A Gem from the Local Archive: A Beginner’s Boston

By January 12, 2017

When you live in a place over twenty years, and you come to know people who’ve lived there even longer than you, now and then you stumble over something in what we might call the local archives. Much of both the material and intellectual culture of Mormonism – indeed, of any group through which a thread of commonality can be drawn – never makes it into a formal archival collection. This is true even for old things, which have had more time to make their way out of private trunks, attics, and boxes into museums and historical societies and libraries. Just this week I saw someone on Twitter threatening to make a list of things offered for sale on eBay that, by rights, should belong in a public records office. But I daresay it’s even more true for things from recent history. For starters, no one fully knows which items of the endless detritus of the 20th century deserves preserving, and for seconds, a lot of it is still counted among living people’s prized possessions.

2-img_2528 One of those possessions was recently lent to me by a friend. The provenance of this object is probably convoluted, but suffice it to say, it’s from the local archives, and there’s more where this came from. It’s uncatalogued. But it’s a gem, nonetheless.

The object in question is a revised 1973 edition of a book that was first published in 1966. Its author, whose name no doubt is familiar to all our readers, has just released a new book, which arrived crisp and thick in my mailbox this very week. But this is her very first book.

Laurel and Gael Ulrich moved to the Boston area in 1960, and found themselves immersed (as did I, when I arrived a generation later) in a small but creative and intellectually charged Mormon community centered in the Harvard Square neighborhood of Cambridge. As she described in a 2014 Harvard Gazette interview:

There were local people and professional people but there were a lot of graduate students and graduate student wives. I did everything. It’s a lay church; I taught all kinds of classes. I learned how to teach by teaching in the church setting. The women’s organization — they were studying literature. I had a degree in English so I taught lessons on literature to other women. I think I wrote some plays — just goofy things for teenagers. I edited a newsletter. … I was part of the Relief Society, which is the women’s organization in the church, and we got the bright idea for fundraising that we would write a guidebook to Boston [in 1966]. I organized it and edited it and did quite a lot of the writing. My friend Bonnie Horne, who was the president of this organization — maybe you’ve read this story, it’s a wonderful story — took the idea to the ward council. These guys who were in graduate school — they were at Harvard Business School — said, “Well, that’s ridiculous. You won’t make any money doing that.” And Bonnie said, “We’ll do it.”

So we did it. Somebody gave us some money for a first printing of a thousand copies. We compiled the information, got people to do the drawings and type the text and do titles. We’re talking about creating a physical artifact that we sent away to be printed and bound. We got one copy back as a sample.

Bonnie was so excited about this. She said, “I’m calling the women’s page editor of The Boston Globe to see if she’s interested in this.” This woman said, “Bring it down.” The next day we were all meeting at the church for something else and the phone starts ringing. The person in the office came in and said, “Where can people get this book?” She had written a kind of rave review of our book and we didn’t have copies yet. So we sold our thousand copies before they had arrived.

They were typed on a typewriter. To us they looked fabulous. You have the printer reduce it 60 percent, and it looks like it’s been typeset. Photo offset was pretty new.

So my life, for many years, was organized around these do-it-yourself, crazy projects. We then went on and did a much more elaborate second edition.

[1]

3-img_2529The second edition in my hands is a substantial, 233-page paperback (plus index) that for years was one of the best-selling local guides to the Boston area (costing, the cover notes, just $3.50 a pop). Elsewhere Ulrich has noted that it eventually sold over 20,000 copies. [2]

Throughout, the book is lavishly illustrated by delightful, quasi-psychedelic graphic art by Carolyn Peters, including walking maps of various Boston and Cambridge neighborhoods, evocative margin doodles, and little calligraphy factoids and quotes sprinkled along the way (e.g. Henry James’s observation that “there are 3 classes in America: the busy, the tipsy, and Daniel Webster,” p. 111; the morbid statistic that “Over one-half of the Pilgrims died the first winter. Only 12 heads of families survived,” p. 83; the odd detail that “Arthur Fielder chases fire engines,” p. 133; and, helpfully, “the White Pine has 5 needles in a cluster,” p. 161).

1-img_2527 Chapters cover places to take children, going shopping for bargains and farmers’ markets, Recreation (Nature, Sports, and Three Ways to Have a Clambake), and Culture (Theater, Music, Museums, other local sites). There is a chapter devoted to places easily reached with a daytrip from Boston, including the Cape and Islands, Central Massachusetts, and instructions for “Getting Lost on a Country Road.” An extensive chapter discusses Boston proper, including a brief overview of its past 300 years, suggested walking tours, and of course, a list of local restaurants, some of which I can personally vouch are still open at this writing.

I think one of the most charming sections is the Introduction (giving additional writing credits to Claudia Bushman and Stephanie Goodson), covering intricacies of the weekly and yearly calendar that only a non-New Englander would think to comment upon, advice on renting apartments and making sense of public transportation, and a marvelous section devoted to the Boston accent and New England colloquialisms. It’s an affectionate portrait of the authors’ adopted hometown, slightly bemused in patches, and suitable either for the new transplant or the adventurous tourist. John Durham Peters, the illustrator’s son, who fondly remembers as a child the project colonizing his family’s dining room table, said A Beginner’s Boston was hardly the lament of a displaced, disaporic community wandering in a hostile world. “Not captive Israel yearning for Jerusalem,” he wrote of it, rather “it is Israel writing a love letter to Babylon.” [3]

Aside from the book’s obvious appeal as a masterpiece of period illustration and a vividly written snapshot of a city and region approximately fifty years ago, a couple of other facets of this particular gem are worth mentioning here.

One is that the work of creating A Beginner’s Boston features regularly in Ulrich’s own autobiography as the project which simultaneously created the Cambridge/Boston community of literary women who soon turned their energies to feminism (study, advocacy, and consciousness-raising all at once), historical scholarship, Exponent II, and which led in Laurel’s case, to formal graduate studies in gender and social history and, eventually, to a stunningly distinguished career as a tenured Harvard professor back in the very same neighborhood. She put it this way: “Emboldened by my success in improving my children’s nap times to complete a Relief Society-sponsored guidebook to Boston … I began a part-time M.A. program” … and the rest, as we say, is history. [4]

The second key point is that A Beginner’s Boston conjures the bygone era when, across the Church, every local Relief Society did its own fund-raising, admittedly fund-raising that was rarely this successful. Having a book that unexpectedly went viral was a situation that generated its own complications, as her 1970 Acknowledgement page makes clear.

4-img_2530

A Beginner’s Boston is therefore part of a long history of material culture supporting LDS Relief Society’s work back when its budgets were independently managed separate from tithing funds and ward and stake budgets. This was, of course, a double-edged sword. Financial independence had both its own rewards and its pitfalls. Relief Society sisters had to be resourceful in inventing ways to raise funds, but they could operate their own projects once the “business school graduate students” serving in local priesthood leadership roles grudgingly approved the project even while denigrating its value. Hopefully those CEOs-in-training ate plenty of crow over the years that A Beginner’s Boston flourished on the shelves of Boston-area bookshops.

However, A Beginner’s Boston appeared during the twilight of those years of Relief Society financial autonomy. In the short span of time that the book went from first to its final editions, the Relief Society ceased publishing its own magazine and stopped holding its annual conferences in Utah. Because of correlation, local Relief Societies would soon see all their budgets absorbed into general ward funds under priesthood management. [5] The business acumen that gave birth to A Beginner’s Boston was no longer demanded of (or valued in?) women. This no doubt came as a mercy to some, but others experienced it as a genuine loss and palpable diminution of Relief Society women’s influence and sphere. This audacious, lively book is therefore valuable not just as an artifact of local history, but as a high-tide marker of Mormon women’s contributions within – and far beyond – their congregations. [6]

[1] Corydon Ireland, “‘I Had the Advantage of Disadvantage’Harvard Gazette, 22 October 2014.

[2] “Challenging the Model,” Mormon Historical Studies.

[3] John Durham Peters, forward to Robert S. Jordan, A Diasporan Mormon’s Life: Essays of Remembrance, (iUniverse, 2009), 15.

[4] “Challenging the Model;” see also Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Epiphany in a Broom Closet,” Weber State Journal 10.3 (Fall 1993).

[5] Did this technically mark the transition, administratively speaking, from Relief Societies (plural, collective, each one individual) to Relief Society (one entity, auxiliary to the Priesthood)? Sort of along the lines of the post-Civil War’s nomenclature shift from United States (plural) to THE United States (singular)?

[6] The irony of writing about this book as an extraordinary object of Mormon women’s ordinary material culture, when the book itself was authored by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, is not lost on me.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History From the Archives Gender Material Culture Popular Culture Women's History


Comments

  1. I love the way you think about this, Tona. I’ve been thinking about the relief society and Exponent II as a site of intellectual history for Mormons, not just Mormon women. I think this certainly fits in, too.

    Comment by J Stuart — January 12, 2017 @ 11:15 am

  2. This is a wonderful post, thank you Tona.

    I’ve heard Laurel talk about this project before, but had never seen it. It is extraordinary. I find the sixties-era illustrations entirely captivating. Your insights into how this “mundane” object fits into the lived religion of Mormonism is splendid.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 12, 2017 @ 11:20 am

  3. Great post, Tona. Recently I’ve been worried about the amount of history that we miss because our sources can only tell so much, and this is a great call to find the local archives and keep one’s eyes peeled! Love it.

    Comment by Jeff T — January 12, 2017 @ 3:56 pm

  4. So glad to see the little book get some new life!

    Comment by Jon F. — January 13, 2017 @ 7:46 am

  5. Tona, this is really spectacular and fun. Thanks! Like J, I’ve been aware of the book and heard/read Laurel speak about it, but I’d never seen it before. Those illustrations are incredible.

    Comment by Christopher — January 13, 2017 @ 10:48 am

  6. We also need to dig up the children’s book they did–its Doctrine and Covenants cookie recipe was a staple of my childhood family home evenings. (each ingredient came from a verse of the Doctrine & Covenants–the recipe gave the measurement and a reference and you had to look up the verse to find what you were supposed to add)

    Comment by Kristine — January 14, 2017 @ 6:32 pm

  7. Delightful, insightful post.

    Comment by BHodges — February 1, 2017 @ 4:23 pm


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