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Life in Cambridge town.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
No town in this country has been the occasion of two literary descriptions more likely to become classic than two which bear reference to the Cambridge of fifty years ago. One of these is Lowell's well-known ‘Fireside Travels,’ and the other is the scarcely less racy chapter in the Harvard Book, called ‘Harvard Square,’ contributed by our townsman John Holmes, younger brother of ‘the Autocrat,’—a man mentioned more than once in Lowell's prose and verse. Emerson said once of John Holmes that he represented humor, while his brother, Dr. O. W. Holmes, represented wit; and certainly every page of this ‘Harvard Square’ chapter is full of the former and rarer quality. Charles Lamb's celebrated description of the Christ Church hospital and school of his boyhood does not give more of the flavor of an older day.

Those who refer to that chapter will see at the head a vignette of ‘Harvard Square in 1822, taken from a sketch made at the period.’ It seems at first sight to have absolutely nothing in common with the Harvard Square of the present day, but to belong rather to some small hamlet of western Massachusetts. Yet it recalls with instantaneous vividness the scenes of my youth, and is the very spot through which Holmes, and Lowell, and Richard Dana, and Story the sculptor, and Margaret Fuller Ossoli, walked daily to the post-office, or weekly to the church. The sketch was taken in the year before my own birth, but remained essentially unchanged for ten years thereafter, the population of the whole town having increased only from 3295 in 1820 to 6072 in 1830. The trees on the right overshadowed the quaint barber's shop of Marcus Reemie, crammed with quaint curiosities; and also a building occupied by the law professor, its angle still represented by that of College House. The trees on the left were planted by my own father, as were [36] nearly all the trees in the college yard, he being then the newly appointed steward—now rechristened bursar—of the college, and doing, as Dr. Peabody has told us, the larger part of the treasurer's duties. On the left, beyond the trees, stood the First Parish Church with its then undivided congregation, its weathercock high in air, its seats within each lifted by a hinge, and refreshing every child by its bang and rattle when dropped after prayer time. In the centre was the little Market House, which once gave the name of ‘the Market-Place’ to what was later called, in my memory, ‘the village.’ In the cellar below this building was the oyster shop of the Snow brothers, described by Lowell in couplets of such wit that if they had been printed in some book of English University facetiousness—some ‘Oxford Sausage’ or ‘Cambridge Garland’ —they would have found a place in every collection of English verse. But the two indistinguishable brothers formed themselves a couplet quainter and neater than even their Laureate could furnish.

The only larger building fully visible in the sketch is the only one of these yet remaining, having survived its good looks, if it ever had any, and very nearly survived its usefulness. The rooms now occupied as the waiting-room of the West End Railway were then the bar-room and rear parlor of the Cambridge hotel; the two rooms being connected by a sliding panel, through which the host thrust any potations demanded by the guests in the parlor. There was held, in the rear room, I remember, a moderately convivial ‘spread’ in 1840, given by the speakers at an ‘exhibition,’—a sort of intermediate Commencement Day, long since discontinued,—in which I, as the orator of the day, was supposed to take a leading part, although in fact I only contributed towards the singing, the speaking, and the payment of the bills. At that time the population of the whole town had expanded to 8409, rather more than one third of this being .in what is now Ward One.

It is hard to convey an impression of the smallness of the then Cambridge in all its parts and the fewness of its houses. The house in which I was born in 1823, and which had been built by my father, was that at the head of Kirkland Street, then Professors' Row,—the house now occupied by Mrs. F. C. Batchelder. The field opposite, now covered largely by Memorial Hall, was then an open common, where I remember [37] to have seen the students climbing or swinging on Dr. Charles Follen's outdoor gymnastic apparatus; or perhaps forming to trot away with him at double-quick, their hands clenched at their sides, across the country. The rest of the Delta was covered with apple-trees, whose fruit we boys used to discharge at one another from pointed sticks. Looking down Professors' Row we could see but four houses, the open road then proceeding to Somerville. On Quincy Street there was no house between Professors' Row and Broadway, and we used to play in what was said to be an old Indian cornfield, where the New Church Theological School now stands. Between Quincy Street and Cambridgeport lay an unbroken stretch of woods and open fields, and the streets were called ‘roads,’—the Craigie Road and the Clark Road, now Harvard Street and Broadway, each with one house on what was already called Dana Hill. Going north from my father's house, there were near it the Holmes House and one or two smaller houses; up ‘the Concord Road,’ now Massachusetts Avenue, there were but few; the Common was unfenced until 1830; up Brattle Street there were only the old houses of Tory Row and one or two late additions. On the south side of Brattle Street there was not a house from Hawthorn Street to Elmwood Avenue; all was meadow-land and orchards. Mount Auburn Street was merely ‘the back road to Mount Auburn,’ with a delightful bathing place at Simond's Hill, behind what is now the hospital,—an eminence afterwards carted away by the city and now utterly vanished. Just behind it was a delicious nook, still indicated by one or two lingering trees, which we named ‘The Bower of Bliss,’ at a time when the older boys, Lowell and Story, had begun to read and declaim to us from Spenser's ‘Faerie Queene.’ The old willows now included in the Casino grounds were an equally favorite play-place; we stopped there on our return from bathing, or botanizing, or butterflying, and lay beneath the trees.

North Cambridge as yet was not, though Porter's Tavern was; and we Old Cambridge boys watched with a pleased interest, not quite undemoralizing, the triumphant march of the ‘Harvard Washington Corps’—the college military company—to that hostelry for dinner on public days; and their less regular and decorous return. The outlying settlement of East Cambridge, oftener called Lechmere's Point, was more rarely visited; [38] but when we went to Boston it was by taking ‘Morse's hourly’ and passing through the then open region, past Dana Hill, to the ‘Port,’ where we sometimes had to encounter, even on the stage-box, the open irreverence of the ‘Port chucks,’ who kept up a local antagonism now apparently extinct. Somehow, I do not know why, the Port delegation seemed to be larger and more pugnacious, as Dr. Holmes has pointed out, than the sons of professors and college stewards; and something of this disparity was found, even in Old Cambridge, between the ‘town boys,’ who represented the village contingent, and the ‘Wells boys,’ who were mostly the sons of the aforesaid college worthies, and who went to the private day-school and boarding-school of William Wells, in the rambling old house still occupied by his grandson, William Wells Newell, opposite Elmwood Avenue. I can well remember the wide berth I was accustomed to give, as one of the younger Wells boys, to our late excellent fellow-citizen, Alderman Chapman, the rather aggressive leader of the other party; and it was pleasant to me in later years, never quite outgrowing this early shyness in his presence, to see all spoilsmen and tricksters fighting equally shy of that admirable citizen.

It may be hastily assumed that in this primeval period Cambridge was the most decorous and orderly of villages. It would, perhaps, have been, but for one potent element of misrule,— something to which nothing of the present day can be in the least compared.

There are now about 3000 students resident in Cambridge. There were, by the catalogue of 1845-46, only 458. But of that 458, 132 were in the Law School, and of that number 57 were from the Slave States; and those few dozen unquestionably exceeded, in capacity of disorder, the whole 3000 of the present day. They indeed introduced, unaided, more elements of marked variety into Cambridge society than is now obtainable in the whole university. The difference between the richest ‘swell’ in college to-day and the poorest ‘grind’ is not to be compared with the difference in habits and bearing between the average Southern and the average Northern student, fifty years ago. These young men from Georgia and Mississippi had almost always fashionable clothes and attractive manners, were often graceful dancers, and took the lead in society; but they were very apt to be indolent, dissipated, quarrelsome, [39] and sometimes they were extremely ignorant. They were attracted here by the wide fame of Judge Story, and disappeared with the Civil War. There seemed to be almost no discipline in the Law School,—people spoke of ‘reading law,’ but not of studying law,—and the students of this description did very much what they pleased. When, after being absent from my native place for many years, I returned here to live, I asked Alderman Chapman why it was that there were no longer any street fights, as formerly, between the students and the young mechanics of the town. He said: ‘Those things stopped when the Southern law students disappeared. Hotheaded fellows; always getting into fights. I was in some of those fights myself.’ ‘Alderman,’ I said, ‘I have not the slightest doubt of it.’

Some other bad practices have also disappeared, for which the Southern students were not altogether responsible. Although the average age of the undergraduates was then a year or two younger than now,—I was the youngest in my class and was not eighteen at graduation,—yet the moral standard was in some respects not so high as to-day. If there was not then more dissipation in proportion to the numbers, it certainly was more visible. Public opinion, even in college itself, would not now tolerate the spectacle already mentioned, of members of the ‘College Company’ staggering out of the ranks and falling by the wayside, or of members of the graduating class clustered about Liberty-Tree, on the afternoon of Class Day, welcoming all other students to their buckets of punch. To quote Alderman Chapman once more, I asked him once how long since he had seen a Harvard student intoxicated, by daylight at least. I knew that his business called him through Harvard Square constantly. He said: ‘Hardly since I can remember;’ when I said: ‘It was not so very uncommon in the little Harvard of our youth;’ and he replied: ‘Certainly not.’ Of course it is to be borne in mind that access to Boston is now very much easier, and that convivial meetings occur there rather than in Cambridge; still the fact is of value. I should say in general that, even if the average standard of morality is no higher, the standard of gentlemanly conduct is very much higher; and this, with young men, provides a partial substitute for the other. In the more boyish class of offenses, such as the breaking of windows, the making of bonfires, and the hooting [40] under the windows of unpopular instructors, there has been a change so great as to come near extinction. This is still more true of the robbing of hen-roosts and of market gardens, which would now be considered exceedingly bad form, but which was then a very common practice. I can recall members of my class, afterwards grave dignitaries, who used to go out in parties on autumn evenings with large baskets, and bring them back laden with apples, pears, grapes, and melons from the region now known as Belmont.

The social orders of Cambridge were, at least in the region of Harvard Square, more distinctly stratified than now; there was then a more distinct gentry, consisting largely of the college people and those who had come to Cambridge to educate their sons. In 1845-46, the whole number of resident instructors of all grades, including the Law and Divinity schools, comprised but twenty, instead of being counted as now by hundreds; but the families of those twenty were the social centre. I remember the perfectly courteous and dignified relation between these dignitaries and the Cambridge mechanics, whom it was common to hear praised as a rather picked class, and whose children and grandchildren are now themselves professors in the college or leading professional men. Lowell has testified to the magnificent manners of old Royal Morse, the Cambridge auctioneer, who proportioned each wave of his hat to the recognized social—that is academical—position of the person saluted. It seems to me that there must have been something English about it all, for I remember that in reading Irving's Sketch Book and ‘Bracebridge Hall,’ as a boy, I found nothing essentially unlike types known to me at home. Especially easy was it to identify his village monarch, ‘Ready Money Jack,’ with the broad shoulders and yeomanlike bearing of old Emery Willard, reputed the strongest man in the village, who kept the wood-yard just across Brighton Bridge.

In my memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli I have attempted to sketch the cultivated women who lived in Cambridge and were a controlling power. Mrs. Farrar, Mrs. Norton, Mrs. Howe, Mrs. King, and others,—of whom Miss Fuller herself was the representative in the next generation,—and whom I was accustomed to seeing treated with respect by educated men, although these ladies themselves had never passed through college. [41] Yet Radcliffe was anticipated in a small way by the advantages already held out to studious girls through the college professors; and my own elder sister studied Latin, French, Italian, German, and geometry with teachers thus provided. Some of these instructors were cultivated foreigners, who had been driven here as German or Italian reformers, and were glad to eke out the scanty salaries paid by the college. In all these social descriptions I have in view mainly the region now called Harvard Square, because I knew it best; although it is worth remarking that the finest library in all Cambridge—that since bequeathed by Thomas Dowse, the leather dresser, to the Massachusetts Historical Society—was in Cambridgeport, and was constantly shown to strangers as a curiosity; and that not far from it stood our one artist's studio, that of Washington Allston.

The children of Cambridge had the increased enjoyment of life that comes from country living. The farm of our old minister, Dr. Abiel Holmes, was next to our house, occupying all the ground now covered by the Hemenway Gymnasium, the Scientific School, the Jefferson Laboratory, and Holmes Field. There, with the dear old doctor's grandson, Charles Parsons, we boys of Professors' Row had the rural delights of husking corn and riding on the haycart. There were farms all over town,—all the way up the West Cambridge (Arlington) road, and also between Old Cambridge and Boston, with an occasional outbreak of ropewalks, spreading, like sprawling caterpillars, through what is now Ward Four. There were also some well-preserved revolutionary fortifications,—one remarkably fine one on what is now Putnam Avenue,—but these have now unfortunately vanished. There were ample woods for wildflowers,— Norton's woods and Palfrey's woods especially,—and I have deposited at the Botanical Garden my early botanical notebooks, showing what rare wild-flowers, such as the cardinal flower, the fringed gentian, and the gaudy rhexia, once grew within the town limits. There were also birds now banished which I ineffectually vexed with bow and arrow, envying hopelessly the double-barreled gun—perhaps equally superfluous —of my elder brother. Often I have taken part in those May parties described so pityingly by Lowell in ‘Biglow Papers.’ We learned to skate on Craigie's Pond, to swim in [42] the then unpolluted Charles River, to row at Fresh Pond. We were without many things which now make the bliss of boys, —bicycles and kodaks and toboggans,—but after all, the Cambridge village of those days was a pleasant birthplace. Yet in what place is it not a happy thing for a boy to have been born?

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