Tuesday, July 3, 2012

July 3, 2012: Newton’s Histories, Part 2

[If you live in the Boston area, you could do a lot worse, this 4th of July week or for any summer daytrip, than visiting Newton’s Jackson Homestead and Museum. For this week’s blog series I’ll be highlighting some of the many interesting stories and exhibits included in that small but compelling space.]
On the Museum’s most surprising room and the multiple iterations of the Newton space it highlights.
One of the most interesting things about the Jackson Homestead and Museum is that its mission is threefold: to trace the Jackson family’s identities and histories about which I wrote yesterday; to go in depth into some of the American issues (especially abolitionism and slavery, but also the railroads, the Industrial Revolution, and more) to which that family connects (and on which more later in the week); and yet at the same time, as part of the organization known as Historic Newton, to highlight other aspects of the town’s identity and history, places and stories that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the Jacksons but that have helped define this four hundred year old Massachusetts community. The Museum fulfills that third purpose in a variety of ways, but does so most fully through the room dedicated to the multi-decade history, identity, and community of Newton’s Norumbega Park.
One of the American Studies books that made the strongest impression on me as a college student was John Kasson’s Amusing the Million, a social history of New York’s Coney Island, and I would say that Norumbega’s history parallels that of Coney in many respects. Opened in Newton’s Auburndale village in 1897, at the height of Coney’s popularity, Norumbega was soon known (at least in its own promotional materials!) as “New England’s Finest Amusement Park.” Like Coney, Norumbega depended on new innovations, not only in gaming but also in transportation (it was one of the many so-called “trolley parks” that sprung up in late 19th century America) and in labor and leisure (the moves toward an eight-hour work day and toward the idea of the weekend allowing many more locals to visit the park than would otherwise have been possible). And by the time it closed in 1963, Norumbega had extended its defining connections to narratives of leisure in America to another very famous element: the Totem Pole Ballroom, one of the most exemplary spaces for the dance craze of the roaring 20s and beyond.
Those leisure trends were far from universally acclaimed, of course, and over the course of Norumbega’s existence many different reformers and activists protested and worked to counter what they perceived as their nefarious effects. A panel in the Museum’s Norumbega room highlights a particularly striking such reformist effort: the anti-kissing campaign of the early 1900s, a reform that led to strict laws against public kissing or embraces (and to actual and not insubstantial fines, such as the $20 charged to the young man discussed in that linked essay). It can be very difficult to know how to analyze such efforts—the anti-kissing campaign, for example, was led in large part by Progressive reformers, the same activists who helped establish the more equitable labor environment and laws that made Norumbega more accessible to a variety of Americans. But one thing is certain: a space like Norumbega Park represented and symbolized in its own eras, just as it can continue to for those us looking back at them, many different, significant issues and trends in American society and life.
Next Museum story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
7/3 Memory Day nominee: John Singleton Copley, one of America’s first and most enduring prominent artists, whose works captured Revolutionary heroes and ordinary American citizens with equal talent and humanism.


  1. Thanks, Hank! Lots of good stuff on your blog recently too!