Wed, 08/26/2015 - 12:49pm
The hot, muggy weather last week prompted a patron to call the library with questions about the Boston Heat Wave of July 1911. I was able to answer her questions (some of which were quite detailed) using our historic Boston Globe database, which provides every single page of the Globe from 1872 to 1981. Using historic newspaper databases is not only a good way to locate facts, it's also a way to get a feel for the past often lacking in history textbooks. For example, scanning the headlines for July of 1911, I learned that back then spells of extremely hot weather were called "hot waves" not "heat waves," and that even in 1911 Boston was called "The Hub."* Then, as now, many people went to the beach in hot weather. On the first day of the heat wave, July 3, the high was 96 and "every beach resort anywhere within reaching distance of Boston contained its greatest crowd in recent years." Other people, I read, went to bath houses (back in the days when most homes didn't have bathtubs or running water, many cities built public bath houses). There was also a spike in demand for lemonade, ice cream, and cold "temperance drinks" (non-alcoholic beverages sold in drugstores often made by combining fruit syrups and raw eggs). Or as the headline writers for The Globe put in the July 6 edition: "Hot Wave Brings Rush for Lemonade. Egg Concoctions Well Up in Race for Popular Favor. Ice Cream Concerns Beat All Previous Figures" (p. 11). 319 people in New England died from the heat, which also complicated their funeral arrangements. Horse-drawn carriages were still common at the time, but many owners of livery services wouldn't send the same horses out on two consecutive days in order to give them a break from the heat. The result? "Many mourners...were forced to stay at home...or make their way to cemeteries in automobiles or on electric cars." ("Hard Test for Undertakers," July 8, 1911, p.2). If you're curious about any aspect of Boston (or American) history between 1872 and 1981, the historic Boston Globe database is invaluable. And fascinating. *Quick research revealed that the nickname comes from Oliver Wendell Holmes's 1858 essay collection The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table: "The Boston State House is the hub of the solar system." Meaning no disrespect to Boston, to me the assertion reflects a rather flawed grasp of political and astronomical realities.
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