Downtown and a hundred years ago
... Old photos resurrect memories of a less-complicated time
from Bill McSween and others
Main, at Foster, looking north
Some two years ago, Bill McSween of Melrose sent a packet of four old postcards to the Stringers, along with an intriguing but brief explanation. Somehow the material was misplaced in a seldom-used briefcase, and wasn't rediscovered until a few weeks ago.
"Enclosed are a few postcards of Melrose between 1895 - 1910", Bill writes. The cards, which are included in this article, are original, which means they are almost all over a hundred years old.
The condition of three of them is excellent, the colors still bright, the heavy card stock still clean and unbroken. The fourth, a picture postcard of the First Methodist Church on Main Street, had been stored in folded brown paper, which adhered to both sides of card -- and left a torn, brown residue when the sandwich was unfolded.
There is no message on the backs of any of the four. Three of them require one cent postage stamp for domestic use, or a two-cent stamp for foreign mailing.
"This is City Hall, of course," Bill wrote. "Notice the Main Street entrance. Today that corner is the election office". Note also that the architecture of this 1873 building is beautiful Victorian, that it originally had three floors above ground level, and there was a handsome brick clock and bell tower that soared above the town. The tower and the third floor were badly damaged in a 1937 fire, at which point the city fathers decided to do away with the Victorian aspect.
"You can see that the cards are in color and produced in Germany," Bill continued. "The U.S. did not produce color postcards until the 1930s. Pictures were taken in the U.S. and film was sent to Europe for processing and distribution." The film, of course, was black and white. The German company added the color.
There are two views of the First Methodist Church, one with a red roof, and a second, taken "years later" when the roof is muted blue. The left photo includes the original parsonage, which lasted half way through the 20th century before it was replaced by commercial buildings.
Careful examination shows that, in both postcards, the cobblestone Main Street with its trolley tracks are vaguely visible -- and notice that the German photo-editors removed some of the wires, and smoothed the appearance of the street. The clouds are similarly imaginative, although the cloud pattern in the City Hall picture is pretty much identical to that in the Main-at-Foster Street photo.
The re-order number in these two cards are sequential: 21381 and 21382. The early Methodist photo was done at the same time since the number is 21379, while the second church photo skips to 88800 -- and a second re-order number is 10581. This latter photo differs also in that it is the only one to carry the logo of a German company: Litho-Chrome of Leipzig, Berlin and Dresden, with representatives in New York.
The downtown photo is exceptionally interesting if one makes comparisons to Melrose today and as it was a century ago:
In this photo, one can get an idea of how high the City Hall tower was -- perhaps equivalent to five stories. Note that the coloring (in Germany) lost the brickwork and the clockface, replacing them with a vague whitish nothingness.
Notice, too, that there is a three-story yellow house on the northeast corner, providing a residency above the old hardware store at street level. The store was in operation into the 1950s, Bill McSween says. Today it is the site of the YMCA swimming pool, although the Melrose Trust Company occupied the first floor of the 'Y' itself until the 1960s.
Bill also draws attention to the two-to-five steps at the entrance to most stores along Main Street. It seems nothing was on the level.
Note on the top left that a gin-pole extends from a third floor window, apparently lifting cargo delivered by the horse-drawn wagon below. And when was the last time you saw a bicycle parked at the curb, downtown? -- there are two in this photo.
There is a motorcar and driver identifiable up the street, coming toward the camera. And there is a trolley in the distance, but one needs a magnifying glass. We have to assume that it was horse-powered, since there are no overhead power lines at this stage. Still, horse and wagons predominate, bicycles are next, then the lone motorcar.
Main Street at the time was one of the major routes to middle New Hampshire. The Jerry Jingle had not yet been established, although there is the trace of the old wagon trail through the Fells land, between Malden and Stoneham. It was originally an Indian path.
McSween finishes his note with "a good source for Melrose historical data". He lists Robert Sherman of 600 Main Street; Brad Hutchinson, offices on Green Street; Bill Copeland of Clifton Park, and Ralph Sarni, whose home is on the former Kiley Farm.
January 4, 2002