In this Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017 photo a portion of the Boston Skyline is seen through a window from the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, in Boston.

Credit: Steven Senne/AP

From 'Beantown' To 'The Hub,' How Did Boston Earn Its Nicknames?

August 30, 2017

Here at the Curiosity Desk, we love nothing more than when we hear from you. Today we turn to Greg Rossolimo from Pomfret, Connecticut, who reached out with this question.

"Walking through Logan Airport I heard a recording of Mayor Walsh referring to Boston as the 'Hub of the Universe.' That nickname’s been around for a while, Boston as 'The Hub.' I was wondering about the origins of that expression — is it really Boston as the 'Hub of the Universe?'"

I took Greg’s question with me to Boston’s hub of history, the Massachusetts Historical Society, where librarian Peter Drummy explained that I was in luck. 

"Usually these things are folk names, so they just rise up without any origin point," he said. "But this one? Date, place, author all laid out for us."

Oliver Wendell Holmes c. 1879
Caption
Photo Credit: Armstrong & Co. (Boston, Mass.)

The date: 1858. The place: The Atlantic Monthly. The author: Oliver Wendell Holmes, who coined the phrase in a series of essays called “The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table.” 

In one of the essays, Holmes wrote, "Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system. You couldn't pry that out of a Boston man, if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crowbar."

Drummy says the notion of the State House as the hub of the solar system quickly graduated to the city of Boston as the hub of the whole universe. The written record suggests that phrase was adopted quickly and widely. But there is a small catch: Holmes was a satirist. 

"He’s actually making fun of the fact that Bostonians are so full of themselves," said Drummy.

But Bostonians have a long tradition of transforming others’ judgments into sources of pride. Take "Puritans" and "Yankees" — these were both originally pejorative terms, embraced by all. And that Bostonians accepted such an arguably arrogant nickname on its face is also very ... well ... Bostonian, says Suffolk University history professor Robert Allison. 

"We’ve always had, I think, an exaggerated sense of our own importance, and others can give us nicknames and we know it’s usually out of envy," he said.

Case in point, another Boston nickname that predates “The Hub,” and is still heard bandied about today: "The Athens of America." Peter Drummy says that the term became popular in the early to mid-1800s, when interest in classical Greece was at its zenith around here. And Allison notes that it emerged just as Boston — once so indispensable to the very idea of America — was losing ground, and commercial influence, to other cities. 

"Athens is Socrates, and Plato, and Greek Philosophy," he said. "Not the vulgar capitalism you see emerging in New York or Philadelphia or other places."

And if Ancient Greece isn’t a sufficiently grandiose source for a nickname, how about the word of God himself? Well, God as interpreted by Puritan minister John Winthrop, who called Boston the "City Upon a Hill," just as the Massachusetts experiment was getting underway. 

"The city on the hill was going to be a model for building a society," said Drummy. "The new Jerusalem."

It’s not clear whether that phrase was ever in common use, at least until the 1960s when John F. Kennedy referenced it in a famous speech before the Massachusetts legislature after he was elected president. Ronald Reagan picked up on it, added the word “shining,” and also use the term to great effect in the 1980s, as a metaphor for the whole of America. 

"So we’ve kind of embraced that," said Allison. "The City Upon a Hill, and the eyes of all people are upon us. For Winthrop, [this] is really a warning, but for us is like, 'Oh yeah, everyone is watching us ‘cause they wanna figure out what they should do next.'"

Of course, one of Boston’s most enduring nicknames is easily its most humble — emerging perhaps in the 18th century, and popular by the early 19th century – when the city was flush with molasses from sugar trade with the West Indies, and had a penchant for slow cooking beans in the sugary goop. 

"Beantown is used widely today and has been for a long time," said Drummy.

It may be cliché these days, but “Beantown,” in a single word, captures many aspects of Boston’s long history. From its infant years...

"Cooking beans, which were the Natives' gift to the world, in molasses, which was the great commodity of the 18th century," noted Allison.

To the notion of New Englanders as a thrifty, frugal people...

"It’s one of the least expensive sources of protein that you can have," said Allison.

From Boston as a sports town... 

"Boston had the early National League team, the Beaneaters," said Drummy. 

To the waves of immigrants that would transform the city in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

"Italians, Portuguese, Chinese, they would all eat baked beans," said Allison.

Still, I’ve yet to ever hear an actual Bostonian call their city "Beantown." It’s those more high-minded, aspirational nicknames that seem to hold sway around here. And that is A-OK with Robert Allison. 

"We have this idea of ourselves as being not only better than everyone else, [but] also better than we really are," he said. "And it probably is a good thing to aspire to. I don’t want us to lose sight that we can be better than we are."

And hey, when you’re just a small city on a hill of beans punching above your weight as the "Hub of the Universe," why not dream big? 

Our thanks to Greg Rossolimo for his question that led to today’s story. How about you? If you’ve got something you’d like us to dig into here at the Curiosity Desk let us know.


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