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“Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston (1870-1900),” by Sam Bass Warner, Jr., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978, second edition. This 208-page paperback is the work of Sam Bass Warner, Jr., Visiting Professor of Urban History, at MIT. The book examines the development of the suburbs around Boston in the age when streetcars extended the range of workers to abt 6 miles. Before the streetcar, workers had to live within abt 3 miles of work. As most jobs were close to the waterfront, that caused population to concentrate in a small area resulting in the congestion, noise, smells, and disease that characterized cities.

Upper class could afford to live outside the city in country estates often with townhouses in the city for occasional visits for business or to maintain urban contacts. Similarly railroads, in that era called “steam railroads” to differentiate them from “street railroads,” had infrequent stations but allowed the upper classes to commute by train. Middle and working classes also sought the benefits of the suburbs. Horse drawn streetcars and later electric streetcars extended their range and made that possible.

The book does not discuss the technology that made this possible. Thomas Edison began investigating electric streetcars early on. The cause was probably the Great Epizootic, an episode of equine influenza the attacked the US horse population in 1872. Thousands of horses sickened and died in an era when much commerce and transportation depended on horses. Edison's co-worker, Frank Sprague invented the successful electric streetcar mechanism in 1887. Horse drawn streetcars began in Boston in abt 1852.

In the fifty years from 1850 to 1900, Boston changed from a merchant city to a commercial/industrial metropolis. In the process middle and upper classes moved to the fringes of the city, while the lower classes stayed in the inner city. Immigrants tended to begin in the inner city and then as they adapted and climbed the economic ladder–usually through hard work, thrift, and education often over two or three generations, they too moved to the suburbs.

Suburban streetcar lines followed a characteristic pattern. Pioneer lines had infrequent service while houses gradually were built close to the lines. As the population grew frequency increased to “linear service,” ie a car every ten minutes. Finally, as the land filled, crosstown connections were added. Crosstown lines usually meant longer commutes and service to lower classes. Shorter commutes made the land more valuable, and hence attracted upper middle class residents. Suburbs became stratified by class.

Other factors contributed to stratification. Families tended to seek out areas were neighbors had similar incomes and backgrounds. Many developers and builders repeated successful designs where possible once they were identified. This caused similar lot sizes, styles and architecture through the area built in a given era. Speculative builders were especially conservative in their choices preferring well accepted styles.

Warner examines low cost houses built by Robert Treat Paine for the lower middle class. His first effort was brick row houses of 600 to 800 sq ft. They were small and unsuccessful. Those that have survived became slum dwellings. A second group of detached houses of abt twice the size were more successful. They have been maintained because they are the best choice in the area.

Houses in this era were sold with mortgages. The typical one was a balloon mortgage with a term of three to eight years at an interest rate of 5 to 6%. At the end of the term, the buyer had to refinance to make the balloon payment. Covenants were common in deeds. Often residential property was restricted to single family homes and three family or multiple family dwellings were proscribed. Similarly covenants often prevented saloons, livery stables, and factories.

In the 19th Century, Sunday streetcar trips to amusement parks, cemeteries, or family recreation sites was a common activity. Locations were often at the end of the line making Sunday service profitable.

In some areas streetcar companies or their executives were known to extend streetcar lines into areas where they owned the land, and then profit from the sale of lots. That aspect is not discussed in the present volume. Similarly streetcar lines were known to build amusement parks to attract off-peak riders. Finally, the book makes no mention of heating systems used in these houses. The photos show central chimneys, which are characteristic of coal fired heating systems. In this era, central heating would probably be steam heat. Otherwise homes were heated with coal stoves.

This book is a classic on the subject. Warner's background suggests this is urban history, but one could call it urban planning or sociology. In urban developments, people vote with their feet and tend to group and stratify. This book makes clear that transportation and commuter time is a major influence for those who work for a paycheck. It examines numerous other factors to the extent available records allow. It's an informative read. Appendices discuss sources and provide population data. Photographs. References. Bibliography. Index.

Related books:
“Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940” by David E. Nye, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1990.
“Home Fires Burning: The History of Domestic Heating and Cooking,” by Lawrence Wright, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1964.
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