Carnival Legacies: The Birth of the Amusement Park

by Faye Charpentier, SEHS intern

The South End Historical Society’s spring fundraising event is quickly approaching! The South End Soiree will be held on May 10 at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. Incorporating history with dinner, dancing, and carnival-themed fun, the 2014 Soiree celebrates the history of the American carnival. Through this exciting event, attendees support historic preservation and education in Boston’s South End while experiencing the history and legacy of carnivals in the United States. Continue preparing for the SouthEnd Soiree’s carnival theme by learning more about carnival history!

Our previous blog post discussed the American traveling carnival’s roots in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. At the Fair, innovative uses of technology and new technologies proved crucial to the carnival’s subsequent popularity. As transportation and electrification continued advancing at the turn of the century, carnivals traveled further and even facilitated the birth of America’s first amusement parks. In Greater Boston, this trend materialized through amusement parks like Newton’s Norumbega Park and Revere Beach’s Wonderland.

The Derby Racer roller coaster at Revere Beach. Via Wikimedia Commons

The Derby Racer roller coaster at Revere Beach. Via Wikimedia Commons

New and improving modes of transportation enabled carnivals to travel throughout the United States. A major aspect of the carnival’s spectacle is that all of the carnival attractions, games, and rides are miraculously portable. Early carnivals traveled by horse and wagon, but these were soon replaced by railway cars. Railroads proved more practical for hauling large amounts of people and attractions from town to town. Traveling by rail, carnivals could even increase the size and number of their touring attractions. With the advent of the automobile, however, carnivals commonly travelled with trucks and then tractor trailers. That said, railways played a crucial role in the shift from traveling carnivals to stationary amusement parks.

As many Americans gained more leisure time around the turn of the century, American railways hoped to attract business from this demographic of working and middle class families. To encourage city dwellers to use public transportation, railway, trolley, and subway companies across the country began constructing amusement parks just outside major cities. These efforts were successful, as people flocked towards the affordable recreation the parks provided. By 1920, there were over 1500 amusement parks throughout the United States! Early amusement parks were modeled after and closely mirrored traveling carnivals, but on a much larger scale. Incorporating mechanical and electric rides, midway-style layouts, iconic carnival foods, and rows of games, early amusement parks were essentially massive, stationary carnivals. Because they were stationary, amusement parks utilized electricity and technology to a degree carnivals could not. Rides grew increasingly bigger and elaborate, attractive huge crowds of Americans seeking new pleasures and thrills.

Advertisement for Norumbega Park's Totem Pole Ballroom, via Wikimedia commons.

Advertisement for Norumbega Park’s Totem Pole Ballroom, via Wikimedia commons.

Although the best-known early parks were situated at Coney Island, Greater Boston had its share of railway-constructed amusement parks, some of which survived past the 1960s. One such park was Norumbega Park, located at Auburndale-on-the-Charles in Newton. The park opened in 1897, constructed by the Commonwealth Avenue Street Railway Company to encourage recreational trolley use. Norumbega Park’s earliest attractions included a carousel, zoo, food vendors in addition to a restaurant, and an open-air theater — reminiscent of carnival attractions of the time. As the park continued growing in the 20th century, so did its attractions. The outdoor theater was replaced by an indoor one featuring vaudeville shows, live performances, and motion pictures in 1905. This theater was eventually replaced by the Totem Pole Ballroom, a venue graced by musicians including Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra! By the 1920s, the park boasted quintessential amusement park rides like bumper cars, roller coasters, and a Ferris Wheel. The park closed its doors in 1963, due to a decrease in popularity in the post-war era.

Have you ever wondered by the Blue Line has a station called Wonderland? It refers to Wonderland Amusement Park, which was located at Revere Beach. In the 1870s, the Boston, Revere Beach, and Lynn Railroad established tracks to bring Bostonians to Revere Beach along the North Shore. This railbed is the basis for the contemporary Blue Line. After the rail line to the area was established, Revere Beach increased in popularity and amusement park attractions were constructed. The Beach opened a massive carousel, featuring three rows of carousel horses, in 1903. Wonderland Amusement Park, namesake of the Blue Line station, opened at Revere Beach in 1906. Although the park closed in 1911 due to management issues, the park was extremely popular during its short run. Amusement park attractions continued at Revere Beach throughout the first half of the 20th century, featuring funhouses, rollercoasters, carnival-style games, and even a large Ferris Wheel.

Entrance to Wonderland Amusement Park via

Entrance to Wonderland Amusement Park via

While many early amusement parks are now defunct, their memories are being kept alive by people who frequented these attractions during their childhoods. For instance, Paragon Park, formerly located in Hull, Massachusetts, has a devoted fanbase that keeps the park’s memory alive online, Do you have cherished memories of carnivals and amusement parks from your childhood? Relive the excitement at the carnival-themed South End Soiree on May 10! Be sure to check the South End Historical Society’s social media for more carnival-related history in the weeks leading up to the Soiree. We hope to see you there!

For more information on Norumbega Park and Revere Beach visit:
Norumbega Park
Revere Beach
Paragon Park Memories

The Origins of the American Traveling Carnival

by Faye Charpentier, SEHS Intern

The Ferris Wheel at the World's Columbia Exposition. Via Wikimedia Commons

The Ferris Wheel at the World’s Columbia Exposition. Via Wikimedia Commons

On May 10, the South End Historical Society will host its annual spring fundraising event: the South End Soirée. This exciting gala event incorporates history with dinner, dancing, and exciting activities.  This year, the Soirée supports historic preservation and education in the South End while celebrating the history of the American carnival. The 2014 South End Soirée is not just about supporting the South End Historical Society through a night of food, dancing, and carnival games, but also about engaging the South End community with the electrifying history and legacy of carnivals in the United States. Start preparing for this exciting event by learning about the traveling carnival’s origins.

Carnivals have their roots in medieval agricultural fairs and festivals, yet the traveling carnival as we know and love it today did not emerge until the 1890s. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago captured the imaginations of people throughout the country and the world and paved the way for American traveling carnivals. The Chicago World’s Fair was neither the first nor the last large-scale fair in the United States, but its timing and unique spectacles still distinguish it from other events of its kind. Marking the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, the fair aimed to celebrate western civilization’s progress over those centuries.

Due to its timing, the fair focused heavily on recent technological advances, namely the advent of electricity. The Chicago World’s Fair’s Midway Plaisance, a mile-long strip of parkway featuring mechanized rides including the world’s first Ferris Wheel, games of chance, sideshow attractions, and food vendors, set the precedent for the traveling carnivals that followed in the Fair’s wake. The varied spectacles of the Midway Plaisance were heavily covered by media outlets throughout the country, drawing the eyes of Americans, who in turn desired to see these spectacles in person. Following the World’s Fair closure in October 1893, traveling shows and carnival companies began popping up throughout the United States, latching on to the popularity of the Chicago World’s Fair’s Midway Plaisance, and hoping to deliver electrified excitement to communities throughout America by literally bringing the show to them.

Electricity exhibits at the  1893 Chicago World's Fair via Wikimedia Commons.

Electricity exhibits at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair via Wikimedia Commons.

Some of the first post-Chicago World’s Fair traveling carnivals and shows grew directly out of the Chicago area. For instance, Otto Schmidt, who worked as a showman at the Fair, founded the Chicago Midway Amusement Company following the Columbian Exposition. His traveling show, which toured the Northeastern United States, was comprised of thirteen different acts, including some that performed at the World’s Fair. From 1902 to 1936, the number of traveling carnivals in the United States increased from 17 to over 300.

At the same time, towns and cities increasingly established permanent fairgrounds to host their own as well as traveling events and attractions. Streetcar companies monopolized on the popularity of electrical rides and attractions by funding the construction of America’s early amusement parks, promoting the use of public transportation to reach leisure activities. Based on similar foundations as the traveling carnival, amusement parks offered thrilling rides, bizarre attractions, enthralling shows, and addicting games to an emerging middle class with newfound time for leisure activities. Amusement parks, however, were able to take their electric rides and flashy lights to a higher level than traveling carnivals, as they had permanent locations.

Leading up to the South End Soirée in early May, we will continue to share carnival history through our blog, Twitter, and Facebook. Be sure to check these out to learn more about carnivals before the event! For more information about the South End Soirée, please visit the Soirée website.

For more history on the American carnival, see:
Gale Encyclopedia of US History: Circus and Carnival
International Independent Showmen’s Museum
Brouws, Jeff, and Bruce Caron. Inside the Live Reptile Tent: The Twilight World of the Carnival Midway. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2001.

A Conversation with Jerry Foley and Friends


bookJoin author Stephanie Schorow, renowned bar owner Jerry Foley, and a panel of South End History Buffs for a spirited discussion of Boston’s boozy history from the colonial-era taverns to today’s craft cocktail bars, giving special attention to the South End and the iconic J.J. Foley’s Cafe.

Admission includes one free signature cocktail and complimentary appetizers. A cash bar will be available throughout the event.

SEHS Members: $10
Non-Members: $20

Stephanie’s book, Drinking Boston, can be bundled into the ticket price for an extra $5.

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014
J. J. Foley’s Cafe, 117 East Berkeley St.
Doors open at 6:30 PM


The Boston International Fine Arts Show


fine arts show


Looking for a fun way to learn more about what the Boston arts community has to offer? All South End Historical Society members can now gain free admission to the Seventeenth annual Boston International Fine Arts Show at the Cyclorama during the weekend of November 22-24.

Each weekend pass, valued at $30, admits up to two guests to the Boston International Fine Art Show, which presents 40 galleries and dealers from the United States, Canada, and Europe, specializing in contemporary and traditional fine art, which attracts the design-conscious, wealthy, and sophisticated Boston market.  Guests also include a variety of museum and gallery curators/directors, designers, collectors, buyers, and members of the academic community.
Additionally, guests are welcome to attend special programs that feature prominent speakers from the design community.
Learn more online at

Click here to access your free pass. Any questions? Email us!

The SEHS From an Intern’s Perspective

Maisie O’Malley is a Master’s candidate in Loyola University Chicago’s Public History program.  Public historians study and practice the presentation of historical knowledge to general audiences.  In this post, she reflects on her time spent as a summer intern at SEHS:
It’s Treh-mont, not Tree-mont.  I still catch myself mispronouncing this iconic street’s name even after spending the summer living and working in the South End.  I moved to Boston from Chicago in late May with no preconceptions about the South End.  I walked around the neighborhood, immediately fell in love with the row houses, and started my internship at the South End Historical Society expecting to put my year’s-worth of graduate study to use being a Public Historian.  Here are some of the lessons I learned:
Historical societies are only as good as their staff.  A non-profit historical society faces innumerable challenges, and staff members must be both able historians and creative administrators.  Luckily, Hope and Stacen are talented directors.  Their day-to-day schedules can seem like administrative work—compile the year-end financial report, design a mailing for the House Tour, get the bathroom painted.   When they finally get to do fun history-related projects, like the House Tour or Dirty Old Boston, their work demonstrates an unparalleled passion for the South End.  They go about their jobs with Public History best practice in mind, which ensures that the society remains a credible historical institution.  The Society would lack integrity without skillful historians like Hope and Stacen.  
The Historical Society also benefits from an active Board and members.  When members volunteer to work on a project, organize an event, or simply stuff envelopes for an afternoon, they are investing much more than their time—they invest value into the Society.   Having a strong membership base also provides the Society with a pool of diversely talented people, and when that group is passionate about their neighborhood’s history, everyone benefits.  Member participation is essential to a successful historical society, and SEHS can always rely on a dynamic core of members.  
Lastly, I now understand the important relationship between a community and its history. In graduate school, we often discuss who has agency in the production of history.  Who “does” history?  Who “owns” it?  In my opinion, history truly belongs to the public, and should be produced as such.  An institution like the South End Historical Society becomes a facilitator for that history by being a part of the community.  The community members who participate with SEHS become their own kind of public historians.  It’s something that I don’t believe I could have understood just through class discussion; I had to see it first-hand.  

I lived and worked in the South End for only one summer, but the neighborhood and community made an impression on my perceptions of the public history field.  The lessons I learned from the South End will stay with me for a long time, and I’m excited to get back to Chicago to share my experiences.  I want to thank Hope and Stacen for teaching me so much—about the South End, about running a historical society, and for introducing me to Render.  I would also like to thank the SEHS members who, through their passion for the neighborhood, demonstrated that history is important to people—which also made me feel more secure about employment after grad school.  Thank you for a wonderful summer!

The Dirty Old Boston Book Project, South End Style

The Dirty Old Boston Book Project–See your images published in Union Park Press’ new book!

Image courtesy of David Henry

Join us for a “Scanning Party”! Bring photographs of YOUR dirty old Boston. We are looking for images of the city from 1945-1987, preferably taken/owned by you. The bigger, the better. Photographs will be scanned, digitized, and submitted to the Dirty Old Boston book project. Visit: to learn more.

Date: Thursday, June 27, 2013
Time: 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM
Place: South End Historical Society, 532 Mass. Ave.

Please email or call 617-536-4445 if you plan to attend!

Hosted by Union Park Press and the South End Historical Society.

In September 2012, Jim Botticelli launched a Facebook page that he dubbed “Dirty Old Boston,” hoping to salute the gritty city of his past with images from Boston’s postwar, pre-gentrification era. To his delight, Jim discovered that this version of the city was alive and well: it lived in the memories and spirits of his fellow Bostonians. Nearly 50,000 fans later, Dirty Old Boston has proven that we love to look back to that not-so-distant past and that there is a desire to document this much-loved time in Boston history.

In response to the success of the Dirty Old Boston Facebook page, Union Park Press is teaming up with Jim Botticelli to publish a Dirty Old Boston book, due out in the fall of 2014, which will be a photographic account of Boston’s recent past.

Can’t make this scanning party? Submit photos online at Union Park Press will be hosting more scanning parties at other historical societies throughout the city. See their website for more information.

Some History Behind the Buildings of the Boston Center for the Arts

The Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) occupies several South End buildings on Tremont Street between Clarendon and Berkeley Streets. Some are historic and some are newer. Before these buildings became part of the BCA, they housed various businesses. I’ve been thinking about the BCA a lot lately because we just held our Spring Soiree fundraiser there on May 11th. No matter how many times I go into the Cyclorama, I’m always awed by the design and history of the building. The following information is taken from a guide written by our (the SEHS) founding president and long-time historian, Richard O. Card, and kept in our collections at the SEHS.

“The kiosk [outside of the Cyclorama building]…was once the cupola on the Home of the Angel Guardian (designed by Gridley J. F. Bryant) in Roxbury. It was salvaged when that building was demolished in the early 1970s.

Advertisement for the George Frost Company.
From the SEHS collections

The leftmost of the buildings [the one closest to Clarendon St. that is the home of Hamersley’s Bistro and the Beehive today]…was built in 1865 by Samuel and Henry Smith. Here they manufactured the Smith American Organ for nearly forty years…Their cases were assembled in a second building, located at 615 Albany Street, which was then near the lumber wharves along the South Bay. The Smiths also tried, less successfully, to manufacture pianos. The main building originally had another floor, with a mansard roof, but it was never restored after an 1885 fire. In 1892 the building was bought by the George Frost Company, which in 1906 extended it at the rear and came to employ some 400 people in the manufacture of the Gentleman’s Boston Garter and the Velvet Grip Hose Supporter for ladies. This company remained until the 1940s, when the building came to be used by florists associated with the nearby flower market. Since 1970…this has been a part of the BCA.

Behind…[this] building until 1990 stood the Pennock Building, an…early 20th-century garage, used for some years by the Boston Ballet and Boston Ballet School, as well as by the Community Music Center of Boston. This building was demolished to allow construction of the new home of the Boston Ballet on the site, completed in the summer of 1991.

Pennock Building, 1972 image from the SEHS collections.
Do not reproduce, copy, or disseminate this
image without SEHS consent. 

…Next store to the Smith Organ factory [to the right of the Smith Organ building, if you look at it from Tremont Street], in 1877, was erected the Moody and Sankey Tabernacle. This building was considered ‘temporary,’ and stood only for about a year, but it was built of brick and iron and designed to seat 6,000 people. Dwight L. Moody, the renowned preacher, conducted revival meetings here twice a day for four months in the spring of 1877. Boston newspapers…printed his sermons as front page news. Ira Sankey was the featured vocal soloist. The revivals created such a sensation that special trains were run into the city to accommodate the crowds. Since horsecars were running regularly down Tremont Street by this time, it was easy to get here from one of the numerous Boston railroad stations.

On the same site, in 1884, rose the Gettysburg Cyclorama building. The great round structure, which originally had two towers flanking its Tremont Street entrance, was designed by Cummings and Sears…Its sole purpose was to display a great painting of the Battle of Gettysburg, 400 feet long and 50 feet high, by the French panorama painter Paul Philippoteaux. This painting was the twin of a Cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg already done by Philippoteaux for Willoughby and associates in Chicago. The Boston painting, somewhat cut down, is now displayed by the National Park Service in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania…Two later versions [were] done by Philippoteaux for Philadelphia and Brooklyn.

One entered the Cyclorama building from Tremont Street and then climbed a circular staircase to the viewing platform, there to be completely surrounded by the painting, which was hung from a track…along the wall of the circular building. Between the painting and the viewer…[were] mounds of actual dirt, trees, cannons, fences, pieces of uniforms, wagon wheels, stacked rifles, and remnants of campfires. The effect was to make it difficult to tell where real objects ended and the painting began. A canvas sky concealed the windows that lighted the painting from above. You were made to feel that you were actually standing on Cemetery Ridge, looking forty miles in every direction, and watching Pickett’s Confederate troops make their futile charge–all for only $0.50 admission.

Cyclorama in the 1890s when it served as the home to Waverley Bicycles, image from SEHS collections.
Do not reproduce, copy, or disseminate this image without SEHS consent. 

…Proprietors of the Gettysburg Cyclorama building…took down its original painting and exhibited other cycloramas depicting such diverse subjects as Custer’s Last Fight, Jerusalem, the Hawaiian volcano Kilauea…, and something advertised as Napoleon in Hell. After use for roller skating, rough riding displays, and a Spanish American War fair, the building was turned into a garage…For this Tremont Garage the two towers were removed and the squared-off extension constructed along Tremont Street. In 1906 French bicycle racer Albert Champion rented space here, where he developed the A.C. Spark Plug. He moved in 1908 to a larger factory in Roxbury and eventually merged with General Motors.

In 1922 the building was sold to the Boston Flower Exchange, Inc., which made it the center for the wholesale florist business of the region for nearly a half century. In 1970, [after]… a new flower exchange was built on Albany Street, the newly formed Boston Center for the Arts…was designated as the developer of this old building and several adjacent ones.

Cyclorama in 1972 (note the top of the original Cyclorama dome peeking out above the main facade).
Image from SEHS collections.
Do not reproduce, copy, or disseminate this image without SEHS consent. 

National Theater in 1972. Image from SEHS collections.
Do not reproduce, copy, or disseminate this image without SEHS consent. 

…To the right of the Cyclorama building [was]…the National Theater, designed by Clarence Blackall and built in 1911. At that time it was supposedly the largest vaudeville house in the world. Its 3,500 seats allowed the prices to be kept very low…On the night of the theater opening, September 18, 1911, the overflow crowd quite literally broke the doors in. Bostonians listened to Irving Berlin’s very first hit song, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band,’ and made the orchestra play it over and over…

Gradually vaudeville declined and the theater came to be devoted exclusively to motion pictures. Then, in the era of television, the movies themselves began to decline. E.M. Loew continued to run the National as a movie house until the night before the Boston Center for the Arts took it over in 1973. For a time after that it was used by the BCA…but it [was torn down in 1996. Today the Calderwood Pavilion stands in the National’s former location].

To the right of the [National Theater]…stood the Hotel Clarendon, an establishment managed for a long time by boxing legend John L. Sullivan. This hotel was destroyed by fire in 1969. The Odd Fellows Hall, an ornate Gothic white granite building built in 1871-1872, formerly occupied the entire corner space beyond that, but it too was destroyed by a…fire early in 1932.” [Atelier 505 occupies the site today].

Odd Fellows Hall, Berkeley Street facade. This image belongs to the Boston Public Library and may not be reproduced without their consent.
The Berkeley Street side of Odd Fellows Hall. 1932 fire. This image belongs to the Boston
Public Library and may not be reproduced without their consent.

Upcoming Events Around the Neighborhood

We just updated our Neighborhood Events section with three upcoming events around the South End neighborhood. Details on South End Baseball’s opening day this Saturday, April 27th; Chester Square Area Neighborhood Association’s spring clean-up, also on Saturday; and a lecture by Henry A. Wood, FAIA, about the development of the South End and its street patterns at the South End Library on Tuesday, May 7th.

More information here!

Join us for the South End Jazz Open House!

Are you hep to the jive?  Do you have the heebie jeebies?  Then this news will make you blow your top!

In honor of our founding president, Richard O. Card, we are excited to announce The South End Jazz Open House!  The event will take place on May 4th, concurrent with Boston Jazz Week, and will feature live music, lectures, an exhibit on South End jazz history, and conversations with men who lived “The Life” in the South End. Armed with a map and a guidebook, participants will walk themselves through various sites around Mass ave and Columbus, “the Jazz Corner of Boston.”  Tickets can be purchased in advance online or on the day of the event at SEHS Headquarters, 532 Mass Ave.  Tickets are $10 for SEHS members, and $20 for Non-Members.

For a full schedule of the event and more information,  click here.

Historical Society Executive Director to Publish Book about Notable South Enders

Press Advisory
For Immediate Release

Contact: Stacen Goldman or Hope Shannon


Boston, MA— South End Historical Society Executive Director Hope Shannon has signed with Arcadia Publishing to author a book entitled Legendary Locals of Boston’s South End. Part of Arcadia’s Legendary Locals series, which has profiled residents of neighborhoods, towns and cities across the country, the book focuses on both former and current South Enders that have had a lasting impact on the community.

“I want to include people that represent the entire history of the South End, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present,” Shannon said. “Irish or Italian, Bostonian or immigrant, criminal or angel—I aim to feature the well-known and the unknown, the infamous and the benevolent. All of these people contributed to the South End that we know today.”

Shannon welcomes community input and invites South Enders to submit suggestions and photographs for consideration in the book. Shannon aims to include about 150-200 profiles. Shannon will accept suggestions until Friday, April 19th.

Shannon can be contacted via email at or by phone at 617-536-4445. Those interested in suggesting South Enders can do so via email, by phone, or by filling out the suggestion form found at Legendary Locals of Boston’s South End is scheduled to be released in early 2014.