You know where you can find Boston’s history? On the walls of the pubs.
As any trip to a museum reveals, history resides in the details. Artifacts and memorabilia of the past, preserved and displayed, let the contemporary eye gaze backward and reimagine eras long gone.
So wouldn’t it be great if these little time travels came with a beer or cocktail?
Actually, they do. Turns out that there’s a lot of history to be found on the walls (and hanging from ceilings and tucked in corners) of Boston bars. A surprising number of them — both old and those of more modern vintage — display historically significant artifacts that tell the story of the city — our stormy politics, the changing urban landscape, and our cultural habits, legal or otherwise.
From campaign posters to letters, from rare photos to street signs, the material creates an intriguing backdrop for patrons otherwise engaged in libations, and a way for patrons to recall the past at a time when Boston’s landscape is dramatically changing and favorite stores and pubs are vanishing.
You won’t necessarily find a museum-quality Paul Revere bowl displayed on the premises. But many items are culturally significant, representing the way Bostonians lived their lives 100, 50, or even 10 years ago.
Gerry Burke, 75, whose family has run Doyle’s Cafe in Jamaica Plain for decades, has been collecting Boston memorabilia for years. A lot of it has wound up on the walls of this popular neighborhood hangout. First-time customers are often amazed by the photos, posters, clippings, and documents that nearly cover the walls. But “where else would you go to see this?” Burke asked. To him, such ephemera are important: “We need to know where we came from.”
Robert Allison, professor of history at Suffolk University and author of “A Short History of Boston,” is not surprised that local taverns have become repositories for bits and pieces of culture. “They are central gathering places,” he said. “They are a place of the people.”
Think back to Puritan times, Allison said. The community gathered at meeting houses. Today, the bar is the place for the community to gather and keep collective memories alive, he said.
“We don’t go to the Museum of Fine Arts every day or the library every day, but we might go to a neighborhood tavern,” he said.
Bars often save overlooked reminders of the city’s changing landscape. Doyle’s, for example, displays a signal that for 70 years directed train cars on the elevated track that ran nearby; the light is now permanently set to yellow. J.J. Foley’s Café on East Berkeley Street in the South End displays a Dover Street sign and Dover Street train stop sign for the elevated track that once ran along Washington Street. Dover Street was renamed East Berkeley Street in the 1960s and owner Jerry Foley wants to see the old name brought back. Seats from Fenway Park, yanked out during remodeling, have ended up in various Boston watering holes.
Not that taverns could replace historical societies or museums; many Hub bars are decorated with old items mainly because they fit the decor or theme, notes Matthew Wilding, a museum professional and former content director of the Freedom Trail Foundation. But as for Doyle’s, “They might as well make it a museum of late-19th-century and 20th-century America,” Wilding said.
The walls of Doyle’s Cafe are dotted with rare photos of Boston’s mayors but a true gem is an original signed letter from the Rascal King himself, four-term Boston Mayor James Michael Curley. Written in 1952, the letter thanks a constituent for her birthday wishes and the floral prose demonstrates the charisma of this four-term mayor, one-term governor, and convicted felon. “Frankly, I anticipate living to be 125 years of age and Mrs. Curley is so charming and lovely that she seems to grow younger every year that passes so the indications are that I will be celebrating my 125th anniversary with Mrs. Curley present,” Curley writes. He died just short of his 84th birthday in 1958. If you can tear your eyes away from your cellphone, check out the bar’s two wooden, Superman-ready telephone booths.
Boston’s bad-boy days are recalled at West End Johnnie’s on Portland Street with signs from Scollay Square, demolished to create Government Center, and from Boston’s notorious Combat Zone. Scollay Square was once the city’s honky-tonk section for naughty shows and sailor bars; the Combat Zone along lower Washington Street was once a haven for strip clubs and adult bookstores. The bar displays a marquee board for the Old Howard Theater, which featured the best of burlesque, and a sign for the Crawford House, an establishment known for the performances of tassel queen Sally Keith. (Her act is best left to the imagination.) Downstairs, the neon marquee from infamous strip club the Naked i Cabaret gives off a lurid scarlet glow.
In a major chapter in US labor history, Boston police officers met on Sept. 9, 1919, at Fay Hall, a social club on the second floor of what is now J.J. Foley’s Café in the South End and voted to go on strike. Amid the resulting chaos, Governor Calvin Coolidge called out the National Guard and broke the strike. Outside there is a plaque marking those events; inside, there’s a newspaper clipping and photo. Mayor James Michael Curley is remembered here with a campaign poster and a number: 576. Curley used that number, representing the number of letters in his first, middle, and last names, on the license plate of his official car. Other mayors, such as Ray Flynn, also used it. Flynn’s 576 plate is on display.
For a taste of the 1980s Morning in America era, the Eire Pub in Dorchester has a plaque and photo that marks the day President Ronald Reagan stopped by to demonstrate to working-class stiffs that he was one of them. Of course, candidates have often visited bars to woo constituents, but Reagan’s visit on Jan. 26, 1983 was a watershed event that might have sparked the now common question: “Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?” Owner John Stenson remembers when Reagan showed up, with Secret Service and press in tow, and asked for a Ballantine Ale. As Reagan made the rounds, one man told him he was a huge supporter but asked that his photo not be taken because “I’m supposed to be working.” “So am I,” Reagan replied — as Stenson recalled.
McGreevy’s on Boylston Street in Boston is a re-creation of the famed Third Base Saloon at Tremont and Ruggles Streets in Roxbury, which was run by devoted Sox fan Michael T. “Nuf Ced” McGreevy. McGreevy’s bar business dates back to the early 1890s and his tavern is reported to be the first American sports bar. Prohibition forced McGreevy to shut down in 1920. The current incarnation was opened in 2008 by Ken Casey of the Dropkick Murphys and baseball historian Peter Nash. There’s a full menu of Red Sox memorabilia but the staff likes to ask patrons to compare the World Series rings from 1912 and 2013. The baseball bat lights hanging above the bar mimic the baseball bat lights in the original Third Base Saloon; these bats were provided by onetime Red Sox pitcher Jonathan Papelbon.
The Hard Rock Cafe franchise is known for its display of music memorabilia and the Hard Rock Cafe Boston has a number of choice Boston items. There are guitars played by Joe Perry and Brad Whitford of Aerosmith and a black-and-white striped outfit that made Steven Tyler look like an escaped prisoner. There’s also a stunning 1980 New Year’s Eve dress worn by Boston native Donna Summer. To get that ’70s feeling, take a peek at the now-faded jump suit worn by Barry Goudreau of Boston for the band’s music video of 1976’s “More Than a Feeling.”
There are almost too many items to take in at one sitting at the Union Oyster House. Not all the material is historic, but there is an evocative series of images of the Union Street corner from 1742 to 1950. While the USS Constitution undergoes restoration, get a glimpse of Boston’s Age of Sail with a meticulous 1859 model of the Burlington, a merchant sailing vessel built in 1833. Upstairs is the booth where John F. Kennedy usually sat (or so it’s designated). To complete a jump in time, check out two familiar-looking red metal seats, Numbers 1 and 2, purchased by restaurant owner Joseph Milano about 20 years ago from Fenway Park while it was remodeled.
See for yourself
Doyle’s Cafe, 3484 Washington St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-2345, www.doylescafeboston.com
West End Johnnie’s, 138 Portland St., Boston, 617-227-1588, westendjohnnies.com
J.J. Foley’s Café, 117 East Berkeley St., South End, 617-728-9101, www.jjfoleyscafe.com
Eire Pub, 795 Adams St., Dorchester, 617-436-0088, eirepub.com
McGreevy’s, 911 Boylston St., Boston, 617-262-0911, www.mcgreevysboston.com
Hard Rock Cafe Boston, 22-24 Clinton St., Boston, 617-424-7625, www.hardrock.com/cafes/boston
Union Oyster House, 41 Union St., Boston, 617-227-2750, www.unionoysterhouse.com