The line to ride the swan boats is thick. Families try to keep little kids still, but they hop around and fidget as the line inches forward. This is not Disney World. There are no screens with dancing robots or animatronic bears or lizards or space aliens telling jokes and slyly insinuating product tie-ins. This is as old school as it gets: a boat made of two pontoons and six wooden benches, capped by a giant, plastic swan. Underpaid college students who couldn’t get internships at sexy tech companies pedal the boats around the sleepy lagoon that rests in the middle of Boston’s Public Garden. I can’t help but think you could never get away with this kind of thing in L.A.
People seem to lose their minds for these things. The Swan Boats rate in guidebooks and on websites as one of the “top attractions” in Boston despite their old-fashioned design and lack of noticeable thrill. Couples pop the question on the boats; they come back to get their wedding photos taken near the fake floating fowl; they make a tradition of taking a ride once a year to celebrate their happy day, their happy memories. It likely takes more time to get into the city, down to the Public Garden, and onto the boats than it does to float around the pond. With so many sources of instant gratification at our fingertips, I can’t believe the boats stand a chance.
I blame history.
Years ago I traveled out to California to visit a friend who lived in a small town called Union City, located about an hour or so outside of San Francisco. We drove around the flat grid of her downtown and I noticed bright red banners hanging from most of the street lamps. When we came to a stop I could see the black outline of what looked like a crest and some writing.
“What’s up with these?” I asked nodding to the flags.
“Those?” she said, “It’s a celebration thing. The town is turning 75 years old this year.”
Adorable. The Puritans brought the buzz kill to Massachusetts’ shores in 1630. The Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, the Battle of Bunker Hill—Boston has seen some serious action in the last THREE HUNDRED years. But go ahead, you enjoy your 75th birthday Union City, you spry little thing, you.
The Swan Boats are lodged in Boston’s history as deeply as the corner stones that make up the Old North Church where Paul Revere signaled the colonists that the British were coming to take tea and kick ass and they were all out of tea. The boats came about in the 1870s as a product of the ingenuity of Robert Paget, an enterprising fellow who couldn’t help but notice that many Bostonians enjoyed rowing boats in the Public Garden’s pond. Like any decent American citizen he thought, “What fun! How can I make a quick buck off these yahoos?” Paget also thought he might find a way to capitalize on the bicycle craze that was sweeping the nation, but with a twist: a boat-cycle! He built a foot-propelled catamaran with a paddle wheel. The swan design came about as an homage to his favorite Wagner opera, Lohegrin, (and really, must we choose ONE favorite Wagner opera, hmm Bitsy? Pass the caviar and tell pilot to bring the helicopter ‘round). Lohegrin tells the story of a Grail knight who crosses a river in a boat pulled by a swan in order to defend the honor of the Princess Elsa. How could it lose? Answer: It could not.
The Swan Boats were officially launched in 1877 and quickly became a thing. Unfortunately, Paget died a year later; he never got to fully enjoy the legacy of what he had created. Left with the seeds of a thriving business on her hands, Paget’s wife, Julia, had little choice but to pick up the slack and continue running what was growing as a popular leisure activity in Boston.
And that was no small feat in 1878 because: lady parts.
Women had come a long way by the end of the nineteenth century, but lawdy lawd did we have a long way to go. We were eons away from Maya Angelou or Sally Ride or officially serving in the military or competing in the Olympics. Because she was a woman, Julia had to solicit letters of support from area businessmen attesting to her ability to run a business.
Seriously. Imagine opening your own FroYo store, the one with the cute green tables and fun, framed prints of dogs on surfboards. Now imagine you can’t serve a single damn customer until you run around and collect testimonies from the guy who runs the dry cleaner’s next store, from the guy who owns the gym down the block, from the guy with the grocery store in the next plaza stating that you are capable of scooping frozen yogurt, unclogging a toilet, and tallying receipts. Think about that next time you’re complaining about having to wear business formal on Fridays.
But Julia did just that—calling upon shop owners and other business people in the community to give the commonwealth their seal of approval that she was an acceptable proprietor. She probably did it without complaint, but I like to think she dropped a bit of snark and sarcasm wherever she visited.
Thank you Mr. McGee for this kind letter of support. It means a great deal to me and my family. I hope it didn’t take you too long to write. I often get up at 3 am just to catch up on correspondence, it being the only time of day I’m not busy with raising children, tending house, managing my late husband’s affairs, God rest his soul, and running a successful business.
*Drops the mic, exit store left.
Julia played by society’s rules until her son, John, was able to step in and take over the business in 1914. That Julia was resilient and creative in the wake of burying her husband and helming a growing company does not surprise me. This is the stuff of women’s blueprints: we are scrappy survivors; we do what needs to be done under extraordinary circumstances often operating with not much more than grit, smarts, and caffeine (and let’s face it, we don’t really need the caffeine). Women are unseen hands that shape, lift, and hold the pieces of life in place. Ballers, badassers, and shit disturbers all of us.
Few people, if any, making the laconic turn around the pond on these great, old majestic birds know anything of Julia Paget or the Paget family for that matter. Her story is tucked into a deep pocket of history, which are the best kind for finding such treasures and maybe the places we should really be looking to bridge the past with our present. No offense Washington crossing the Delaware or Mr. Gorbachev tearing down that wall. Those big leaps deserve every ounce of attention, scrutiny, and breathless panting by generations of historians. I just think it’s also worth mining the lives of the Julia’s of the world, worth excavating what might have happened on lesser known city streets or in the kitchens of unassuming suburban houses. We can tell ourselves that history is the body that matters, but really its the soft, connective tissue of our stories that give that body relevance, heft, and meaning.
I watch the line expand and contract like an accordion and imagine Julia sitting on a bench similar to my own watching with amusement and satisfaction in her tired eyes.