Church, State, and Liquor A Social History

The early settlers of this land are generally recalled as stern, religious men who worked six days each week and prayed intently on the seventh. While there is some truth to that idea, Cantabrigians have never been boring. One orator remarked on the city's 250th anniversary, "Cambridge of that day cannot have been the dull, prosaic place we sometimes fancy when we think of a Puritan town. Life was varied by the excitements and perils of frontier life, mingled with the pomps and the crimes of a type of society now passed away." And politics, sport, society, culture--with more than a scattered drop of liquor--enlivened the city nearly from the start.

But the church was first--before there were taverns, before there was Harvard, in fact before there were very many houses, there was a church. The first meeting house in Cambridge, and the eighth in the colonies, stood on the west side of Dunster St., bare but for a desk for the elders and deacons and row upon row of benches for the parishioners, men on one side and women on the other. When the church opened, it didn't even have a bell--the congregation was summoned by drum.

Even then, progress was a hallmark of the city. By 1640, the church presumably had purchased a bell, for record show it bought a bell rope. And by 1643, it was chosen the site for a colony-wide synod called for the "purpose of opposing certain incipient tendencies towards Presbyterianism." The church was helpful not only as a standard of moral rectitude; it also set the boundaries of the city, in a manner described by Charles William Eliot II in S.B. Sutton's Cambridge Reconsidered: "The optimum area for a town was figured by the time-distance from a meeting house which would permit the farmer to milk his cows, harness old Dobbin, drive his family to the meeting house, endure a two-hour sermon berfore refreshment at the tavern, and drive home again to milk the cows in the evening."

The church had other roles in public policy as well; it was central in a fight that eventually led to a woman's execution for witchcraft in 1650, a woman one historian called "one of the earliest victims to that dreadful popular delusion." As late as 1696, the selectmen of the city felt it necessary to appoint a committee of four to "have inspection into families that there be no bye drinking or any misdemeanor whereby sin is committed and persons from their houses unseasonably."

Soon after establishing the church, the Puritans made provision for a burial site. As the local Daughters of the American Revolution described it in 1907, the churchyard "contained the bones of the earliest settlers, the men who made Cambridge--of a governor of the colony, judges, president of Harvard, professors and men of learning and of wealth. Here too were laid to rest their children, those who could not bear the rude blasts of the New England winter." As Longfellow later remarked, the yard included "their smiling babes, their cherished brides, the patriarchs of the town."

So Cambridge's spritual health was provided for early on. But physical safety was another matter: Indians and wolves were equally feared. In 1632 a fence a mile and a half long was erected around the settlement--hardly a massive fortification, but it did keep the wolves away from the cattle (76 wolves' heads were returned after a single hunt as late as 1696, and many bears were killed until the Revolutionary era).

The hunters--and the townspeople they protected--often relaxed at the pub. Taverns had yet to acquire the stigma they would later bear--as the DAR charitably allowed, early taverns were "for the comfort of the townspeople, for the interchange of news and opinions, the sale of solacing drinks and sociability." So necessary were they that the city offered tax incentives for setting up shop. The legislature, in fact, threatened in 1656 to fine towns without bars. All the inducements paid off in 1671 when the Blue Anchor, later to become Bradish's, and still later Porter's, opened at the corner of Boylston and Mt. Auburn streets.

For those who liked weaker drinks, Cambridge still had much to offer. Now the city's water supply is plagued by too much salt, but then Cambridge's water was "valued by the Indians for its medicinal properties." The spring, near the present-day Brattle Square, was first spanned by a small brick arch so townspeople could reach down for their water. Even after progressives had installed a well, the site was renowned for "its clear, cold, pure water."

Townspeople often gathered at the spring to trade gossip, but when really important issues came up, they were likely to gravitate toward the Common, described by one historian as the "forum of the embryo city." Set aside in 1630, the Common was supposed to be a pasture. The northwest corner--Cow Common--retained its original purpose, but the rest of the land soon found other uses. The militia, for example, held training exercises on the patch, with attendance mandatory for all able-bodied men unitl 1686. And, in the English fashion, elections were held in the open on the Common. One such electoral contest featured Winthrop and an opponent named Vane, squaring off for the title of chief magistrate. "The adherents," a chronicler reports, "gathered in force and excitement ran high so violence was feared. At the height of the tumult, the Rev. John Wilson, pastor of the Boston Church, despite his 49 years and large bulk, climbed into the old oak and from his point of vantage addressed the people to such good purpose that quiet was restored and the election proceeded." Winthrop won, but he and his followers returned to Cambridge only sporadically over the years, usually to meet in Harvard Hall when smallpox outbreaks threatened their safety in Boston.

Harvard Hall was more than a part-time legislative chamber, though. The heart of the College, it was also the intellectual center of the colonies. For more than 50 hears, until William and Mary was founded in 1693, it had no rival. By 1693, the University was well-established.

As early as 1640, for example, Cambridge had acquired the first printing press north of Mexico City. An Englishman, the Rev. Josse Glover, brought a font of types, a printing press and a large stock of paper in England in that year and set sail for Cambridge. He died, but the press fared better, and soon it was operating under Harvard's auspices. The first books off the press--The Bay Psalm Book, and Eliot's Indian Bible.

Secondary education is an older tradition than grammar schooling in Cambridge; it was not until 1648 that a public school opened here. Located on Crooked St. (now Holyoke St.) across from the present site of the Hasty Pudding Club, the two-story stone building boasted "gable end-s...wrought in battlement fashion," and a "broad chimney on one side, of stone and brick, (which) gave promise of a generous fireplace within." The school's first master, Elijah Corlett, wore a wig and doublet while he taught his pupils--almost exclusively boys looking forward to entering Harvard. The first school moved repeatedly, finally emerging as the Washington School.

Cambridge prospered in the late 17th and early 18th century, largely a result of the influential people drawn by the College. And Cantabrigians, Sutton reports, "delighted in a display of wealth... They built mansions and created manicured landscapes, planted with exotic trees and shrubs imported from England and France." Certain of the settlers could even be accused of bad taste: Winthrop House, on the corner of Bow and Arrow streets, "became the gay social center of the pre-Revolutionary days" in spite, or perhaps because, of "two life-sized wooden figures of Indians in paint and feathers and armed with bow and arrows (who) sentineled the principal entrance to the grounds." Ostentation was the order of the day in certain circles--when tavern-owner Andrew Belcher died in 1717, his estate bore the cost of 96 pairs of kid gloves and 50 suits of mourning made expressly for the funeral. And during the Revolutionary War, a Tory German matron threw a birthday part in honor of George III. Cantabrigians could hardly keep their temper at that affront, so they surrounded the house in "silent, non-violent protest."

Cambridge of the day offered some idyllic moment--Dexter Pratt, the Village Smithy of Longfellow fame, spent hours daily under the spreading chestnut. And when the tree came down, the schoolchildren of Cambridge had a rocking chair made from its wood, which they presented the poet on his 70th birthday.

But the city had grimmer moments, too. The vast wave of immigration in the 18th century stirred racial and class biases among the old Cantabrigians, and among the new as well. As Sutton explains, "the Irish, Portuguese, Italians, Poles and other immigrants who settled the Point and the Port had no interest in the aesthetic activities in Harvard Yard and did not care what Longfellow said to his butcher."