The 18th Century

Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The 18th Century

Throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, Boston was the largest town in the colonies, and the North End was its most populous and desirable neighborhood. As a seaport and a neighborhood dominated by shipyards and surrounded by wharves and sailing vessels, the most common sights and sounds (and smells) in the North End were associated with the ocean. Fishermen would bring in their ships filled with cod, mackerel or mollusks, like oysters and clams, to unload their catches. Although Faneuil Hall was built in 1742 as a central market for Boston, many business people resisted a set schedule and location for selling their goods. Once fresh fish were examined by an appointed “Culler of Fish” (inspector), peddlers could buy quantities from the fishermen or from middlemen.

Throughout the day, peddlers would push their carts through the streets of the North End and yell HanoverStreetOldout what they had for sale. Their voices would mingle with the sounds of hammering and sawing from the shipyards, the rattling of horses and carts along the cobblestone streets and the conversation of thousands of North Enders. Wooden structures with gardens coexisted with brick dwellings and green space throughout the district, and very few of these homes had more than three floors. Every home had at least one chimney, and the smoke and aromas escaping them were another ever-present part of life in the North End. Soot and other dirt could collect in chimneys, which were prone to burning, a process that town records called “flaming out.” Flames from a dirty chimney could set the roof on fire, which had the natural ability to spread to neighboring buildings. African Americans, either free people or those enslaved people allowed spare time to work for their own money, were often hired to clean the chimneys. In fact, the first African-American employee in Boston, appointed in 1689, was a chimney sweeper. Jeremiah, whose surname was not recorded, continued in that important fire prevention position for five years.

KnifeSharpenerNorthEndLow, long warehouses and sheds, and some small dwellings, could be found on the docks along the waterfront, along with lime kilns, soap boiling shops and other fragrant industries. Mills, breweries and refineries were set up around the Mill Pond, adding to the olfactory experience. Unfortunately, local custom was to throw the bodies of dead dogs, cats and other pets into the Mill Pond, along with a variety of garbage, which together contributed to the already numerous hazards to public health.

It was during this time that the streets of Boston were first officially named (1708) and the Long Wharf was completed (1710). Many of Boston's iconic Freedom Trail sites were also finished in the first half of the 1700s, including the Old State House (1713), the Old North Church (1723), the Old South Meeting House (1729), Faneuil Hall (1742), and (a few years past the exact middle of the century) King's Chapel (1754).