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)

New Visitor Information: UN Headquarters

Touring the United Nations headquarters in New York is the best possible way to step back into the art and architecture that have shaped the world of diplomacy from the organization’s earliest days to the present. If you plan to visit soon, though, plan ahead. With renovations underway in the General Assembly building, new procedures effective July 1, 2013, require making tour reservations online in advance. The entrance to the grounds also has been moved for the rest of this summer. For more information, click here.

To learn more about the massive renovation project, visit the website of the Office of the United Nations Capital Master Plan.


Will Rogers, Citizen of the World

Tribute to a citizen of the world. (Library of Congress)

Tribute to a citizen of the world. (Library of Congress)

If you have seen the stage or film version of Oklahoma!, then you have brushed up against Claremore, Oklahoma.  The 1943 musical was based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Claremore writer Lynn Riggs, and it retained passing references to Claremore as a town where rural folk might catch the train to up-to-date Kansas City, where ranch hands might get drunk, or where a traveling salesman might lure an unsuspecting maiden upstairs in a hotel. At the time when the United Nations was searching for a headquarters location, the town also had a place on the map, literally, as the first Oklahoma town reached by westbound Route 66, the popular highway that swept diagonally across the nation from Chicago to southern California.

These were not, however, the motivations for local residents to declare that Claremore would be the perfect location for the Capital of the World.  Their inspiration was native son Will Rogers.

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The Black Hills and the World

From the beginning, I knew that I would go to South Dakota. Most books about the early history of the United Nations do not pay much attention to the question of where to place its headquarters, but when they do, there is usually a throw-away reference to the Black Hills of South Dakota.  How absurd, they suggest, that such a place would have offered to become the Capital of the World.

Granted, on the surface and in hindsight, it seems far-fetched. During my research trip, one day I sat on a bench in the Black Hills town of Keystone (pop. 337 in 2010) and tried to imagine the diplomats of the world mingling outside the Dairy Queen. Not likely. But spend a little time in and around the region, and the motives for a Black Hills invitation to the United Nations begin to come into focus. Continue reading