A Short History of the Smallest U.S. State

29 December 1890 - Providence, Rhode Island

American history teaches that the Puritans brought religious freedom to the New World. Pish-posh! That distinction goes to Rhode Island and not Massachusetts. Let me explain.

Cromwell Shilling
In an oversimplified nutshell, the Puritans were a sect of the Church of England who decided King Charles the First wasn’t holy enough to be the head of the Church and Parliament should rule England. They had a civil war, beheaded the king and put Oliver Cromwell in charge. Cromwell was a blood thirsty tyrant, but the English don’t remember that because he was too busy killing the Irish and Scottish to give them too much trouble.

Even so, the Puritans had a lot of silly laws trying to reform the morals of a lot of people who didn’t feel they needed reforming. After five years of rule, Cromwell died before he could be kicked out. King Charles’ son, King Charles II was brought out of exile and given back the throne. He was a silly fop, but he wasn’t a ruthless dictator, so everyone was much happier.

Everyone except the Puritans, who didn’t feel Cromwell went far enough. They decided the Church of England was beyond help and broke away. In fact they decided England was just too unholy and left to establish their own little piece of heaven in Massachusetts.

Puritan punishments for minor offenses
The Puritans were even more strict there and anyone caught celebrating or enjoying themselves were swiftly punished. The worse offense of all was not being a member of their church. If you were a Quaker, they would hang you. Dissenters, those who argued any point, were kicked out of the colony into the wilderness to fend for themselves.

One of these dissenters was a chap named Roger Williams. His argument was that there should be a separation of church and state and that there should be religious freedom. He also believed that Native Americans were people and should be dealt with fairly. For this blasphemy, he was put on trial in 1635 and convicted of sedition and heresy and banished. (This was later repealed by the Massachusetts courts in 1936--a bit too late to do Williams any good.)

Roger Williams with friends
Before Williams could be bodily removed, he slipped away, walking 105 miles through the snow to Narragansett Bay. There he was met by his friends, the Wampanoags, and taken to their winter camp. Williams got permission to set up a settlement on their land. He named it Providence. He helped found America’s first Baptist Church there. However all dissenters, whatever their beliefs, were welcomed, including Quakers and Jews. Probably a good thing the colony wasn’t strictly for Baptists, because Williams broke away to become unaffiliated with any religion.

Perhaps it’s this “dissenter” tradition that made Rhode Island the very first state to declare independence from England on 4 May 1776, two months before the Declaration of Independence. It also was the last state to ratify the Constitution of the United States. Rhode Island only agreed after the other states threatened to declare it a foreign nation and tax it’s exports.

Rhode Island is the smallest state, but it is in fact two even smaller colonies that agreed to merge in 1644. It’s official name is “Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations.” (In 2010, the populace voted 78% in favor to keep the name. Perhaps because Providence is not only the Capital, but the largest city in Rhode Island.)

1895 map of Rhode Island
Rhode Island has been nicknamed the Ocean State since Narragansett Bay takes up much of the state, reaching all the way to Providence in the north. The city has a long maritime tradition, including the slave trade, a fact which would have made Roger Williams and it’s other founders roll over in their graves. Rhode Island controlled 60% to 90% of the American trade in African slaves at one time. They also distilled rum from molasses to trade for more slaves. Rhode Island had the largest New England slave population--6.3%.

Ironically, in 1774, Rhode Island passed the first anti-slavery bill in the United States, making it illegal to import slaves into the state. In 1784 a bill was passed to gradually emancipate the state’s slaves. Many of the freed slaves stayed. Their descendants now are mostly domestics or factory workers, but some are successful merchants and artists.

The economy since mid-century, has shifted from maritime to manufacturing. Providence can boast some of the largest manufacturing plants in the country. The major industries are machinery, tools, silverware, costume jewelry and textiles. This has brought in a wave of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Sweden, England, Italy, Portugal, Cape Verde, French Canada, as well as other countries. The population in 1840 was 23,171. Now in 1890 it is 132,146.

Market Square looking east circa 1890 - Providence, R.I.
Providence is one of the oldest cities in America, but all this sudden growth makes it feel very new. I’m sure Roger Williams meant “God’s care and guidance” when he named his settlement “Providence.” However the other definition “good judgment and foresight in the management of affairs” would certainly fit this booming city.


I Meet Santa Claus

20 December 1890 - Brockton, Massachusetts

Ad for James Edgar's new 1907 store
Yesterday I visited Edgar’s Department Store here on Main Street in Brockton, Massachusetts. It is one of the first department stores in the world with electric lights and cash registers thanks to Edison’s little experiment I spoke of in my last blog.

However, what Edgar’s Department Store is most famous for is having the world’s first department store Santa Claus. The idea did not come from an accountant with a brilliant promotional idea, but almost accidentally from a man who just liked children and wanted to have some fun. And who was going to tell the chap no--after all, he owned the store.

I had hoped to corner James Edgar yesterday for an interview but the man was besieged by children. In fact, I had to wait in line with them to get a word with “Santa Claus.” I think he mostly agreed to talk to me because I addressed him as Santa Claus, so as not to destroy the illusion for the children.

Mr. Edgar had agreed to meet me at his home today. It is Sunday here in 1890. I was surprised that he looked like Santa even without the suit. No fake beard or pillow had been used. Here are some exerts of our interview.

So tell me something about yourself, Mr. Edgar. Is that a bit of a Scottish brogue I hear?

Edgar as Scottish Chieftain
Yes, I immigrated from Edinburgh back in ‘78 when I was thirty-five. Brockton was a booming town, still is. Do you know the place has doubled in the last ten years? Anyway I worked in a dry goods store, learned the ropes, then saved up enough to start my own store. I tried to make it a place that welcomed families. I started a lay-away program for struggling families and I made children welcome by handing them pennies. I even dressed up as George Washington and a sea captain.

How did you come up with the idea of dressing like Santa Claus?

Edgar as clown
Last year I dressed as a clown and walked around the store. The children loved it! Recently I saw an illustration of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast.

Ah, the one he did for “The Night Before Christmas?”

Yes, that’s the one. I thought, “Ha, Santa looks like me!” Then I thought that would even be better than a clown. The children would love it! I have never been able to understand why the great gentleman lives at the North Pole. He is so far away...only able to see the children one day a year. He should live closer to them.

Thomas Nast's Santa
I tried to find a Santa Claus suit, but couldn’t find one. So I had one special made, based on Nast’s illustration. I was surprised by the reaction. The children had smiled at me when I dressed as a clown, but when I approached them as Santa, their eyes got big. They yelled, “Look! It’s Santa Claus!”

If you couldn’t find a suit, I’m assuming they had never seen anyone dressed as Santa before.

Yes, this fellow who brings children toys every Christmas and none of them had ever got to meet him. I hadn’t considered what that must mean to a child. I just wanted to make them smile. When I took the suit off to handle business, children came in wanting to know where Santa was. I knew I was going to have to spend most of my time in the suit so I didn’t disappoint any of them. In fact, I had another suit made for my brother-in-law, so he could spell me. I try to spend as much time as I can as Santa.

Yes, I noticed the huge crowd yesterday. How many children were there?

I lost count. I like to walk around the store talking to children, but when we get a huge mob I have to sit down and have them line up to see me. I knew Brockton had grown, but I never knew there were this many children. Then parents started telling me they had come by train from Boston so their child could see Santa. Boston is twenty miles away. Some even came from Providence, and that’s more than thirty miles away! Yesterday, being the last Saturday before Christmas, was the busiest day yet!

Oh, my word! You must be exhausted!

A bit. It’s worth it though to see those excited faces. Also sales have sky-rocketed. Apparently while the youngsters are waiting to talk to Santa, parents take the opportunity to shop. Nice added bonus, eh.

So next year you’ll hire someone else to play Santa?

Heavens, no! Why should they have the fun? I love kids, and they seem to love me. More than one calls me “Uncle Jim.”

James Edgar aka Uncle Jim

Uncle Jim indeed. James Edgar will be most remembered for the children he helped. He paid the medical expenses for children from poor families and gave jobs to youths in need. And Fourth-of-July he would rent trolleys to take thousands of children out into the country and meet them dressed as an Amerind, “Big Chief”.

Soon other department stores will hear of James Edgars brilliant idea and hire their own Santa Clauses. They will become a symbol of the crass commercialism of the holidays. But the best of them, like Edgar, will do it because they love kids. If anyone personified Santa Claus, it would be James Edgar.

I can honestly say, I met Santa Claus today.

Brockton’s official website for James Edgar

The Santa Claus Hall of Fame
James Edgar was one of the first inductees.

The Santa Claus Oath
Although this was not written until 2008, James Edgar lived up to the oath.

Santa Is Real
A short video of the dedicated men who carry on James Edgar's legacy.


I Get the Boot...And the Shoes

16 December 1890 - Brockton, Massachusetts

You may have never heard of Brockton, Massachusetts, but if you sold shoes in 1890 you would certainly know of this place. One sixth of all the shoes made in 1890 America come from Brockton--nearly ten million pairs a year. Almost all of the residence (27,294) are involved in shoe making or supporting all those shoemakers.

W.L. Douglas Shoe Co. Factories in Brockton
The industry started out with cobblers and their apprentices making shoes and shipping them out to the surrounding rural communities. Mr. Micah Faxon was the first person in Brockton to begin wholesale shoe manufacturing in 1811. Then in the 1840s the railway between Boston and New York City went right through North Bridgetown as it was then called. Their market expanded tremendously.

It was in the 1860s two things happened that made the industry boom. The steam powered McKay Sewing Machine allowed one to stitch up a shoe in minutes instead of hours. And with the marching armies of the Civil War, there was a huge market for boots. North Bridgetown exploded.

By 1874 North Bridgetown decided they needed another name to set them apart from the local communities of West Bridgetown and East Bridgetown. One of the locals, coming back from Niagara Falls, told of a town he heard of in Ontario called Brockville. Everyone liked the name “Brock” and decided to add to equally strong sounding “ton” to it.

Unfortunately no one looked into who Brockville had been named after. Sir Isaac Brock was the British General who captured Detroit in the War of 1812. (Erm...that will just be our little secret, eh?)

W.L. Douglas Shoe Ad
Brockton is not the only small town in America which became an industrial giant almost overnight. It is however unusual in how workers are treated. So many industrialists of this era take advantage of their poor immigrant work force, treating them worse than slaves. (You have to at least keep slaves alive to protect your investment.) Here there is no squalor, no families shoved into tiny airless rooms. Conditions are not perfect, but compared to other factory towns, Brockton is a veritable Utopia.

Brockton’s “Shoe Barons” decided a healthy, educated and happy working class made more productive workers. The city opened a public high school in 1864 and a public library in 1867. The Brockton Street Railway Company started a horse-powered trolley service in 1881 so workers no longer had to walk to work. By 1880 Brockton was part of the first interstate telephone system in the country.

Which brings us to Thomas Edison. He had improved the light bulb to something more practical, but what good is it without electricity? He had managed to light up a few blocks in New York City, but he needed a system that could send electricity more than just a mile. He came up with the three-wire underground system, and chose the progressive city of Brockton as his experimental laboratory. So 1 October 1883, Edison threw the switch and Brockton became the second city in the world to have electric street lights. It also became the first city in the world with a theatre and fire station with electric lights. In 1888 it would become the second city in the country to have electric street cars. Currently Brockton is one of the most modern communities in the world. (Locals would argue, THE most modern community in the world.) Other cities from around the country and even Europe are visiting Brockton, wanting to copy them. 27th century Harvard has sent me to study it, too.

Brockton Electric Streetcar
I was also asked to visit all the shoe factories of Brockton. After looking them up I discovered that will be impossible. I found a list of the thirty-four most prominent shoe manufacturers. I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t close to one hundred factories.

President Benjamin Harrison
The real reason though that I picked December 1890 is because of another great first that Brockton is probably now most proud of, but I will talk about that in my next blog. A hint? He’s fat and jolly and has a white beard. (No, it’s not current President Benjamin Harrison.)

collection of postcards from Brockton’s heyday

And in case it ever comes up in a quiz show, here are Brockton's thirty-four most prominent shoe and boot manufacturers in 1890:
Church & Alden; Packard and Field; W. L. Douglas Shoe Co.; The Frank E. White Co.; George G. Snow; George E. Keith; Preston B. Keith; R. B. Grover & Co.; M.A. Packard & Co.; Stacy, Adams & Co.; Lilly, Bracket & Co.; Henry M. Kingman; S. Gardner Jones; Daniel Waldo Field; Thompson Brothers; Enos H. Reynolds; Emerson, Weeks & Co.; Perkins & Joyce; N.R. Packard & Co.; Howard T. Marshall; Bittenbender & Caverly; Ellis F. Coopeland; Myron F. Thomas; Terry, Ware & Alley; L.C. Bliss & Co.; T.D. Barry & Co.; Montello Shoe Company; Whitman & Keith; Walker & Whitman; James Means & Co.; L.M. Reynolds; McCarty, Sheehy & Kendrick Co.; Walker, Taylor & Co.; Bowe, Crawford & Co.


St. George's Hall

Saturday, 21 October 1871 - Liverpool, England

St. George's Hall
Door plaque of Mercury,
Roman god of commerce
The most impressive structure in Liverpool is St. George’s Hall. It is possibly the finest neo-classical buildings in the world and one of the greatest buildings of the Victorian Age. It looks like a Greek temple. Perhaps it is a temple--to the God of Commerce who has smiled upon Liverpool. The city certainly used this edifice all to show off their wealth.

As impressive as St. George’s looks on the outside, the inside is breathtaking. There are mosaics on the walls, ceilings and floors. Sculptures in marble and bronze are everywhere. And all this for a meeting hall.

Liverpool had a music festival every three years, but no hall large enough to accommodate it. So in 1836 a group of civic minded citizens got together to raise money and draw up plans for a building to be used not only for the festivals but for meetings, dinners and concerts. They also decided to show the world how prosperous Liverpool had become. Construction started in 1841 and the hall was opened in 1854.

The Great Hall
The great hall is 169 feet long by 76 feet wide and 87 feet high. The floor holds 1400 spectators, while the galleries hold 600. Around the hall in niches are statues of local heroes: George Stephenson, who built the first railway; Sir William Brown, the banker who paid for the Brown Free Library and Museum; Joseph Mayer, the goldsmith that filled said museum; Rev. Hugh McNeile; Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby; Rev. Archdeacon Brooks, the late rector of Liverpool; Sir Robert Peel, former Prime Minister; and William Ewart Gladstone, the current Prime Minister. There will be more statues added in time, but those are the gentlemen that are here now.

Among all this opulence is St. George’s greatest attraction--their giant organ. It was built by Henry Willis, the greatest organ builder of the Victorian Era. The organ has 7,737 pipes ranging from one-half inch to thirty-two feet. The wind is supplied by a steam engine. The sound is amazing. It is the largest organ in Britain--well, it was until Albert Hall got a larger one just this year. (Not to worry. In 1910 Liverpool will beat London again when the Anglican Cathedral will have the largest organ in Britain.)

St. George's Hall's organ
W.T. Best gives organ concerts in the Great Hall every Thursday at 8:00 pm and Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00 pm. The admission is 6d. You can rent the hall for thirty-one pounds, ten shillings. The smaller concert room (which is 75 feet square) can be had for sixteen pounds. That is a lot of money in 1871, so there aren’t many performances here.

St. George's Hall is open free to the public to come an admire, or to show off to visiting relatives. This after all belongs to the citizens of Liverpool.

ceiling in the Great Hall



Listen to Ian Tracey play the Great Organ of St. George's Hall