Four Mornings, Seven Afternoons


John R. Stilgoe


Cats communicate fire. Why else do prudent Americans put them outdoors before retiring to bed? "A cat should not be left in the house at night," counselled an 1824 New England Farmer essayist. "They have often, by getting in the ashes, and having coals stick to them, communicated fire to the house." Nineteenth-century Americans feared wildfire, especially the fires of nighttime; farmers worried about hay moldering in barn lofts, about lightning, about cats. Wise agriculturalists installed lightning rods, dug "fire wells" next to back porches, and all winter kept ladders propped against roofs leading to chimneys; they slept lightly, boots, pants, and filled water buckets beside their beds. "Never give an alarm of fire, unless you be pretty sure you cannot put it out without further assistance," the essayist warned, "for a small fire may be easier extinguished by one, than by twenty men." Warnings and precautions fill the pages of antebellum farming journals.

Rows upon rows of agricultural periodicals rise upward in the Locked Room beneath Cabot Library, brushing the ceiling eighteen feet above the floor, walling in the historian blessed with a key to the collection. Like the rifles rising organ-like in Longfellow's cryptic paean to the Springfield Arsenal, the volumes are silent now, rarely visited and less often read. Their call numbers climb steadily through The Cultivator and The Genessee Farmer, through The Illustrated Annual Register of Rural Affairs to The Ploughboy, leading upward into immense runs of farming pamphlets, and on into the squat, bound reports of agricultural experiment stations from Maine to Michigan. A miscellaneous collection, grounded in agriculture, but stretching down row after row into late-nineteenth-century holdings focused on railroad engineering, on practical applications of electricity, on lighter-than-air flight, and reaching in the other direction into the civil engineering, locomotive design, and urban design of nineteenth-century Europe, North America, and Argentina. Not a chair, not a table punctuates the room of crowded shelves; only a gigantic rolling staircase, scarcely maneuverable in the narrow aisles, offers a precarious seat to the researcher. High aloft, seated on the corrugated, non-skid top step just beneath the humming fluorescent tubes, the historian of vanished landscapes gazes out upon a library landscape, one of canyons, peaks, and cliffs.

A trail of autumn leaves led into the Locked Room. Nineteenth-century reformers argued for the beautification of village streets; in an age enamored of environmental determinism, improvement of landscape seemed likely to foster improvement of public behavior. In 1849 and 1850, Andrew Jackson Downing lambasted the condition of village main streets, detailing a national shabbiness that mocked boasts of national spatial beauty. His Horticulturist essays endeavored to turn "neglected, bare, and lanky streets into avenues of fine foliage." Month after month, in the issues now ranked on Frances Loeb Library shelves, he equated street trees with morality. "A village whose streets are bare of trees, ought to be looked upon as in a condition not less pitiable than a community without a schoolmaster, or a teacher of religion," he asserted in some of the strongest language to enliven that staid journal of the first suburbanites, "for certain it is, when the affections are so dull, and the domestic virtues so blunt that men do not care how their own homes and villages look, they care very little for fulfilling any moral obligations not made compulsory by the strong arm of the law." The great street-tree crusade consumed Downing's energy certainly, and later that of others: landscape architects embraced the movement in the 1870s, in the 1890s, indeed into the twentieth century. Cities planted street trees, towns planted street trees, even farmers planted a tree or two before their houses, and in the Centennial years they set out maples and elms at regular intervals along the roads bordering their fields. Only villagers shunned the strident advice of Downing and the rest.

John Warner Barber discerned no trees in the villages he visited. From Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, he rode and walked, pursuing the raw material he distilled into his Historical Collection series. Each volume, a sort of local history/gazetteer/guidebook, he advertised as a complete description of all the communities within the chosen state. Unlike almost all of the extensive collection loosely titled "United States: Travel and Description" and shelved on Widener 4 South, the Barber volumes contain nearly countless woodcuts, mostly views of cities, towns, and villages taken from nearby hilltops or from approaching roads. In the sunlight pouring through the south-facing windows the old illustrations regain their former liveliness and grow seductive. So nicely ordered, so intimately related to surrounding text, so detailed, the illustrations must be accurate, must they not?

Downstairs, through the tunnel, through the door held shut by air-conditioning back pressure, into Pusey, then upstairs to the Map Collection. Four volumes of Barber stacked on the large table prompt the librarian to suspect that many, many folders of maps will be lugged from the cabinets beyond the corner around which no scholar may ever pass. After consultation, and the selecting of certain sample village views, the "1820s series" begins to appear. The morning wears on, the great acid-free folders mount in a stack beyond the Barber volumes; atlases appear, then contemporary topographical maps, then 1830s sheets. Then Sanborn Company maps, immense, multi-colored sheets created for the use of fire insurance firms intrigued by the material, condition, and surroundings of industrial buildings. And therein lies the clue. Sanborn Company inspectors focused on brick walls, sprinkler systems, and the proximity of fireworks plants to lumberyards, but now and then they scrutinized trees. Why trees? Because lightning might strike them, igniting adjacent buildings (especially the fireworks factory) and causing claims? Trees are, after all, what is not present in the meticulously detailed, seemingly accurate Barber views of villages. Barber renders trees in cities and trees in towns, but much less often in villages. Is insurance involved?

At Baker Library even the students wear suits. Two future financiers listen momentarily to the historian interrogating the librarian about fire insurance firms, but decide nothing profitable can come of it. Down, down, down into stacks so cramped for headroom that two might fit easily into the towering basement of Cabot.

Remarkably few trees dignify this mid-nineteenth-century view of the Massachusetts hill village of Conway. The distinguished figure in the foreground might be John Warner Barber himself, for nothing in the topographer's prose description of Conway suggests that the village supported anyone accustomed to sartoreal splendor, much less a fire-extinguishing engine. From Barber, Historical Collection... of Every Town in Massachusetts. Widener Library.

Into A Stack, past rows of railroad volumes, the books and reports detailing the long forgotten financing and acquisition of the equipment and rights-of-way so carefully recorded in the Cabot Locked Room. A dead end, literally and figuratively; only one door, and nothing on pre-1850 fire insurance. Upstairs to the top floor for material in the Kress Collection, and there, the policies. "In Case Trees shall be planted before the Property above ensured after the Date of the Policy, the same shall be reported to the Society and an additional Deposit paid within One Year after they are planted or this Ensurance shall be void." In cities and towns, in 1815, street trees smacked of danger.

Policies are contracts, and contracts may have the force of law. In Langdell Hall prospective attorneys queue up at the reference desk, asking about cases, reports, needing the Very Latest Decisions. Early nineteenth-century fire-insurance policies? The question appears a welcome change of pace, the librarian vanishes to consult, the queue grows restive, wondering about the value of such antiquated documents; the historian points out the age of the Constitution, and the queue falls silent. Downstairs again, down the stairs that twist, that surprise, that perhaps shape the reasonings of law students. More policies. Suits at law. Decisions and appeals. Street trees, like cats, communicate fire.

In cities and towns, street trees worried people of prudence, as did structures of wood. "Experience has proved that a wooden city is a vast tinder-box, kindling at every transient spark; an immense mass of phial'd phosphorous, blazing out by mere communication with the air," argued John Quincy Adams in an 1802 address to the Massachusetts Charitable Fire Society, an address carefully bound and secured in Houghton. As late as the 1760s, clergymen told parishioners that a wrathful Providence sent urban wildfire as punishment for urban vice; by the early years of the new century, Adams and other reformers blamed distinctly human causes. "But clapboards and shingles! What mysterious fascinations can they possess?" Building in brick, specifying firewalls, banishing hazardous manufacturing, and organizing fire brigades combined to lessen the peril of urban conflagration, indeed to diminish it so effectively that street trees appeared in Philadelphia, Boston, and in other cities, and even in large towns built almost wholly of wood.

New fire-fighting apparatus, the "engines" of early nineteenth-century wonder, protected city folk and townsmen. Farmers lived too far from the technological wonders christened "Niagara" or "Extinguisher"; but farmers worried little about contagious fire. After all, however careless neighbors might be, the likelihood of fire consuming a house, then burning across fields and meadows to consume another, seemed so slight that even worrisome farmers worried more about their cats. But how effectively did the engines squirt? In the Cabot Locked Room stands the fire-fighting collection, as dusty as the agricultural periodicals a few aisles away, as dry as tinder. Given an active crew heaving on the bars and an ample source of water, perhaps thirty feet high. Would street trees deflect the stream? What of the trees specified by Downing?

Upstairs at the Arnold Arboretum "visiting center," in one of the airiest, lightest reading rooms at Harvard, the historian finds not only volumes devoted to the complexities of street tree planting, but an overwhelming collection of nineteenth-century photographs of trees of every species, all catalogued in Latin. At first a translation dictionary unlocks the images, then pure curiosity. Photograph upon photograph, revealing not only trees, but their habitats, their background buildings, their neighboring utility poles and trolley cars, their farms and fields over the whole of North America and, as the rows of cabinets suggest, the rest of the planet too. So, what of the twenty-year-old maple? Did it become a fire-department impediment only at forty? What of the elm? Outdoors then, out among the labeled trees and specimen groves, photocopies and notes in hand. Yes, a thirty-year-old maple shaded the residential street, but its crown stretched dangerously near abutting houses; two decades later the spark-catcher reached above chimney height and interlaced its branches with its neighbors. In the plantations Downing's love of beauty takes physical form; indeed, the elm is magnificent, so much so that fire-fighting concerns vanish, if only temporarily.

Downing, Olmsted, and other landscape architects labored almost fruitlessly. The street-tree movement bypassed villages because villagers knew the horror of wildfire among closely built frame houses, shops, and manufactories defended only by caution and bucket brigades. "There is not less danger from fire in country villages than in large towns," mused an 1825 New England Farmer writer. "Frequently the former are more combustible than the latter." Too few and too poor to afford a teacher or minister of religion, villagers looked enviously, and hopelessly, at the new fire-fighting inventions. Large towns and cities offered prospective residents educational and religious amenities, along with fire protection adequate enough to encourage even cautious families to dignify private and public space with trees that Americans now unthinkingly accept. Villagers, however, continued to fear wildfire, continued to eschew street trees, continued to appall Downing, Barber, and other visitors convinced of the morality of street trees. Prudent villagers struck aesthetes as vaguely immoral.

In the midst of it all, in trying to understand the twentieth-century American predilection for large-lot suburbs, street trees, and wooden houses secure from fire, and the corollary distaste for mobile-home parks, and treeless, 1950s ticky-tacky suburbs, notebooks fill with future projects, with detours and digressions.

E.H. Wilson focused his camera on trees; after all, an Arnold Arboretum photographer understood his chief subject. On one fourth of July he studied several magnificant elms gracing a Conway, New Hampshire farmstead; his impeccably-made 1930 image records far more than the form of the trees and their proximity to a farmhouse chimney--along with countless others in the immense Arboretum collection, it marks the context of the trees, their relation to crops, to the farm machinery in the barnyard, to the classical-revival front porch, to patterns of sunlight and outdoor work, to a hundred bits of information shaded by magnificent canopies. Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University.

A farmers' bulletin on domestic uses of concrete, a business journal devoted to efficient cities, a book on the wooden-box industry and its relation to pine forests, and the Island of Navassa. A league or so off the Dominican Republic, off the Hispaniola of Treasure Island fame, lies Navassa, a tiny dot recorded in the leather-bound atlas idly turned in Houghton while the historian awaits Adams's fire-society address. A tiny dot, just offshore, named and marked "U.S." A prolonged squint, a hasty look at the atlas copyright (recent), then the delivery of the fire-society address next to the atlas. But the lingering, then nagging thought: Navassa? There, in the straits? A hastened lunch, a calculation of the interval (too short?) before tutorial, then the forced march to the Map Collection.

Smack in the Winward Passage, in 1890 Navassa Island boasted not only a small settlement complete with church, but a narrow-gauge railroad and loading facilities used for the mining and transshipment of guano. As the fine print makes clear, the Navy took precise interest in the strategic spot; the U.S.S. Kearsarge had charted the approaches to Lulu Bay. Harvard University Map Collection.

Navassa? The librarian frowns, bites off the question of its relationship to nineteenth-century villages, examines an atlas map, then unfolds the index to contemporary charts. A puzzled noise, then a gleam in his eye prompts the historian to peer over his shoulder: the island is printed in red. Out comes the massive, modern chart from its folder, a chart depicting some reefs and other hazards, and a large island, or rather, an outline, for the United States chart shows only blankness, and a red-printed warning to mariners. Only the southeastern commander of the Coast Guard may issue permission to land. Time in the Map Collection slows, then stops. A map of blankness, as blank as anything dreamed by Melville, Verne, or Conrad--a map of deliberate blankness. An undergraduate, assistant to the librarian and student of the historian, moves closer to see the "what in blazes." The librarian and historian scrutinize the document, trying to discern a channel through the ledges, a route for a motor whaler; the student stares, clears her throat, and suggests a helicopter. And then the librarian begins, finding first an eighteenth-century French-colonial atlas, then another volume, then another. Nothing. At least nothing of detail. The historian suggests an approach, the undergraduate, relieved for the moment of cataloging duties and willy-nilly drafted into the mission, suggests an approach. Nothing. And then time moves, time for tutorial.

Another undergraduate speaks of eighteenth-century Maine farms, of the paucity of period illustrations; the talk moves to images of landscape, to images made from sailing vessels entering port, to charts and their errors, to Navassa. And the undergraduate, after a question or two, suggests a gazetteer of Hispaniola, or, with rising excitement, the ocean collection; the historian muses aloud about the naval collection. Then tea and coffee half-drunk, and treeless, fire-prone villages and Maine farms temporarily abandoned, the tutorial shifts course into mischarted territory, veering south from Sever Hall into Widener, closing in on Navassa.




Michael McCormick Eckehard Simon John R. Stilgoe Richard F. Thomas Jan M. Ziolkowski T. N. Bisson
Leo Damrosch James Engell Owen Gingerich Richard Marius Dudley Herschbach Francisco Márquez