Downtown View:Ducklings Then and Now

By Karen Cord Taylor

Duckling Day is coming up. On Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 8, starting at 10 a.m., the Harvard Marching Band will lead hundreds of parents and children dressed like ducklings from the Boston Common’s Parkman Bandstand into the Public Garden in a re-creation—sort of—of Mrs. Mallard’s trip to the Public Garden with her eight ducklings. (Mrs. Mallard led her babies from the Esplanade, but she wouldn’t be able to get across Storrow Drive now.)

The parade ends up near the beloved duckling statues, created by sculptor Nancy Schön in 1987.

You can participate in Duckling Day, either by taking your children or grandchildren or by volunteering. If you decide not to do so, you still might want to look at Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, the 1941 book that inspired the duckling statues and the parade. It reveals a Boston of 75 years ago. It describes a fumbling father duck who is only partially engaged and a smart, inventive mother duck who runs her family with confidence and discipline. Were fathers like this in the 1940s? Mine wasn’t, but I can’t know what other fathers were like.

Mr. Mallard’s disengagement would be frowned upon in today’s families, whose dads are expected to be involved. Mr. Mallard reveals poor judgment, such as in his suggestions that the family build their nest near turtles and foxes, which are predators, Mrs. Mallard reminds him.

Mrs. Mallard finds a safe, protected spot on an island in the Charles River, lays her eggs and then sits on them with little help from their father. Just after the ducklings hatch, Mr. Mallard decides to take a week-long jaunt, leaving Mrs. Mallard with all the responsibility for the newborns. How do you think that would go over with new human mothers in today’s world?

McCloskey not only portrays a different kind of father, but his drawings show a different physical world. He provides a faithful representation of Boston in 1941. The Esplanade has no Storrow Drive so the policeman, Michael, can easily stop traffic on the slower street that Storrow Drive replaced. Bicycle riding in the Public Garden, which scared off Mrs. Mallard when she was contemplating her newborn ducklings’ safety, was permitted then, but is prohibited now.

         Boston police officers, unlike Michael and Clancy, are no longer all Irish, nor are they all men. Streets that were two-ways in the 1940s are now one one-way. McCloskey’s drawings show the real shops on Charles Street in the 1940s. What wouldn’t we give for The Corner Bookstore instead of the chain coffee shop that now occupies that space. The drawings show a man sweeping the street. Was Boston cleaner then than it is now?

Some features of Boston, however, are the same. The Public Garden is fully recognizable, right down to the handsome bridge over the lagoon and the Swan Boats. The Longfellow Bridge is in its right place, although the Cambridge side of the river was more industrial than it is now. Louisburg Square hasn’t changed. On one page a bottle floats in the Charles River. I’m sure you can still find a bottle or two in the river, even though it has been mercifully cleaned up since the 1940s.

After almost 30 years, the duckling statues are still one of the most visited attractions in Boston. It is always wonderful to walk by and watch happy little children playing on the ducklings. Parents still snap photos of the tykes, although, unlike 30 years ago, it is with smartphones instead of cameras.

There is still time to register for the ducklings parade. It costs $35 for a family until May 6 and $40 afterward. Contact the Friends of the Public Garden, the organization that now runs the parade. Amazon.com has duckling costumes.

A photo of the participants of last year's Duckling Day marching through the Boston Common.

A photo of the participants of last year’s Duckling Day marching through the Boston Common.

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