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Why is Boston Called Bean Town?

Photo: Boston Public Library

Photo: Boston Public Library

Next week we’ll be heading to Boston for the 36th Annual Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair and the Boston Books, Print, and Ephemera Show.  The historic city has long been nicknamed “Bean Town,” which makes sense given that Boston baked beans is a famous dish. But this got us thinking: how did Boston come to be associated with baked beans in the first place?

An Ideal Sabbath Dish

When the Pilgrims arrived in the New World, they found it was necessary to adapt their diets to accommodate the foods available here. They had spent time in Holland prior to coming to the New World, and had gotten used to eating dark breads made with grains like rye. But these grains weren’t readily available in the New World. Native Americans introduced the Pilgrims to maizum, cornbread baked in clay pots. The Pilgrims took this cornmeal recipe and added barley to make brown bread.

Meanwhile the Narraganset, Penobscot, and Iroquois tribes had long been making baked beans. It was the Iroquois who discovered the key ingredient: maple syrup. Again, early settlers adapted the recipe, using molasses and salt pork instead of maple syrup and bear fat. The dish was ideal for the Sabbath, when people were not allowed to do work (such as cooking), because it could be prepared a day in advance and left on hot bricks to stay warm for the Sunday meal. Baked beans and brown bread became a traditional Sabbath meal, a practice that lasted until the early 1900’s.

The Triangle Trade

Molasses, a byproduct of processing cane sugar, came to be plentiful in Boston thanks to the Triangle Trade.  It arrived along with slaves from the British West Indies. Molasses was used in the distillation of rum, and Boston became a major manufacturer and exporter of rum in the 1700’s. Rum and raw materials would then be exported from Boston to Europe, where raw materials would be turned into finished products for export to the West Indies and Boston.

Molasses came to be used as an inexpensive sweetener, not only in baked beans, but in myriad other dishes. The prevalence of the ingredient certainly helped baked beans to stay on the menu in many a Boston household. But Boston’s role as a center for rum production is often overlooked, likely because local and national history has traditionally downplayed the impact of the Triangle Trade.

During the same time period, the nearby town of Beverly was earning its own reputation for beans. Legend says that a schooner arrived in town, laden with enough beans to supply everyone. For a while, Beverly was called Bean Town, and its residents were called Beverly Beaners! Beverly would later become the home of Beverly Pottery Company, which manufactured the iconic pots so often used to prepare baked beans.

A Publicity Stunt Seals the Deal

The 24th National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (a reunion of Civil War veterans) took place in Boston on August 11-16, 1890. The Beverly Pottery Company handed out thousands of ornamental bean pots as souvenirs for the veterans. Six years later, in 1896, an ornamental bean pot was placed on top of the clock in the gallery of the old Common Council Chamber in Boston’s Old City Hall. This was the first time a bean pot was essentially endorsed by the local government as a symbol of the city.

Then the city celebrated Old Home Week on July 28-August 3, 1907.  Stickers were a relatively new technology at the time, and millions were printed up for the event. They featured what were described in an April 25, 1907 Boston Globe article as “a typical Boston bean pot surrounded by two clasped hands.” Historic societies were unhappy with the choice of a bean pot as the symbol of Boston; they argued that other local symbols of patriotism would have been more appropriate. After all, the bean pot was simply a humble cooking implement, often used by poor immigrants to make an inexpensive meal.

Beans-BostonBut the Old Home Week seal was there to stay. Later that summer, it was emblazoned on postcards of famous Boston landmarks. Other bean-related imagery and tag lines began popping up on postcards as well. The slogan “You don’t know beans until you bean’ to Boston” was a popular postcard message. The slogan “Bigger, Better, Busier Boston” was illustrated with a bean sprout. And one postcard featured an image of a bean pot with the words “Souvenir of Boston and Vicinity, Won’t You Have Some?”

Thus baked beans became a symbol of Boston, and the city earned the moniker “Bean Town.” These days, it’s tough to find baked beans on the menu in Boston, and not a single company in the city produces them. Although a more appropriate nickname during the World Series may have been “Beard Town,” it seems that the “Bean Town” nickname is here to stay.

 

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This entry was posted on November 6, 2013 by in Events, History and tagged , , , .
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