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Vikings come to Boston
October 3, 2007 7:12 AM   Subscribe

Why is there so much Viking-themed architecture in Boston? The answer lies in racism and baking powder. Eben Horsfeld revolutionized bread-making in the 1890s when he developed Rumford's Baking Powder. Inspired by a Norwegian superstar and nationalist and a mysterious stone, he became convinced that the Viking Lief Ericson had landed in Cambridge, which he called Norumbega, and funded monuments and research to that effect. The Boston elite, threatened by new Irish immigrants, quickly seized on this concept, since it showed that the cleaned-up Viking, and not Catholic Columbus, that had first settled their sacred city. A century later, it was discovered that the Vikings did reach America first, though never Boston.
posted by blahblahblah (34 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Had always wondered about that. Thanks!
posted by louie at 7:22 AM on October 3, 2007


since it showed that the cleaned-up Viking, and not Catholic Columbus, that had first settled their sacred city.

That linked article is one person's opinion. There was one major version of western Christianity at the time, the Roman Catholic Church. Ericson was a catholic and every learned person knew it.

We don't even know how popular the theory was. Some rich nut wanted a statue, he got it, and a crowd turned up for the festivities. It's no different than today-- wealthy people can commit crimes, have laws changed for them, and put public art (especially that they finance themselves) put where ever they like.

And Horsfeld could have gotten a crowd to celebrate his own bunghole if he offered something different to do than sit around and be poor.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:31 AM on October 3, 2007


TECHNOVIKING
posted by empath at 7:34 AM on October 3, 2007


I could be completely wrong about this but aren't the Vikings and the Irish distant relatives?
posted by drezdn at 7:49 AM on October 3, 2007


This is about Mormonism, right? We don't need another lolxtians thread.
posted by Bokononist at 7:51 AM on October 3, 2007


aren't the Vikings and the Irish distant relatives?

There's certainly a lot of Norse DNA in Ireland, but it's very doubtful that there was any family feeling. Viking literally involved rape, loot and pillage. While there's a somewhat romantic image of them now, viking raids far exceeded the worst excesses of any modern biker gangs.
posted by bonehead at 7:56 AM on October 3, 2007


All right, Boston! That's where I'm a viking!
posted by yhbc at 8:01 AM on October 3, 2007 [5 favorites]


I could be completely wrong about this but aren't the Vikings and the Irish distant relatives?

Well, the Vikings occupied large chunks of Ireland, just like they did in Britain. So there's some influence on language, some mixing of art and a bit of intermarriage. Otherwise, they're not any more related than any other Indo-European groups who live in a given broad general area.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:01 AM on October 3, 2007


I have climbed the Norumbega Tower, and went to the Norumbega amusement park as a child. It's now a Marriott hotel. The Totem Pole Ballroom hosted nationally famous big bands (it had closed by the time I got there), and you could rent canoes to fall out of into the Charles River.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:08 AM on October 3, 2007


Huh, some of these responses are a bit weird:

This is about Mormonism, right? We don't need another lolxtians thread.

No, no it isn't.

That linked article is one person's opinion. There was one major version of western Christianity at the time, the Roman Catholic Church. Ericson was a catholic and every learned person knew it.

Well, it seems to be a fairly widespread view that the embracing of the Vikings was a response by the Boston elite to Catholic immigrants, Joshua Glenn wrote a similar piece a couple years back, and the author of the article is respectable as well. Also see Janet A. Headly's "Anne Whitney's Leif Eriksson: A Brahmin Response to Christopher Columbus" (American Art, Summer 2003). Heck, Longfellow actually wrote a poem about it. And of course everyone knew that Lief Ericson was Catholic, but the sanitized version embraced by the Boston Brahmins conformed to the Protestant ideal. As Harper's Weekly said: "the knit brow and noble bearing of Leif tell not only of the firm resolve and daring of the explorer, but also that he was a worthy forerunner of the Pilgrims.."
posted by blahblahblah at 8:12 AM on October 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


The Needham Historical Society article (Hey! I grew up in Needham!) is interesting, but I call bullshit on the trend of Viking-themed architecture in support of the thesis. The three examples shown are 1. a boat house, 2. the Board of Trade building and, 3. a bridge. All of which are pretty closely related to nautical/maritime themes, and of course viking imagery is going to come into play in the ornamentation.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:16 AM on October 3, 2007


I'm having a hard time thinking of any other example of Viking themed architecture in the city other than the boats on the Longfellow and the statue of course.
That there are ship prows in many buildings downtown reflects Boston's wealth in maritime trade. It's a stretch to claim them as some viking fetish.
Good post, though. Thanks
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:16 AM on October 3, 2007


"Columbus personified the growing political and social power of Boston's Catholic immigrants."
So an Italian personified the Irish? To whom? Seems a bit of a stretch.
posted by klarck at 8:18 AM on October 3, 2007


...since it showed that the cleaned-up Viking, and not Catholic Columbus, that had first settled their sacred city.

Does anyone believe that Columbus was anywhere near Boston? Accounts of his voyages show landfalls in the Carribean, Central America, and South America. He never came close to what is now the USA.
posted by rocket88 at 8:42 AM on October 3, 2007


So an Italian personified the Irish? To whom? Seems a bit of a stretch.

That's my point. I'm the product of the Boston English, and I'm intimately familiar with the stereotypes of the more-recent immigrants inasmuch as they still exist in my older relatives. The Irish and the Italians are not lumped together as Catholics. Hell, traditionally the New England Irish and Italians hated each other more than the English hated either of them, which is why every New England town has to have two Catholic churches (three if there are French Canadians).

Irish Catholicism is seen by old Yankees as some sort of fatalistic crutch-- the men drink and fight and wake up guilty, and the women somberly head off to church to pray for their husbands. Boston English people thought that the process of absolution in Catholicism gives Irish people too much liberty to not take initiative and clean themselves up.

Italian Catholicism is seen as a different animal-- it's seen as some sort of icon cult where lawns are turned into shrines and people cross themselves in public. Italian catholicism is seen as loud and ostentatious-- Italians were culturally more demonstrative than the English or Irish and more apt to be discernable by sight than an Irish person would be. Additionally, they had their own language and most Irish immigrants did not. Boston English people thought that Italians were foreign and overly mystic.

So, New England prejudice towards Irish and Italians was very separate, even if people knew academically that they were members of ostensibly the same religion: the Irish were "like us" but wretched, the Italians were unpredictable weirdos who ate garlic and practiced anarchism. To the "Proper Bostonians" of the 19th century, Columbus had as much to do with the Irish as Joan of Arc or Philip the Handsome did.

(I am not suggesting that the stereotypes perpetuated by my forebearers are remotely accurate; only that they existed in this form. I know some fine Irish people.)
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:51 AM on October 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


What? Everybody knows Boston was settled by Arthu r Fiedler and Ludwig von Beethoven. Why else would we have these statues?
posted by atbash at 8:52 AM on October 3, 2007


I assume you're using "America" in the continental North American sense? Because, as the last link makes clear, they landed in what is now Canada, not the US.

/nit picking
posted by stinkycheese at 8:55 AM on October 3, 2007


To the "Proper Bostonians" of the 19th century, Columbus had as much to do with the Irish as Joan of Arc or Philip the Handsome did.

No, I really disagree with that. Though they did make the distinctions between them that you state, contempt for the immigrants of the late nineteenth century generally did tar them all with the same brush, being alike "wretched refuse" from another "teeming shore." Though the Irish and Italians may not have been conflated specifically because of Catholicism, they were conflated as part of the immigrant hordes threatening Anglo values.

I hadn't heard of this Viking story, but there's no reason to suspect that the idea that whites descended from earlier English and German immigrants to America embraced an idyll of a powerful, whiter past during this era. It has been well argued in most sources on the Colonial Revival, for instance, that the late 19th/early 20th century fetishism of Colonial hardiness and vigor was a direct response to the urbanification and ethnification of an industrialized America. And another huge trend in late ninteenth-century New England was the Scottish craze, in which white people made much of an imagined Scottish culture to amplify the difference between their (supposedly superior) Anglo-Celtic ancestry and that of the Irish.
posted by Miko at 8:59 AM on October 3, 2007


it was discovered that the Vikings did reach America first second.

Fixed that for you. Everyone always forgets the original tenants.
posted by absalom at 9:04 AM on October 3, 2007


The argument in the article for the Viking thing as part of the much broader American celebration of Northern European whiteness is actually excellent. Look at these quotes from primary sources:
Baker wrote: "It is now well-established that the Norsemen visited our American continent long before the time of Columbus...and that our good OLD commonwealth of Massachusetts has the honor of having received the first imprints of European civilization. It is therefore our DUTY that we of Massachusetts should take the initiatory step towards the erection of a memorial monument to these hardy voyageurs.
and
James Jackson Jarves called him “a Norseman Apollo...a handsome vigorous fellow, whose well-modeled limbs, spirited Characteristic pose, figure-displaying armor are all calculated to win women’s hearts and men’s admiration...It is agreeable to believe that such a man as Leif was the first European to leave the impress of his footsteps on our rugged shores” Harper’s Weekly observed that “the knit brow and noble bearing of Leif tell not only of the firm resolve and daring of the explorer, but also that he was a worthy forerunner of the Pilgrims...Miss Whitney deserves the thanks of Americans for having chosen as the type of the Northmen ancestors, not the Berserk warrior, but the Iceland merchant, explorer and Christian, as Leif Eriksson truly was.”

Note the use of the word "Christian," not Catholic. Of course Erickson would be Catholic if he were Christian at all - there had not yet been a Reformation - but remember also that the Protestants of New England had rebelled against a Church that had become obsessed with wealth and lost its (assumed) former purity. A Catholic from 1000 years ago was a palatable contrast to a Catholic of the 1880s, of any ethnicity, because the Church represented by the heroes of the first milennia was imagined to be a purer Church, closer to the ideas of Protestantism. It's absolutely no wonder that the whites of the time were delighted to discover they could make a case that the Vikings were first, rather than the swarthy spice merchants that were so celebrated.

They were all wrong, anyway; Columbus is as much a myth of discovery as are the Vikings as are the Plymouth Pilgrims (whose famous rock was also celebrated from the Revolution on as a symbol of American character, despite being a totally spurious artifact whose provenance consists of the memory of a ninety-five-year-old man drawing on secondhand local lore and hearsay), and the Irish have their own argument in St. Brendan, the Navigator. The truth seems to be that Europeans alwaysknew there was some land over here - at least since the rivet was perfected, making long-distance water travel possible; they've certainly been fishing off the coasts since the 1400s at the very least, camping n the beaches of the present-day Canadian Maritimes. The question is: who gets to claim the "real" discovery story? And that has almost always been framed as a question with political and ethnic import, in this country. Even today when we recognize that the paleo-Indians "discovered" it, that is a political conversation, too.

ON preview: Thanks for illustrating that last point, absalom.
posted by Miko at 9:27 AM on October 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Damn tags. The part beginning "Note the use..." is me writing, no longer quoting the NHS article.
posted by Miko at 9:29 AM on October 3, 2007


aren't the Vikings and the Irish distant relatives?

Think of Ireland as 8th century Danish Disneyland. Occasionally in Ireland they still find "Beware the Dane" carved into some stone.


Everyone always forgets the original tenants.


Yes. Including the fourth round of tenants the Vikings, and later, the Pilgrims met.
posted by tkchrist at 9:43 AM on October 3, 2007


No, I really disagree with that. Though they did make the distinctions between them that you state, contempt for the immigrants of the late nineteenth century generally did tar them all with the same brush, being alike "wretched refuse" from another "teeming shore."

You make an excellent point about the endorsement being anti-catholic, but the notion of it being specifically tied to the Irish is wrong. If we're talking about the Know-Nothings or the Klan, I totally agree-- non-native was non-native. But the OP is suggesting that this is specifically anti-Irish sentiment and that's inaccurate.

The Anglo-Irish culture war in Boston was mostly over by that point. The Irish were often employed as servants in English Boston homes and they were even electing officials out of some of the wards by the 1890's.

This was about a second wave of immigration, this time from Southern Europe. The forces that promoted Leif Ericson over Columbus were the same ones that got Sacco and Vanzetti killed. There were almost 700,000 italian immigrants to the US in the 1890s. After New York, Boston absorbed the largest number of them. That's what this is about.

The incident where an Irishman was a suspect in the George Parkman murder case just because he had a 20 dollar bill was 50 years earlier. The Civil War raised the status of the Irish immensely-- the Good Men of Boston hired them to enlist in their place in the fighting. By the 1890's, the Irish were the blacks of the North-- they weren't a serious threat because they were doing the work you were too good for.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:10 AM on October 3, 2007


The Vikings and the Pilgrims didn't even meet the same people.
posted by Miko at 10:24 AM on October 3, 2007


the OP is suggesting that this is specifically anti-Irish sentiment and that's inaccurate.

Agreed; I meant to say that it's part of a general history of overall anti-immigrant sentiment. The ethnic groups change, but the ideas of inferiority don't - they are simply applied to the newest or most apparently threatening arrivals.
posted by Miko at 10:26 AM on October 3, 2007


The funny thing is, I was born in New England, spent most of my childhood summers there, a couple years of adulthood in Boston, and I don't remember any Viking-related memoria. This is like a hidden New England to me.
posted by ardgedee at 11:37 AM on October 3, 2007


Milwaukee also has a statue of Leif Ericson that was put in place over a hundred years ago for obscure reasons. It is actually the same statue as Boston's done by the same artist. Those damned Norwegians...
posted by JJ86 at 11:49 AM on October 3, 2007


So Boston has been insane forever then? It's not merely a recent innovation?
posted by aramaic at 12:05 PM on October 3, 2007


Fascinating post! Thanks blahblahblah.
posted by nickyskye at 12:25 PM on October 3, 2007


So Boston has been insane forever then? It's not merely a recent innovation?

Oh, yeah. You should have heard the conspiracy theories after the Great Molasses Flood.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:17 PM on October 3, 2007


Meanwhile, to the South, Newport, RI is permanently Viking-happy, albeit for less racist reasons. The Old Stone Mill (which may actually be an old stone mill) has been purported to be a Viking watch-tower by those daring men of the new school of science, "Archaeology." Successive "Archae-ologists" since the late 1800's have since opined that it is instead a Viking church, and more recently a Basque watch tower and/or a Celtic watch-tower.

(The modern thinking is that it's really just an old mill built by British colonists. That everyone forgot had been there. For hundreds of years. In the middle of downtown Newport. Without any historical record of who owned it and who brought their grain to be milled there... or even a mention. That uses mortar no other contemporaneous structure uses, and has windows that align with astronomical features important to navigation. Yeah. Perfectly rational explanation.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:16 PM on October 3, 2007


w/r/t the Old Stone Mill: The Viking-origin-theory can be traced to one guy, Carl Christian Rafn, a Danish scholar. In 1837 he published a series of letters known as Antiquitates Americanae, in which he did a very impressive job of making the facts fit his theories, employing the exact opposite of the scientific method. Although Rafn's thoughts on the Old Stone Mill were based only upon poorly drawn architectural renderings, that didn't stop later scholars from expanding on his ideas in much the same suspect manner. Scholars pretty much agree that the Vikings did make it to North America, as various artifacts of Norse origin have been found on the eastern coast of Canada, most notably at L'Anse aux Meadows. However, no such objects have ever been found as far south as Massachusetts or Rhode Island.
posted by Miko at 7:41 PM on October 3, 2007


I didn't make that clear: I was quoting the linked website. not my own words.
posted by Miko at 8:07 PM on October 3, 2007


There are quite a few bits of anomalous evidence of a pre-columbian European presence in New England, to the point where it's all but a given. The argument is over exactly who and when.

1) The Vikings - confirmed in Newfoundland, less definitively further south and west.
2) The Portugese - Probably swayed heavily by a large Portugese immigrant population in Southeastern New England (as are the Viking "discoveries" in Minnesota likely the result of a large Scandanavian immigrant community seeing what they want to see.)
3) Celtic Irish - See above.
4) Welsh (wtf?)
5) Chinese (double wtf?)
6) Basque (Most likely IMO - they were fishing for cod on this side of the Atlantic for a looooooong time.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:55 PM on October 3, 2007


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