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Resources by Document Type
Images Available Online
Many websites permit images to be downloaded or copied for personal use, school projects, and other purposes. For publication and other forms of image distribution, please check with each source to determine copyright and other restrictions that may apply.
The Digital Gallery is searchable and images can be copied, printed directly, or purchased as photographic prints. Images include prints, maps, and postcards as well as many stereograph views of 19th-century Boston. View website.
The use of this resource is restricted to members of the MIT community with the exception of the “Perceptual Form of the City” project that documents Boston during the 1950s era of urban renewal. Images can be copied. View Website.
The photograph and postcard collections can be searched from the Online Catalog. Reproductions can be purchased through the Society. View Website.
The website includes an extensive collection of images of buildings in Dorchester, including houses, streetscapes, churches, institutions, landmarks and maps. All images may be copied in low resolution.View Website.
The Jamaica Plain Historical Society
Photo Gallery: Many historic images of Jamaica Plain can be found here in addition to photos taken in the 1970s-1990s. Images include landscapes, streetscapes, businesses, churches, institutions, and some residential properties. View Website.
Photographic House Reference Series: This collection of photographs of Jamaica Plain residences and other buildings was taken by Mark Bulger in the summer and fall of 2008. View Website.
Wikipedia contains maps of Boston and a number of images of modern architecture ad well a older landmarks. All images can be downloaded in high resolution and are in the public domain and freely usable. View Website
Free, downloadable high-resolution stock images are available from FreeFoto.com. The images are free to use online, providing that the photo is credited and linked back to their site. The images are free to use in non-commercial offline settings, such as for school projects. View website.
700 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02116
Print Department - (617) 859-2280
Among the strengths of the Department is the Boston Pictorial Archive, the largest public collections of photographs of Boston in earlier days. Documentary collections of photographs, including the old Boston Herald Traveler morgue of 500,000 photographs from 1920 to 1972 and the Boston Pictorial Archive, are extensive.
- Boston Pictorial Archive: A collection of photographs, lithographs, engravings and other media of Boston subjects including buildings, street scenes, parks and events from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The bulk of the collection spans the years from 1860 to 1930.
- Boston Postcard Collection: Postcards donated by collector William Crane and others containing images of Boston architecture and advertisements of Boston businesses.
Fine Arts Department - (617) 859-2275
The Fine Arts Department houses special collections that document art, architecture and the decorative arts with special focus on Boston and New England.
- Boston Picture File: The file contains photographs and clippings describing Boston buildings, parks, monuments, streets, etc. Material in this file has been indexed in the Boston Architecture Reference File. A postcard collection of about 1,500 items depicting Boston buildings is also part of this pictorial archive.
The Historical Society's archives include approximately 3,000 digitized images taken in 1972 of all extant properties in the South End. The images are not available on line but are available for purchase in jpeg format. To view thumbprint images contact the SEHS offices at 617-536-4445 or email@example.com.
For more information on researching photographs:
Researching Photographs | PDF
Building History Databases and Files
Massachusetts Historical Commission
The Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS) is the Massachusetts Historical Commission's database of historic buildings in Boston. The search results may include type of building, architect, year built, address, and style. Search using any of these pieces of information.
Boston Public Library, Boston Architecture Reference File
The file is part housed in the Fine Arts Department and includes a card index of references to written descriptions, critiques, histories, illustrations, renderings, and plans of Boston buildings and their architects. Most references in this index are to published sources, although they may refer to original photographs, architectural drawings, and other unpublished materials held in the collections of the Boston Public Library and other libraries.
The Boston Landmarks Commission Cultural Resource Inventory
The Boston Landmarks Commission's Cultural Resource Inventory includes approximately 10,000-15,000 survey forms for buildings and sites located throughout the City of Boston. An average of 10% of buildings in Boston's neighborhoods have been surveyed, resulting in survey forms for buildings of particular architectural and/or historical significance as well as those buildings that are representative of the area. Comprehensive surveys exist for the Central Business District and Theater District.
An appointment is not required to review these documents, but it is suggested that you contact BLC staff at (617) 635-3850 or BLC@cityofboston.gov prior to visiting City Hall to discuss the information that you are interested in reviewing and to confirm that staff will be available to assist you.
The Inspectional Services Department has digitized permits dating as far back as the 1870s that are available on their website. This resource includes permits submitted for work to be performed on buildings, as well as permits to build structures. Owners are usually listed. Street names may have changed.
Ownership History of Buildings and Building Lots
Edward Brooke Court House
24 New Chardon Street
Boston, MA 02114
The Registry of Deeds is responsible for recording all documents relative to real estate including deeds, mortgages, releases, and liens in the cities and towns of Boston, Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop. Assessor plans detailing lot divisions are available online. To locate a plan follow these steps:
- Determine the ward the property is located in.
Wards are listed on the Registry's website. A more detailed listing of wards by street name is available in the form of a large PDF.
- Visit this website. Click on the ward number, click on the street name of the property to download a file that shows the breakdown of streets.
- The plan numbers are in the right-hand column. Return to the Suffolk Country Registry of Deeds site for your ward, and click on the corresponding plan number on the bottom of the page.
Historic Atlases of Boston are available for download on the Registry's website.
Historical atlases document historic ownership of land plots. They can be useful in tracing changes in address or street name. Among other places, atlases can be found at the Inspectional Service Department, the Bostonian Society, the Boston Athenaeum, and the Copley Branch of the Boston Public Library. For more information about Boston Atlases:
Boston Atlases – Local Library Holdings | PDF
Maps can provide some of the best clues to help learn more about what has occurred in a certain area over time. A collection of maps from different years, compared side by side, will give you a visual idea of how an area has grown and developed.
Boston and its annexed neighborhoods have a few early maps available to consult. Some of these maps show early settlements and villages throughout Dorchester and Roxbury, and many even show birds-eye views of what the villages looked like or where specific buildings were located. However, some of the most useful maps that we use today are the fire insurance maps that were published between about 1870-1970. As much of the built environment that we deal with today was built during that time period, these maps can provide very good idea of how our districts have grown over the past 140 years. For the Boston area, both Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps and Bromley Atlas maps are widely available. These maps feature detailed information, so the researcher can discern:
- Street patterns and the transformation of the shape of the district over time
- Color-coded for different building materials (i.e. brick buildings appear as pink, yellow denotes wood)
- Lot lines
- Size, shape and use of buildings (which allows the researcher to understand how the buildings changed over time with different additions, out buildings, etc.)
Information on maps was provided by Shelby Larsson, Historic Boston Incorporated. For information about finding historic maps online:
Finding Historic Maps Online | PDF
Researching the deeds for a given property can produce a very detailed snapshot of its history and the parcel of land on which it sits. One can find information about the people who owned the building, how long they may have owned it, and the value of the building throughout its existence. While there are some deeds online (searchable by county), most of these are from the past twenty or thirty years.
Deed research can be very time consuming. Therefore, it is recommended that you do this work only when you need to find out very specific information about a transaction such as charges of ownership, liens, foreclosure, etc. Deeds are organized chronologically by the date of their being registered, and each document is assigned a book and page number.
The Suffolk County registry of deeds is in the basement of the courthouse located at 24 New Chardon Street (near City Hall Plaza and the Haymarket Orange Line Station). The very old deeds (1629-1800) are kept at the Massachusetts State Archives, on Columbia Point in Dorchester (near UMass Boston).
There are some communities in Boston that were once located in Norfolk County, so if you do embark on a deed research project, you may find that some documents (particularly the very historic ones) might be located at their courthouse in Dedham, MA.
Information on deeds was provided by Shelby Larsson, Historic Boston Incorporated.
The city directories contain lists of residents that are sorted by both names and addresses. Many directories also include lists of businesses, churches, city offices, etc. The directories can offer richly detailed information about residents’ occupations, home ownership, city government, immigration trends, populations, civic organizations, and commerce. Advertisements throughout the directories provide a history of commerce, advertising, and manufacturing.
Special Collections in the State Library of Massachusetts, housed in the State House on Beacon Street, contains a large collection of city directories that date from the first Boston directory of 1789 and cover most Massachusetts communities. The last Boston directory was published in 1981. Around this time directories for other Massachusetts cities and towns cease to be published, supplanted by the telephone book as a listing for a town's residents, businesses, organizations, and services. Directories contain a list of persons, organized by last name, residing in a town or city. However, some directories (including "Blue Books") do have house guides, which contain listings by address and not individual. The website can be found here.
The main branch of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square has most (if not all) of the printed directories in the microtext room (off the courtyard in the McKim Building).
Tufts University has also put out a great resource online, called Boston Streets. Boston Streets combines three heavily used resources in historical research libraries: photographs, maps, and city directories. The website can be accessed here.
Nine Boston city directories (1845, 1855, 1865, 1870, 1872, 19875, 1885, 1905, and 1925) are included in the Boston Streets Collection. Entries include a person or organization’s name, occupation or organizational focus, commercial and residential address within Boston, and in surrounding towns and cities. The directories always work the best if you are searching by last name of an individual person, as that is how the directories are organized. However, with this information available online in a searchable format, there is more potential for success if you are researching the history of a building. You can search for an address and then use the “Find” feature on your computer to search for the specific mention of the address among those listed. For more information on searching for directory information on this website:
Searching Boston City Directories | PDF
Although not helpful for Boston neighborhoods, a good online resource about downtown Boston, is the website called Damrell’s Fire, which provides a great deal of information about the Boston Fire of 1872 and the years following during which the area was rebuilt. The website, which was created alongside the debut of a film that was made about the fire, has extensive information about the event, those involved, and the buildings that burned. This website includes fire insurance maps, plans of the burned district, and great photographs related to the fire. This website also is another source for electronic versions of the Boston City Directories from 1845 to 1875.
Information on City Directories was provided by Shelby Larsson, Historic Boston Incorporated.
The City of Boston has digitized all of their existing building permits and created a useful online tool to access building permit records since 1872 (the records prior to 1872 were destroyed by the Great Fire). However, since most of Boston’s existing building stock was built after the 1870s, we can glean a large amount of information from these records.
Using building permits to research buildings can be very informative and augment maps in understanding how buildings have changed over time, whether additions have been built or drastic changes made to the building’s exterior, and even information about the building’s uses. For residential buildings, one can often find information concerning conversion from a single family home to a multiple family home or the conversion to a boarding house or condominiums, which together with information about surrounding buildings can tell you a lot about the neighborhood at large. For a commercial building, one could find out that a building once used as an apothecary was transformed into a restaurant when a building permit was issued to construct a commercial kitchen. A building permit can indicate when electricity was first installed or when modern plumbing was added. Occasionally, the original permit to construct the building can be found, which can provide the date of construction, the architect, builders, owner, etc., as well as physical information such as building dimensions, construction materials, number of floors, uses, etc. Again, along with research done district-wide, one can learn a great amount about the area through building permit research.
To access City of Boston building permits, go to www.cityofboston.gov/isd, which is the Inspectional Services Department’s page within the City of Boston website. Scroll down to the section that is labeled “Online Services” and click on “Building Permit Search”. While there are many different fields listed on this search engine, the most important are the primary street number and the street name. The street name search can at times be more complicated than one would think—so don’t give up! For example, when searching for 45 School Street (the address of Old City Hall) type “45” in the primary street number and “School” (leaving off the word “Street,” “Place,” “Avenue,” etc.) in the street name. This should be enough information to bring up the records for the building you are searching. In the search for 45 School Street, 327 building permits appeared on the screen. Mark those documents you would like to view, and look through what is there to see if you can learn anything about the building from these permits. If there are only a few permits (i.e., less than ten), you can “Select All” and take a look at them all at once.
As a word of warning, building permits can often take a long amount of time to upload. They are large files and if you try to see too many of them at once, your computer will become very slow. You might want to look at them by selecting them one by one or by small groups, so that you don’t overload your computer. Also, the permits are not arranged in chronological order, so be sure to view all of the documents to see the full range of information.
Information on Building Permits was provided by Shelby Larsson, Historic Boston Incorporated.
City of Boston Assessing Information
The City of Boston Assessing Department has a good online resource where you can learn pivotal information about individual properties throughout Boston. From the assessing information, you can find out the current owner of the property, the parcel number, lot size, assessed value, assessed tax amount, and so on. By clicking through different parcels in your district, you can learn a good deal about the properties. Keep in mind that changes in ownership are rarely entered immediately into the city’s database—it can sometimes take up to a year before such changes appear.
Go to the Assessing Department on the City’s website. Look to the left top corner for the links in the blue box—click on “Assessing Online”, which should take you to a search page. Enter the street number and street name (i.e., 13 in the Street Number and “West” in the Street Name for 13 West Street).
City of Boston Assessing Information was provided by Shelby Larsson, Historic Boston Incorporated.