Editor's note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a favorite story from our magazine archives. As Boston begins what will ultimately be a long healing process in the wake of the April 15 marathon bombings, we turn to a February 1933 feature dedicated to the city and its people.
FORTUNE -- Cities are constructed upon the principle of the onion. One layer of familiarity peels off to leave the next. And the hope of penetrating to the central core which gives taste and shape and character to the entire community is elaborately deferred. So it is even with cities as new as Chicago or as obvious as Berlin. And so, beyond most others, is it with the ancient city of Boston. Boston is thick. Many trades and times and wars and ways and races and religions have wrapped themselves around the Boston nubbin. Much sentimental fingering has soiled the outside skin. And a rich patina of glory and ridicule and bad poems and famous names has glazed the whole town like a prize vegetable in an exposition until the city looks as impenetrable as it is substantial and as hard as it is old. Not a few crusading novelists have barked at Boston without biting it for fear of breaking teeth.
And yet the outside glaze is mostly crackle and dry varnish. It crumbles in the fingers. Faneuil Hall still stands with Liberty on the second floor and beef in the basement and the slight, gilt grasshopper of the weather vane turning overhead, and North Street still lies where the shanghai men left it when they pulled the last drunk sailor from its Sunday morning rain, and Copp's Hill Burying Ground still looks across the Ship Channel with its winged skulls and sullen slates and the rain-thumbed years of Cotton Mather and his kind, and Beacon Hill still smells of cannel coal on a foggy afternoon and State Street smells of coffee still and the gulls still swing above the Common like the vultures over Vera Cruz. But all these things are no more than a wash of local color long dry and peeling from the cloth. The voices around Faneuil Hall are Italian voices and the silence of Copp's Hill is a silence of Yankee stones in a screaming of Levantine and Greek and the faces on Washington Street are Irish faces and the only race which remains now what it was when the Old South Church was building is the race of sedate and respectable pigeons which courteously steps aside on the paths of Boston Common to let the Lithuanians pass.
So it is also with the layers beneath. The worldly traveler who knows his cities does not know Boston. It may be the part of realism and good sense to push past the State House to the Old Howard where, in the shell of a grim, gray church, the graceful galleries that once looked down on Booth look down now upon Ann Corio and the lady strippers and the New York legs. And it may be the mark of the sophisticate to nose along Columbus Avenue for the smell of sour mash, and to ring doorbells on the back side of Beacon Hill in search of the Puritan Bohemia. But none of these things are Boston. The Bohemia is self-conscious and gawky. The speakeasies, in a city which cannot overcome its aversion to dining out even in the interest of alcohol, are short-lived and unappetizing and glum. And the Old Howard, though its midnight show is as rank as any north of Laredo and its afternoon crowds are thick and sleepy and its tide deeds are said to lead to the high plateaus of Brookline itself, is merely another manifestation of what may be found anywhere else on earth.
Nor does one get down to anything Bostonian when one gets down to figures. It is soundly true that Boston's metropolitan area covers eighty cities and towns with a population of 2,308,000, with 6,400 factories engaged in 250 of the 350 recognized U.S. industries, with two and one-half billions of normal wholesale operations, two billions of factory products, the highest per capita retail sales in the country, and an enormous shoe industry, a vast wool-selling industry, a great amount of printing, and almost one hundred millions of electrical machinery, to say nothing of leather, cotton, clothing, packing, baking, confectionery, rubber, cutlery, tanning, and the like. But metropolitan Boston is not Boston any more than the Department of the Seine is Paris. Boston defies the geographers. Brockton and Lynn and Salem are not Boston, however far the Bureau of the Census may trace circles with its compasses. And Brookline, for all the protestations of its inhabitants that Brookline remains the largest incorporated village in the world, is Boston and nothing else.
The truth is that Boston as an entity, as a city distinct from other cities, has very little to do with statistics and even less to do with local color. Decorticate the Boston onion and you descend rapidly through atmosphere, intimate glimpses, and the cold facts of the U.S. Census to another kind of fact altogether. You come down to the Bostonian. Other cities have their histories. The history of Boston is biography. And the Bostonian is by all odds the city's most striking characteristic. By the word Bostonian is intended, of course, not a citizen of metropolitan Boston nor even one of the 800,000 citizens of the city proper. A Bostonian, as all the world understands the epithet, is a member of one of the old Yankee families long acclimated to the moral, intellectual, and industrial climate of the capital of New England and now indigenous to its temperatures.
A Bostonian, that is to say, is a Cabot or a Lowell. For it is by those two names that the mercantile aristocracy of the town is recalled to the mind of outlanders on the upper reaches of the Mississippi or the lower reaches of the Rappahannock. The association of ideas is, to be sure, more or less arbitrary. If ever there were living witnesses to the mnemonic power of a jingle, they are the two families of whom the psalmist observed that "the Cabots speak only to Lowells and the Lowells speak only to God." But, nevertheless, if one should cast about to find the two most representative, if not the two most aristocratic, families of Boston, one would doubtless come out where the psalmist came out.
The Lowells are representative of the professional line which, not without profit, has dominated one-half of the commercial history of Boston. The family was a substantial, middle-class merchant family of Bristol in England which emigrated in the person of the first Percival in the 17th century and practiced in three generations in Newburyport the successive trades of cooper, cordwainer, and preacher. The family wealth was first accumulated by the Francis Cabot Lowell, mill owner, who died in 1817 and the John Lowell, lawyer, who died in 1840, and first multiplied by the John Amory Lowell, John Lowell's son, who died in 1881. But the outstanding Lowells were the Judge John Lowell, who was appointed to the bench by Washington, the Honorable James Russell Lowell, who edited the Atlantic Monthly and the North American Review, taught at Harvard, and acted as U.S. envoy to Spain and the Court of St. James's, and the brilliant General Charles Russell Lowell Jr., who was twice wounded, had twelve horses shot under him, and died at the age of twenty-nine in the battle of Cedar Creek.
The Cabots, on the other hand, stand for the merchant strain. They descend from John Cabot, merchant, who with his brother, George Cabot, carpenter, emigrated from the Island of Jersey in 1700. (The American family cannot be traced either to John Cabot, the explorer, or to the Chabot family of France, whose arms --"Or, three Chabots [bull-heads] gules" -- they bear.) John's family lived as well-to-do merchants first in Salem and in subsequent generations in Beverly where the famous firm of J. & A. Cabot took out letters of marque during the Revolution, netted as high as £26,560 on a single prize, and emerged from the war by far the richest concern in New England. Thereafter, although other branches of the family continued to live in Salem and to privateer, Samuel, grandson of John, moved into Boston where, having established his name among the merchants, he had his lovely wife Sally painted by Copley and himself buried in the Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street. Subsequently, another Samuel rose in the China and India trade to the status of millionaire and a Frederick became rich in the management of mills.
Obviously not everything that has happened to the Cabots and the Lowells has happened as well to the Saltonstalls and the Winthrops and the Perkinses and the Lawrences and the Forbeses and the Wigglesworths and the Gardners and the Searses and the Hemenways and the Endicotts and the Amorys and the Frothinghams and the Paines and the Lees and the Shattucks and the rest of the merchant families which make up, in aggregate, the meaning of the word Bostonian. But these two families do, nevertheless, present an intelligible composite picture. The Bostonian takes an eye from one and a nose from the other. He begins, in their names, to materialize. One sees him as an energetic and forceful man with a strong sense of property, a conviction of the moral justification of the accumulation of wealth and, above all, with the power to achieve his earthly as well as his heavenly ends. One sees him, that is, as a great merchant, or a great merchant lawyer, a builder of ships and Federalist constitutions and houses of commerce and railways and copper mines and western cities and family names: a man of force and power and influence in the Republic.
Such is the Bostonian. Or such, rather, he was when Boston was a great port and Boston ships were great ships and Boston banks were great banks and the name of Boston carried the Union Pacific over the Continental Divide. What he is today is another question. Or rather it is the question. For the interpretation of the present repute of the city hangs upon it. It may be unmannerly to inquire in so many words whether the Lowells and the Cabots of the third decade of the 20th century are still the Lowells and the Cabots of the fourth decade of the 19th century. But it is a question which must excuse its bad manners by its historical necessity.
The difficulty is that it cannot be answered without a paradox. The Cabots and the Lowells and their likes and peers have, it may be alleged, ceased to be the Cabots and the Lowells. But they have ceased only by becoming more so. And the key to the present status of Boston lies in that apparent contradiction.
There is first of all the matter of personal talent. So far as personal talent is concerned there can be no doubt but that the hopeful fears of the rest of the country have been disappointed. The present generation of Lowells, or rather what would be the present generation of Lowells had not Amy Lowell, the poetess, and Percival Lowell, the astronomer, and Guy Lowell, the architect, died before their time, compares much more than favorably with any preceding generation the family has produced.
President A. Lawrence Lowell of Harvard ranks with the greatest of American university presidents and if his sister was not a poet of the first importance she was at least immeasurably better than her great-great-uncle's son, while Judge James Lowell of the U.S. District Court is an excellent judge, Percival was the first (and only first-rank) scientist to bear the name, and Guy was the family's first and most famous architect.
As for the Cabots, although that family has never been remarkable for the personal distinction of its members, the current generation, including Dr. Hugh Cabot, professor of surgery in the University of Minnesota and consultant at the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Richard C. Cabot, a well-known sociologist and doctor, Professor Philip Cabot of the Harvard Business School, Godfrey Lowell Cabot, a manufacturer of carbon products and a pillar of Boston's book-suppressing Watch and Ward, Samuel Cabot, a manufacturer of roofing compositions, shingle stains, etc., and the late Judge Frederick P. Cabot of the Juvenile Court, reaches at least as high a level as that reached by its predecessors, while the family's reputation for honesty, frankness, and character remains as always unblemished. The Cabots have yet to produce a black sheep or a face-cream testimonial -- though one Cabot by blood (Eliot) became an actor (and an actor of brilliance) and two Cabots by marriage, the one a naval officer's daughter and the other an exile in the West, so far forgot their responsibilities as to plump respectively for Pond's Vanishing Cream and Simmons Beds.
As for the other Bostonian families for whom the Lowells and the Cabots are permitted to stand, the same general situation exists. Director Edward Waldo Forbes of the great Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, W. Cameron Forbes, ex-Ambassador to Japan, and President Allan Forbes of the be-ship-modeled State Street Trust need fear no comparison on the basis of personal talent with the John Murray Forbes who built the C. B. & Q. and pushed the Michigan Central to Chicago, and have really to shrink only from the Robert Bennet Forbes who made a fortune in China and left behind him a reputation for epistolography and charm.
Leverett Saltonstall, speaker of the Massachusetts House and present occupant of the political escalator which, until quite recently, was geared to deliver its young Republicans, Coxes as well as Coolidges, in the Governor's chambers, is an honorable representative of his much honored family. Bishop William Lawrence adds at 83 much luster to his name. Richard Bowditch Wigglesworth sits in Congress. George Peabody Gardner Jr. maintains the banking reputation of the Gardners. And so it goes.
Only in the Adams family is there occasion to note an evident decline-and there only because the previous record of the family with its two Presidents, its three ministers to England, and its perhaps-great writer is so overpowering (easily the most distinguished family record in America) that not even an able Secretary of the Navy can keep his generation up.
Personal talent, however, is not the whole story by any means. The great families of Boston did not go in for talent. They went in for power, for wealth, for acquisition, for control. And on that basis of comparison there can be no doubt but that the Bostonian has suffered a decay and disintegration of tragic proportions. By and large, branch by branch, family by family, the Bostonian of today has withdrawn from productive enterprise. He has lost the active management of his industries. He has lost the political control of his city. He is no longer a figure, as he was a dominant figure a hundred years ago, in the government of the nation. He no longer leads either in public opinion or in private thought. And he has so completely lost his leadership in the arts that his former influence bas become a subject for satire.
The word Boston, in the booksellers' world, means not a market for the best books but a market for many books and a source of censors' bans which may serve to sell a mediocre novel elsewhere. It is true that Mr. Charles Hopkinson remains as the best of living American portraitists, that Mr. Ralph Adams Cram is a well-known architect, and that Mr. Charles Martin Loeffler is a composer of merit, but otherwise little local art can be found between the Charles River Basin and the Fort Point Channel.
Boston, theatrically, is a musical comedy town providing the first and most enthusiastic audiences for censored versions of such opera as Of Thee I Sing and Gay Divorce. It goes to Quincy rakishly for its banned Eugene O'Neill. And though, unlike Philadelphia, it has managed to sit through the Prokofiev and Stravinsky and Honegger and Copland, which Sergei Koussevitzky and his magnificent orchestra have given it, it has always preferred dead composers (as dead painters and dead writers) to composers still alive.
There remains, however, the paradox. In general in America classes which have lost their intellectual and industrial and political supremacy have come down financially and socially as well. American cities, even young American cities, are filled with the street names and the impoverished widows of family groups which have lost their hold. But no such overturn has taken place in Boston. No coup d'etat or October Revolution has put Mayor Curley into the Somerset Club in place of Mr. Robert Treat Paine or eliminated Mr. Bayard Tuckerman from the Myopia Hunt to the advantage of Mr. Patrick O'Hara. No great Boston family of the first rank has lost either means or position. No real break has been made in the city's ruling class. And all the laws of economic determinism seem to have been violated in that fact. It ought to have happened. And that which ought to have happened, as any good Marxist will tell you, has happened. The only trouble is that Mr. Curley still eats his lunches at the Parker House and that, with the possible exception of the family of Mr. James J. Phelan of Hornblower & Weeks, no Irish family in Boston is yet certain of the acceptance of which a score of Irish families, to say nothing of a regiment of Italian and Jewish and German families, are assured in New York.
It is curious that this violation of historical law and social science should have attracted so little attention. For its explanation, and the explanation of the whole paradox of Boston, is not only fairly obvious but also fairly amusing. It is, briefly, nothing more esoteric than the law of trusts.
Massachusetts is perhaps the most liberal state in the Union legislatively speaking. Its labor laws have been the hope of the progressives and the horror of the mill owner for a generation. But judicially Massachusetts is a gray horse of an altogether different color. And in no direction has the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth been more reactionary than in its decisions on the laws of inheritance. Its prime accomplishment has been the incubation of the so-called Massachusetts spendthrift trust.
The spendthrift trust as a means of preventing a beneficiary from anticipating his income by pledge, etc. is not peculiar to Massachusetts. But the Massachusetts Supreme Court has carried the device farther than any other American court, and had already by 1830 established a mechanism for tying up family funds against creditors and out of the dangers of business risk which was exceptionally attractive to Massachusetts testators.
At present, by the supplementary device of giving trustees discretion to pay or not to pay income as they see the necessity, a Massachusetts estate may be tied up beyond the reach of any power but the Communist International. But it was already possible three generations ago to expedite one's fortune safely into eternity -- or into so much of eternity as the Rule Against Perpetuities left open. And Boston families early formed the habit -- a habit in which the highly reputed Suffolk County Bar and the helpful provisions of the Massachusetts laws on trustee investments confirmed them. Fortunately -- or unfortunately -- for Boston they formed the habit in the days of their wealth. And the consequence was that the great fortunes which had been built up in productive enterprise, built up in the cotton mills and the China trade and the clipper ships and the Sante Fe and the Mexican Central and the Chicago stockyards, were salted away into family trusts which, bisected by births, were reunited by inter-family marriages, and which were rarely permitted to run out. It was and is the accepted practice for the young Forbes or Lowell whom the Rule Against Perpetuities would make outright owner of several millions of gilt-edged bonds to reestablish voluntarily his family trust. And, failing the voluntary act, there are always enough aunts and uncles and trustees to see that the deed in any case is done. Not all these trusts are spendthrift trusts. Not all are restricted to a single branch of a family. But trusts they nevertheless are. Anyone who cares to take the time may observe in the probate records of Norfolk and Suffolk counties the slow but certain crystallization of the city's wealth.
How much money has been so retired to stud there is, of course, no means of telling. The trustees are numerous and impossible of access. Hardly a Boston family of any size but has one or two members who act as trustees, active or inactive, under some uncle's will, while most law offices have a partner or two to undertake the same work officially and the banks have the usual trust departments. For the amateurs it is all very attractive. A single trustee gets 6 per cent of the income since the income-tax law. (Prior to that time he got 5 per cent.) If there are two trustees and the active trustee is an institution, as is frequently the case, the inactive trustee (whose duties are to establish personal relations with the beneficiary and to pass upon all sales of trust assets, etc.) receives 1 ½ to 2 per cent and a large amount of leisure time. The consequence is that an amateur trustee may gracefully and idly pick up from $4,000 to $6,000 a year at the cost merely of a heavy personal responsibility. But the estates must be large enough. To an active lawyer a single estate under $100,000 is hardly worth the attention he ought to give it.
There has been, however, a certain concentration of trust funds in the hands of a few professional trustees. Robert H. Gardiner and E. Sohier Welch, whose fathers were professional trustees before them, and Philip Dexter, who has been a professional trustee for a generation, control sums which are said to approximate $100,000,000 apiece. And the enormous real-estate holdings of family trusts in downtown Boston are well known: Mr. Dexter's father used to observe that he never invested in anything he could not see from his office window. No one knows exactly how much realty is so held but $2,000,000 of the $67,000,000 Boston tax levy in 1932 was paid by one trustee office alone. Real estate is, however, not the sole, nor now the chief, field of trustee investment. It is because of the great trusts that Boston is one of the richest securities markets in the world: a well-known investment house with offices in Boston and Chicago reports that it sells more securities in Boston in a month than in Chicago in a year. And it is in part because of the great trusts that Boston presents such an imposing list of insurance companies running in size from the John Hancock through New England Mutual, Massachusetts Fire & Marine, Columbian National, Boston Mutual, Liberty Mutual, Massachusetts Bonding, and Employers' Liability on down through a formidable number of smaller concerns.
The bearing of this sequestration of wealth upon the Boston social structure is obvious enough. A society may be embalmed in the law of trusts as a cod may find eternal youth in brine. And the result will be a kind of timeless, through-the-looking-glass world in which the processes of decay are arrested, in which the replacement of one class by another becomes impossible, and in which Mr. Charles E. Alexander of the Boston Transcript could rule the rosters of marriages and deaths with the unquestionable assurance of an Egyptian god. The result, in other words, will be the paradox of a great industrial city controlled, for all social purposes, by an industrially impotent class.
But there are other and more subtle results ranging all the way from the annual dinners of the Massachusetts Humane Society to the character of the modern paintings in the Boston Art Museum. The very look of Boston is, in a sense, referable to the family trusts. The shabby-genteel, down-at-heel appearance of State Street may not be due altogether to the fact that a large number of State Street buildings are owned by family trusts and managed by family trustees. But enough buildings are so owned and managed to permit the family trustee to stamp the neighborhood with his conservatism, his disinclination to make any but the most necessary repairs, and his inability to venture funds in the construction of modern buildings. And the same thing may be said in a sense of contemporary Boston society.
Not that contemporary Boston society is either shabby-genteel or (in spite of the low-heeled Boston affectation) down in the shoe. But contemporary Boston society has definitely the characteristics of a class insulated in its privileges and its ideas and its habits. Boston living is simple (many very rich families spending $3o,ooo or less a year) because good Boston form in such matters was crystallized in Victoria's era of simplicity. Boston's wardrobe is British (tweeds in winter and flowered flimsies in summer) because Boston fashions were oriented in the days when America was a British province. And Boston restaurants are bad, outside of the Olympia with its Levantine dishes and Durgin & Park's with its prime beef and its sawdust, because Boston society makes no demands upon them. Boston society dines at home (and the obedient Boston middle class dines with it) because it was accustomed to dine at home in the days when American restaurant food was inedible and because nothing has since happened to make it change its ways. Only such comparatively (i.e., in Boston) recent families as the Websters and Bancrofts and Boardmans and Hornblowers and Wings appear much in public in the New York style.
As for the ideas of the Bostonians, perhaps no class on earth has more rigorously preserved the intellectual orientation of its ancestors. It is not merely by accident that a statue of Alexander Hamilton erected in 1865 faces the Public Gardens from between the halves of Commonwealth Avenue while Jefferson, in spite of the important presence in Boston of his lineal descendants, the Jefferson Coolidges, is unhonored and uncarved: the Jeffersons themselves have become Hamiltonians in the violet light that penetrates Beacon Hill drawing rooms. The Bostonians are not only State-Street (to borrow Henry Adams' term) in politics, laissez faire in economics, and Unitarian (merging into Church of England) in religion, but Johnsonian in art. Amy Lowell's mild adaptations of French vers libre of the 1900's produced scandals on Commonwealth Avenue, the Boston Herald still publishes editorials in which modern painting is "barbarous and repulsive" recalling the "horrors of bolshevik materialism," and only H.T.P. of the Boston Transcript seems aware of the fact that it is Boston's highest modern distinction that Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms was written for the fiftieth anniversary of her orchestra.
All this being so, it is quite understandable that the family trusts should have had an influence on the Bostonians themselves -- an influence both good and bad. Mr. Frederic J. Stimson, himself a Bostonian and formerly U.S. Ambassador to the Argentine and Brazil, may be permitted to speak as Devil's advocate. "Perforce," said Mr. Stimson of the beneficiaries of the trusts, "they became coupon-cutters -- parasites, not promoters of industry -- with the natural results to their own characters." Had he been writing in 1932, he might well have reinforced his indictment with evidence drawn from the Gillette case and the Lee, Higginson affair of recent memory. For in both those cases, the outstanding fact in evidence was that the Bostonians involved, honest and conscientious and gentlemenly men, had permitted themselves to be used by persons of less virtuous character, had trusted the representations of men whose representations should never have been trusted, and had failed to ask the embarrassing but essential questions. But even thus buttressed, the indictment is a little flat. It ignores too many things. It ignores the fact that a 4 per cent fund may produce a mode of life as agreeable as it is parasitic. And it altogether avoids the question whether that mode of life may not be precisely the purpose of all industry. Boston, it must be remembered, is one of the few cities left in the world where manners are still esteemed and practiced, as it is perhaps the only city in the country where the consonants of the English language are still pronounced. And the Bostonian is almost the only American male still distinguishable from other American males by eye and ear.
The only difficulty is that he is not really distinguishable enough -- not half so distinguishable as his background warrants. To borrow a phrase from the most brilliant of Boston women: "The curious and pathetic thing is that with all their conservative gentility the Bostonians remain essentially business men whose jobs have disappeared through forces beyond their control." Emend "forces beyond their control" to read "the testaments of their grandfathers" and you have the truth entire. The Bostonian does not employ his leisure as the leisure classes of other cities have employed theirs. He has, with a few notable exceptions, no ear for poetry, no eye for painting. He merely diverts his energies into the service of great charities (the important charities of Boston are almost all run by the Bostonians) or the direction of social enterprises. The Bostonian has a passion for humanitarian enthusiasm and abstract indignation which is unequaled anywhere else on earth. It was Boston which boiled against the rape of Manchuria, and Boston which wanted war when the Lusitania went down. And it was among the Bostonians that Sacco and Vanzetti found a few of the very few defenders who stood out against an almost unanimous opinion.
There is only one profession which, the business office closed, combines an opportunity for humanitarian enthusiasm with an opportunity for work. And in that profession Bostonians have achieved their greatest contemporary distinction. Boston is one of the two greatest medical and surgical research centers in the country. Warren and Shattuck and Richardson and Homans (there have been seven Drs. John Homans in direct descent) have been famous medical names for a hundred years. Boston doctors are known throughout the country. And Boston research is famous for its freedom from institutional control.
But outside that serviceable field the unemployed businessman of the Boston tradition tends to turn back upon his British forbears. He turns to the land. He spends his springs and his summers and his falls out in the country villages with the ancient names -- Wellesley, Lancaster, Danvers, Dublin. He contributes to the Arnold Arboretum as a 12th century Frenchman would have contributed to a cathedral. He takes to his dog and his boat and his gun and his pipe. He becomes gentle and human and quiet with a great love for a few men and a great knowledge of a few beasts and the most perfect courtesy this continent affords. If he is also ignorant of the books and the passions and the music and the economics of his time that also is understandable. For in a sense he has no traffic with his time.
By and large, then, the Bostonian does not suffer. On the contrary he may benefit in surprising ways. But the city of his fathers suffers. For the city loses both him and his inheritance. Both are withdrawn from creative enterprise. In Mr. Stimson's somewhat literary phrase: "It was as if the argosies of Venice had been realized and the proceeds placed with Shylock at 4 per cent. Shylock took no risks and the Boston Bassanio, bored, spent his 4 per cent in elegant living -- to do him justice, greatly promoting art, charity, public service -- but the consequences were disastrous to a Venetian commercial supremacy." The proof is the shipment of 65 per cent of New England exports by way of New York, the decline of the Boston export trade to 26.5 per cent of the pre-War decade, and the once crowded and now all but empty harbor -- a harbor where a liner can back out without tugs, turn under her own steam, and drop a pilot in deep water in one-fifteenth the time required in New York.
But there is also other proof on drier land. Boston banks were once banks of issue. Copper and railroads were financed from Boston. Textile mills were financed from Boston. All the industries of New England looked to Boston for their lifeblood. Today an issue of $20,000,000 New England Power Association first mortgage bonds is handled by a New York-controlled house. And handled in New York because there are no Boston banks to handle it. Boston is no longer a city of issue. It is a city of purchase. Its trustees, perhaps the best judges of a prime security on earth, faced the crash with equanimity and brought a surprising number of their accounts through the depression without substantial loss. (A fact which justifies, perhaps, the famous arrogance with which Boston professional men view the efforts of their brethren elsewhere.) And it is notorious that the income-tax payments of the city's trusts have done much during the last three years to carry the budget of the state. But all these facts merely serve to point the moral. Boston is an investor's city. Its power and its initiative are gone.
Even its own enterprises prove the rule. The four great remaining Boston-bred industries are General Electric (GE), AT&T (T), United Fruit, and United Shoe Machinery. GE was formed in 1892 by the union, with Boston backing, of the old Thomson-Houston Electric Co. of Lynn and the Edison General Electric Co. Gordon Abbott, George Peabody Gardner, Francis L. Higginson, Robert Treat Paine II, and Philip Stockton of Boston are still directors. But no one needs to be told that Boston at present plays about as much part in the life of General Electric as his former Boston law partners now play in the life of Owen D. Young. AT&T was also Boston-financed in its early days and W. Hathaway Forbes, son of John Murray Forbes, was one of its first backers. His son W. Cameron Forbes together with Philip Stockton, Arthur Lyman, George Peabody Gardner, and Thomas Nelson Perkins, are still Boston directors. But Boston control is gone. Only one of the twenty largest stockholders now hails from the shadow of the Gilded Dome. And the prime factor in the life of the company is the First National Bank of New York. United Fruit was a combination of the Boston owned and financed Boston Fruit Co. and three competitors and was dominated from the beginning by Boston interests with Andrew Preston at the head. The company's offices still remain in Boston but since its purchase of the Cuyamel Fruit Co., Mr. Samuel Zemurray of New Orleans has become the largest stockholder in United Fruit and its probable future master.
There remains the United Shoe Machinery Corp. And the United Shoe Machinery Corp. is the apparent exception that proves, or ought to prove, the rule. United Shoe is one of the great industrial units of America. Mr. Justice Brandeis put it together in the days of his Boston practice. Ninety-eight per cent of the shoes manufactured in America, to say nothing of the shoes manufactured with its leased machinery in England and Italy and elsewhere, pay United Shoe a tribute of from one and one-third to five and one-quarter cents a pair. Sixty per cent of the shoe-manufacturing machinery made by the company is made by no one else and its interlocking leases extend its control beyond that figure. By and large it has been, since Mr. Brandeis objected to its tying clauses and withdrew, the most complete, and most completely legal, monopoly in America. The tying clauses are modified but the control remains. The corporation is, in effect, the shoe industry. And it is Boston. Boston begat it. Boston owns it. Boston receives a large part of its $8,788,000 dividends (almost earned in 1931-32). United Shoe, in other words, seems to stand as a magnificent and single exception to all the generalizations bred by the Boston family trust. But the exception is more apparent than real. For the Boston of the United Shoe is not the Boston of the Bostonian. United Shoe's chairman is Edwin P. Brown and its president Sidney W. Winslow Jr., neither of them members of the hierarchy. Its directors are almost without exception "new men" -- as newness goes in the city of Governor Winthrop. And its control lies outside the trusteed circles of Postoffice Square.
The truth is that United Shoe is not so much an exception as a supporting proof -- a proof of the fact that productive enterprises even in Boston are not the work of the Bostonians but of the new blood which has come in since the time when the Era of the Railroads erected its intangible and dividend-paying mementos. It is only the new blood which concerns itself with modern industrialism rather than with 4 per cent bonds. The point becomes clearer when one turns from industry to banking.
The Boston banking situation is extraordinarily simple. It resolves itself to Mr. Daniel G. Wing. Mr. Wing is not a Bostonian. He is an Iowan who was brought into the then-unimportant First National Bank of Boston by Mr. Sidney Winslow Sr. (of United Shoe) about 1903, and who has since secured for that institution by conquest, alliance, and salvage the undisputed hegemony of New England banking. The power interests were brought into the First National sphere of influence by the merging of the American Trust, and the shoe and leather interests by the taking over of the Atlantic. But the greatest of Mr. Wing's victories was the acquisition in 1929 of the Old Colony, Boston's most famous old-guard bank, and the resultant alliance with Mr. Philip Stockton. Mr. Stockton, a Bostonian, now shares with Mr. Wing the command of the grim, rustico fortress which faces the new Federal Building on Postoffice Square. And Mr. Stockton is much in evidence in the financial counties of the old mercantile kingdom. But the power is Daniel Wing's.
The lesser banking houses of the city are definitely in another category altogether. The Shawmut, the old, traditional Boston bank, has resources of $186,000,000 as against the $630,000,000 of the First. And the old private investment houses which made Boston's reputation in its great days have all gone with the single exception of Estabrook & Co. Lee, Higginson, as all the world knows, is now the infinitely less important Lee, Higginson Corp. And Kidder, Peabody, the second private house in size, having recently found itself with a portfolio of infant industries and an overextension of credits, is now in process of rejuvenation at the hands of young Mr. Edwin S. Webster Jr., grandson of the original Webster of Kidder, Peabody and son of the present Edwin S. Webster of Stone & Webster who, with his uncle, Mr. Chandler Hovey of the New York Stock Exchange, his Harvard Business School classmate, Mr. Albert Gordon of N.Y., and funds supplied presumably by Stone & Webster, has taken over the business. Stone & Webster itself, with its famous combination of engineering, construction, public-utility operation and financing, has moved its main office to New York and withdrawn to some extent from the Boston front. Such new financial blood as has come into the city is mostly New York blood -- the extremely active and successful Boston office of Brown Brothers, Harriman & Co. being the latest infusion. Of the stock houses the two most famous are still Hayden, Stone and Hornblower & Weeks, which reached their great fame in the days when the words copper and Agassiz and Shaw and Calumet & Hecla meant Boston and nothing but Boston. Hornblower & Weeks is now the largest stock house in the world next to E. A. Pierce and though Hayden, Stone is much smaller the combined capital of the two may be over $100,000,000.
The more or less romantic individuals who delight to discover in any community its sources of real power would find this whole Boston hierarchy -- social, financial, and political -- very little to their taste. At the top, but in another dimension altogether, are the Bostonians. Time cannot wither nor custom scale their infinite variety of sound investments. Social power is theirs. Civilization is theirs. But should they attempt to strike back through the mirror into the world of actual power, they would bleed to death. Farther forward and in the focus of living authority is the great banking unit, the First National. Below it in various relations of financial dependence are the Boston industries. Above it, in a somewhat shadowy perspective, are the individuals who control it, of whom Mr. Wing and Mr. Stockton are two but among whom are also found the forces which control United Shoe -- Mr. Edwin P. Brown, chairman of United Shoe, being its largest individual stockholder. To the side, and in no apparent relation either to the financial web or to the social, stands the political hierarchy stemming from Boston's every-other-term mayor Mr. James Michael Curley, the Martin M. Lomasney Democratic machine in the West End, and the Charles H. Innes Republican machine in the South End. And above the political hierarchy but in no apparent relation to it other than the relation established by a common blood and a common religion stands the Irish Catholic hierarchy of the city under the autocratic control of that able man of the world Cardinal O'Connell.
There are doubtless mysterious threads and channels which lead from one focus of power to another. Certainly there are rumors enough of such connectives. There are the church-baiters who would put the Cardinal at the top of a subtly constructed pyramid. There are the more industrially minded realists who would trace all authority in Boston to the secretive councils of the United Shoe. There are the socially unaccepted who see the entire city run from Harvard Yard. And there are inevitably the anti-Semites who believe here as elsewhere that the Jew, in Eliot's phrase, is underneath the lot -- though the Jew in Boston is certainly none other than Mr. Louis E. Kirstein of Filene's, one of the most notoriously public-spirited and self-effacing citizens of the Commonwealth. There is no agreement. Or if there is agreement it is agreement upon tbe single point that no threads of power, save the threads which bind Harvard College to the stems of the clipper ships, lead to the Bostonians.
Such is clearly the case with the newspapers. The Transcript which was once the very voice and organ of the Bostonians in their proclamations to the world ended by becoming the still, small whisper of the Bostonians in their converse with themselves and their advertisements for their cooks and as such has long been regarded with wonder and amazement by the rest of America. An observer who wishes to investigate the folk ways of Marlborough Street will read the Transcript, but not an observer who is concerned with the life of Boston. The Herald more nearly meets the latter requirement, though the control of the Herald lies not among the Bostonians but in the First National Bank. Its Republicanism probably expresses the present political beliefs of conservative Boston with considerable accuracy. The Globe, founded by General Charles H. Taylor and now owned and managed by his sons, in no way speaks for the descendants of the merchants. Nor, in point of fact, does it speak for any other group in the city, for it avoids all controversial subjects. But its "Uncle Dudley" editorials are always readable and sometimes brilliant and its news, if not exhaustive in the New York Times sense, is fairly presented. The Post is the traditional Irish paper. The American, Mr. Hearst's major journalistic mistake, has desperately adopted a policy of saying "nice things about nice people." And the Traveler presents the Herald's evening news. The Christian Science Monitor is, of course, a national newspaper attached to Boston merely by the accident which domiciled there the trustees of Mrs. Eddy's will and by its stylebook which prohibits the use of "ugly," "bicker," and "cheap." The Record, Boston's tabloid, has so little local character and so little Boston imagination that it prints Mr. Walter Winchell's New York blab.
So little indeed are the Bostonians represented by the press that the few Boston crusades have been pretty largely conducted without benefit of editors. The disbarment of Dan Coakley, a Boston lawyer, for blackmail and the removal of District Attorney Pelletier were the work of thoroughly enraged Bostonians among whom Mr. Godfrey L. Cabot was prominent. But the press played little part in starting the quarry and after the scandal had been sufficiently aired Boston newspapers permitted Coakley to run twice for mayor and finally to sit in the Governor's Council. This indifference to beams in the Boston eye is characteristic of the local journalist. With government in Boston costing over $100 per person the Post prints editorials about Tammany Hall. And with the same ring running houses of prostitution in both cities and paying, so it is alleged, the same price -- $30 per week per madame and $5 per week per girl -- the Boston press acts as if Boston had no underworld. Not even the occasional run-out of a beer chief by the gunman autocracy serves to persuade the editors that the silence of the Boston underworld may be more directly attributable to excellence of organization than to mere absence from the scene.
Industrially speaking there is the same divorce of old Boston industries from the Bostonians -- aggravated in this case by the divorce of old Boston industries from Boston. Boston to the rest of the country means shoes and textiles. Actually, however, the association was never so intimate as that. There were never many textile mills or shoe factories in Boston. Boston provided the capital for both. And in the case of the mills it provided the management as well by a system under which mills were managed by their treasurers, and the treasurers' offices, wherever the mill might be, were in Boston. The result was that the treasurers' jobs were held by the sons of wealthy families who kept gentlemen's hours and conducted a good part of their business from the Somerset Club. President Eliot of Harvard himself was offered a mill superintendency in his youth and offered it by the same Lowell who later offered him the presidency. It is not recorded that he refused it as unworthy of his position and talents. All this however changed when the textile industry fell into its thirty-year international agony. And today with the Massachusetts mills moving into the child-labor districts of North Carolina and the mill-selling agencies moving out of the city of Boston the connection between Bostonians and textiles, like the connection (to which his daughter so often referred) between Mr. Longfellow and Dante, has grown rather thin.
The same thing is true in a sense of shoes. Boston never made many shoes and Bostonians provided nothing but capital for their manufacture. But Boston was the market center. Jobbers from all over the country centered there on the Wednesday and Saturday trade days and the shoe men from the factory towns came in to meet them. One consequence was the establishment in Boston of a great leather-importing industry. Another was the domestication in Boston of the financing of shoe sales. But nearer than that the Bostonians never came. And when strikes in the Boston district interrupted jobber visits and encouraged the St. Louis industry the Bostonians were less affected than by the textile collapse.
It is, superficially, a curious fact that Boston's great modern industries should have so little to do with the families which established Boston's earlier industries. But that fact also loses its strangeness when it is considered that trusteed wealth, by its very nature, is incapable of the risks which productive industry demands. The trustee is not concerned with the creation of new opportunities for labor and capital. He is concerned with the soundest investments ingenuity can discover. And if those soundest investments are (or were) in the Republic of France he will not be diverted by the fact that the hinterland of his own city is building up a shoe industry capable of producing about one-third of the U.S. shoe quota, while the town itself maintains a wool industry importing half the wool brought into the U.S. and a fishing industry handling 50 per cent of New England fish.
Whether Boston is considered therefore from the point of view of its industries or its press or its arts or its ideas the great family trusts will be found to stand between the Bostonians and the activities of contemporary life like the transparent but all too solid glass which separates the angel fish of an aquarium from the grubby little boys outside. To that extent the trusts have determined the social architecture of the city.
But the influence of the trusts upon society is only half the story. There is also the story of the influence of society upon the trusts. The lawyer who wishes to study the evolution of the tools of his trade would do well to study the history of the Massachusetts Humane Society. The Humane Society was founded in 1780 for the saving of life at sea. Originally, it provided lifeboats. Then it provided lifeboats where the government lifeboats were too far apart. Then it provided, in addition to the lifeboats, life preservers and medals for saving life. And finally, overwhelmed with the surplus which still remained to it after all its benefices were given, it turned its excess income over to the hospitals and became frankly and gracefully a dining society dedicated to the most lavish, the most delicious, and the most memorable annual dinner known to the United States -- a dinner for which the well-born, well-bred hereditary trustees -- Curtises, Saltonstalls, Jefferson Coolidges, and the like -- pay, each trustee in rote, out of their own pockets.
It is not inconceivable that the Bostonians in their turn may go the way of the lifeboats leaving their excellent and graceful trustees to dine annually upon champagne and terrapin and the memory of a vanished world.
Editor's note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a favorite story from our magazine archives. This week, we turn to a feature from April 1935 that examines the ins and outs of America's early-20th century fishing trade, which was ripe for a major recovery in the wake of a 1934 drought that devastated meat production.As meats become scarce and their prices become higher, more and more fish will be eaten by the U.S. populace. MORE Sep 9, 2012 9:30 AM ET
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