Research; or, The Devil Is In The Details

Ah, research.

One of my favorite things about writing a historically-based story is the fact that so much of the world-building is already done for me.  After all, if for some reason, I need to know what a pocket watch from 1873 might look like, thanks to the Internet, the answer is just a few clicks away.  Go to Google, type in “Pocket watch 1873”, click “Search” and then “Images”, and voila!  A pocket watch from 1873:

1873 Pocket Watch - face view with open crystal

Not only that, but there is, in fact, a gallery of pictures of pocket watches, showing them from various angles.  So you can see how the back opens for the key (for winding), and all sorts of other details you never imagined.

(People under the age of 25 will never understand just how cool that is.  But that’s a post for another day.)

But if you’re a research geek (and I am), you can use the Internet to figure out all sorts of cool stuff.  For instance, in my current WIP, Book 3 of the Winterbourne series, I needed to be able to describe the MIT campus in 1875.  I knew, from info I’d found on the web, that the “Boston Tech” campus consisted of just one building at that time.

I had maps showing where the building was:

Early MIT map

It’s the middle building; the one on the left was not built until 1883.  The one on the right, the Natural History Society’s building, did exist in 1875.  It’s described as being similar in design as the main building, though smaller.

I even had a picture of what the building looked like:

Rogers Building circa 1883

The photograph dates from 1889; the “new” building was later named the Walker building,  In 1875, the Rogers building had not yet been named.

So I had most of my info.  Except for two things:

First, a poke around the MIT website yielded a timeline of the school’s history.  And that says that in 1875, they built a gymnasium:

MIT Gymnasium

And, for my purposes, even more squee-inducingly, in 1876, they built a Women’s Chemistry Laboratory. DUDE!  How cool is that?  I’ll probably babble more about that later, but here’s what it looks like:

Women's Lab

Note that both pictures show the same distinctive tower in the background.  The building to the left of the Women’s Chemistry Lab appears to be the gymnasium from the previous photo.  Cool!  Except…

The map I had (above) makes no mention of either building.  Erh?

More poking of the internets got me this map, from 1905:

MIT Map 1905

The (by then named) Walker and Rogers buildings are plainly visible in the upper right corner.  But the gymnasium was shown as being blocks away, on Garrison Street; it’s possible that the chemistry lab was expanded and repurposed to be the mechanical laboratories building.  Hmm.  But a re-reading of the descriptions of the gymnasium and chem lab shows that they were torn down in 1882 and 1883.  So they couldn’t be the buildings shown on this 1905 map.  Then where could they have been?

I set that mystery aside for the moment and turned my attention to other matters.  I knew from my reading that the Rogers building was torn down in the 1930s (along with the Walker building).  But the Natural History Society building was still supposed to be standing; and since one source described it as being similar to the Rogers building (a.k.a. “Boston Tech” in 1875), I decided to go have a look at it so I’d have that reference for what the Rogers building looked like.

Natural History Society Building

Okay, comparing that to the picture of the Rogers building above, I can see the described similarities.  And from that, I think I can extrapolate what the Rogers building must have looked like in 1875.  Cool.  The (really ugly) grey building behind the Natural History Society building is where the Rogers and Walker buildings once stood.

And then I spotted it.  Off to the right of the screen, sticking its head above the buildings on the adjacent street…is the top of the same tower that appears in the pictures of both the gymnasium and the chemistry laboratory building!  That’s when it hits me:  I can probably use Google Street View to triangulate on that and figure out where the two buildings must have been!

So using Street View, I “stroll” down Newbury Street to Clarendon Street, until I’m “standing” with my back to where the Walker building would have been…and here’s what I see:

Clarendon Street

And when I compare the details of the roofline of the building to the left, as well as the views of the tower that I get when I move back and forth across the street, I discover that the gymnasium *must* have been where the Walker building later stood.

Then it hits me:  The gymnasium was torn down in 1882, and the chem lab in 1883.  The Walker building was built in 1883.  So although none of the information I could find ever actually says so, the two older buildings *must* have been torn down to make way for the Walker/New building.  Mystery solved, and I’m all squee over finding all of the pieces and putting them together!

What cool bits of research have other folks done for your stories?  Ever had to play detective to find the information you needed?


About sheilamcclune

Aspiring author, sharing the tidbits I've learned along the way.
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2 Responses to Research; or, The Devil Is In The Details

  1. John says:

    Looking at the map, I was thinking the tower was Trininty Church, and the likely place for the gym and lab were along Boylston St, between Dartmouth and Clarenoon. What street was the tower building on, and what was it exactly?

    • I don’t think the tower was Trinity Church; that would have been south of Boyleston on Clarendon Street. I was “standing” on the corner of Newbury and Clarendon, looking north-ish, when I took the screenshot. But yes, I think the two buildings faced Boylston, and were on the Clarendon end of the block. (Where the Walker building was on the 1905 map.)

      Google Maps identifies the tower as being the First Baptist Church, btw.

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