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New England today

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New England today

The economic evolution of New England paralleled that of the area’s mother country. A period of intense agricultural activity was followed by maritime prosperity and then by industrialization, which formed the backbone of the economy through the 19C and into the 20C. After World War II the region fell into an economic slump, due to the movement of many of its factories to the South. As a result New England turned to new, diversified, high-value industries, such as electronics, as its principal sources of revenue.

New England’s population of 14 million inhabitants is unevenly distributed; the majority live in the southern half of the region, where the largest cities (Boston, Worcester, Providence, Springfield, Hartford and New Haven) are found. The large waves of immigrants who arrived in the 19C brought with them a diversity of cultures that is still reflected in the ethnic character of the population today.



In the 19C profits from trade, shipping and whaling, together with the influx of immigrants from Europe and Canada—which provided the large labor force needed for industrialization—fostered New England’s transformation into one of the world’s leading manufacturing centers.

The Mill Towns

The region’s many waterways compensated for the lack of raw materials and fuel by providing the power necessary to operate factory machinery. Mill towns, supporting factories that specialized in a single product, sprung up on the banks of rivers and streams. Textiles and leather goods were made in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, precision products such as clocks and firearms were manufactured in Connecticut, and machine tools were produced in Vermont. The large manufacturing centers in the Merrimack Valley— Lowell , Lawrence and Manchester —developed into world leaders in textile production. Strings of brick factories, dwellings and stores still dominate these cities.

During the 20C most of these industries moved south to the Sun Belt, but the region remained a leader in the manufacture of woolen cloth. The production of machine tools and fabricated metals has now replaced textiles, and the shoe industry is important in New Hampshire and Maine.

The New Industries

The rebirth of New England after World War II was linked to the development of its research-oriented industries, which could draw on the region’s excellent educational institutions and highly trained personnel. These new industries, located essentially in the Boston area (on Rte. 128), in southern New Hampshire and in Hartford, contributed to advances made in space and computer technology and electronics. Their existence gave rise to the production of high-value goods, such as information systems, precision instruments and electronic components, and provided an increasing number of jobs. Boston , known for its medical research firms, is also home to producers of medical instruments and artificial organs.


Despite the poor soil and rocky, hilly terrain, subsistence farming was an important activity until the mid-19C. In the spring settlers cleared land to ready it for planting. The mounds of rock they removed from the soil were used to build the low stone walls that appear to ramble aimlessly through the woods. Farming reached a peak in New England between 1830 and 1880 with 60 percent of the region under cultivation. After 1880 the opening of the fertile plains south of the Great Lakes drew farmers westward. They abandoned their farms, and the forests gradually reclaimed the land. Today only 6 percent of the surface of New England continues to be devoted to agriculture, while 70 percent of the region’s land (90 percent in Maine and 80 percent in New Hampshire) remains covered with woodlands. Despite this fact, certain areas have been successful in cultivating single-crop specialties.

Dairy and Poultry Farming

The major portion of income from agriculture is provided by dairy and poultry farming. The region’s dairy farms supply milk products to the sprawling urban areas of southern New England. Dairy farms, well suited to the terrain, predominate in Vermont, where large red barns with their shiny aluminum silos dominate the landscape.

Poultry farming is practised throughout the region. Connecticut and Rhode Island focus on raising chickens. In fact, Rhode Island is famous for raising a breed of chicken called the Rhode Island Red.

Specialty Crops

Shade-grown tobacco is raised in the fertile Connecticut River Valley. Firm and broad-leafed, this tobacco, grown beneath a layer of netting and hung in large sheds to dry, is used as the outer wrapping of cigars. Fruit is cultivated in many areas: Apple, peach, and pear orchards extend along the banks of Lake Champlain and abound on the sunny slopes of New Hampshire, in the Connecticut and Nashua valleys and in Rhode Island. Maine leads all other states in production of lowbush blueberries , and the sandy bogs on Cape Cod and in nearby areas yield the nation’s largest crop of cranberries , the small, red berries traditionally served as part of the Thanksgiving Day feast.

Maine’s other specialty crop is potatoes, grown in the fertile soil of Aroostook County. The state’s potato industry ranks in the top ten in the nation.


Despite the enormous area that they cover, New England’s deciduous and coniferous forests are not significant as sources of income because of large-scale deforestation of the region throughout the 19C. Today vast tracts of land are under federal and state protection. Only the commercial timberlands owned by the large paper companies in northern Maine and New Hampshire constitute important sources of revenue. A major portion of the timber harvested is processed into wood pulp for the mills in Maine and New Hampshire, with Maine’s factories ranking among the world’s leading paper producers. Other plants and mills transform timber into a variety of wood products, including lumber, veneer, furniture and boxes. The production of maple syrup is a traditional springtime activity in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.


As early as the 15C, European fishermen were drawn to the rich fishing grounds off the coast of New England. These shallow, sandy banks (such as George’s Bank), extending 1,500mi east-to-west off Cape Cod, teemed with fish. The fishing industry was so vital to New England that fishermen were exempt from military service, and Massachusetts Bay Colony adopted the cod as its symbol.

Commercial fishing has been especially important to the ports of Gloucester, New Bedford, and Boston. Modern techniques of filleting, freezing and packaging fish, and larger, more efficient vessels have made New England a leader in the packaged and frozen seafood industry. However, the region’s fishing industry has seen dramatic curtailment over the past three decades, stemming from over fishing (particularly of cod, flounder, tuna, and haddock), pollution and insufficient conservation. More recently, stringent federal regulations have been proposed to reduce stock depletion.

Lobstering ranks as an activity approaching an art in Maine, where it is practised by thousands of Down East lobstermen, who can often be observed in a variety of craft, checking their traps in the offshore waters. Maine lobster is a delicacy that is shipped to markets across the nation.


Insurance has been an important business in New England since the 18C, when investors offered to underwrite the risks involved in international shipping. With the decline of sea trade, the insurance industry expanded to include losses due to fire, and the center of the industry shifted inland. Hartford, Connecticut, a national insurance center, is the seat of a substantial number of insurance companies. The modern office towers built in Boston to serve as headquarters of the John Hancock and Prudential insurance companies are the tallest structures in New England, symbolizing the importance of this industry to the economy.


Traditionally renowned as a national center of culture and learning, New England is home to four prestigious Ivy League universities (Harvard, Yale, Brown and Dartmouth) and two choice preparatory schools (Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, and Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts). The concentration of schools, academies and some 258 institutions of higher learning in the six-state area makes education a significant contributor to the economy. Small businesses in cities (Worcester, New Haven, Providence) and towns (Middlebury, Hanover, Brunswick, Amherst) depend on the revenue generated by the schools within their borders. In Massachusetts, the state’s 80 private colleges alone have generated $10 billion in revenue.


Tourism ranks with manufacturing as one of New England’s major industries. Mountain and seaside resorts in New England have been welcoming visitors for over a century, and with the growing popularity of winter sports since the 1940s, the region has developed into a year-round vacation area. Fine handicrafts, fashioned by artisans working in New Hampshire, Vermont and along the coast, abound throughout New England. Their sale depends to a great extent on tourists.


The New England town is the base for local government in all six states. Only about five percent of the region‘s municipalities are cities. Towns are legally incorporated and have similar power of cities in other states. Nearly all land in New England falls under the jurisdiction of a town, and many towns date back to early colonial times. Characteristic of the strong independent streak of New Englanders, towns have a lot of autonomy, giving residents a strong voice in local affairs. Town meetings, based on earlier meetings held by local church elders, are still the basis of government in many towns. Citizens are invited to the meetings to discuss and vote on issues. A show of hands may still be the method of voting in some small towns in New England. But in recent times, many towns have adopted other forms of government, too.

Eight presidents of the United States have been born in New England, including John Adams (Massachusetts), John Quincy Adams (Massachusetts), Franklin Pierce (New Hampshire), Chester A. Arthur (Vermont), Calvin Coolidge (Vermont), John F. Kennedy (Massachusetts), George H. W. Bush (Massachusetts) and George W. Bush (Connecticut).

Today, the Democratic Party is the dominant party in New England and the region is known for its liberal tendencies. Vermont was the first state in the nation to allow civil unions with same sex couples. Massachusetts was the first to allow same sex marriages. Some form of same-sex unions exist in all New England states except Rhode Island.

New Hampshire boasts the largest state legislature (400) in the country and is one of only two states that limit its governor to a two-year term. The Live Free or Die state is also known for its first in the nation presidential primary. Since 1920, New Hampshire has hosted the first primary, according to the tenets set out in its state Constitution. Tiny Dixville Notch in northern New Hampshire, with a population of 74, has gained international recognition for being the first in the nation to vote in the Presidential primaries and general elections. Eligible voters gather at midnight on election day to cast their ballots.


The Indians of the Algonquian Nation were the first to inhabit the region. They were woodland Indians, who farmed, hunted, fished and camped along the coast. The largest group, the Narra­gansett tribe of Rhode Island, was virtually wiped out by the English colonists in the Great Swamp Fight during King Philips War . Similarly the Pequot tribe of Connecticut was decimated by colonists and enemy tribes in the Pequot War of 1637. Today the Mashantucket Pequot Indians operate a number of successful enterprises near Mystic. Present-day descendants of the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes live on reservations at Pleasant Point and Old Town in Maine. Members of the Wampanoag tribe make their home on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard.

Descendants of the 17C and 18C Puritan settlers dominated New England’s population until the mid-19C. Hard work, frugality and “Yankee ingenuity”—the talent for making the best of any situation—characterized these early New Englanders, some of whom amassed great fortunes in trade and shipping, and later in industry and finance.

The population remained basically homogeneous until the 1840s, when the potato famine in Ireland caused thousands of Irish to emigrate to New England, where they found work in the mills. The Italians followed in the 1870s, and at the end of the 19C French Canadians , attracted by jobs in the region’s factories, began to settle here. Communities of Portuguese fishermen from the Azores developed in coastal ports such as Gloucester, Provincetown, and Quincy, while successive waves of immigrants brought Swedes , Russians , and other Eastern Europeans to the cities and factory towns. As Boston’s African-American community vacated the North End for Beacon Hill, the Irish, followed by the Jews and eventually the Italians, made the North End their home. Each ethnic group formed its own cohesive neighborhood, where the unity of language, culture and religion drew them together. Irish, Italians, and Jews tended to settle in or near the large cities, while the Portuguese continue to reside in the coastal areas. French names are common in northern New England, where French Canadians form a significant part of the population. The majority of the region’s black and Hispanic populations reside in southern New England.


Religious freedom and diversity have been the foundation of New England society since the first immigrants settled in the region in the 1600s. The Pilgrims left England so they could believe and worship as they wished. The Puritans, who demanded a strict reading of the Bible, followed. It wasn‘t long, however, before the colonists were disagreeing among themselves. Fortunately, the New World had plenty of space, so when two theologians couldn‘t agree, one of them just left town and set up a new church and congregation in another area. That‘s what Roger Williams did when he founded Providence, Rhode Island. A strong believer in tolerance of all religious beliefs, Williams welcomed many different congregations.

The 19th century transcendental movement was started in New England, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and others, who believed that God existed within everyone and true happiness and harmony could only be achieved by understanding and communing with nature. This was the catalyst for Thoreau‘s life in the woods, as described in Walden Pond. Today, visitors can learn more about the movement and its philosophers by visiting Concord, Massachusetts, to tour Walden Pond and visit the homes of noted authors like Emerson, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott.

The Shakers were also present in New England, organizing into small, closed communities, devoted to celibacy, hard work and pious living. The Shakers separated themselves from the rest of society so they could live and worship in peace without outside influences. They worked diligently, believing that hard work was a holy act. Shaker designs, including baskets, furniture, and more, are still sought after and admired. To learn more about the Shaker religion , community and lifestyle, visit Hancock Shaker Village in western Massachusetts, Canterbury Shaker Village near Concord, New Hampshire, and the Shaker Village at Sabbathday Lake in Maine. Today, there are only a few people still devoted to the Shaker life and religion, living at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village.

One of the better known New England religions is Christian Science. Founder Mary Baker Eddy believed in spiritual, prayer-based Christian healing, available and accessible to everyone. Considered one of the country’s most interesting and powerful women, she founded The First Church of Christ, Scientist, the Massachusetts Metaphysical College, and the prize-winning Christian Science Monitor newspaper. Today, Christian Science is headquartered in Boston, with branch churches in more than 65 countries.

Perhaps, one of the most interesting religions flourishing in New England is witchcraft. The seaside town of Salem, Massachusetts, tormented by its fear of witchcraft in the 17C, has become a center for followers of the ancient religion of Wicca.

It started in 1692 when several young girls whose imaginations had been stirred by tales of voodoo told to them by the West Indian slave Tituba, began to have visions and convulsive fits. A local doctor claimed that they were victims of “the evil hand.” The frightened youngsters accused Tituba and two other women of having bewitched them, and the women were put into prison. Fear and panic began to spread through Salem and more than 200 persons were accused of witchcraft, 150 of whom were imprisoned and 19 found guilty and hanged.

Today, Salem makes much of its witchy past, drawing visitors to its Witch Museums and sites. Each year at Halloween, the city hosts Haunted Happenings, a month-long festival that recalls the city’s past. A number of local shops devoted to the occult offer tarot and psychic readings and sell witchcraft items.

Currently, there are several thousand witches living in the area, quietly practising Wicca (a belief system based on goddesses and nature), and attempting to dispel long-held negative opinions concerning witchcraft.

Traditions and Folklore

Like most regions, New England’s traditions center around holidays, seasons, and special events. Come winter, in seaside towns up and down the coast, historic lighthouses are decked in twinkling holiday lights and Santa Claus arrives by boat. In Maine, lobster boats are strung with lights as they bob in the harbors, and single candles are lit in the windows of sea captain homes. In Boston, Christmas caroling in posh Louisburg Square on Beacon Hill is a long-held holiday tradition.

Many major towns across the region host First Night events on New Year’s Eve. New England’s biggest First Night is held in Boston, where the concept originated more than 30 years ago. The alcohol-free event features more than 250 exhibitions and performances by local and internationally recognized artists, and attracts more than 1 million people annually

New Englanders know spring has arrived when the Swan Boats open in the Boston Public Garden. First launched in the 1870s, the beloved swan boats ply the tranquil waters of an artificial pond traversed by a whimsical suspension bridge and bordered by weeping willows. After the boat ride, families visit The Make Way For Ducklings statue grouping in the northeast section of the garden, which re-creates the title of the characters of Robert McCloskey’s classical children’s book.

New England has two additional harbingers of spring: The Boston Marathon and opening day at Fenway Park. The Boston Marathon, held each year on Patriot’s Days (a holiday in New England) is the world’s oldest annual marathon. The first race was held on April 19, 1897 with a starting field of 15 runners. Thousands of spectators line the streets to cheer on the runners and to witness what is widely regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious road races.

A party-like atmosphere and excited anticipation surrounds opening day at Fenway Park. The Red Sox Nation is alive and well throughout New England and opening day is a treasured event. There‘s no escaping the chatter and predictions from faithful fans, and you can count on TVs and radios throughout the region to be tuned in. Even if you can‘t snag tickets to the game, you can visit Boston‘s beloved ballpark. Opened in 1912, the Fenway is the smallest park in the major league. Tours are offered Monday through Saturday year-round; if there‘s a home game, the last tour starts three hours before game time.

Festivals are held throughout New England in the summer. One of the biggest events is the Fourth of July celebration in Boston, featuring the annual Boston Pops concert and fireworks. The celebration is free and takes place outdoors on the Esplanade, along the Charles River. Thousands of visitors line the riverfront and boaters clog the waters to see the event. The festival ends with the Pops’ now-classic Independence Day rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” featuring cannons and church bells, and ending with a massive fireworks display.

Come fall, visitors from around the world come to New England for its spectacular foliage. Foliage hotlines are set up in all six New England states to help fall leaf peepers track down the best foliage spots throughout the season. The Sunday drive (or weekend getaway) along some of New England‘s most scenic byways is a popular fall tradition. Some well-traveled routes include the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire, the Mohawk Trail (Rte. 2) in Massachusetts, and driving loops through the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut and Vermont‘s Northeast Kingdom. Other fall traditions include a visit to Salem, Massachusetts, during its legendary, month-long Haunted Happenings event. Site of the infamous Salem witch trials, this city, with an official witch of its own, really knows how to celebrate Halloween! In neighboring state New Hampshire, the city of Keene hosts its annual pumpkin festival, featuring one of the world’s largest collections of jack-o-lanterns. Nearly 25,000 pumpkins, in all shapes, sizes and faces, line town streets and decorate the parks.

Superstitions abound in New England: two-toed cats bring good luck to mariners, and thousands of visitors rub the foot of the John Harvard Statue in Harvard Yard for good luck. If lobstermen find a lumpfish in their trap, they kiss it and toss it over their left shoulder for good luck. Superstitious lobstermen never put the hatch cover on upside down or say the word “pig” on the boat; both are bad luck.

New England is chock-full of ghosts and haunted houses. Most notable haunted places in the region include the 1881 Sise Inn in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the Old Stagecoach Inn in Waterbury, Vermont, the Captain Lord Mansion and Fairfield Inn in Kennebunk, Maine, Longfellow‘s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts, and Old Yarmouth Inn on Cape Cod.

Food and Drink

New England has a well-deserved reputation for simple, hearty fare. In addition to seafood, the region boasts regional specialties ranging from maple syrup and Vermont cheddar cheese to Boston cream pie. Country inns and taverns serve traditional Yankee fare, while waterfront clam shacks and dockside lobster pounds offer the best in seafood dining experiences. In Boston, you’ll find a big-city array of fine restaurants and ethnic food.

Native American traditions

Many local dishes trace their roots to the New England Indians, who were the first to make maple sugar, cranberry sauce , Johnnycakes (fried cornmeal patties) and Indian pudding . Slow-cooked Boston baked beans flavored with molasses and salt pork also derive from a native recipe, as does their traditional accompaniment, brown bread .

Lobster in the rough

New England’s popular crustacean takes center stage, especially in the summer, when it’s best served from steaming kettles, on outdoor decks and picnic areas—preferably in view of the water!

The traditional New England clambake can be a day-long event. Meal preparation begins with digging a pit on the beach, lining it with stones, and then lighting a large wood fire. Once the stones are hot, the cook throws in clams, mussels, corn-on-the-cob, potatoes, onions and lobsters, and covers it all with seaweed and a wet tarp until it’s steamed to perfection.

Fish and Shellfish

Brook trout is a popular freshwater fish, while swordfish and tuna, bluefish and striped bass are saltwater favorites. Blue mussels grow in clusters around shoreline rocks; try them steamed in wine and herbs. Equally popular are clams , harvested by rake from the sandy bottoms of warm-water bays and salt ponds. Fall and winter are the seasons for tiny, delicate bay scallops and oysters . Another Indian custom, the famous New England clambake is served up from a beach-dug pit where potatoes, onions, unhusked corn, chicken, lobsters and clams are layered in seaweed over heated stones for hours of slow steaming.

Chowders and stews

Thought to have originated with settlers from the Channel Islands, chowders are thick, slow-simmered soups traditionally made with milk and vegetables. Corn chowder is a regional specialty. Fish chowder usually features cod or haddock; steamers or quahogs, potatoes and onions—never tomatoes—are key ingredients of clam chowder .

Fresh produce

Seasonal favorites include wild fiddlehead ferns (spring), and strawberries (early summer). Maine is famous for its wild lowbush blueberries. Late summer produces vine-ripened tomatoes, corn on the cob, and pumpkins. In autumn, stop at a pick-your-own orchard for cider and some of the best apples grown in the US.

Maple syrup

Come early spring, maple trees are tapped for sap, which is cooked down into a sweet syrup used for baking and as a topping for pancakes, waffles, and ice cream. Vermont and New Hampshire lead New England in maple syrup production. The best quality is Grade A light amber, followed by Grade A medium and dark ambers.


Massachusetts is the leading grower of cranberries; more than 14,000 acres of cranberry bogs are spread across the southeastern section of the state. You’ll find cranberry juice in a host of creative concoctions, including the popular Cosmopolitan cocktail. Does cranberry juice have medicinal powers? You’ll have plenty of opportunities to test it out.

Micro breweries are scattered throughout New England, including the widely-popular and award-winning Samuel Adams, brewed by the Boston Beer Company since its founding in 1984. Other popular New England brands include Harpoon, New England’s largest craft brewery; Shipyard Brewery out of Portland, Maine; Smuttynose Brewery out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Long Trail Brewery, based in Bridgewater Corners, Vermont.

Finally, at ice cream shops, be sure to order a frappe, if you want a milkshake. If you order a “milkshake,” you’ll get cold milk mixed with a little syrup, containing no ice cream at all.

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