King Street in the 1700s

The Old State House was built at the head of King Street, now known as State Street. As its grand name implied, King Street was the most important street in Boston for government and commerce.

Using a variety of historical documents we can reconstruct a mental image of what it might have been like to walk out of the Old State House 250 years ago. It would be apparent that you were no longer in 21st century Boston as soon as you stepped out of the door. The salty sea air blowing in from Long Wharf was pungent with the aromas of horse manure, rum-soaked taverns, musty bookstores, hot forges, coffee house kitchens, and more. The calls of seagulls carried over a town as noisy as modern Boston, alive with the clattering of iron-clad cartwheels clattering over rough pebblestone streets, the cries of merchants barking their wares, ships bells chiming, children playing, and craftsmen and sailors hard at work.

The Little Admiral, 1916.0024
18th century newspaper advertisements reveal the goods that were bought and sold on this street. The fashionable shopped here for "All sorts of goldsmith and Jewelry wares," "women's fine horse-hair & beaver hats," "black bone lace, fine white cap lace, gimp and snail trimming," which the advertisers assured were "suitable for the season." For the hungry, shops sold "Chocolate, Bohea and Green Teas, raw and roasted coffee," "Choice Connecticut pork," "Choice Butter by the tub" and "The best Jarr Rasins." And for the scholarly, bookstores here sold "A large assortment of books on Law, Divinity, Gardening, Paper books and Pocket books… at the lowest prices."

Still, one of the main reasons to come to King Street was to socialize and drink. A block from the Old State House, on the corner of Kilby Street, stood the Bunch of Grapes, the Marlborough Arms, and the Queen's Head; three of Boston’s oldest Taverns. There was also the Admiral Vernon Tavern on Merchant's row. “The Little Admiral,” pictured above, is a a shop sign from a few doors down which is thought to portray Vernon, and is now part of our museum collection. King Street also had a number of coffee houses. In spite of their name, these genteel establishments served mostly alcohol rather than coffee.

Studying the shops on King Street gives us a richer picture of the thriving and lively town that Boston was on the eve of the American Revolution.

By Daud Alzayer, Revolutionary Characters Manager