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These are a Boston archivist’s 10 favorite old photos of the city

Marta Crilly, the archivist who runs the social media accounts for the Boston City Archives, talked with us about Boston history and shared her 10 favorite old photos of the city.

Crossing the street at Blue Hill Avenue and Quincy Street, 1948. Courtesy Boston City Archives

Ever wonder what the commute at Sullivan Square Station looked like in 1901?

The Boston City Archives can tell you.

If you follow the social media accounts for the department, you may have seen the blue-tinted photo of the station — the blurred image of commuters disembarking and boarding the trains, accompanied by the hashtag #onthisday.

On another day, the archives asked followers to try to identify the date and location of a street corner, sharing a black-and-white photo of a row of buildings on a cobbled street, this time using the hashtag #mysteryphoto.

A few people were able to guess the spot correctly — Beach Street at Oxford. The archives chimed in to reveal the year: 1901.


To learn more about the photos and information that gets shared by the Boston City Archives on their social media accounts, we spoke with Marta Crilly, the archivist for reference and outreach at the archives. She runs the department’s Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr accounts and also manages the archives’ reference services, helping researchers combing through the city’s historic collections.

A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, Crilly joined the Boston City Archives in 2011 after working at the J.F.K. Presidential Library as a graduate student and volunteering at the City of Somerville archives. Below, the 32-year-old East Boston resident shares her 10 favorite old photos of Boston and what makes the city’s archives different from other historic libraries or databases.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Crossing the street at Blue Hill Avenue and Quincy Street, 1948: “Many of our photographs at the City Archives document city streetscapes and infrastructure rather than Bostonians – but this Traffic and Parking photographer purposely took this head on shot of Bostonians crossing the street,” Crilly said. “I love the clothing in this photo, especially the fat tie that the boy in the very front is sporting!”


Boston.com: What’s the best part about working in the archives for you?

Crilly: There are so many good things. Just personally, I really enjoy working with young people. So I really enjoy when we have groups and tours of young people come through — or researchers who are younger, either high school students or undergraduates. Because that’s how I got my start in archives, when I was in late high school, early college. I really fell in love with historical documents and primary sources. So I really enjoy having people come into the archives and getting to watch them look at something from the 1800s or the 1700s for the first time.

Jaynes Store at Hanover and Washington streets, 1905: “Our Public Works Department photographs were originally taken to document the city’s streets and other infrastructure, but they also document Boston’s storefronts and advertisements,” Crilly said. “I love this advertisement for a ‘Lung Protector’ for ‘Zero Weather.’ Our photos frequently show theatre, film, and music advertisements as well.”

I also really love when I’m able to find — when I’m helping a researcher — find something that’s really important to them. Maybe their ancestor’s voting record or their ancestor’s tax record or a photograph of the house where their grandparents grew up. Something like that. Those moments are really, really rewarding.


Tents in the yard at Boston City Hospital during the Spanish-American War, circa 1898: “During the Spanish American War, wounded soldiers were treated at the Boston City Hospital,” Crilly said. “The hospital was so full that they pitched tents on the hospital lawn to accommodate the soldiers.”

What are some of the goals you have for putting information out about the city’s history to the public? Why do you think it’s important for the public to have access to this historical information?

We really want to underscore the public ownership of the city records. The city archives has the records of Boston’s municipal government, so those records belong to the people of Boston. We want everyone to be aware of the records we have. But we especially want Bostonians to be aware that these are the records of their city and that they have the ability to access and look at the records.

I think that’s something we’re really trying to do with social media. We want to underscore the public’s ownership of our records and also elevate the importance of public participation with the city archives.

New traffic lights at Walnut Avenue and Seaver Street, circa 1951: “One of the things I love about the City Archives’ collections is that they document day-to-day life in Boston’s neighborhoods,” Crilly said. “This photo shows neighbors being photographed with their new traffic signal. (I also love the look on the baby’s face!).”


One of the things I really like about social media is that it gives us the opportunity to talk to our constituents. With a blog post, people see the records you have and that’s great. But with social media, people can ask us questions. We can answer them. Sometimes our constituents have memories that they want to share about some of the records we put out, sometimes our constituents have information that, actually, we don’t have about the records. We’ve posted things before and we say, ‘Oh, we’re not really sure what this photo shows. Can somebody that remembers it let us know?’ And sometimes people give us really interesting information. So we really want to engage with the public when we do our social media.

132 Marginal Street, East Boston, 1909: “In the early 1900s, taking photographs was a much bigger deal than it is today,” Crilly said. “This photo was taken by [a] city photographer who was documenting street conditions in East Boston, and I imagine these children were excited to be photographed. They’re a little blurry, but you can see them staring at the photographer.”

What’s it like working on and sharing the ‘mystery’ and ‘on this day’ photos?

The mystery photo, I think we started that in late 2012. I had been at a professional conference and I saw a presentation by a Maine historical society. They were posting mystery artifacts, where they would post an artifact from the past and have people try and guess what it was and what it was used for. So I was trying to figure out at the time how to get more people engaged in our social media and how to talk to our constituents. And I thought, well, we don’t have artifacts, but we do have photographs. So that was how we started posting the mystery photos.


Junior dressmaking class at the Boston Trade School for Girls, circa 1914:  “This is a photo from a series of hand tinted glass plate negatives documenting classes at Boston’s Trade School for Girls,” Crilly said. “The students in these images would have been from Boston’s working class. They enrolled to learn trades to support themselves and their families. These photos offer a window into the lives of working class women in early 20th century Boston.”

At first just a couple people would comment, but it kind of snowballed and we’ve gotten more and more followers now. And it’s gotten to the point where it’s actually really hard to stump people because we have a couple of constituents that just know Boston really well. So I always feel quite proud when I find a photo and nobody can figure it out.

East Platform of North Station at 5:20 p.m., 1901: “Some things have changed in Boston, but rush hour is timeless,” Crilly said.

Do you have a favorite little known fact about Boston or something that you’ve learned because of working at the archives?

My favorite thing at the archives is a petition that we have from the early 1800s and it’s signed by Paul Revere. The sewers in his neighborhood didn’t work very well, and they were complaining about it.

I really love that petition because it just shows that Paul Revere was kind of a famous founding father — but he was also a normal Bostonian who got really mad at the city sometimes when his sewer didn’t work properly.


Weather kiosk, Boston Common, East and South faces, 1914: “Today, we all check the weather on our phones,” Crilly said. “In 1914, you might have stopped by the weather kiosk on the Common!”

The city archaeologist’s office is above us and I mentioned this to him one time — and he’s dug in that area — and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, the drainage problems there are so bad, I understand why Paul Revere was complaining about it.’

One of the things I really like about the city archives is that unlike a lot of other Boston-area archives we don’t really have the records of rich and famous people. We don’t have Mark Twain’s papers, we don’t have Emily Dickinson’s papers, but we have the papers of normal, everyday Bostonians.

Snow plow on Berkeley Street, 1916: “Snow removal has been a priority for Boston’s municipal government since the city’s early days,” Crilly said. “Our records and photographs show the various method and machinery that the city has used to clear Boston’s streets.”

Is there anything else you want people to know about the archives?

The archive is open to everyone. Sometimes people think that archives are just for students or professors or academics. But the city archives is really a place where anyone can come and look something up. We really want to engage with our constituents and talk to them and have our public records be a resource for them. So that’s what we’re trying to do, especially with social media.


Santa Claus and children dressed as elves on Hanover Street in North End Christmas parade, 1974: “Often when we post photographs that are from more recent decades, we’re contacted by people who recognize themselves or their friends and family members in the photographs,” Crilly said. “When we posted photos from a 1974 Christmas parade in the North End, we had a couple of constituents who remembered these parades and who found themselves in the photos.”