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.


“Mass. Ave. and Columbus: The Jazz Corner of Boston” presentation a huge hit!

Last Thursday, we welcomed local author Richard Vacca. Mr. Vacca published The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Places, Faces, and Nightlife 1937-1962 last May with Troy Street Publishing.
Mr. Vacca spoke to a packed audience here at the SEHS.

Want to know more about jazz in Boston? Visit Mr. Vacca’s blog.

Miss the event? Visit Troy Street Publishing’s website for information on how to purchase the book and to find details about his next speaking engagement.

Thank you to Richard Vacca for the presentation and to the Boston Preservation Alliance for co-hosting!

A Big Thank You to Lynne Potts!

Lynne Potts reads from her new book, A Block in Time, at the SEHS.

We would like to thank Lynne Potts, a local South End author. Ms. Potts read excerpts from her new book, A Block in Time: A History of Boston’s South End from a Window on Holyoke Street, last Thursday evening at the SEHS.  After the reading, Ms. Potts answered questions and signed copies of the book for attendees.  A Block in Time is for sale at the SEHS office, and on Amazon.

Two Author Events Coming Up!

THIS Thursday, February 21st, at 6:30pm, we welcome Lynne Potts, local South Ender and author of A Block in Time: A History of the South End From a Window on Holyoke Street. Lynne will read select passages from her book. A light reception will follow.

On Thursday, March 21st, at 6:30pm, the SEHS and the Boston Preservation Alliance welcome Richard Vacca, author of The Boston Jazz Chronicles. Richard will present “Mass. Ave. at Columbus: The Jazz Corner of Boston.” A light reception will follow.

Please see here for more details!
To sign up, call 617-536-4445 or email us here.

Fox Brothers, South End Grocers

About six months ago, a SEHS member donated a billhead from Fox Brothers, Grocers that dates to June 7, 1895. It indicates that Mr. L. E. Spaulding sold 294 dozen eggs to Fox Brothers between May 7th and June 4th, 1895. At $0.17 cents per dozen, Fox Brothers owed Mr. Spaulding $49.48.

Why did Fox Brothers need 294 dozen eggs in one month? They sold them at the grocery that they operated at 685 and 687 Tremont Street, on the corner of Tremont and West Newton Streets.

In 1888, the publication Leading Business men of Back Bay, South End, Boston Highlands, Jamaica Plain and Dorchester described the store:

“Fox Brothers, Grocers…one of the very best examples of what a Metropolitan Grocery Store should be, with which we are familiar, is that afforded by the establishment of Messrs. Fox Brothers… we believe that it would be difficult for the most critical to suggest a needed improvement in the fitting up and management of the store under existing conditions. Neither pains nor expense is spared to make this establishment thoroughly attractive and ‘wholesome‘ looking, both within and without, and the result is seen in one of the neatest and handsomest Grocery Stores in the city. Fox Brothers…having had very nearly a quarter of a century’s experience… it is only natural that they should be perfectly conversant with their business in every detail. The [store] comprise[s] one floor and a basement, their dimensions being 40 x 70 feet, and employment is afforded thirteen efficient assistants, who may be depended on to strive their utmost to show customers prompt and civil attention. The stock on hand is so large and varied that it would be idle to even attempt a full description of it, but it may be said to include all kinds of Groceries, both Staple and Fancy, and to be as remarkable for uniform merit as it is for variety. The very finest flavored Teas, Coffees and Spices are handled by this house, and those who are able to appreciate a good article in this line will find that their tastes may be fully suited here, as all grades, from the mildest to the strongest, are supplied at the lowest attainable rates. Canned Goods are also given particular attention, and some delicious relishes and condiments are also on hand.”

Now this site is home to the eastern portion of the South End Branch of the Boston Public Library but the Fox Brothers occupied this location from at least 1870 to at least 1915. They may have been there longer—these are just the earliest and latest dates that I found evidence for. The excerpt above indicates that, in 1888, Fox Brothers had “very nearly a quarter of a century’s experience,” indicating that they had been in business since sometime in the 1860s.

The 1870 directory tells us that Charles E. Fox and Co. operated a grocery here and lived at 114 West Newton Street. By 1885 however, brothers John and Frank are listed as owning the grocery store and one or both may have lived at 114 West Newton Street. 114 West Newton Street was the same building as 685 Tremont Street, but the upstairs living quarters at 114 would have been accessed from a door on the West Newton Street side and the store accessed from the Tremont Street side. In 1905, John Fox was living at 126 Berkeley Street.

If you lived in the South End around the turn of the last century and wanted to contact them, all you had to do was call them on the telephone. The number? Trem. 230. Or you  might hop on the Tremont Street streetcar.

Great Program from the BU School of Medicine Historical Society!

Peters Otlans Talking at the SEHS

Peters Otlans Talking at the SEHS

We had a great time at our program last Thursday, “Building Boston Medical: The Evolving Landscape of the South End’s Medical Campus.” The SEHS would like to offer a big thank you to Peters Otlans of the BU School of Medicine Historical Society for teaching us about the changing landscape of BU Medical, and for giving us better insight into the development of our neighborhood from its origins in the 19th century. Mr. Otlans remained after the program to answer questions and promote Aceso, the BUSMHS Journal of Medical History. For more information on the BU School of Medicine Historical Society click here.

Spotlight on Collections: What can we learn from “Lynn’s Most Perfect Baby”?

Recently, a pair of newspaper articles from 1912-1913 have been making the rounds of pop culture blogging websites Jezebel, Gothamist, and The Huffington Post.  In December of 1912 The New York Times published that Elsie Scheel, a 24 year-old co-ed at Cornell University’s College of Horticulture, was “The Perfect Girl.”  Two months later, in February of 1913, a similar article was published about Elsie in The Sunday Morning Star, explaining that Elsie’s perfection was rooted in her uncanny resemblance to the Venus de Milo, brought on by “sane living.”  It’s easy to see why Elsie’s story is so compelling to today’s blogs.  It’s fun and quirky and all three sites highlight the articles’ more humorous aspects, including Elsie’s love of beefsteak (evidenced by the byline “Beefsteak her Mainstay”) and her claim that she “doesn’t know what fear is.”  Elsie’s story also puts the ideals of the early twentieth century in stark contrast with our own modern ones, specifically regarding women’s bodies. 

While these are legitimately interesting aspects of Elsie’s story, what I found to be most striking about the articles was that we had something just like them in the collections at the South End Historical Society (SEHS).  We have an article, published in 1916 by an unknown paper in Lynn, MA, which declares that Edith M. O’Shea is “Lynn’s most perfect baby physically.”  This article came to us as a part of the Aertsen-Blair collection, a box of old photographs (and this newspaper article) found in the rowhouse at 175 West Brookline Street and donated to the SEHS by the current residents.  Through some research, we determined that these photos belonged to a former resident of the house, Beatrice Gallivan (the SEHS held a program about the house, the collection, and our journey researching it about a month ago).  Edith O’Shea, Lynn’s most perfect baby, was Beatrice Gallivan’s niece.  Nineteen month-old Edith was determined to be 99% physically perfect for a girl of her age (she missed that last 1% because “her tongue was coated at the time of the examination and she suffered from discoloration”), and was declared the most physically perfect of all 500 babies entered in what was then called a “Baby Show.”

Now, of course, Edith’s story taken alone seems like just another quirky and compelling artifact of times past, but that would be missing the bigger picture. What’s really interesting is that when taken in conjunction with the articles about Elsie Scheel, it becomes clear that studies of physical perfection were a trend in the early twentieth century, and that such studies were important enough to the popular culture of the time to make the newspapers.  In fact, a search of Pro-Quest Historical Newspapers for an article between 1900 and 1920 with the word “perfect” in their titles yields a multitude of such articles: “How Vivian Vaugh Became ‘The Perfect Woman’” (The Chicago Daily Tribune, 1905), “Perfect Baby is Challenged: Denver’s Champion Infant Throws Down Gauntlet” (Los Angeles Times, 1913), “The Perfect Man: Ralph Rose Compared with the Apollo Belvedere” (The Atlanta Constitution, 1905).  The similarities between the Edith and Elsie stories are obviously more than just a coincidence, so what is this article about Edith really telling us about American culture in the early twentieth century?

The first thing we can learn from Edith’s story is that attitudes towards women’s and girls’ health were changing drastically in the early 1900s.  Edith’s mother claimed that “lots of sleep and fresh air have made Edith the prize morsel of humanity she is,” and the article insists that all of the prize-winners in the Lynn contest were “fresh air babies, accorded the best of food and care” and that none “look[ed] petted or coddled.”  This is evidence of the new understanding that moderation, fresh air, and especially athleticism were important for the well-being of women and girls.  This is reflected in another article from The Chicago Tribune published in 1907 titled “Chicago Producing MOST PERFECT RACE OF WOMEN in the World.”  The article is about the city’s new athletic facilities for women, which were “giving to Chicago a new generation, a generation of perfect women, free from ills, strong, self-reliant, and beautiful.”  The city of Chicago likewise declared that as a result of their increased numbers of playgrounds and gymnasiums for girls, “the rising generation of Chicago girls will be more beautiful, healthful, and normal than the one preceding it.”  At the time this was written, it had not been long since the ideal woman would have never had the strength to take up physical tasks for their own health, let alone play basketball, as the young girls of Chicago were encouraged to do.  Still, as the twentieth century got underway and the movement for women’s suffrage (which, incidentally, was a favorite cause of Elsie Scheel’s) gained traction, women were increasingly seen as strong, independent, and athletic individuals.  This is seen in the two articles about Elsie, both of which emphasize her athleticism and discuss her propensity for physical labor and her “tramps” through the wilderness.  Edith and Elsie are both proof that in the early twentieth Century, frail women were out and strong women were in.

The cultural obsession with physical perfection that we see in our article about little Edith is also linked to another, darker aspect of United States history at the turn of the century.  Lynn’s “Baby Show,” as well as Cornell’s study of co-eds, were undertaken at the height of the American Eugenics Movement.  Although most people associate it with the policies of Nazi Germany, Eugenics was very popular in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century.  The Eugenics Movement encouraged American racism and xenophobia while influencing state health policies, which led to the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of American citizens because of race, class, or mental disability.  One key aspect of the American Eugenics Movement was the process of selective breeding, which involved identifying genetically perfect specimens to breed with each other.  Although there is no mention of “breeding” the babies, Lynn’s contest to find the most physically perfect children is undoubtedly connected to the goal of identifying the “fittest” specimens in the city. This connection becomes all the more clear when taken in conjunction with yet another article about “perfect” babies, “Perfect Babies to Mate for the Good of the Race: Remarkable Pact Between the Mothers of Hundred-Point Infants” (Los Angeles Times, 1915).  This article, which includes the byline “Parents Plan Future Union in Eugenics’ Name,” tells the story of two children whose mothers arranged their marriage soon after they both scored 100% in a “Baby Show” almost identical to the one held in Lynn.  Both children were the winners of multiple “Eugenic trophies” at the time of the betrothal.

Whether Edith’s parents were consciously thinking about selective breeding when entering their children into the Lynn contest is impossible to say but probably unlikely.  Likewise, based on the articles about Elsie Scheel, it’s doubtful that she was a fervent Eugenicist looking for her “perfect” mate.  Still it’s important to remember that historical artifacts like these ones don’t stand alone. When one makes it onto our modern pop-culture radar, it shouldn’t just be something we giggle at and move on. Yes, the byline “Beefsteak Her Mainstay” seems funny to us now — and there’s nothing wrong with having a laugh at history — but we should also feel encouraged to think about the things we read historically.  Edith and Elsie were the results of a complex culture that has since disappeared, and it’s that complexity that really makes them so compelling.