In the shadow of one of Dorchester’s oldest buildings, under layers of roots and soil, secrets from the 1800s lie untouched.
If a young woman at the Industrial School for Girls had something to conceal, whether it was tobacco or booze, she probably hid it in the privy, said Joe Bagley, archeologist with the city of Boston. He is conducting an archeological survey of the property off Centre Street, searching for the outhouse and its potential deposits of trash.
“We want to find all their garbage,” he said, “everything they didn’t want people to see.”
Founded in 1853, the Industrial School for Girls operated “for the purpose of training to good conduct, and instructing in household labor, destitute or neglected girls,” according to Bacon’s Dictionary of Boston. Architect George Snell designed the stately Dorchester building, which opened in 1859.
Paid for mostly by wealthy Bostonian women, the school annually housed an average of 30 girls between the ages of 6 and 15 who lived and worked inside the brick building. It still stands at 232 Centre St.
They arrived generally from broken homes.
They were runaways, fatherless, or poor, daughters of alcoholics or sailors serving abroad, the children of full households, born of young mothers or whose mothers were mentally ill. The Industrial School for Girls was a 19th-century intervention. It was a means to “prevent evil” from laying claim, a place where girls would be purged of iniquity and trained in Victorian morality.
Learning to sew and cook was a must, along with serving tea in proper fashion and taking up a useful trade. Privacy was a luxury these girls could not afford. The privy, or outdoor toilet, was their only retreat.
A single tobacco pipe stem found in the backyard during the first week of digging is the only evidence of the students’ rebellious natures. Smoking was considered wayward behavior that the house matrons were committed to quelling. A piece of a writing slate, white buttons, shards of a chamber pot, a gun flint, and a slate pencil also have been excavated.
A crew of program volunteers, students, and for the first time, young people with the Boston Youth Fund and Community Dream Team have dug narrow trenches on the property since the second week of July. Jake Rooney, 17, of South Boston said he was eager to participate in the dig.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Rooney, who was selected though the Youth Fund. He’ll be a senior at the Roxbury Latin School in the fall. “I’ve just been sifting through [people’s] buckets of soil and just found a cracked pot.”
They found the foundation of a carriage house July 14.
“We’re looking for history,” said Khaivon Castro, 21, of the South End. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I’m back in time.’ We can learn about what they did, what they were eating, how they dressed.”
The property and the historic building that housed the Industrial School are owned by Epiphany School, a tuition-free middle school for Boston kids from economically disadvantaged households.
Construction will begin in the near future to develop the land into a new early learning center. The idea for the survey came about through Epiphany School’s work with the Boston Landmarks Commission, said Rev. John H. Finley IV, head of Epiphany School.
“We feel this is an exciting opportunity for our community to learn more about the Industrial School for Girls,” Finley wrote in an e-mail. Bagley, the archeologist, “really is a natural educator. Seen through his eyes, a hole in the ground becomes a window into the past.”
Bagley views the project as a chance to fill in gaps in historical data. The tax records at the time had little information on the school because every occupant was female. It tracked families at the time by listing the man of the house. What was probably the mostly densely populated building on Centre Street was skipped over entirely.
There is a pending application with the Boston Landmark Commission to designate the former building of the Industrial School for Girls a landmark, said Bonnie McGilpin, press secretary for Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
According to the petition, the structure “appears to be the only remaining existing building in Massachusetts from the 19th-century movement of private industrial schools for either boys or girls.”
Among the findings are beads and a doll head and toy limbs no larger than a finger. The facial features of the “Frozen Charlotte,” as they were called, are still visible. These types of dolls were painted in Germany and molded as one piece.
“The girls were learning how to be wives and mothers,” Bagley said. “They were expected to teach their dolls as a way to reinforce what they were learning.”
As part of the archeology lab’s preliminary research, Bagley read some of the Industrial School’s annual reports. One 1877 document, Bagley noted, found an estimated 27 of the 45 girls to enter the school in the past two years “brought with them evil habits.”
“It’s not clear what such ‘evil habits’ entailed,” Bagley wrote in his proposal for the survey to the archeologist at the Massachusetts Historical Commission. “One incoming girl was described as ‘willful, ignorant, untruthful,’ and apparently acted like the rest of her family.”Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.