By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate
This past year, as we’ve been staying at home, the archives of historical societies have been delved for content for what is called “armchair vacations,” or travelling digitally. One of the bonuses of “travelling” this way is the ability to see places from a different time period, to see how they were originally used , how people wanted them to be used, or to see places before the buildings were there. I would like to take you on a tour of Boston’s Freedom Trail through the eyes of the Arthur Asahel Shurcliff Collection of Glass Lantern Slides. The Freedom Trail, created in 1951, is a unique collection of sites that tell the story of Boston’s role in the American Revolution and this year is the 70th anniversary of its creation! This collection of glass lantern slides does not contain all of the sites on the Freedom Trail, but it does have a majority.
Arthur Asahel Shurcliff and this collection of glass lantern slides has been written about before (see: Newly Digitized: the Arthur Asahel Shurcliff Collection of Glass Lantern Slides. That blog post goes over Shurcliff’s life, travels and work, over the collection’s breadth and depth of subject matter, and over the reasons for digitizing this particular collection.
This tour of the Freedom Trail is not only for those outside of Boston or Massachusetts but also for locals who may not have seen these historical photographs of the sites before. We’ll go in the order meant by the Freedom Trail map, starting with Boston Common and ending in Charlestown at the Bunker Hill Monument.
You will notice that the lantern slides that I picked mostly have people in view, like in the image of the Boston Common. I think it gives great perspective, information about the time the photograph was taken and reminds us that people lived and experienced the sites in the past. What I like about this particular view is that you can spy the Massachusetts State House in the background!
I like the way these two pictures show how the Massachusetts State House is up on top of a hill.
The horse-drawn carriages and the blurred image of people walking across the street makes this view of Park Street Church seem bustling!
The columns on the front of King’s Chapel are barely visible on the left side of the photograph. However, in this image you can also see the Park Street Church and how close these two religious buildings are to each other. In between the two is Granary Burying Ground, a site which Shurcliff had not collected or taken an image.
I think this image is my favorite of this post. The Old South Meeting House looks lovely with the climbing ivy present on the building, but it also shows a trolley car going down Washington Street on the right and a street clock on the left. For comparison, I took an image from Google Maps of the present state of Washington Street facing the Old South Meeting House and the clock, although updated, is still in that same spot!
The Old State House is one of my favorite stops on the Freedom Trail and my favorite thing about the Old State House is the lion and unicorn statues on the east façade. In the view from Scollay Square, it may be difficult to make out, but the unicorn statue is just visible, and on the engraving of the Boston Massacre site, the lion and unicorn do not appear. That is because the statues were ripped down the day the Declaration of Independence was read from the balcony of the Old State House in 1776 and burned in a bonfire. The replicas were not put onto the building until 1882 when a restoration project brought the building back to its “colonial appearance.” Read more about the lion and unicorn statues, and the time capsule found there in 2014 in On King Street, the blog of the Bostonian Society. (On King Street: Lion and Unicorn (bostoniansociety.blogspot.com))
This 19th century view of Faneuil Hall is extremely interesting, mostly because the streetscape and buildings, besides the Hall, have completely changed. The person who took this photograph would have stood in Adams Square, which no longer exists. Present day Adams Square is part of Government Center. There are trolley tracks that travel behind a statue, the trolley probably would have travelled from nearby Scollay Square, and the Old State House would have been off camera to the right.
This image of Old North Church may give you an idea of why the lanterns hung in the belfry, or bell tower, could be seen from far away as it is taller than the surrounding buildings.
Although Shurcliff did not have any photographs of the Bunker Hill Monument, he did design a landscaped park which would have connected the monument to the present day location of the USS Constitution Museum and Park created in 1792. Although this connecting park was never created, it is interesting to see how a landscape designer thought to improve the site.
I hope you enjoyed taking this short “armchair vacation” down the Freedom Trail with me! If you want to see how lantern glass slides work, Brown University has a great guide! (Antique Lantern Slides (by A. Bravo) (brown.edu))
Further reading within The Beehive on the Arthur Asahel Collection of Glass Lantern Slides:
“A Photographic History of Boston’s Back Bay Neighborhood” (A Photographic History of Boston’s Back Bay Neighborhood | Beehive (masshist.org))
“From Fenways Past” (From Fenways Past | Beehive (masshist.org))