“Columbia Lays Aside Her Laurels…”

November 30, 1872

Thomas Nast

“Columbia Lays Aside Her Laurels…”

Alabama Claims; Natural Disasters, Fire; Presidential Election 1872; Symbols, Columbia; Women, Symbolic;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.


No caption.

On Saturday evening, November 9, 1872, a fire began at a building at the intersection of Summer and Kingston Streets in downtown Boston, spreading across the city until it ended the next day.  The Great Boston Fire, as it became known, killed 13 people, covered over 60 acres of land, and damaged property—including 776 buildings—worth $75 million, leaving most of the business district in ruins.  In this cartoon, Columbia, the personification of the United States, lays aside her victory laurels—honoring President Ulysses S. Grant’s reelection and the successful international arbitration of the Alabama claims controversy—to mourn the loss of life and property at “the homestead of liberty.”  In the left-background, the fire-demon departs.

By the time the Boston Fire Department arrived at the scene of the blaze, the flames had reached the fourth floor, and soon consumed the roof and jumped to surrounding buildings.  The fire spread quickly to adjacent blocks, making each street opening “a funnel, through which the fire poured with inconceivable force,” according to Harper’s Weekly.  Additional fire crews arrived from Boston and communities as far away as Worcester, but their efforts were complicated by Boston’s irregularly shaped streets and tall buildings and the evening’s increasingly strong winds.  As midnight approached it was decided that the fire’s force was too great to stop except by dynamiting buildings to create firebreaks.  The fire died down on Sunday before buildings had to be destroyed on the South Side.  Gas leaks during the fire resulted in explosions that tore through the surface of several streets and exhausted the city’s supply so that residents were forced to rely on kerosene and candles on Sunday and Monday nights.  One of the gas leaks sparked a second fire on Sunday night, but it was soon extinguished.  Some of the thousands of tons of coal that were stored on the docks continued to smolder for days, despite the water poured on them.

Unlike the Chicago fire of the previous autumn, the Boston fire did not force a massive evacuation of people and remained limited primarily to the business district, leaving residential areas unscathed. Virtually the entire city’s dry goods and shoe stores were burned beyond use.  None of the historic sites were affected, although the blaze came close to the Old North Meeting House.  The landmark Trinity Church on Summer Street was destroyed, but rebuilt by famed architect Henry Hobson Richardson at a new address on Copley Square (completed, 1877).  Harvard University lost over $500,000 worth of property.  The fire also consumed the newly constructed office of the Boston Transcript newspaper, which was able to publish a Monday edition from the headquarters of its generous rival, the Boston Globe.  None of the offices of the other dailies were seriously harmed, but the headquarters of three weeklies were destroyed.  The new post office building survived, while the old post office burned after the mail was removed from it.  Mail delivery, including to merchants in the burned-out district, continued on schedule that Monday. 

In the early days after the fire, curious sightseers from the city and its surrounding area flocked to the burned district.  Merchants placed placards up announcing their new locations.  Coverage of the Great Boston Fire was the main story in the November 30 issue of Harper’s Weekly, in which the featured cartoon appeared.  In his editorial, George William Curtis praised the bravery of the firemen and the “silent dignity” of Boston residents:  “As in Chicago last year, the manner in which the misfortune was encountered makes every American prouder of his countrymen.”  Numerous illustrations and several columns of text vividly conveyed the event to the publication’s national audience.  Among the issue’s advertisements was one for the Travellers Insurance Company, under the heading “BOSTON FIRE.  INSURE AGAINST ACCIDENTS.”  A few weeks later, an advertisement solicited agents to sell journalist Carleton Coffin’s Story of the Great Boston Fire, a 35-page eyewitness account.

On November 10, 1873, a ceremony commemorating the first anniversary of the fire was observed, with Boston’s mayor and other city officials visiting the burned district to inspect the improved streets and building construction ( 115 of 355 buildings were already completed).  Like Chicago, Boston quickly rebounded from the devastating fire, and continued growing; by 1900, Boston’s population numbered 560,000.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Columbia Lays Aside Her Laurels…”
November 26, 2022

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