How Some of Boston’s Elite Quietly Transformed Society: Prof. David Goss Tells the Loring Family Story

Today the names Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Rockefeller call to mind prominent institutions and universities. These “robber barons” are famous for dominating the Gilded Age (1870–1890) and the Progressive Era (1890–1920). As depicted in the current HBO Max television show The Gilded Age, these eras saw rapid economic growth but also immense inequality, as social elites concentrated enormous wealth due to booming success in various industries, thus “robbing” the lower classes. The Progressive Era was a push against this corruption to reform society and create support structures for those who needed it.

While most of these elites were based in New York, Boston quietly experienced its own Progressive Era of an entirely different nature. Professor David Goss (history) spent his sabbatical last semester exploring how the Loring family—longstanding financial supporters and trustees of Gordon College—used their wealth to fuel social reforms that helped orphans, widows and immigrants right here on the North Shore.

“There have been few studies done to explore this,” Goss said of his research, which he plans to turn into a book. “The Lorings were unique in that they wanted to establish organizations and societies and institutions that would make life better not just for the wealthy but for the average person.”

An Untold Story

Goss started looking into the Lorings nearly eight years ago, when the son of Caleb Loring Jr., a mentor and friend of his, approached Goss and Donald Daley (’86), Goss’s fellow Gordon alum, friend and colleague. Loring that knew that his family, going back generations, had a long and interesting history in Boston. He was curious about the historical impact of his family, especially four notable siblings: William, Katherine, Louisa and Augustus. Following Daly’s death in 2023, Goss took over the book’s research during his recent sabbatical, gathering the final materials needed to complete the project.

Goss and Daly were surprised to find a treasure trove of correspondence from the Loring family archived at the Harvard Archives, Historic Beverly and the Boston Public Library. It turned out that the Loring family was highly influential in Boston’s social, political and educational spheres. They came to Boston in 1634 and had great success in the maritime industry, then switched to textiles and cordage in the early 1800s. They brushed shoulders with families like the Lawrences, Lowells and Peabodys (sound familiar?) and had connections to people like the father of American psychology, William James, and scientist-naturalist Louis Agassiz. 

The most impressive thing about this family was their impact on others, especially the lower classes. “I would refer to these siblings as ‘progressive conservatives’ or ‘progressive Republicans.’ They were conservative in their political views, but they were socially progressive…because they were concerned with making society better for the people in the Greater Boston area.”

Efforts against Gilded Age Social Issues

The Lorings’ home on Beacon Hill in Boston, as well as their summer residence in Beverly, called Burnside, solidified their influence in the city, the North Shore and beyond. William Loring, an outstanding athlete and law professor at Harvard, also served as an associate justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. His brother Augustus Loring became a Massachusetts state senator.

Sisters Louisa and Katherine Loring were arguably even more remarkable. Neither sister married, a pushback against social norms of the times, and they took on major social projects in leadership roles. Louisa was a musician, poet and writer, penning dozens of hymns for churches to sing.

Katherine helped establish the North Shore Red Cross, the Beverly Public Library, and the Beverly Historical Society (now Historic Beverly). She also founded the first correspondence school in New England that offered college credit for women and was a resident faculty member. Harvard Graduate School wouldn’t accept female students until 1920, but Katherine petitioned Harvard to grant college credits for the courses women took at her school. These were huge accomplishments for women’s suffrage in the Progressive Era. 

The Lorings also took special interest in immigration during the Progressive Era, when there was severe social discrimination against immigrants. Their entire staff was Irish immigrants. In the wake of World War I, when Eastern Europeans—especially persecuted Armenians—fled their homes and came to America, the Lorings started and helped fund housing, food and education initiatives for them through the American Red Cross. At this time the federal government didn’t have social programs to care for these groups. It was up to philanthropists like the Lorings to use their personal funds to support charitable social services and nonprofits.

“The Lorings never publicly discussed their charitable philanthropy. They never publicized their humanitarian accomplishments…they were doing this because their faith and their collective consciences told them that it was, quite simply, the right thing to do,” Goss said. “Interestingly, they appear to fall into that category of American philanthropists described by Dr. Heather D. Curtis in her recent study, Holy Humanitarians.”

Living a Life of Service

Without the Lorings and families like them, Boston and the North Shore would not be the hubs of success and progressive activism they are today. The Lorings’ lives of service impacted thousands of people and innovations across many generations throughout New England.

Goss hopes his book and the story of this family will inform and inspire others to live lives of service regardless of their political or economic background. “One letter I read described how Katherine’s mother, Elizabeth Loring, left her comfy Beacon Hill house on a sweltering night in August to help people who were lying on the grass in the Boston Common because their brick tenement houses were too hot,” Goss said.

“The philanthropy of families like the Lorings show us that wealth and influence don’t always corrupt if you have a conscience to do the right thing. It also shows us that you don’t need to have wealth and connections to make a difference. We just need to help those right in front of us.”