The advent of mass transportation in the mid-19th century helped create the summer tourism industry that has been so important to our regional economy. When New England and the Sea, an historical survey of our maritime heritage, addresses the rise of seaside resorts, it tips its hat to Hingham: “. . . one had to have a summer house at the shore, or go to the White Mountains, or stay at one of the fashionable hotels—say, the Old Colony House at the head of the harbor in Hingham . . . .”
A gathering in front of the Old Colony House. Photograph from the archives at the Hingham Historical Society.
Built in 1832 by the Boston & Hingham Steamship Company, the Old Colony House was an early example of the symbiotic relationship between the infant transportation and recreation industries. The steamboat George Lincoln made the trip from Boston to Hingham swift (around 75 minutes) and pleasant, while the Old Colony House, erected on Summer Street near Martin’s Lane, created a destination, increasing passenger traffic on the vessel. The railroad came through Hingham in 1849, and one of the stops on the new South Shore Railroad, called “Old Colony House,” was close by the hotel, providing easy access from Boston—and soon thereafter, the opportunity to change trains for Nantasket. (The station’s descendent is today’s Nantasket Junction stop on the MBTA Greenbush Line.) After the Civil War, the great Nantasket hotels drew business away from the Old Colony House, which was in decline when it burned in 1872.
The Historical Society’s archives include a collection of the business papers of Alfred C. Hersey. Among Hersey’s many business interests (largely in the shipping and transportation industries) was the Old Colony House, which the steamship company sold in the late 1830’s. Hersey’s 21-page handwritten inventory of the hotel’s furnishings, made in May 1860, provides important detail about what a New England resort hotel of the 1860’s was really like.
The inventory faithfully describes the furnishings of each room of the hotel, including dining room, parlors, billiard room, bowling alley, and office, specifying quantities, materials, and state of repair. In the “East Parlor,” for instance, guests could sit on their choice of 6 damask covered sofas (4 “slightly stained”), 1 stuffed arm chair, 13 black walnut stuff bottom chairs, a stuffed rocking chair, and 10 black arm chairs (which had among them, however, only 8 cushions).
A typical guest room was furnished with a bedstead, mattresses, bolster and pillow, bureau, washstand, looking glass, mosquito netting, chamber pot and cover, soap cup, mug, and curtains. A servant’s room in the attic, by contrast, had a bedstead, mattress, bolster and pillow (“stained”), wooden chair, toilet table (“defaced”), “small” looking glass, basin and ewer, and soap cup. (Servants’ rooms in the scullery appear to have had significantly fewer furnishings.)
The inventories of the kitchen and laundry provide detailed lists of equipment. To launder the hotel linens and guests’ clothes required water casks, grease casks, basins, wash boards, starch pans, a mangle, clothes horses, brushes, 11 flat irons, iron racks, and an iron heater.
The contents of the kitchen and “pastry room” tell us about the hotel’s fare. There were large and small frying pans, copper and iron sauce pans, a meat saw, large and small steamers, tin and copper baking and cake pans, iron cake molds, tin jelly molds, a gridiron, waffle irons, coffee pots, a tea chest, ice cream freezers, an ice cream chest, and an ice cream scoop. The “pastry room” was furnished with a bed—the pastry cook must have needed to rise early.
In a series of travel letters published as A Trip to Boston in 1838, Enoch Cobb Wines wrote warmly of the
splendid and well-kept Old Colony Hotel, the refined social pleasures it affords, the noble view enjoyed from the observatory on its roof, and the cool sea breezes that almost enable you to put summer at defiance. . . . [It]t presented a gay and happy appearance. The broad piazza which surrounds three sides of the house was thronged with smiling groups, in which a due intermixture of the gentler sex was not wanting . . . .
. . . There was an excellent band from Boston there, and we had the poetry of music, the poetry of motion, and the poetry of social happiness, all in high perfection; and afterwards the poetry of sound sleep in the cool air, for which the proprietor of the Old Colony seems to have made a perpetual contract.