A summer Sunday in Arlington, circa 1905

Mass Ave Eastbound w open streetcar ca 1905 - sm

Longtime Society member Bill Mahoney, who recently donated this previously unpublished image to our collection, would often remark “If only the photographer would have directed his lens just a little bit more . . .” towards a particular direction, we’d have a vastly easier time zeroing-in on a date for many historical photographs.

Such is the case with this beautiful summer scene.  At the far left we see just the eastern edge of the original four-story Associate’s Block (built 1902).  If we could see its complete façade, the presence or absence of its 1907 single-story addition would be a useful landmark.  But there are many other details that suggest this image dates to approximately 1905.

Notice the family group who appear to be waiting for a streetcar (whose stops were indicated by the high painted band on a utility pole), this one at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Library Way (today’s Peg Spengler Way, and still a public transportation stop for MBTA buses).  The lady’s long skirt is perfectly modest, but with a hemline practical to qualify it as a good “walking costume” consisting of a tucked shirtwaist and circular skirt (in a self-flounce pleated pattern).  The shirtwaist sleeves are cuffed and met by elbow-length gloves, the latter an indispensable article of clothing whenever a lady of the era left her home, at any time of year.  The little boy in front of her is stylishly attired in a sailor’s suit.

Looking carefully at the row of shade trees in the background, we see bands of burlap attached to their trunks.  These were a preventive measure to inhibit gypsy moth caterpillars from ascending to feed on the leaves.  In 1904, the trees from the Belmont line to the Mystic Lakes had been denuded, so efforts in this later year seem to have been successful.

Across the street, a ten-bench open trolley car, bearing number 1906, arrived on the Boston Elevated line originating in Kendall Square in Cambridge, via Beacon Street in Somerville.  The streetcar route system was so extensive that many such “one-seat rides” are envied by public transportation commuters today.  The trolley car stands empty, likely awaiting a switch to eastbound tracks­­, because its route terminated at Arlington Center, rather than Arlington Heights.

Partly hidden behind the streetcar is the Studio Building, so-named because its principal tenant was Litchfield’s photography rooms and laboratory.  The exterior was completely remodeled in the 1920s for the Menotomy Trust Company, then again to its present appearance in 1948 when acquired by Harvard Trust Company.  Today it is a Bank of America branch.

Beyond Railroad Avenue (today’s David Lamson Way) is the Sherburne Block, known informally as the “post office block” after its anchor tenant.  Other businesses included Ronco’s barbershop (note the striped barber pole curbside).  That there is no flag flying above the U.S. Post Office entrance on a fine day, we can safely assume that this image was made on a Sunday afternoon.  Another clue that it is Sunday is the presence of men along with the women and children, because Saturdays were at least partial workdays for most.

Crowning the entire scene is the jaunty cupola and open lantern of the Arlington Town Hall, completed in 1853 and replaced by the present town hall in 1913.  The building had long ceased to function efficiently as the center for municipal government.  Functional obsolescence aside, its architectural style was considered decidedly “old hat.”  The cupola would vanish from the Arlington skyline in 1923 after being struck by lightning, but the building, thus shorn and increasingly forlorn, would house a variety of businesses (including a taxi company waiting room in its final days) until it was razed in 1960 for the present alignment of Mystic Street.  Perhaps it’s time for a commemorative plaque to Arlington’s first town hall in the “Uncle Sam Park” that occupies part of its former footprint today.

4 thoughts on “A summer Sunday in Arlington, circa 1905

  1. I’ve seen that cupola in a photo of the Center, now in the Broadway branch of the East Cambridge Savings Bank. I tried to winkle out the placement of the station in it, and ID of the building. Glad to have that mystery solved. DLa Rue (#ocbground, @dwyndlelee).

  2. Thank you to Bill Mahoney for donating this photograph to the Society and to Richard Duffy for starting this blog and describing the scene we see. The 1905 era of this picture is of course, the last years of the “pre-automobile” city and suburban streetscape, and I’m intrigued to understand the street and walking surfaces that we see here and in many other photographs of this time period.

    We see very neat and defined granite stone curbing, most of which is exactly what we see in our streets today. Some certain parts of the street surface appear to be laid with either granite or clay brick, particularly the pedestrian cross-street walkways, the street gutters adjacent to granite curbing, and, it appears, in the proximity of the streetcar tracks, including the boarding areas of the streetcar stop. But by far the largest parts of the street surface appear to be of some type of “dirt” composition.

    What was this composition? Was its composition significantly a compacted soil of high clay content, or more in the form of compacted fine coal cinders, or very fine stones and stone dust?. Compacted clay soil of course would not much absorb rainfall that fell, while coal cinders and stone dust would be more porous and allow rainfall to absorb into it rather than run off to collect in the curb gutters and hopefully find it way to a storm drain. Cinders and stone dust street surfaces of course would give rise blowing dust and dust accumulations, on the windy days. Would compacted clay street surfaces that were very dry make just the same dust problems?

    The present day public travel “unpaved” roads that I am familiar with from my travels in rural Iowa, are composed of a not really all that fine stone, with perhaps some stone dust, and do drain well, but are subject to evidencing pothole development over time from modern vehicle travel. But the dirt street surface we see in this photograph does not at all appear to be anywhere near the same color, nor texture, as those modern-era non-asphalt paved roadways. It visually appears to be more like plain common dirt, which might form into clumps, rather than be a fine stone or stone dust.

    I am aware that towns at public cost at the time undertook to spray the roadways periodically in an effort to keep down dust. Perhaps the spray was only water, but it’s possible something like lime or another ingredient was added to the water to hold the finest dust together in small clumps to resist being blown by wind.

    In the era of this photograph, traversing across these roadway surfaces, there would be very few early automobiles, and overwhelming, traffic consisting of horses and horse-drawn wagons. I’ll admit to wondering about the indelicate subject of the excrement that the horses would leave on the streets. I presume horse-owners in such event were not required to stop & clean up after the horses, but that it was just left behind to mix up and be ground into the roadway surface. Was that a consideration for towns, in the type of street surface composition they sought? Or maybe did towns, even prior to the later automobile oriented curb-to-curb cobblestone pavement era to come, already have employees whose job was to patrol the streets and clean up what horses had left behind?

    And one final thing I see that I am intrigued about. Further beyond the telephone pole with the white band painted on it at the near street curb, there appears to be a pipe assembly of three sections that hangs over the roadway at about the height of a horse’s back. Is that also a public water hydrant there at ground level too, and could there have been town public infrastructure provision for horses to receive an overhead wash of water at a public street curbside?

  3. Excellent! Thank you, again–I always love your notes and observations! 1907–the year (we think) that my grandmother moved into the house her father built in the Heights (where we live now).

  4. Love the history!!!!! My Great Great Grandfather George Dwight Moore bought The Whittemore Farm that abutted the Mystic during the 1880s, and he erected several greenhouses on the property.. He won many awards for the quality vegetables that he sold to The Boston Market.. George Dwight and my Great Great Grandmother Lizzie Ellen Tufts (whose family donated the land on which Tufts University now sits) owned several pieces of property in Arlington and built the Florence & Irvington apartments. In 1950 my Great Grandfather Milton Earnest Moore tore down the old Victorian mansion a built The Moore apartments. Wish they had never torn down the mansion house!!!!!! Have some beautiful pics of it back in the day..

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