brothers enlisted on May 23, 1861. Joseph died at Fair Oaks, Virginia of typhoid fever on June 21, 1862. His body was returned to Brookline and he was buried in the Old Burying Ground on Walnut Street.

Fergus Turner survived the war and continued to live in Brookline until his death in 1909.

William Trowbridge
William H. Trowbridge was born March 5, 1842 in Newton. He was the son of William W. and Sarah Trowbridge (sometimes spelled Trobridge.) His father was a soap and candle maker.

Trowbridge worked as an expressman. (Express companies delivered packages, by horse-drawn vehicles and later by rail.) He enlisted in Company A on the same day as the other men here.

He was on picket duty on July 1, 1862 after the battle of Malvern Hill when he fell dead. Death was attributed to "disease of the heart" (possibly a heart attack). He was 20 years old. His burial place is unknown.

For stories of other Brookline men listed on the Civil War memorial in Town Hall, see my earlier post Remembering Brookline's Civil War Dead.