The Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum

A very long time ago…fall 1999 to be exact, I was working at a hotel in downtown Boston at the front desk.  This is a thankless job, full of mind numbingly boring tasks, customer service to people who thought paying $200 a night for a Boston hotel room gave them the right to verbally abuse us (and ask us stupid questions like “can you turn off the lightening” when it disturbed their sleep–true story), standing for hours on end, not being allowed to look at anything but the ugly floral arrangements and carpeting in the lobby when there were no guests around (even though no one would see a People magazine if I had it on the counter), and the itchiest uniforms it’s ever been my dubious honor to wear.  I needed a new job.

Through a friend (although the connection of how this happened is a bit murky to me now) I ended up working at the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum, which was docked between South Station and the Boston Children’s Museum.  Yes, docked.  It was a replica ship floating next to a museum (which was also floating).  Guests entered next to the gift shop, and walked down to the first level (which was not floating, but a “town hall” on stilts” where every half hour we costumed tour guides (in our lovely British accents) would first rile them up in a “town hall meeting” and then lead them down the gangplank to the ship where we would re-enact the Tea Party.  Then they’d wander through the museum and ship, back up to the gift shop, buy some stuff, and be on their way.

At the time, the Tea Party Ship & Museum was owned by one of the trolley companies, Old Town Trolley.

OTT ticket booth

I’m guessing my history major and theater background (and knowledge of how to get to touristy places in Boston) helped me nail the job.  Soon I thought nothing of going to work and tossing a shift, corset and skirt over my jeans and t-shirt.  I discovered that my Doc Marten knock offs made excellent “18th century” boots if you didn’t get too close a look at them (or see them at all).  I wore a hat.  I used a ludicrous (if credible, if the British tourists were to be believed) British accent. I memorized the scripting.  I sold tickets.  I cursed my manager for not letting me use an umbrella because “it’s not period.”

In the town meeting we’d get them riled up about taxes (not exactly hard).  The best was when we were required to go into a melodramatic bemoaning of the tea tax, and what could we ever do without our TEA?  We would gesticulate and declare that a day without tea was like a day without…(and indicate that we were so overwhelmed by emotion that the audience would need to finish the sentence).  Our arm would be outstretched to indicate the sunshine (always great when it was pouring or snowing, but whatever) but my favorite answer was when a seven year old followed my outstretched arm and saw the Children’s Museum…atop which was a giant Arthur cartoon balloon…”Arthur???” she asked with absolute seriousness.  It was hard to keep a straight face that time.  The time I lost it was a college group when an obvious frat boy yelled out “orgasms?”

We’d lead them through the options and always decide that we’d….throw the 342 chests (note, there were two onboard) into the ocean.

At this point, being a tour guide was like getting first hand lessons about mob mentality, and learning to use it to my advantage to  play a fun tour guide trick on the tour groups…you’d get them chanting with you…you’d call out “dump the tea” and they’d yell “Into the sea”…do this for several moments and then call out “follow me” and inevitably they’d answer back “Into the sea” at which point the guide would spin around and thank them for their devotion to THE CAUSE.

You’d follow me onto the ship where I’d climb atop something so everyone could see me.  I’d lead them in the dumping of the tea (they were giant painted styrofoam chests attached via rope to the side of the ship…and if it was a school group you had to pull the chests up a few times to let them get turns, which was not a favorite thing of mine in the middle of November when it was frigid…cold water dripping on me didn’t help).  Then I’d talk about the consequences and finish with some spiel about how the Boston Tea Party was the REAL start of the American Revolution, because without the Tea Party then X, Y and Lexington & Concord would never have happened.

Sorry, this is the only clip I could find.  I remember the re-enactor, but not his name.

Speaking of the ship, it was a replica of one of the three ships that housed the tea…and had the unfortunate name of The Beaver.  I’m not even going to bother telling you the dirty jokes upon dirty jokes that were made over that sad fact. (For the non-locals…beaver is slang for a woman’s genitals).

We did a lot of posing for pictures, answering questions, and other nonsense.

In a lot of ways, it was probably one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had.  Sure, I made less than I did at the hotels, but there were never really dull moments.  I mostly liked my co-workers, and we could stand and chat if there weren’t guests around.  Running to the McDonald’s at either the Children’s Museum or South Station was always…an experience.  Costumed tour guides aren’t that strange a sight in Boston, but you feel like an idiot walking down the street or standing in line at McDonald’s dressed like one.

We ended the season on the anniversary of the Tea Party (Dec 16th) and most of us worked in other capacities for Old Town Trolley over the winter (I sold Trolley Tickets…which was far less fun).  We opened in April-ish (March-ish?).  But sadly it was a fairly short-lived job.  I only worked one year before getting tired of being outside in all kinds of weather (I had a LOT of colds that year), and once I moved off-campus I needed a better job to help pay my rent.  Plus I’d kind of dated and broken up with the assistant manager…which was not among the wiser life choices I’ve ever made.  Working with your ex, particularly when they’re technically your boss…is AWKWARD.

Somewhere I have a hard copy picture of me in my little Tea Party get-up, but not as a digital file.  If I stumble across it while I’m home, of course I’ll post it.  The closest thing I do have to a “picture” of me is an illustration from the children’s book “You can’t take a balloon into the Museum of Fine Arts.”  The author/illustrator came to the museum one day that I happened to be in the ticket booth.  They asked if they could take pictures of me since I wasn’t super busy, and my boss said sure. I had a blast talking to them, and was pretty flattered (even though it was just dumb luck).  They gave the girl from the Tea Party my skirt/corset and my fake Doc Marten boots (and she’s a brunette with blue eyes like me, too).

That’s me on the back of the baseball player in the blue skirt and white cap.

Sadly, the Tea Party had a fire in the gift shop during a renovation sometime in the 2007, which caused them to have to shut the entire operation down.  Today, there’s a website for the attraction that says it will open (bigger and better) in Mid-2012 at its old location of the Congress Street Bridge.  I hope they do manage to re-open and re-vitalize it.  It was a blast working there, and I’d love to take Ellie when she’s old enough (maybe 2013, when she’s 4 going on 5?)

Interesting side note–While the Tea Party Ship and Museum has always been located on the Congress St Bridge (since the 70’s), the ACTUAL site of the Tea Party was a good 100 feet north up Congress St…in the middle of what is now a tunnel.  We were told, as tour guides, that there is a small plaque somewhere in the tunnel to commemorate the EXACT site.  However, I’m not risking my life and limbs to find out if that’s true or just a work-fueled urban legend.  It is true, however, that the waterfront was pushed back between 1773 and 1973, so do with that info what you will.

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2 Responses to The Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum

  1. Zach Woods says:

    Well fancy that!

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