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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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A Plea for Relief after the Great Fire of 1794

The State Library of Massachusetts is spotlighting, both on the web and at the State House, a broadside from 1794.

Its blog posting explains:
This month, we’re displaying a broadside that was distributed as an “Appeal from Boston for Aid after the Great Fire, 1794”. In 1794, the part of downtown Boston that is currently bordered by Milk, Pearl, Purchase and Congress Streets was home to residences and a number of ropewalks (a long, narrow building where ropes are woven by hand). In the early morning of July 30, a fire broke out in one of the ropewalks and spread quickly, destroying seven ropewalks and approximately ninety other buildings (primarily houses, outbuildings, barns, and stores).

The fire was so extensive that additional engines were brought in from Brookline, Cambridge, Charlestown, Milton, Roxbury, and Watertown. An account of the fire was written up in the July 31 edition of the American Apollo, a copy of which is also in the State Library’s collection. The article, titled “Horrid Fire,” describes the affected area, lists the home and business owners who lost property, and thanks the fire engines from neighboring towns that provided assistance.

On August 5, Boston Selectmen issued a broadside in response to the devastation caused by the fire, calling attention to the residents whose lives changed “in an instant, from a situation convenient and comfortable, to a state of deplorable poverty and want.” The broadside was then distributed to cities and towns throughout the state in an effort to raise funds for assistance. The copy in the State Library’s collection was sent to the selectmen of Shutesbury, along with the handwritten instruction to share it with the town, likely as an announcement during a town meeting.
This “Great Fire” was of course not the great fire of 1760, which started in the Brazen Head and which eventually I’ll get back to. Nor the previous great fires, nor the great fire of 1870. But it was great enough.

One effect was that those proto-industrial ropewalks near the center of town—the workshops whose employees had brawled with soldiers in the days leading up to the Boston Massacre—were rebuilt out on new land south of the Common. Eventually that land had to be bought back from the ropemaking firms when the city decided to build the Public Garden.

In looking at the broadside, I was struck with how the selectmen’s names are set in a font reminiscent of the round hand to suggest their signatures. Whichever printer got the contract to produce this broadside obviously had some spiffy new type to use.

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