J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, June 09, 2012

Interview with Local Historian Charles Bahne

Today Boston 1775 offers the first part of an interview with Charles Bahne, local historian, tour guide, author, and (most important) occasional guest blogger here.

You can review Charlie’s essays on local milestones, the cobblestones that mark the site of the Boston Massacre, the tea in the Boston Tea Party, and the painting that might have inspired the popular name of that event. And here’s the interview.

What was your introduction to Boston and its history?

I came to Boston as a college freshman from Indianapolis, intending to study math or science. Of course, Boston’s role in the Revolution had been taught in my high school history classes, but I’d totally forgotten about that by the time I got here. A few weeks after my arrival as a freshman, some of my classmates and I went on an expedition to get produce at Haymarket, which we’d vaguely heard about. We got hopelessly lost in the North End, and then we came upon the statue of Paul Revere galloping away from the Old North Church.

A photo of that statue had been on the front cover of my eighth-grade American history textbook; I’d looked at that picture almost every day for a full school year. And now I had just chanced upon it while wandering through the city, looking to buy some fruit. That’s still one of my favorite things about Boston—history lurks around every corner, without your actively looking for it.

I ended up majoring in Urban Studies and Planning, and in one of my classes the professors and lecturers were talking about their work planning for the hordes of tourists that would be coming to town during the upcoming Bicentennial. So that sparked my interest in Boston’s history, so to speak. I did several college projects about local history, but after I graduated I went in other directions for a while.

Although I was in Boston during the Bicentennial, I wasn’t really involved with history at the time. A couple of years later, I saw an ad for Boston By Foot, which was looking for volunteer guides. I answered it, and the rest, as they say, was history.

How has the city’s approach to its Revolutionary history changed since you started working in the field? What major changes have you seen?

I began working at the Old State House in 1980, and later with the National Park Service. My understanding is that the large numbers of tourists who started coming to Boston for the Bicentennial have never really gone away since then.

The local history field became much more professional during and after the Bicentennial. For the Bicentennial, a number of academically-inclined professionals—including some city planners—created historically accurate guidebooks, museum exhibits, and other resources about the events of the Revolution. The National Park Service came to Boston about that time, too, in 1974. And over the next two decades, you really saw the professionalization of the staff at the city’s historic sites. As late as the early 1980s, some of them were still basically old boys’ clubs, run by descendants of Boston’s fabled “brahmins”.

The last decade, though, has seen an increased commercialization of tourism, and the advent of “edutainment”. Wikipedia says that term was invented by Disney; whether that’s true or not, Disney-like approaches to history are seemingly becoming the norm. Pirates, for example, were a staple of Disney’s TV shows when I was growing up; now they’ve become a favorite topic of some of the city’s tour operators. Colonial Boston never had that much involvement with real pirates, but you can’t walk the streets of old Boston today without encountering at least one swashbuckling tour guide.

How did you come to publish your first book, The Complete Guide to the Freedom Trail?

One of my roles at the Old State House in the early 1980s was to work in the museum shop. Visitors were asking if we had a good guidebook to the Freedom Trail, but the best I could recommend was a book from the 1940s—written before anyone even conceived of putting a red brick line on the sidewalk. So I saw that the market was there, and I created a book to fill that need.

A good part of that book’s first edition was written during my down time with the Bostonian Society, and later with the Park Service—especially in the winter, when things were really quiet. I guess I’m like Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote much of The Scarlet Letter at the Custom House in Salem.

How has writing and researching changed since you wrote your first book 27 years ago?

It’s unbelievable. So much historic material is now available on the internet, almost instantaneously, 24 hours a day. Back then it would have taken me years of going to libraries to do the research that I can now accomplish in just a few weeks over the web. You always have to be careful with the web, of course, but the vast majority of 19th-century books are now on the web in full text.

And the writing has changed, too. When I first wrote The Complete Guide, everything had to be written first in pencil and then typed on a typewriter. If you made too many mistakes, you had to retype the entire page from scratch. And then I had to retype everything again into the typesetting equipment—there was no way to “capture the keystrokes”, as they say now.

Now I simply type everything into my computer, e-mail it to my publisher, and the book designer pastes the file into a layout program. I didn’t even make as many printouts as I used to do with my older computer.

TOMORROW: What’s new from Charles Bahne.

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