Boston: Hub and Potential Capital

As I look forward to revisiting Boston this week, I am reminded of my quest to understand the origins of the city’s reputation as “the Hub” – which, naturally, came into play as Bostonians pursued the prize of becoming the Capital of the World.

In 1858, the writer Oliver Wendell Holmes bestowed the nickname “Hub of the Solar System” on the Massachusetts State House,but he did not mean it as a compliment. In his story “The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table,” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Holmes called attention to Bostonians’ tendency to see themselves at the center of the universe (from which they could cast indispensable light on lesser folk in outlying orbits).  The story’s narrator observed wryly that this attitude was not unique to Boston, but might be found in any city or town.

Promoting the Hub (1938)

Boston Post, August 24, 1938

Over time “the Hub” lost Holmes’s satirical intent and found its way into booster campaigns for business and tourism. Promoting New England as “distinctively the summer playground of the eastern part of the United States,” the Chamber of Commerce boasted in 1911 that “Boston, so often referred to as ‘the Hub of the Solar System,’ is literally the ‘hub’ of this vast volume of tourist and vacation travel.”  Cut down to its essence, Holmes’s phrase served well as a headline-handy abbreviation for the city itself – “the Hub.” As a place reference, the term became so common that no explanation was necessary, as in Around the Hub: A Boys’ Book About Boston, published in 1881, and A Ramble ‘Round the Hub, which appeared in 1905.  In common usage, the original “Hub of the Solar System” evolved into the more dramatic “Hub of the Universe.”  So it appeared in 1938, when the Boston Post  published a cartoon with then-Mayor Tobin serving up “Historical Boston – The Convention City” on a promotional silver platter, with a “Hub of the Universe” flag fluttering atop the State House dome.  Before long, Tobin as Governor of Massachusetts led the way in promoting the Boston metro area as a potential headquarters site for the United Nations. What happened next? We’ll talk more about all of this on Wednesday, October 16, at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Link here for details.


A Home for the United Nations … in Massachusetts? (Boston Globe, Sept. 22, 2013)