Becoming Boston

The Town That Couldn’t Contain Itself

As one of the most important centers of a newly independent nation, Boston spent the first half of the nineteenth century reimagining its urban form and building neighborhoods from scratch.

Now oriented towards the new United States instead of towards Britain’s Atlantic empire, Boston found a role as a trading center and, increasingly, as the regional center of the nation’s first industrial revolution. It officially became the City of Boston in 1822, shedding its older town meeting form of government as its population expanded. Hemmed in on all sides by the ocean, Bostonians realized that the tidelands ringing the city could be put to work, first as mill ponds and later as new districts constructed on landfill. Whereas older neighborhoods were built on an ad hoc pattern of winding streets and irregularly sized blocks, these newer neighborhoods—including Back Bay, where the Central Library is located—were usually master planned with gridded streets to facilitate rapid sale and development. Material for filling the tidelands came from trimming down urban highlands like Beacon Hill and Bunker Hill, from gravel quarried on the city’s periphery, and from trash and waste. Today, nearly a sixth of Boston’s area sits on filled land.

View of Boston, July 4th 1870

F. Fuchs; John Weik; New England Lithograph Co.
Mapping Boston Collection

Factories and ships pepper this bird’s-eye view of Boston in 1870. In the foreground on the right, the new Back Bay neighborhood is beginning to emerge; at the very bottom, laborers are shown constructing new buildings on Clarendon Street. The future Copley Square lies just out of view to the bottom right, but the Public Library at this time was located alongside Boston Common, near the center of the map. The Common itself had evolved from a pasture ground to a recreational and ceremonial space, shown here in the midst of Independence Day celebrations. This map also depicts the effects of railroad industrialization on the city, with multiple lines coming in from the south (right), west (bottom), and north (left). Railroads were crucial infrastructure for feeding residents of the growing city, stitching Boston capital to manufacturing cities like Lowell and Worcester, and sending out finished goods from Boston’s own industries.

Plan of Boston proper: showing changes in street and wharf lines, 1795 to 1895

Charles C. Perkins
Leventhal Map & Education Center

This map, published in 1895, celebrates 100 years of Boston’s changing shoreline. The innermost gray area shows the city’s colonial-era footprint and the streets that were present before the Revolution. Yellow, green, and blue outlines show the expansion of the city in 1795, 1850, and 1895. The overlay of these different eras makes it possible to spot the difference between the informal street layout of the colonial city and the more regular patterns that characterized later sections of the city. The brand-new Central Library building, which opened in 1895, appears near the center left, hugging the edge of a former marshy island. Even after this map was made, Boston kept expanding its footprint into the ocean well into the late twentieth century.