As an intern in the Special Collections department, I am always excited when I learn something new about the collection. A couple days ago, the preservation librarian, Lacy, showed me this key to the city of Boston. She found it in the vault in a collection of medals. When we looked through the collection again, we found another ceremonial key to the city of Lynn that was presented during the city’s tercentennial celebration. Both keys are gold in color with designs representing the city etched on each side. To give an example, the Lynn key has a pair of high heels on the handle to pay homage to the city’s history as a major center in the shoe industry.
Keys like these two are presented by the mayor to honor individuals for their civic services, or personal or career achievements. The tradition of awarding these keys stems from the Middle Ages when walls surrounded cities and travelers entered through gates. The keys represented free and easy entry into the city as well as trust and respect. I was a bit surprised by the size of the keys. When I think of ceremonial presentations I think about comically oversized checks and I expected the keys to be just as big. Each key is about the size of a skeleton key to an old house, but the key is slightly larger than the Lynn key.
I did a little research about keys presented by the mayor of Boston in the City Record. The City Record documents events and news in Boston and the activities of Boston’s mayor. In the 1925 volume, I found several articles concerning events where Mayor James Michael Curley presented keys. Two articles in particular caught my attention. One was a short note from the Chinese General Consul Ziangling Chang, thanking Mayor Curley for his hospitality and the key to his city. The other article described a visit by the Belgian ambassador to Boston. Mayor Curley presented him a key and accepted a Belgian flag in return. If you are interested in conducting further research, I suggest searching local newspapers and the Zimmer Index for articles about key recipients in Boston and other cities.
Marietta Carr, Special Collections Intern