The Boston Nursery for Blind Babies / by Jason Turgeon

One of the things Stephen sent me was a partial scan of an old article about something called the Boston Nursery for Blind Babies.  A little digging quickly led me to the full article on Google Books in the March, 1905, edition of New England Magazine.

The article says the Boston Nursery for Blind Babies was started on January 1, 1900, by Bertha Snow (the article’s author), who had taught at a kindergarten for the blind in Hartford, CT, and been struck by the need for services for younger blind children.  Oddly, the Boston Center for Blind Children, the successor organization to the nursery, has a conflicting story stating it was founded by Isabel Greeley in 1901.  

Regardless of who started the nursery, the crushing poverty, long work hours, miserable housing conditions, and lack of education among the working classes led to a common but preventable disease that affected the eyes of newborns.  If the disease was caught quickly, it could be cured by most doctors, but many families lacked the means or education to see a doctor and there were blind babies hidden away all over the slums of America’s cities.

Ms. Snow raised the funds for the first nursery in a ten room house in Egleston Square, but quickly the demand for her services pushed her into a larger 15-room building at 66 Fort Ave, in the house shown above.  She was there from about 1902 until 1909.  Unfortunately, the 1906 map available at Historic Map Works is missing the page that has Highland Park and the property on Fort Ave., but the 1915 atlas shows the building.  

The building was located on what is now the lawn behind the relatively new townhome development on the corner of Beech Glen and Fort.  

The New England Magazine article paints a depressing picture of life at the turn of the century.  Here’s an example:  

The first inmate to arrive was a little colored boy two years and a half old. He had been found tied into a chair in a basement kitchen. His mother was obliged to go out to work by the day to support herself and children so she tied the little blind fellow into a chair that he might not run against things and get hurt. She told me that she gave him some bread and butter and coffee in the morning before she went to work and that she aways left plenty of doughnuts on the table near him so he could put out his hand and find them when he was hungry. Unable to move about and with no one to attend to his needs the little fellow sat tied into his chair alone day after day and week after week with nothing to occupy his time or attention nothing to eat but baker’s bread and baker’s doughnuts and nothing to breathe but the foulest foul air.

The tale gets worse from there, ending with the unfortunate young lad dying despite many months of efforts to save him at the nursery.  It’s easy to romanticize the steampunk era of 125 years ago until you read a story like that.  In a world where working-class parents had little or no education, often barely spoke English, had many children, and worked 60 or more hours per week, attending to the needs of a blind child was rarely a possibility and many of these children were consigned to miserable lives.  

Fortunately, the nursery had many more successes after its early experience.  In some cases, they were able to restore the sight of the young children through surgeries or improved nutrition.  In most others, they were able to bring the children to normal function, teaching them to speak, walk, eat, and clean themselves.  Once the children turned 5 they were sent on to the well-established Perkins School for the Blind, an institution that still exists in Boston today.

But by 1909 the Nursery was growing again, and that year it started construction on its final home on South Huntington Ave next to the Home for Little Wanderers.  By a wonderful coincidence, Remember Jamaica Plain picks up the story in a post about the creation of South Huntington.  Click through to read about the creation of South Huntington Avenue, including a transcript of a 1909 newspaper article about the buildings along the street, and see the site of the Nursery in a later map.

Fortunately, the need for services like the Nursery ended as medical services and education improved.  The home transitioned to more and more specialized services for children with greater levels of need before eventually closing in 1995 and reorganizing itself as a non-profit called the Boston Center for Blind Children.

Before I wrap up, I’d like to paste in this article from the Unitarian Register, September 24, 1903.  Although it doesn’t add any crucial info to the story of the nursery, it was written by local celebrity Edward Everett Hale, and that detail combined with the sweetness of the story itself make it worth sharing.  If the article is too hard to read, click through for the google books version where you can zoom in.