Wednesday, December 5, 2018

American Public Spaces - Boston Common

Boston Common

When the Puritans arrived in Boston in 1630, they met William Blaxton, an Anglican clergyman who had already settled on the western slope of Beacon Hill 5 years earlier, with 200 books to read & a few cows to feed, which he conveniently allowed to graze on what is now Boston Common.

After meeting the very serious & determined Puritans, the perceptive cleric decided to cart his books & his cows to quieter Rhode Island. In return for 30 pounds sterling, he sold them about 44 acres of his land. The practical Puritans also needed a common pasture to feed their livestock, as well as a place to gather.  In 1660, it was decreed, "Hereafter there shall be no land granted either for house plot or garden to any person, out of the open ground or common field."
Boston 1768 Sidney L. Smith after Christian Remick A Prospective View of Part of the Commons 1902 after a drawing from 1768

On the grand eminence of the Commons, the Puritans & their descendants & new immigrants did graze their livestock; built public buildings & graveyards; & executed a variety of heretics, dogs, witches, Quakers, felons, & other non-conforming souls. These gruesome events provided an intriguing excuse for public gatherings attended by large, curious crowds. The common was the community meeting grounds, where social & entertainment events of all sorts took place.  In 1674, John Josselyn commented, "On the South there is a small but pleasant common, where the Gallants a little before Sunset, walk with their Marmalet Madams."

The Boston Common also served as the military "trayning field" for Massachusettes colonial militias who protected the locals but ultimately served the English king. As unrest with British rule grew, regular troops, most born & trained in England, arrived in 1768, to occupy the city; and they set up their military camps across the people's Commons. On April 18, 1775, when 700 Redcoats assembled on the Boston Common to organize a march to Concord to seize a cache of weapons hidden by the Patriots, the Boston Massacre shortly ensued. The fight was on.
Boston Common, James Kidder, 1829

When the British finally sailed home; the long Revolutionary War concluded, the people got their common back. Boston Common evolved into a public space used for personal recreation, patriotic speeches, entertainment & even romance, although sheep were not banished from the Common until 1830.

The Boston Common satisfied most Bostonian's desires in a public garden. Townsfolk & visitors strolled, bowled, played quoits, and celebrated public occasions on their common. The actor William Priest noted, "The favourite promenade of Bostonians, is the Mall, which has trees on each side, as in St. James Park, London. This walk commands some beautiful prospects of the adjacent continent."  
Boston Common

In 1785, some Bostonians felt the need for a little more variety in their entertainment. A subscription campaign to open a "Musick-house at the fool of the common...with music by the band from 7 to 10" when "many ladies and gentlemen were present...on the green around the building."

Clever entrepeneurs in both Boston & New York opened their commercial public pleasure gardens contiguous to existing public greens, thereby expanding the size of the area around their establishments. In Boston, the Selectmen allowed "Upon the Petition of a number of the respectable Inhabitants that Mr. Thomas Pool may be permitted to perform his Feats of Horsemanship in the Town...provided the same be done in a proper enclosure." The "proper enclosure" was near the mall.
Boston Common's Great Elm Tree

By 1817, Washington Gardens "near the Mall" developed into a full-fledged commercial gardens serving the "very best Soda Water and Ice Creams." The proprietor, Mr. J. H. Schaffer proudly informed "the Ladies and Gentlemen of Boston, and strangers who may be in town, that he has, at a very considerable expense, prepared the Gardens...with that wonderful and ingenious Invention, the GAS LIGHTS."