The Mayor's Office of Arts + Culture for Boston. We foster the growth of the cultural community in Boston and promote participation in the arts.
The Eliot School offers arts and crafts classes for kids and adults in a building that has served as a school for over 300 years. In addition to fine arts education, they offer classes including woodworking, fiber art, sewing, and drop-in figure drawing sessions, as well as some not-so-traditional classes such as “Garments for Gender Performance." The story behind this unique JP institution touches on several interesting themes in Boston’s history.
In 1676, a group of local colonists donated land and corn to build the school. In 1689, Rev. John Eliot endowed the school with an additional seventy-five acres of land, allowing it to expand and house boarding students. The school was then named after him.
Elliot is a complex figure in Massachusetts history, a prominent minister who tried to help Native Americans by converting them to Christianity and assimilating them into colonial culture. He was one of the only colonists to learn an indigenous language and write translations of Christian prayers, documents which have since become invaluable records of the language. He founded a ring of towns around Boston for “Praying Indians” who not only converted to Christianity but gave up nearly every aspect of their Native identity in favor of English customs.
This assimilation approach proved a failure. When King Philip’s War broke out in 1675, Praying Indians were treated like other native people and forcibly relocated to unfamiliar places where few survived. Nevertheless, Eliot may have still seen himself as a champion of people of color in 1689 when he donated land to the Eliot School on the condition that it admit Native Americans and African Americans.
For many years the school served as a public grammar school. In 1874, it left the public school system to focus on arts and crafts. The transition was largely the work of Robert and Ellen Swallow Richards, who lived nearby at 32 Eliot. The couple volunteered at the school and were advocates for including arts and crafts in American education.
Ellen Swallow Richards was the first woman to graduate from MIT and later its first female instructor. Sometimes described as a “practical feminist,” she saw domestic work as a key component of the economy that ought to be researched and taught. She was a pioneer of sanitation and food science, and along with her husband Robert, an engineering professor at MIT, was largely responsible for “home economics” becoming a standard subject in 20th-century American schools.
The Richards and the Eliot school were inspired in part by the Arts and Crafts Movement, an artistic and social movement that sought to preserve traditional crafts and standards of beauty in an era of mass production. It began in England, where its best-known advocate was designer William Morris and was quite influential in Boston in the late 19th century. The movement inspired a handful of specialty publishing houses such as Stone & Kimball, as well as the Society of Arts and Crafts, which still organizes the annual “CraftBoston” show.
Cover photo credit: @eliotschool via Instagram