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Ideas

Mocking Boston: antique edition

A 1911 magazine satire of the city sounds awfully familiar

The cover of an Oct. 19, 1911 issue of Life about Boston.

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The cover of an Oct. 19, 1911 issue of Life about Boston.

Taking digs at Boston is almost a national pastime. The city is a little cold, a little snobby, and a little full of itself—as we’re constantly reminded by the barbs of national politicians and the frustrated, if more affectionate, grousing of Bostonians themselves.

Roll back the clock a hundred years, though, and you’ll find...actually, you’ll find the exact same complaints.

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In 1911, most of an entire magazine issue was published simply to make fun of Boston. The illustrations here come from Life magazine, which at the time was something of a New Yorker-style mix of news, commentary, fiction, poetry, cartoons, and humor. (The magazine later sold its name to Henry Luce and became the more famous photojournalistic version of Life.)

On the cover of this October 1911 “Boston number” is a delightful map illustration by Paul Goold that sets the tone: a scholarly child, looking a bit gaunt but glowing healthily, points to a “Map of the World” which, of course, consists only of Boston. It evokes Saul Steinberg’s famous 1976 New Yorker cover, “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” and closer to home a satirical 1930s map by Daniel K. Wallingford, “A Bostonian’s Idea of the United States of America,” a faux-parchment map showing North America dominated by a wildly outsized New England.

The Boston issue of Life follows with a number of Boston-themed short essays, jokes, and poems about Boston. It opens with “Hail, Boston!”

Many attempts have been made to bring Boston down from its proud pedestal of superiority, but so far every one has failed. Boston still leads everything else...Nothing ever happens to America that has not previously taken place in Boston. This is why every true Bostonian sniffs complacently when someone else tells him “news.” He knows where the impulse first originated.

A thread of similar satire runs through the issue on this “Perfect City” that has “More culture than Athens (Ga.)” and “More art than Paris (Ky.)” Much is made of Boston as a city that is intellectual, aristocratic, and slightly smaller than its own sense of itself. It’s also cold in more than one way, as Cupid discovers in another cartoon: bundled up on the train, arrows, quiver, and suitcase at his side.

A detail of Harry Grant Dart’s street-scene illustration.

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A detail of Harry Grant Dart’s street-scene illustration.

The most notable artwork besides the cover is a two-page cartoon by Harry Grant Dart depicting a busy and highly cultured Boston street scene, replete with humorous signs. Walk past the statue of Culture and Aplomb to a theater to catch the children’s matinee of Professor Towertop’s lecture on the Inordinate Contumelious Proclivities Appurtenant to the Sabre-Toothed Dinotherium. Boston kids can handle it; they’re wicked smart. Just watch your step along Beacon Street in the high-class Back Bay, where a sign cautions that “pedestrians are entreated to tread softly while traversing the refined and aristocratic environs penetrated by this exclusive thoroughfare.”

A cartoon of a bundled-up Cupid passing through Boston.

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A cartoon of a bundled-up Cupid passing through Boston.

If this doesn’t sound enough like present-day Boston, consider that marching through the scene is the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company—a group still quite alive, which marched through the city once again this past week. The cartoon is simply and appropriately titled “The Hub of the Universe.”

The “Hub” nickname had already been around for more than 50 years before this magazine issue, having quickly expanded from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s original, wry “Hub of the Solar System.” Today maybe Boston is powered by a slightly less fussy style of intellectualism, and maybe social snobbery has been replaced by the sports version, but the hallmarks of today’s Boston aren’t so different from those of 1911. There’s something reassuring about the idea that a city’s personality can be so recognizable 100 years later—and something helpful about knowing that if we aren’t willing to make fun of it, someone else is always ready to do it for us.

Andrew Woodruff is a Cambridge-based cartographer for Axis Maps, and coauthor of the Bostonography blog, where a version of this article first appeared.

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