The Three Lives of the Boston Stone

The Boston Stone is a monument like no other in the city. Although inscrutable to most passers-by, the Boston Stone tells a story of three eras in Boston history. It speaks first to the industry of Boston in the late seventeenth century and the early eighteenth. The stone tells us something about the wily shop-owners and proto-capitalists of the 1730’s who gave the stone the reputation it has today. And finally, the stone serves an an example of the rediscovery and myth-making that took place in Boston in the 1840’s which gave the stone its true prominence as a Boston landmark. Although the monument tells of two centuries of Boston history, it does this without the benefit of a plaque from a historical society or a register of historic places. Only a low-class gift shop marks the importance of the landmark.

(This is a reprint from a project that I worked on in 2009, but never published. I’ve recently been asked by a friend to share some of my Boston Stone research and this may be of interest to a wider audience.) 

Boston Stone - Porter - 1886

Although by the nineteenth century, the origin of the stone was unknown to most passers-by, the building and the stone itself had an important early history. The building that would later house the Boston Stone was originally the home of Thomas Marshall, the first shoemaker in Boston and for whom the modern street is named. In 1692, the property was purchased by a painter, Thomas Childs, possibly due to its proximity to Mill Creek. The stone which eventually became the Boston Stone was imported around 1700 and was used as the mill stone in a paint mill established in 1701. Childs may have been a former member of the Painters and Stainers of London guild as he prominently displayed a wood carving of the guild’s coat of arms above the door to his shop, earning the building the nickname “The Painters’ Arms” which it retained until its demolition in 1835. The coat of arms included the date 1701, most likely indicating the date when the paint mill was first in operation. Childs’ mill was the first paint mill in Massachusetts Bay. The mill stone was then four times its present size, hollowed out like a large stone trough. Filled, it may have been able to hold 80-gallons of liquid. The large spherical stone, about two feet in diameter, would be used to grind and incorporate the pigments in the trough. This grinding method may have been followed with traditional slab-grinding to finish the work. Childs died only five years later, in 1706. This history of the stone is accepted by most sources, however one 1842 account (of an 1832 trip by the author) speculated that the stone had never been hollowed out properly for use as a mill-stone and was discarded by the painter as trash.  Between 1706 and 1737, the fate of the stone is unknown but by 1737 the originally muller (the round ball) had been lost and the larger mill stone left to sit in the house’s yard.

Map-scaled

In 1737, the Boston Stone went from being a defunct mill’s discard to its status as an early monument and tourist lure. At that time, Joseph Howe, a tin-worker, purchased the property and discovered the discarded mill stone in his yard. (The round muller remained lost.) Having no better use for the stone, Howe placed it at the southern edge of his land– at the  intersection of Union and Marshall streets— as a makeshift curb to prevent passing carts from damaging his building. At that time, Marshall Lane was not signed and a neighboring Scottish ale and cheese merchant suggested that the stone be used to help drive business into the area by providing a recognizable landmark. In this way, the stone would be similar to how the “London Stone” in England was used as a magnet for visitors and as a waypoint. To this end, the label “Boston Stone – Marshall Lane” was painted on the stone. The first label was painted by Joe Whiting, the son of a shop-merchant on the street. Over the years, maintenance of the stone passed to the Green family, through Howe’s son-in-law. Numerous sources report that local shops used the custom of advertising themselves as near the Boston Stone, or based on a certain distance from the Boston Stone. For example, in the 1780s John Norman advertised several of his businesses in this way, including the Cole & Norman Map Office and a printing press. An 1832 account of the stone does not mention the “Marshall Lane” line of the text and it may have been removed sometime prior to that date, perhaps when the lane was properly signed. During this period, the stone was described as having a reddish tint with painted white lettering.

Boston Stone - Drake - 1873

In 1835, the Boston Stone was moved again and given its modern form. In that year or earlier, the original wooden house which housed the painters-mill was torn down and replaced with a brick structure. During the construction, the round muller was discovered in the house’s basement. One-fourth of the original Boston Stone, and the recently found muller, were embedded into the wall in the rear of the newly built structure. The Painters’ Arms which had been in the front of the wooden structure was preserved and placed on the new brick structure. Over the following hundred and fifty years, the site has remained in relatively the same condition. Sometime between 1920 and present, the stone was re-engraved and probably sand-blasted to its current pristine white color. A hole now appears in the center of the stone. Also sometime after 1920, the Painters’ Arms no longer appears on the Hanover Street front of the building. Although the Stone is not an official Freedom Trail monument, the path of the trail has passed the Boston Stone since its inception in 1958.

Leave a Reply