A New England Boyhood
I AM painfully aware that, to the diligent render of the last two parts of this historical study, it may seem as if the boys described were a sort of Robinson Crusoe and man Friday who lived alone on their happy island. I feel as it I had spoken as though there were an occasional invasion of savages or Spaniards, but that practically we had little to do with the outside world. This is by no means true, and I will now try to give some idea of the social conditions which surrounded boyhood in Boston in the years between 1826 and 1837. For we were “ in the swim,” as the current expression puts it, and no countenance would have been given to us, either in any shyness or for arrogance which kept us out of it.
I have already said that, while on the most cordial terms with our school companions, it seemed as if we left them in another world as soon as school was over. As I have said. I think the reason was that most of the fathers of the other boys were in mercantile pursuits, and the boys’ business, therefore, called them quite regularly to the wharves to inspect the large foreign trade of Boston. As it happened, our father was in other affairs, and, as naturally, these attracted us.
In an old New England family, churchgoing, of course, was an element which had a great deal to do with social life. I was carried to “meeting" on the fourth Sunday after I was born, and was christened at the same time with two or three other children. I afterward knew their names. They were in families with whom we were well acquainted, and to this hour that mystic tie seems to form a relationship between me and them and their children. I have to this moment a little bit of yellow paper which is, I fancy, the first document but one among the memoirs which form my biography. It is the bill of the “stable man” who sent his carriage on this occasion. “ For carrying three to meeting, sixty cents.”My poor nine or ten pounds of avoirdupois went as nothing to the hack-driver, and no estimate is made of the cost to him or to the community of the carrying to “meeting” of the person who was, as I must still say, the most important individual in the transaction.
In those days children were taken to church for regular attendance very early. I do not see any children in my own church who are as young as those who went or were taken then. On our annual visits to Westhampton, we were always interested because the young mothers carried their babies to “ meeting " at all ages. They did not like, I suppose, to stay at home when all the men " went to meeting,”and accordingly they went with the children. If a baby cried, the mother got up, carried it out, and sat on the steps of the meeting-house until the ebullition of feeling was over, when she returned, But this was rather edifying as an interesting curiosity to us Boston children. No babies were carried to Brattle Street Church except for baptism; but as soon as the children could walk, and he relied upon not to cry, I should think the custom began. Such reliance was sometimes misplaced. I am so unfortunate that I do not remember ever hearing Dr. Channing preach ; but it is among the disgraceful records of my life that once, when my mother thought she would hear him, and, because Brattle Street Church was being painted, went to Federal Street, she took me with her. She sat with friends, far forward in the broad aisle, and I, dissatisfied with the interior arrangements of the church, I suppose, — probably dissatisfied because I was not where I was used to be on Sunday, — wept with such loud acclaim that in the middle of the service she was obliged to rise and take me out of the church. I think it was the last experiment of the sort that she tried. In fact, we were very loyal to our church. I think everybody was loyal to the churches they went to. And to such unfortunate loyalty I owe it that, while I knew Dr. Channing personally, and he was very kind to me as a boy, I never had the pleasure of hearing him preach, although I was twenty years old when he died.
We “ went to meeting ” morning and afternoon always, and so, I am apt to think, did all respectable people; certainly in the earlier part of those years. I know that I never observed any distinction between the size of the congregation in the afternoon and that of the morning. I know that any person who had been seen driving out of town on Sunday, either in the morning or in the afternoon, would have lost credit in the community. Frequently, Mr. Palfrey, the minister, would say, at the end of the morning sermon, “ I shall continue this subject in the afternoon.” He did so with the perfect understanding that he would have the same hearers. I wonder, in passing, whether that phrase “my hearers” is as familiar to young people now as it was then. It was a bit of pulpit slang, such as one never hears in a lecture-room or in a political meeting. The people, instead of being addressed as “ you,” or as “ friends,” or as “ members of the church of Christ,” were spoken to as “ hearers.” I doubt if I ever hear that word now without giving it a certain ecclesiastical connection.
It was a wonder to me then, and has been ever since, why the hour and a quarter spent in “meeting” of a Sunday morning seemed as long as the four hours spent in school every other morning. I was early aware of the curiously interesting fact, which nobody ever explained to me, that the afternoon service was ten minutes shorter than the morning service ; but why that hour and five minutes should seem as long as the three hours spent in school of an afternoon I have never known, and do not know now. Besides these two services we had the Sunday-school. It seems to me it was always after the afternoon service ; I know it was, in the earlier days. A Sunday-school then was a very different thing from what it is now. Then you were expected to learn something, and you did. For my own part, I have often said, and I think it is true, that fully one half of the important information which I now have with regard to the Scriptural history of mankind — with regard to the history of the Jews, for instance, or the travels of Paul right and left, or anything else which can be called the intellectual side of the Bible — was acquired in Brattle Street Sunday-school before I was thirteen years old. We had little books which contained facts on these subjects. We had to study these books as we did any other schoolbooks, and we recited from them as we recited any other lesson. I do not think there was much said or thought about making Sunday - school agreeable to the children. We were told to go, and we went; we were told to learn a lesson, and we learned it. As I observe Sunday-schools now, this has been driven out; and driven out, I believe, by the pressure of the week-day school system, — a pressure which I am fighting against in every quarter without success. For myself, I liked to go where my brother and sisters went. They went to the Sunday-school, so I expressed a wish to go. Pupils were received on the first of January, and on the first Sunday of the year 1827 I presented myself with the rest. But it proved that the rule of the school was that no one should be admitted before he was six. I suppose they did not want children who could not read. I could read as well as I can now, and was disgusted, therefore, when I was rejected on examination. I rather think I was the only child in New England who was ever told that he must not go to Sunday-school. But I was sent away on the ground that I was not six years old. I went home with the others, saying, “ It is a pretty way to hear a fellow say his catechism by asking him, ‘ How old are you ? ’ ' How old are you ? ’ ‘ How old are you ? ’ ” And I was not permitted to go for the next year. I had already taken the first steps in the catechism. I had learned in words what I probably knew already, — all, indeed, that is very important to learn in the business of theology.
Such was going to meeting on Sunday. I suppose the sons of Episcopalian families spoke of “going to church,” but we did not in my earlier childhood. I make the note here, however, for the benefit of Notes and Queries, that, in Boston, the meeting-houses were always called churches from the very beginning. I think they were not in other parts of Massachusetts. In Hales’s map of this neighborhood, of the date of 1826, you will see “ Rev. Mr. Gray’s M. H.,” “Rev. Mr. Gile’s M. H.,” meaning “meetinghouse” in each instance.
Of week-day exercises connected with churches Boston knew almost nothing, not even in Evangelical circles. The fact was known that there was a chandelier in the Old South Church, but I do not think that chandelier was often lighted. When Park Street Church was built, as a sort of banner of a new dispensation for latitudinarian Boston, it had arrangements for lighting the church for an evening service. But this was all a heresy to the old Boston Puritan, whether he were Evangelical or Unitarian.
For the original theory of the Puritans is that the family is the church, and that each family is a church. The father of each family is a priest, and is competent to carry on worship. Accordingly, he does carry on worship in the morning and in the evening; and any proposal for an evening service anywhere else was regarded by the old Puritans as being, to a certain extent, an innovation, because it broke up that family worship which was so essential in their plan. I think that in every family of which I had any acquaintance the forms of family worship were maintained in this earlier period ; every morning certainly, and probably every evening. When, therefore, the religion of Connecticut was introduced into Boston by the building of Park Street Church, and by the arrival of my children’s great-grandfather, Lyman Beecher, and the custom of an occasional evening service on Sunday or on a week day came with it, it was considered as an entire innovation by old-fashioned Boston. It was quite as much an innovation as calling an Episcopal minister a “rector” is now to oldfashioned Episcopalians, or as having lighted candles in the daytime would be at Trinity. To the last moment of its conscious existence the West Church was never arranged for evening service ; and at this moment you will find, in old Boston families, the habit of going to visit one another on Sunday evening, but not of going to church. Where people go to church steadily on Sunday evening, you may generally guess that they are not of old Boston blood.
In the interior of the State, as at my grandfather’s, for example, the observance of “ the Sabbath ” stopped at sunset. For instance, we watched at his house for the sun to go down on Sunday afternoon, and then brought out our little cannons and fired a feu de joie in honor of its departure. We then played blind-man’s-buff all Sunday evening, and this in the parsonage of a stiff Calvinistic minister. No such excesses as this would have been permitted in Boston. But gradually Sunday-evening concerts came in, if only they were religious concerts; and the Handel and Haydn, I think, would hardly have been in existence now but for the midway opportunity which Sunday evening gave for their performances. The theatres, on the other hand, were compelled to be closed on Saturday evening and on Sunday, until a period later than that I am describing, when some of the more enterprising managers defied the State and the city, and our statutes were changed so that performances on Saturday evening were possible. After they had gained the point as a matter of right, I think they generally found it more convenient to have the performances of Saturday in the afternoon. Our present statute, which defines the Lord’s Day as from midnight to midnight, is as late as 1844. Before that time there were certain restrictions on Saturday evening, such as the theatrical licenses indicated.
Social existence in all forms of civilization requires a certain knowledge of dancing; and in conventional civilization this dancing is not left to the spontaneous joy of children, but, willingly or unwillingly, they have to be taught to dance. This fell upon ns as upon other children, and to the very end of his life Mr. Lorenzo Papanti, cordial, graceful, and dignified old man, remembered kindly that I was one of the first four pupils whom he had in Boston. He has become so far an historical character to many of the best in Boston that the editor will excuse me if I give a few words to his dancing-school. It was in Montgomery Place, now Bosworth Street; I think in the very house which was removed to open the passage through to what we called Cooke’s Court, and what the present generation calls Province Street. It was in the third story of that house, where a partition had been cut away to make a hall large enough for a dancing-school. The papering at one end still differed from the papering at the other. To this hall of Terpsichore I repaired with three others, and we were the only pupils on the first Thursday afternoon of our attendance. On the next Saturday there arrived more, one of them one of my brothers in baptism, of whom I have already spoken; and from that time the school increased, and, as one is glad to say, maintains at this moment, under the direction of another generation, the high and well-deserved regard and esteem of everybody in Boston who knows anything about it. This hall was near our house, so that we could always go on foot. But there was a rather tragic story in the family of the school of Monsieur Labassé, to which my older brother and sister went, which was so far away that they had to be sent in a carriage. Unfortunately, in the jolting of the carriage they were shaken off the seats, and they were so small that they could not climb up on them again before they arrived at their destination. Thus early was the art of graceful movement impressed upon them.
For me, dancing-school shared in the dislike with which I regarded all other schools. Dear Mrs. Papanti — I remember her with gratitude to this moment —did her best for me, but never was a pupil less likely to add to the reputation of an institution. The school was afterwards removed to Bulfinch Place, where the Papantis had an elegant house. I was at that time bribed to attend by being told I might take a book with me to read. One afternoon, when the boys were carrying on awfully, dear Mrs. Papanti bore down upon us, and said, " Why is it that Master Hale is so quiet, while Master Champernoon behaves so badly ? " and looked over my shoulder to see that I was reading Guy Mannering. “ Ah ! ” she cried, “ I will give Master Champernoon a set of the Waverley novels, if he will behave as well as Master Hale does ! ” But, alas, Master Champernoon was one of the boys who enjoyed dancing and wanted to dance, and had unwarranted arrangements with the girls with regard to partners, and so on, while Master Hale detested the whole thing. Good soul, she did her best in dragging me about, as a favorite pupil, in the waltz; but my poor head swam, and I think my partners, from that day to this, have generally preferred to “ stand through a waltz,” when they have found the alternative was sharing it with me.
All this led, of course, to little evening parties of the boys and girls, just as it does now. The boys would stand at the foot of the stairs and in the entries, just as they do now, and maiden aunts would make incursions upon them to tell them that they must take partners, just as they do now. They took these partners, and then retired from the field to similar clusters, to be broken up again, just as they do now.
I have tried to describe, in my story East and West, the way in which refreshments were generally served at evening parties, unless these were on the grandest scale. There would frequently be such a party without a proper suppertable. I believe this was largely due to the fact that in very few houses in Boston then was there a special diningroom. People dined in their back parlors, and when the house was given up to dancing the hack parlor was not available as a supper-room. At the simpler parties to which boys and girls went, in place of the supper, a little procession of servants brought in large trays with cake of different kinds, even with ice-cream, perhaps with jelly or blanc mange, with wine or lemonade; and these processions recurred half a dozen times in the course of the evening.
Another function which brought young people together, and brought them together with older people, was the arrangement for evening lectures. These were much more familiar and homelike than the lectures of to-day, to which we go hardly with any idea of social enjoyment. But, as I have intimated, the “march of intellect ” had begun. One feature of the march of intellect was the introduction of lectures for people who wanted to learn something. They were exactly what is called the university extension system to-day, which I observe, however, is spoken of everywhere as if it were an entirely new invention. Now a lecture course is undertaken by a director, or entrepreneur, who means to provide entertainment for the people. He does not pretend to teach the people; he proposes to entertain them. Therefore, if his course consists of eight lectures, he provides eight different entertaining speakers ; and this makes almost a class of men, each of whom has a few entertaining addresses prepared with this definite purpose. But in the earlier days of what we called the lecture system, or the lyceum, a body of public-spirited men, who really wanted to improve the education of the community, banded themselves together into a society for that purpose. This society, among other instrumentalities, established courses of lectures, generally in the winter, for the instruction of the people.
In Boston, such lectures had been heralded by courses arranged by individuals. Dr. Jacob Bigelow had courses on botany ; Henry Ware gave a course of very popular lectures on Palestine ; Edward Everett delivered lectures on Greek antiquities ; and there were other similar courses, just as there might be now, if anybody would attend them. The success of these courses showed that a systematic arrangement might be made for courses of popular lectures in the evenings, and such were, in fact, carried on by different societies for a period of years. They culminated in the great success which Mr. John Lowell achieved in the establishment of the Lowell Institute ; and I suppose it was this foundation which broke down at once all weaker foundations with the same purpose. It does its work so well that nobody in Boston need have any tears for them. I remember the Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge, the Mercantile Library Association, the Mechanics’ Apprentices’ Association, the Natural History Society, and the Historical Society as maintaining such courses of lectures as I describe. There would be from ten to fifteen lectures in a course. The tickets for the cheapest were fifty cents a course; for others they were a dollar, or even two dollars. At our house this made no difference, because tickets to everything — concerts, lectures, and the rest—were sent to the newspaper office, and practically we children went to any such entertainments as we liked.
One of these societies would arrange a course of lectures. The whole course might be on chemistry. I remember such a course from Professor Webster. It was conducted with all his brilliant power of experiment, and listened to with enthusiasm by four or five hundred people. I remember another course by John Farrar, on the steam-engine. I heard, in the Useful Knowledge course, several of Mr. Waldo Emerson’s biographical lectures. The Useful Knowledge course would be perhaps on Tuesday evening, the Mercantile Library on Wednesday, the Mechanics’ on Thursday. Eventually, halls were built specially for such lectures. There was one favorite hall in the Masonic Temple, which is now occupied, as rebuilt, by Messrs. Stearns. I suppose this hall would hold five hundred people. The seats rose rapidly, as in the lecture-room of a medical college, so that people could see all the experiments or pictures on the platform.
To such an entertainment you went, and if you were old enough you took a friend of the other sex. You arrived there half an hour before the lecture began, and walked from seat to seat, talking with the people whom you found there. After the lecture had gone on half an hour or more there was a recess, and again you walked about from seat to seat; perhaps chose another seat, if the first had not been satisfactory. At the end of a lecture of may be an hour and a half in length, you went home with anybody who chose to invite you. At the house you went to, there was the invariable dish of oysters, or crackers and cheese, or whatever was the evening meal of that particular evening. And thus the lyceum lecture of that time played a quite important part in the social arrangements of growing boys and girls.
Of its advantage as a system of instruction I can say hardly too much. Of course the instruction given was superficial. I have lived seventy years in the world, and I have never found any instruction that was not superficial. But it was instruction ; it was instruction given by first-rate men, who knew how to teach : and it was systematic instruction. The lecturer of to-day takes an epigrammatic phrase for his subject, as he calls it; it is the Philosophy of Mathematics, or it is the Mathematics of Philosophy. He speaks well, he brings in interesting stories, he gives a little information, and the public which sees him and hears him is amused. Some one asked James Russell Lowell once whether he supposed that the average audience of an interior town in New York cared much for Beaumont and Fletcher. He said very frankly: “ I do not suppose they care for Beaumont and Fletcher at all. But I suppose they have heard of me and want to see me, and a good way to see me is to pay for my lecture, sit in front of me, and see and hear me for the hour in which I am reading something which interests me.” This is very genuine ; it is all right; it is a good bit of public entertainment for people who have been tired to death by the work of the day. But it is not instruction. Dear Starr King used to say : “A lyceum lecture consists of five parts of sense and five of nonsense. There are not more than five people in New England who know how to mix them. But I am ono of the five.” All lecturers do not keep to his recipe.
On the other hand, I believe that if we could wipe out the whole nonsense of the evening lessons from the school curriculum ; if we could make teachers teach, where now they simply hear the lesson which somebody else has taught; if then we would reserve our evenings for instructing intelligent boys and girls in the fundamental principles of a good many things which are best taught by lectures, I believe that we should improve the system of public instruction to-day. It would require a good deal of work on the part of a great many intelligent people. Possibly some time there will be a school committee which will think such an enterprise worthy of attention.
A few years ago, I looked in, late in the evening, upon a pretty little party of one of the largest classes in my own Sunday-school. I met there perhaps thirty of the sweetest and most charming of the youngest women in Boston. They had assembled at the invitation of their teacher, who had recently traveled in the East, and they had been spending the evening in conversation with one another and with her, and in examining the curiosities, and especially the photographs, which she had brought from Egypt, Syria, and Greece. In this large and brilliant company I was the only gentleman. At half past ten, after a little supper, we all gathered to go home. Comparing the detail of Boston life with what it would have been fifty years before, I was interested to see that these young ladies all went home without escort from the other sex. Some of them had ordered their carriages; many took street-cars, which passed the house in one direction or the other, and which would leave them within a block of their own residences. It is certainly highly creditable to Boston that a body of women, young or old, can use the evening in such a way, and can disperse to their homes at such an hour, with no companionship but what they give to one another, and with no hazard of insult.
But I thought then, and I have often said since, that such a social order was wholly unlike the social order in which I grew up. When I was a hoy of eight or nine or ten, no sister of mine would have gone to take tea with a friend hut one of her brothers would have been detailed to go for her and bring her home at eight or nine o’clock. I am quite clear that in those days the life of young people involved a great deal more of the visiting of both sexes together than it dues now. I do not mean to speak of the life of boys of fifteen years old and over. I speak of the life of boys of all ages, from five or six years upward.
The function of tea-parties was quite different from that of dinner-parties. You would invite two or three boys and girls, who were friends of your children, to come and take tea, where now you would hardly invite children of the same age to come and dine. Now, if this function happened to be exercised in the house of old-fashioned people, it had some rather queer attendants, — or what would seem queer to the boy of the present day. For instance, one of the relics of Revolutionary times was the general impression that no boy could ever serve his country unless he were trained as a public speaker. I think this is true now, and it was known to be true then. Consequently, when you were at such a party as I have described, the evening’s entertainment of playing old maid, teetotum games, jackstraws, or whatever might occupy the young people, would be interrupted from time to time by an appeal to the boys of the party to “speak a piece,” for the benefit of the elders. There was a certain compliment implied in being asked to “ speak a piece; ” but it was not a great compliment, for every boy was asked, not to say compelled, to do so. It would have been bad form to decline to speak, quite as much as it would be to sit at a dinner-table and decline to eat anything before you, as if it were of a quality poorer than that to which you were accustomed.
Accordingly, you had one or two “ pieces ” in mind, which you were prepared to “ speak.” When you were called upon, — when the old ladies, at their side of the room, had made up their minds that it was time for this exercise to go forward, — you were told, “ Master Edward ” (or Master Oliver, or Master Alexander), ‘‘ the company would like to have you speak a piece.” You demurred as little as you could, you went into the corner, you made a bow, and you spoke a piece. You then went back to your cards or other entertainment. I do not remember that the girls sang songs, as it seems to me they should have done, under the circumstances.
At such a little party, again, invariably the tray was brought in as the evening went by, and you ate the nuts and raisins or figs, which were generally something you did not have at home. Perhaps this is always one of the charms of social life. I may say, in passing, that in a world where there were few refrigerators, and where there were no steamboats, dried fruit was much more an article of daily consumption, and appeared at dessert more often than it does now.
There may be, by the way, no other opportunity in these papers to quote the amusing passage from Dr. Palfrey on salt codfish. It is in his admirable chapter on New England life, in which he followed the example of Macaulay’s celebrated chapter describing the family institutions of England. “ Forty years ago, I was so situated as to know uncommonly well the habits of different classes of people in different parts of the country. Till a later period than this, the most ceremonious Boston feast was never set out on Saturday (then the common dinner-party day) without the dunfish at one end of the table; abundance, variety, pomp of other things, but that unfailingly. It was a sort of New England point of honor; and luxurious livers pleased themselves, over their nuts and wine, with the thought that, while suiting their palates, they had been doing their part in a wide combination to maintain the fisheries and create a naval strength.”
There was one function of those days which has been admirably improved in the customs of later days. Franklin left a small fund to the city, to be expended in medals for the most deserving scholars. The Franklin medal was first awarded in 1792, is awarded to the present time, and is a good badge of honor to the genuine Boston boy. The school committee and the government of the city dined together, on the day of the school anniversary, in Faneuil Hall, and the boys who received the Franklin medals were then first initiated into the forms of a public dinner. There must have been some sort of a procession, — I do not know, for I never had a Franklin medal, —and the boys sat in Faneuil Hall and heard the speaking. But as years went on, after the time of which I speak, and particularly after the girls began to receive city medals, it was seen that a much pleasanter entertainment could be devised for the children than a feast at which the officers of the city government took the principal part. And in these later days the mayor holds a great reception in the large Mechanics’ Hall ; he gives to every graduating girl a bouquet, and the boys and girls dance together to music which the city provides. I mention the contrast, because I am quite sure that in the years between 1826 and 1837 there would have been a religious prejudice in some quarters against dancing, which would have prevented any such public celebration.
The boys were in touch with the larger public in their unauthorized and unrecognized connection with the fine department. Boston was still a wooden town, and the danger of fire was, as it is in all American cities, constantly present. There hung in our front entry two leather buckets ; in each of them was certain apparatus which a person might need if he were in a burning house. Strange to say, there was a bedkey, that he might take down a bedstead if it were necessary. These were relics of a time when my father had been a member of one of the private fire companies. In those associations, each man was bound to attend at any fire where the property of other members of the association was in danger; and there were traditions of father’s having been present at the great Court Street fire, for instance. But these fire clubs either died out or became social institutions, as the Fire Club in Worcester exists to this day, and nothing was left but the bucket as a sort of memorial of a former existence.
Before our day the volunteer fire department system of Boston had been created, and there were similar systems in all large cities. Of course we boys supposed that ours was the best in the world; each boy in Boston supposed that the engine nearest his house was the best engine in the world, and that, on occasion, it could throw water higher than any other engine. It could likewise, on occasion, pump dry any engine that was in line with it. I need not say that these notions of the boys were simply superstitions, wholly unfounded in fact. Our engine was the New York. The engine-house was one of a curious mass of public buildings that occupied the place where Franklin’s statue now stands, in front of what was the courthouse of that day. There was no electric fire alarm, in those early days. The moment a fire broke out, everybody who had any lungs ran up the street or down the street, or both ways, crying “ Fire ! ” and as soon as the churches could be opened all the bells in Boston began to ring. Then the company which was to drag the New York to the fire began to assemble at its house, and naturally there was great pride in seeing that your engine was first in place. You learned where the fire was, not by any signal, but by the rumor of the street. It was at the North End, or at the South End, or on the wharves, or on “ Nigger Hill.” As soon as boys and men, of whatever connection, arrived, sufficient to drag the engine, it started, under the direction of such officer of the company as might be present. The members of the company had no uniforms, so far as I remember ; they joined the lines as quickly as they could, but there were always enough people to pull. As I have intimated, it was everybody’s business to attend at the fire.
When you arrived at the spot, there would be a general caucus as to the method of attack, yet I think there were people in command. Afterward, a gentleman named Amory, highly respected by all of us, was chief engineer. Whatever the caucus directed was done, with as much efficiency as was possible under such democratic institutions. But, in the first place, the probability was that there was no water near. The Jamaica Pond aqueduct carried water in log pipes to the lower levels of the city ; but for fully half the city there was no such supply, and wells had to be relied upon. Every engine, therefore, which was good for anything was a “ suction engine,” as it was called; that is, it was able to pump from a well, as well as able to throw water to an indefinite height. The engine that arrived first repaired to the well best known in that neighborhood, or, if the occasion were fortunate, to the sea, and began to pump. The engine that arrived next took station next to this, and pumped from it through a long line of hose ; and so successive engines carried the water to the place where some foreman directed it upon the flames. It was thus that different engines attained their celebrity, as one pumped the tub of another dry, while the unfortunate members were “ working the brakes ” to their best to keep it full.
The buckets of which I have spoken were the remains of a yet earlier period, when people formed themselves in line to the well or to the sea, and passed buckets backward and forward, — full if they were going towards the fire, empty if they were going away; and the water was thus thrown upon such flames as chose to wait for it.
When one writes this, one wonders that Boston was not burned down four times a year ; indeed, there were very bad fires in those days. The system called out some of the most energetic and public-spirited young fellows of the town, and after a while they were exempt from service in the militia. Well they might be, for their service as firemen was far more valuable to the community, and far more oppressive in time and health, than any service in the militia of those days. They felt their power, and asserted it once too often. In the mayoralty of Mr. Samuel A. Eliot, a company did something it should not have done, or refused to do something it was told to do, and, with a firm hand, he turned them all out, and created the system of the fire department of to-day, in which every man is paid for his services, and may be regularly called upon, whether he will or no, as a servant of the city. The introduction of steam fireengines and a sufficient supply of water would in themselves have been enough to revolutionize the whole of the primitive method of extinguishing fire, had no such revolt of the fire companies compelled a revolution.
I need hardly say that the old method interested to the full every boy in town. If his father and mother would let him, he attended the fire, where he could at least scream “ Fire ! ” if he could not do anything else. If a boy were big enough, he was permitted almost to kill himself by working at the brakes. This was the most exhausting method for the application of human power that has been contrived ; but there was power enough to be wasted, and, until the introduction of steam, it was everywhere used. It is still used on board ships which have no steam power. Every enterprising boy regarded it as the one wish of his life that he might be eighteen years old, so that he could join the company in his particular neighborhood ; and oven if he had not attained that age, he attached himself to the company as a sort of volunteer aid, and, as I say, was permitted, as a favor, to assist in running through the streets, dragging at the long rope which drew the engine.
Edward Everett Hale.