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Pages from Newton's History

Posted December 15, 2008 06:44 AM

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From the Newton History Museum at The Jackson Homestead:

The City of Newton is defined by the Charles. It has the river on its borders in the south, west, and north, and it was on the river's banks that the city got its start -- not as one unified town, but at first as a string of villages that grew up along the watercourse that provided abundant power for mills and manufacturing effots. Improved transportation -- first roads, then rail -- gave those factories better access to markets. It also tied together the villages of Newton and brought the 18 square miles of farms and woods bounded by the Charles into a closer relationship with the metropolis at its doorstep, Boston.

Through the nineteenth century, Newtonites enjoyed their life in the country as they turned farm lanes into residential streets and rode the trains and trolleys to work in town. And as the mill economy waned at the end of the 1800s, the Charles took on a new role. The trains and trolleys began to bring Bostonians out to the river in large numbers -- not to work, but to play. They came with picnic baskets to wander the parks and preserves newly created by the Metropolitan Parks Commission. They marveled at the menagerie at Norumbega Park. They rented canoes, or kept their own, at the many boathouses on the river. On summer Saturdays and Sundays the Charles near Riverside could become a sort of bank-to-bank party room, crowded with canoes full of young people out for a good time on the river.

All this leisure time and recreational opportunity was a new thing, and the populace created a record of it in a new way. They bought and sent picture postcards -- millions of them. Postcards printed with colored views were an innovation of the 1890s, a happy conjunction of the technologies of photography and printing with railroads, which had steadily lowered the cost of transporting freight -- including mail. Penny postcards captured the public imagination as no other fad had before them.

The popularity of postcards in the decades between the 1890s and World War I is indicated by the numbers that still survive a century later. If you want a newspaper or a phonograph cylinder from the era before the first World War you will have to look high and low, but any Boston-area flea market worthy of the name will offer a score of views of local weekend destinations postmarked anywhere from 1905 into the 1920s -- the brightly lit dance halls of Revere Beach, the leafy promenades of Salem Willows, and of course the sun-splashed boathouses of the Charles River.

The picnickers and canoeists left Newton carrying huge quantities of postcards that pictured the Charles and its landmarks -- Upper Falls, Lower Falls, Echo Bridge, Hemlock Gorge, Riverside, Norumbega Park, the mills, the bridges, the dams, and the canoeists. Millions went into the mail, and millions more went into albums that became family heirlooms. Some of these were eventually donated to the Newton History Museum at the Jackson Homestead, and that's where the collection of postcards you see on this site began.

The postcard craze wasn't confined to the Charles, by any means. All the important landmarks in Newton (and many puzzlingly unimportant ones) appear in the postcard documentation of Newton's life. But no subject appeared on nearly as many postcards as the Charles.

The hard-working river

The Charles today is slow and civilized, tamed by dams that have turned it into a series of elongated, picturesque lakes that make the river a marvelous resource for recreation and natural beauty. The original purpose of those dams was almost the opposite. They made the Charles a very hard-working river.

Water power made Newton Upper Falls a manufacturing center as early as the late 1600s. In 1688 the first dam was built to power a sawmill, and soon the banks of the Charles in the area of Newton Upper Falls were spotted with mills that used water power to saw lumber, grind flour, and to "full" woolen cloth -- to pound the fabric with fuller's earth -- and more. By 1790 the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Simon Elliot owned four mills in the growing village devoted to grinding tobacco into snuff, under the supervision of a master snuff maker recruited from Germany. After 1800 the Newton Iron Works used water power to manufacture thousands of tons of nails and other hardware each year. By the 1840s Otis Pettee's Elliot Mills, where 252 looms were installed in a single room, were producing 60,000 yards of cotton calico cloth a week. Later, in the 1880s, the Upper Falls mill complex was sold and converted to a silk factory, and the new owner operated it into the 1950s. The mills begun in 1840 are still in use -- restaurants, offices and shops now fill the space.

Industry followed the river over time. Just downstream, Newton Lower Falls got a slightly later start: in 1704 a dam was built to supply power for an ironworks. Other businesses soon followed: a nail factory, a tannery, a snuff mill. But it was papermaking that put Lower Falls on the map, literally. A second dam was constructed slightly downstream in 1788. In 1790 one John Ware built a paper mill at the upper dam. By 1816 there were three paper mills at the lower dam and four at the upper dam, and legal battles erupted over the rights to the power the Charles provided.

The paper industry that flourished in the village through the first half of the Nineteenth Century was doubly dependent on the Charles -- for water, and for power. Paper was made from cotton and rags, softened in water and beaten into a pulp by water-powered machinery. Other machines separated the pulp from the water in a continuous process that made long rolls of paper. Demand was so great that rags were imported Europe and the Near East. A search for other materials resulted in the 1850s in technology that used wood pulp, and the mills at Lower Falls suffered from the competition of newer paper mills built closer to the abundant sources of wood in Western Massachusetts and elsewhere. The Civil War boosted paper prices temporarily, but by the 1870s the mills were either converted to other uses or demolished. By 1900 only one paper mill was still operating.

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