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Harvard students behaving badly - in the 19th century

Lesley Schoenfeld, a librarian at Harvard, reports on an interesting find: An account by James Rodney Wood, a Boston police chief who founded New England's first detective agency, of post-War (post Civil War, that is) activity on North Street in the North End, home to 25 bars, 13 dance halls and 30 to 50 brothels:

There were frequent delegations of students from Harvard College, come to see Boston by gaslight, and they would make for North Street, and were sure to get into trouble. They would come to the dance-halls, dance and drink, and get into trouble either with the girls or the sailors, and a fight would ensue. We would then be called in and often would have to lock up fifteen or twenty of the students.

Via ArchBoston.

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25 bars, 13 dance halls and 30 to 50 brothels:

Sounds like a fun place!

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The good old days.

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Did the Puritans rise from the grave and zombify everyone?

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Of course, at the time, Massachusetts had a 'Maine Law' on the books, mandating statewide prohibition. So those bars were just as illegal as the brothels, and likely about as elegant and pleasant. There was no concerted effort made at enforcement - witness the fact that this police officer knew of all these establishments, and his chief concern was the brawls. A decade later, the state switched to a licensing system, in the hope that what it couldn't stamp out it could at least regulate and keep relatively honest. Instead, the fees for the licenses turned out to be incredibly lucrative, and the liquor and brewing industries became the dominant lobbies in city politics.

It's an interesting prelude to present-day struggles over these same issues. We're still not sure how to deal with substance abuse. We still restrict lucrative liquor licenses, and money still plays a huge role in how they're doled out. And, yes, the college students of the city still play a substantial role in fueling its black and grey economies.

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Owen Wister documented his (?classmates'?) 19thC ways in 'PHILOSOPHY 4 -
A STORY OF HARVARD UNIVERSITY'

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/862/862-h/862-h.htm

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And people wonder why they're called out for making a fuss about current day students.

The good old days were in fact worse by most accounts, the only problem is you diluted expectations of living in a city, but enjoying a quiet suburban community.

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If you think Planet Boston is overrun by entitled snowflakes now, think about the differences between the typical college student back then and those who lived in these low-income entertainment districts! Huge gaps in privilege and power there.

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While the poor were poorer then, the rich were as well. A wealthy woman could go through 8 pregnancies to have 3-4 children survive to adulthood - of one of them didn't kill her along the way. The houses of those Harvard students would have been damn cold on winter nights - no insulation, no storm windows. Their parents would have had servants, but then I see black women pushing strollers with white children in them all the time near the Dedham library. Isn't a nanny a servant?

The well to do still command the poor, just like they did back then. They just do it at a remove. Instead of having an Irishman living in the house and caring for the grounds, they hire illegal Guatamalan immigrants and pay them under the table. No benefits, no security.

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An aside: I really, really wish that a top-notch writer/historian would do an "on the ground" history of Boston. It might well help to change how we regard this city. Folks like Thomas O'Connor and, more recently, my Suffolk colleague Bob Allison, have done a great job telling the city's story from a great events/great persons/great institutions point of view, but the earthy, rank and file side of its history remains largely untold.

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Especially if you can get Steve Greenberg talking! It's a fascinating slice of turn-of-century life of what was then a tenement slum that wasn't even considered part of Beacon Hill.

Our own NotWhitey has a lot of interesting stories about how JP came to be the way it is. One of these days, I need to try to read up more on "Germantown," which used to be a largely German area on the West Roxbury/Dedham line (all that remains is the Deutsches Altenheim old-age home, where they still fly the German flag out front).

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David:

There's actually a whole bookshelf-worth of urban history written, as they say, from the ground up. But I don't dispute that there's always a need for more, and that in particular, it'd be nice to see some academic historians translate the existing scholarship for a more popular audience.

It's been sixty years since Oscar Handlin's groundbreaking work, Boston's Immigrants, which remains a touchstone for all subsequent such efforts. Two decades later, Sam Warner's Streetcar Suburbs picked up where Handlin left off, extending the study of Boston to the end of the nineteenth century, and covering the growth and incorporation of the areas in which many UH readers now live. Stephen Thernstrom's The Other Bostonians is an equally important book, and carries the tale to 1970.

Boston, if anything, is an overstudied city - stuffed full of graduate students, postdocs, and professors, all trying to write important books and articles, and seizing upon what's readily available in local archives, and in living memory. The tragedy is how little of this work gets absorbed by residents of the city. The city's high school curriculum, for example, makes little effort to focus on Boston - the only links between the national and local stories after the Civil War are the police strike and the Kennedy family. We assign innumerable novels, many of them complex and sophisticated works of literature - but I doubt you can find a high school student who's read one of the three books above.

It's not untold; it's just unread.

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Cynic, thanks, yes, I'm familiar with those books. But what I'd love to see is exactly what you referred to: something that isn't academic, perhaps isn't written to make a sharper social or political point, that instead gives us the everyday look & feel of the "non-famous," earthier part of Boston life.

Two great examples: Stephen Inwood's A History of London and Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography. Man, you can just lose yourself in the descriptions of gritty life on the street when you read those books.

Yes, there are books/articles that center on certain neighborhoods, but I've never read any broad, general history of Boston that helped me identify with it, as an ordinary resident, in terms of everyday life. After a while the Boston Tea Party, John Adams, Emerson/Thoreau/yadda-yadda start to get pretty old.

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How about Boston Riots: Three Centuries of Social Violence by Jack Tager? And Dark Tide: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo? I recall both are told largely from an 'ordinary working people' point of view.

Some more:
Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans by Herbert Gans (West End)

Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum by William Whyte (North End)

The Death of an American Jewish Community by Hillel Levine and Larry Harmon (Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan)

The Promised Land by Mary Antin -- self-told story of a Jewish immigrant

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Yep, very interesting book about anti-anarchist hysteria, corporate malfeasance and one of the weirdest disasters in American history.

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