History Ends Here?
by Caroline Littlewood, WFPL Local History Librarian
A bicentennial information center was located at the corner of Mount Auburn and Boylston Streets.
(Watertown Free Public Library Local History Collection)
The Bicentennial was a big deal.
In Watertown, the 200-year anniversary of the American Revolution was a townwide, two-year affair. It didn’t just celebrate the events of 1775 and 1776, though there certainly was plenty of that. It also celebrated history (national and local) and community. There was a Bicentennial Art Festival, a Bicentennial Fashion Show, a Bicentennial Community Day, and so many tours! There was also a time capsule on the town lawn, which was actually a casket donated by the Joseph A. MacDonald Funeral Home.
From top left: Jeremy Cole, John Cook, and Lynn Sternbergh worked on the “Family Guide to Historic Watertown” slide tape program (1975-76 Town of Watertown Annual Report). A slide from “The Family Guide to Historic Watertown,” which followed the Grey family around town to historic sites.
Near the tail-end of the bicentennial calendar, the library hosted a program called The History of Watertown. It played on repeat in the library’s new “mini theater,” an automatically operating slide-tape presentation system designed in-house by staff. The program played in two parts: Part I, “1630 to the Revolution,” and Part II, “After the Revolution to the Early Twentieth Century.” The last line of the presentation wraps things up at the turn of the twentieth century: “Watertown… was no longer a little farming community, struggling for survival, but had become a thriving cosmopolitan center.”
Promotional flyer for “History of Watertown.” (Watertown Free Public Library Local History Collection)
That was it. The History of Watertown ended circa 1900. A slide-tape presentation requires content: images and facts about the people, organizations, activities, and events that, collectively, tell the story of a place. Without that content, there could be no history.
This was the gaping hole – a lifetime – that spurred our community to action. This is how the Living History Project was born.
The premise of the Living History Project was simple: history is “alive” in our memories and experiences. Therefore, our photos, and our stories, are valuable records of a collective past. The Watertown Living History Project asked the people of Watertown to share these personal records – to lend their photos and tell their stories – for inclusion in a larger historical narrative. The project was designed to culminate in another slide-tape presentation, The Living History of Watertown, 1900 – The Present.
The Living History Project ran from 1980 to 1982. Watertown residents dug through albums and attics for photos to share with the library and each other. After a slow start, the community shared hundreds of photos, mostly from 1900 to 1940. Many of the photos copied during that period are staples of the Library’s Local History Collection today.
Project staff led efforts to copy photographs for use in the production. In the days before digital cameras, smartphones, and portable scanners, this meant borrowing the prints to produce copy negatives. Quick turnaround for photo duplication was about six weeks.
From top left: Living History Project documentation, contact sheet, and reprint for a photograph of the restaurant at 76 Bigelow Avenue, circa 1918. Loaned by Alice Hagopian. (Watertown Free Public Library Local History Collection)
That was forty years ago, and a lot has changed. Yet, we find ourselves asking very similar questions: what was Watertown like in the 1980s? What has happened here since then? Where will people look when they want to learn about life in Watertown, as it is now?
We do not need to lose things to time for them to be worth recording, saving, and sharing. History is now, and it is a collective endeavor. In other words, we need your help!
The Watertown Collective Memory Project encourages every single member of the Watertown community – whether they’ve worked here a month or lived here a lifetime – to choose three personal photographs to add to our digital collection. Share your pictures of family gatherings, favorites places, public activities, or personal pastimes. If a photo represents you or your connection to Watertown, it is worth contributing to this project.
Want to learn how to do your part for the Collective Memory Project? Click the button below!
From top left: "Help Make History" flyer from the Watertown Living History Project, 1980. Social media graphic for the Watertown Collective Memory Project, 2022. (Watertown Free Public Library Local History Collection)