By Jessica A. Kent
Nov. 1, 2018
Last week was National Boston Cream Pie Day, on October 23. The dessert, which was dubbed the Official Dessert of Massachusetts, was created at the Omni Parker House on Tremont Street in Boston in the mid-19th century. The Pie (really a cake) was created when the chef poured chocolate icing over a custard cake. Related to American Pudding Cake, the invention was initially called the Parker House Chocolate Cream Pie, but evolved into the Boston Cream Pie. It was also an early use of chocolate as a glaze upon a cake.
There was another sweet, rich contribution to American society that came out of the Omni Parker House: It was a hub of 19th century literary society. Located between Ticknor & Fields Publishing a few blocks down, and the Boston Athenaeum a few blocks up, the Omni Parker House was a favorite meeting spot for literary lights such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and more. The Atlantic Monthly was created within its walls. And Edith Wharton even set a scene in The Age of Innocence here.
The Saturday Club and the Atlantic Monthly
Possibly the most famous literary contribution to come out of the then-called Parker House was the establishment of the Saturday Club in 1855, a gathering of men of letters who met for a dinner and conversation club once a moth. According to Emerson’s son Edward Waldo Emerson, who chronicled the Saturday Club in two volumes published by Houghton Mifflin, the story began as early as 1836, when his father and Bronson Alcott were holding “symposia” around Boston and the surrounding areas. Their meetings included James Eliot Cabot, the Transcendental poet Jones Very, author Henry James, and Henry David Thoreau, as well as a number of local ministers. Letters began to float around the group, including James Russell Lowell, Longfellow, and others, proposing to solidify a monthly meeting of literary minds. And it was Horatio Woodman, a local lawyer or clerk, who ended up being the catalyst for the start of the group (as Woodman had rooms at the Albion Hotel, where the group first met, and the Parker House).
The original members of the Saturday Club were Louis Agassiz, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., John Sullivan Dwight, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, James Russell Lowell, John Lothrop Motley, Benjamin Peirce, Samuel Gray Ward, Edwin Percy Whipple, and Horatio Woodman. Longfellow would join the following year, and each year new members would be inducted. Other members of note include Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Charles Sumner, and Henry James. Thoreau unsurprising didn’t care for the Parker House or the gatherings, writing:
“As for the Parker House, I went there once, when the club was away, but I found it hard to see through the cigar smoke, and men were deposited about in chairs over the marble floor, as thick as legs of bacon in a smoke house. It was all smoke… The only room in Boston I visit with alacrity is the Gentlemen’s room at the Fitchburg Depot, where I wait for the cars, sometimes for two hours, in order to get out of town. It is a paradise to the Parker House, for no smoking is allowed…I am pretty sure to find someone there whose face is set the same way as my own” (Wilson 46).
Where would this auspicious gang of literary-minded men meet? Unfortunately, the current Omni Parker House is not the building that was there back in the mid-19th century. The current building is from the 1920s, so there’s no ability to return to the rooms the Club met in. But Emerson provides a wonderfully exact description of where they met:
“Very early, after the experimental gatherings at the Albion, the meeting-place where dinners were held was either the small front room on the second floor of Parker's, or, when the Club grew larger, the large front room just west of it, The long windows looked out on the statue of Franklin, — what a valuable member he would have made, had Time allowed it! — in the open grounds of the City Hall.”
One can place exactly where this room would have been; indeed the Old City Hall is still at that location (they would have watched the new building, currently there, being built in 1865), as well as the statue of Ben Franklin outside, which was erected in 1856.
Additionally, in a letter to Francis H. Underwood in 1856, a sick C. C. Felton muses over the delicious offerings of the Parker House and the Saturday Club, as he cannot make the meeting:
“I hope you will have a jovial time; may the mutton be tender and the goose not tough; may the Moet sparkle like Holmes’ wit; May the carving knives be as sharp as Whipple's criticism; May the fruits be as rich as Emerson's philosophy; May good digestion wait on appetite and Health on both — and I pray you think of me as the glass goes round” (Emerson 15).
Two clubs actually formed at this time, whose membership extensively overlapped. The first was a social club, focused on dinner and conversation, that would be known as the Saturday Club. The second, deemed the Magazine Club or later the Atlantic Club, was a purely literary meeting with the sole purpose of creating a literary magazine, which became The Atlantic Monthly. Debuting in 1857, Lowell was its first editor. Of the Atlantic Club, Emerson notes that his father’s journal “bears amusing witness to the existence of this second and temporary club. He wrote, ‘We had a story one day of a meeting of the Atlantic Club when, the copies of the new number of the Atlantic being brought in, every one rose eagerly to get a copy, and then each sat down and read his own article’” (Emerson 18).
The Saturday Club continued, with new members each year being admitted by a formal vote. The Club was incorporated in 1886. It’s changed time and members and form and even locations over the years, but the Club still continues today, though not with the literary giants it once had.
The Dickens Door
During his five-month American reading tour from 1867-1868, Charles Dickens resided in the Parker House, in apartments on the third floor. While Dickens read A Christmas Carol for the first time publicly at the Tremont Temple next door, on December 2, 1867, he read it for friends and family in a private event at the Parker House first. Reportedly he used to practice the characters from his novels in front of a large mirror, which now resides in the Dickens Room conference room at the Hotel. Additionally, visitors can view the “Dickens Door”; during the demolition of the former building, a worker recognized the room that Dickens stayed in, and thought to rescue the door. You can see the Dickens Door today in a historical alcove in the basement of the Hotel (head in the School St. side and go immediately downstairs). You can decide yourself whether you believe Dickens haunts the property (as many people think). Each year the Omni Parker House holds an evening when a Dickens reenactor (last year played by a relative) recites A Christmas Carol again.
Mark Twain stayed at the Parker House in 1877, and famously - or legendarily - quoted to a reporter that, “You see for yourself that I’m pretty near heaven—not theologically, of course, but by the hotel standard.” Twain was often in Boston, and was good friends with William Dean Howells, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly from 1871 to 1881.
The Age of Innocence
In Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, published in 1920, Countess Olenska stays at the Parker House when she is in Boston. Archer travels up to see her, but before he gets to the Parker House, finds her in the Common instead. They head up the street to the Parker House, but he never goes in (and the scene commences with him pacing outside of its entrance). Still, the Parker House would’ve been the place for Countess Olenska to have been:
“He looked at his watch, and finding that it was half-past nine got up and went into the writing-room. There he wrote a few lines, and ordered a messenger to take a cab to the Parker House and wait for the answer. He then sat down behind another newspaper and tried to calculate how long it would take a cab to get to the Parker House.
"‘The lady was out, sir,’ he suddenly heard a waiter's voice at his elbow; and he stammered: ‘Out?—’ as if it were a word in a strange language” (230).
In 1906, while working for McClure’s magazine, Willa Cather was assigned to research and write a biography of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, located in Boston. In order to do her research, Cather lived at the Parker House for most of 1907. While in town she also struck up a friendship with local author Sarah Orne Jewett,
School Street Sessions
A version of the Saturday Club has continued and still meets today. Known as the School Street Sessions (the Saturday Club still technically exists), a group of mostly women writers and poets meet on the last Saturday of the month - a sharp contrast to the all-male Saturday Club. Co-founded by former Boston poet laureate Danielle Legros Georges, the group continues the tradition of gathering to discuss literature, hear authors speak or read, and enjoy one another’s company, much like their 19th century counterparts did. Their events are open to the public (rather than invite-only like the old Club), but their only web presence is a Facebook page.
Want to Learn More?
If this whetted your appetite, here’s a chance to learn more. If you would like to tour the Omni Parker House, the Boston Literary District just announced a tour for December 6. The Omni Parker House is also a major stop on the Boston by Foot Hub of Literary America tour. Pick up a copy of Susan Wilson’s excellent, full color book Heaven, By Hotel Standards: The History of the Omni Parker House, available at the Omni Parker House gift shop. You can always stop in and have a look around yourself; enlarged documents of the Saturday Club table layout and other letters can be seen in the lobby; the Dickens Door, as well as other interesting historical items can be found in the lower level; and the mezzanine level contains a hallway of framed photos of members from the Saturday Club, as well as a massive portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne. You can also see that the Omni Parker House’s conferences rooms are all named after authors of Boston’s past.
Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice. “The History of the Omni Parker House Hotel.” HistoryofMassachusetts.org, 26 Oct. 2017.
Cooke, George Willis. John Sullivan Dwight: A Biography. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1898.
Dwyer, Dialynn. “Charles Dickens once gave an epic reading of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in Boston.” Boston.com, 15 Dec. 2017.
Emerson, Edward Waldo. The Early Years of the Saturday Club, 1855-1870. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918.
“Hub of Literary America.” Boston By Foot tour, 21 July 2018.
Massachusetts History Society. “Saturday Club Records, 1864-1995.” masshist.org.
Trahan, Erin. “New Literary Group Turns History Of Boston's Legendary 'Saturday Club' On Its Head.” WBUR.com, 24 Mar. 2017.
Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. NY: Macmillan, 1920.
Wilson, Susan. Heaven, By Hotel Standards: The History of the Omni Parker House. Omni Parker House, 2014.
—. Literary Trail of Greater Boston. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.