The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Reference Collection Book Review: Bay Cities, Water Politics

During a year when much of Massachusetts is experiencing drought conditions and water use restrictions have become a reality in the lives of many in the Commonwealth, it is timely to consider what our regional history of water use and management has been. In the recently-acquired Bay Cities and Water Politics: The Battle for Resources in Boston & Oakland (University Press of Kansas, 1998), historian Sarah S. Elkind documents the political development of water use policies in two geographically and culturally divergent areas of the United States: eastern Massachusetts and the San Francisco bay area. Briefly surveying early water use policies in both the Boston area and the East Bay, Elkind focuses her historical narrative on the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when first-generation water systems began to strain under increasing demand and each region had to determine a way forward.

In Massachusetts, where clean water delivery and sewage disposal had long been framed as a public health concern, the political elite were able to build the case for a regional system that put water and sewage into the hands of state agencies. The voters supported the creation of “new institutions, controlled by engineers and bureaucrats...because they face pollution and water supply problems that their municipalities had repeatedly failed to solve” (114). On the East Bay, meanwhile, water resources became a struggle over private versus publicly-held water supplies as powerful commercial interests resisted attempts to establish publicly-controlled regional deep into the twentieth century.

In both regions, Elkind argues, “rural activities and economies were sacrificed for urban prosperity in spite of the continued nostalgia for America’s rural past” (155). While each region developed temporary solutions to both water supply and waste disposal, these systems remained vulnerable to increased demand for clean water and the growing environmental burden of pollution. Regionalism, Elkind argues, was a Progressive-era solution to challenge of water resource management. By creating infrastructure somewhat immune to the local politics of individual city or corporate interests, regional solutions created water systems that provided clean water to citizens and removed waste. However, regional technologies “ultimately impaired the ability of...natural systems to absorb the byproducts of modern industrial life” (171). By the late twentieth century, regional entities came under harsh criticism from citizen activists in both Massachusetts and California as water battles took center stage in regional politics once again.

For a book on water politics, Bay Cities and Water Politics is a fairly dry read. Elkind relies on government records, the personal papers of key figures, newspapers, pamphlets, and other print materials to construct her history. Readers unfamiliar with the individuals, municipal agencies, and corporations involved may get lost in the play-by-play accounting of regional politics at work. Nonetheless, the title will be an essential resource for anyone needing background on Progressive era water and sewage politics in Boston. It complements the work done by Carl Smith in City Water, City Life (University of Chicago Press, 2013) documenting water supply politics in Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago before the Civil War.


Related Collections:

Boston & Roxbury Mill Corporation records, 1794-1912. 

Elizabeth S. Houghton papers, 1916-1999; bulk: 1955-1999.

Allen H. Morgan papers, 1923-1990.

Lemuel Shattuck papers,1676-1909; bulk: 1805-1867.

Quincy family papers (1665-1852) in the Quincy, Wendell, Holmes, and Upham Family Papers, microfilm edition.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 9 September, 2016, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

The Society is CLOSED on Monday, September 5, in observance of Labor Day.

We return from a long holiday weekend to a steadily increasing flow of events through the month and into October as seminar season resumes. Here's what's happening this week:

- Wednesday, 7 September, 12:00PM : Join us for a Brown Bag lunch talk with Chris Staysniak of Boston College. "To Serve and Grow: Catholic and Protestant Youth Volunteering in America, 1934-1973" explores the development of youth volunteering in the United States in the twentieth century and shows how the development of the volunteer was always as important as the actual servcie work he or she provided. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Thursday, 8 September, 5:00PM : In "The Past Has a Future," Jonathan Fanton, President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, takes up the recurring challenges in the relationship between historians and the public. In so doing, he looks toward a better future for the disipline from the perspective of a leading learned society tha tbridges the humanities, the sciences, and the public good. This talk is open to the public, free of charge, though registration is required. A pre-talk reception begins at 4:30PM and the event begins at 5:00PM. 

Please note, the library closes at 4:15PM on Thursday, 8 September, in preparation for the evening's event. The library remains closed on Friday, 9 September. Normal hours resume on Saturday, 10 September.

- Saturday, 10 September, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute, docent-led walk through the public spaces at the Society. This tour is free and open to the public with no reservations needed for individuals or small groups. Larger parties (8 or more) should contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley in advance at 617-646-0508 or 

While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Turning Points in American History.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 4 September, 2016, 12:00 AM

“The Poor Wretched People Are Much Difficulted”

I’d like to take this opportunity to write about the topic that’s been dominating U.S. headlines and occupies countless hours of on-air and on-line punditry: the annual migration of the monarch butterfly.

Just kidding. Yes, I mean the U.S. presidential election. Bear with me.

Historical perspective is our bread and butter here at the MHS, of course. Studying the past is almost always both illuminating and sobering. So I thought I’d revisit the U.S. presidential election of 1788-1789, when 56-year-old George Washington became the first chief executive of the brand-new nation.

Looking for inspiration, I browsed through our collection of Miscellaneous Manuscripts, what we call an “artificial” collection. These documents were donated to the MHS at different times, and each is cataloged individually in our online catalog. They’re arranged chronologically, so I could zero in on a specific date range.

I came across a document I’d never seen before but loved immediately. It’s a letter from Baptist minister David Thomas (1732-1815) in Virginia to his nephew Griffith Evans (1760-1845) in Philadelphia. The letter is dated 3 March 1789. After complaining that he’d been “immers’d in the fatigues and troubles of a foolish perverse hairbraind world,” Thomas launched into a bitter diatribe about the sweeping Federalist victory in the presidential election two months before. His letter is dripping with sarcasm and contempt:

“How does Fedralism go on in your State? Does the people know the meaning of the word Fedralism, it is a very pretty word, it has a beautiful sound, it Charms all the learned the wise, the polite, the reputable, the Honorable, and virtuous, and all that are not Caught with the alurements of its melody, are poor ignorant asses, nasty dirty sons of bitches; reserved for future treatment agreeable to their demerrit. […] The whole American world is in an uproar.”


It’s hard to imagine the kind of sea change Thomas was living through. In fact, this letter was written just one day before the U.S. Constitution went into effect, superseding the Articles of Confederation. Thomas clearly resented the strong centralized government that was set to replace the looser confederation of independent states that he preferred.

George Washington belonged to no political party and was elected unanimously, a circumstance inconceivable today. But far from inconceivable is Thomas’s frustration at his state’s convoluted electoral process, which he described in detail:

“Perhaps you are a Stranger to the term hold the pole, of which I will inform you, viz: the Candidate stands upon an eminence close to the Avenue thro which the people pass to give in their votes, viva voce, or by outcry, there the candidates stand ready to beg, pray, and solicit the peoples votes in opposition to their Competitors, and the poor wretched people are much are much difficulted by the prayers and threats of those Competitors, exactly Similar to the Election of the Corrupt and infamous House of Commons in England.”

He’d narrowly escaped a seat in the Virginia Assembly himself:

“At the last Election I was drag’d from my Lodging when at dinner, and forced upon the Eminence purely against my will, but I soon disappeared and return’d to my repast, and as soon as they lost sight of me they quit voting for me. Such is the pitifull and lowliv’d manner all the Elected officers of Government come into posts of honour and profit in Virginia, by Stooping into the dirt that they may ride the poor people; and would you have your Uncle to divest himself of every principle of honour to obtain a disagreeable office[?] I hope not.”

So, if you get fed up with political shenanigans, chicanery, and tomfoolery this election season, what Thomas called “Rotated […] tricks” and “Reverberated flings,” remember that you’re not alone. And be sure to visit the MHS library to learn more about early American politics—or butterflies, if you prefer.

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 31 August, 2016, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

There are no public programs or events scheduled this week. Keep an eye on our Online Calendar of Events to see what is coming in the fall and for library/building closures. 

Please note that the library is CLOSED on Saturday, September 3, but the galleries remain open. The Society is CLOSED on Monday, September 5, for Labor Day. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 28 August, 2016, 12:00 AM

Reference Collection Development: Watch This Space for New Titles!

During the past fiscal year, the MHS used income from hosting the GLCA Boston Summer Seminar to increase our reference collection development efforts. As a research library, it is crucial for the MHS to have up-to-date scholarly and reference works that support in-depth exploration and analysis of our manuscript, print, and art and artifact collections. In recent years we have depended primarily on the generosity of donors to add recent publications to our collection. We are excited that the Boston Summer Seminar income allowed us to be more proactive in strengthening our scholarly and reference holdings.

During the winter of 2016, our reader services team reviewed and updated the reference collection development policy, identified priority areas for acquisition, and surveyed trade publications for relevant titles. In June we were able to purchase over fifty titles in the following key areas: artifacts and material culture reference works, art and photography history and reference, Boston and local history, environmental history, immigration and emigration, New England in a global context, research fellows’ publications, World War I, research strategies and techniques, and twentieth century political and social history. Most of these titles are now cataloged and available upon request for review in the MHS library’s reference or reading rooms.

Beginning in September, reader services team members will highlight some of these newly-acquired works here on The Beehive, in the form of summary reviews paired with suggestions for which MHS collections might benefit from consultation with the work under review. We hope that these short reviews will encourage you to explore our scholarly and reference holdings for titles that support your work with our rare and unique collections material.

The MHS library also continues to welcome the donation of recent scholarly works that make use of or fit with our holdings, as well as being open to suggestions for titles that may be useful additions to our scholarly and reference collection. Offers of donation or suggestions for acquisition should be directed to the reference librarian Anna Clutterbuck-Cook at

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 26 August, 2016, 12:00 AM

older posts