WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

                           Travels with the WPA State Guides: Paul Revere

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

No person is mentioned more frequently in the Massachusetts Guide than Paul Revere (At least 12 times, and that doesn’t include the references to the city of Revere and the countless streets, squares, statues, businesses, and schools that bear his name as well.)  Revere Church bells still ring in churches throughout New England; his engravings and silver are collected all of our best museums.

Revere’s exploits in the Revolutionary War—rom his midnight ride to his presence at the Battle of Bunker Hill and his near capture by the British are each recounted in the Guide’s history section. Further instance of the remarkable breadth of his talents are described on page 615 of the Massachusetts Guide.

“Paul Revere is best known for his midnight ride in 1775 but he had a long and storied career as an artisan and a factory-owner until his death in 1818. A talented silversmith, Revere also manufactured church bells, cannon, muskets, gunpowder, and copper for use in Boston businesses, churches, and in its battles with the British.”

This is a good summary, but all too brief.  Revere began his career as an apprentice silversmith in Boston. Far surpassing his mentor, he became the premier silversmith in the American colonies. Much of Revere’s silver is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Worcester Art Museum, and the Fogg Museum at Harvard but, every so often, a piece still comes up for auction. In 2015, a Revere teapot sold for $233,000 at Christie’s. And, in 2017, a single Revere teaspoon became the world’s most expensive spoon, selling at auction for $32,500.

Revere was also an engraver. His produced his engraving, “The Bloody Massacre in King-Street,” depicting the Boston Massacre, in 1770, just three weeks after the event. The engraving shows the British soldiers firing into a peaceful gathering of citizens, a somewhat sanitized view of the colonists’ behavior at the actual event. Copies of Revere’s engraving appeared in the newspapers of the time and countless numbers of prints were sold on the streets of Boston. Many historians cite this engraving as the most effective piece of war propaganda in American history. Even today, Revere’s Boston Massacre prints decorate bank and law firm offices throughout the city and the original is housed at the Met.

After the War, Revere established a metals foundry in Boston and cast 398 bells for churches, schoolhouses, and town halls. Revere bells were known for their resonance and beauty. The bells  were all made individually but, in 1808, Revere became an early adherent of the industrial revolution. He built a mill on the Neponset River in Canton to mass produce cannons, gunpowder, and rolled copper sheathing. The Revere Rolling Copper Mill was the first of its kind in this country. It made cannons and gunpowder for the War of 1812, the copper sheathing for the Massachusetts State House dome and for the hull of “Old Ironsides,” more formally known as the USS Constitution:

“During the late 18th Century and the early part of the 19th, Canton was a busy manufacturing center […] [O]n Revere Street is the site of a foundry Paul Revere set up in 1808, the first copper-rolling mill in the country, which supplied the rolled copper for the State House dome and the copper boilers used in Fulton’s first steamboat. This versatile hero also operated a powder mill here during the revolution and the War of 1812.”

Massachusetts Guide, p. 614-15.

Revere’s Mill ceased production in the late 19th century but, in 2015, it was renovated by the town of Canton and opened as Revere Heritage Park. The mill is now a museum containing a delightful restaurant serving “New American” cuisine. 

The span of Revere’s life—from 1735 to 1818—and his energetic participation in it, are the very definition of a life lived in interesting times. In his youth, he was a British subject and an apprentice, in young adulthood he fought for our independence. In middle age, became a prominent citizen of the new country that he had a good deal to do with creating. And even into his old age, he experimented with new manufacturing methods and supplied our country with the goods necessary for both war and peace. Active, capable, intelligent, ambitious, artistic, and, above all, energetic, Revere never quit. (And his two wives more than matched his energy and productivity. Revere’s first wife, Sarah, had eight children in their fourteen years of marriage. After her death, he married Rachel, who assumed the care of those eight, still-young children and added eight more to the family.

Revere lived in what is now the oldest house still standing in Boston. Built in 1680, it  is one of the most popular sites on Boston’s Freedom Trail. You can commune with him there or in churches and museums, but visit the Paul Revere Heritage Site in Canton as well. The mill is beautiful and I recommend the restaurant’ s really delicious french fries, a fitting nod to Revere’s French ancestry.  (His family name, originally Rivoire, was changed by his father, Apollos, when he emigrated from France to Boston in 1715.)                      

September, 2021