The town of Reading was initially governed by an open town meeting and a board of selectmen, a situation that persisted until the 1940s. In 1693, the town meeting voted to fund public education in Reading, with grants of four pounds for three months school in the town, two pounds for the west end of the town, and one pound for those north of the Ipswich River. In 1769, the meeting house was constructed, in the area which is now the Common in Reading. A stone marker commemorates the site.
Reading played an active role in the American Revolutionary War. Minutemen were prominently involved in the engagements pursuing the retreating British Army after the battles of Lexington and Concord. John Brooks, later to become Governor of Massachusetts, was captain of the Fourth Company of Minute and subsequently served at the Battle of White Plains and at Valley Forge. Only one Reading soldier was killed in action during the Revolution; Joshua Eaton died in the Battle of Saratoga in 1777.
In 1791, sixty members started the Federal Library. This was a subscription Library with each member paying $1.00 to join, and annual dues of $.25. The Town's public library was created in 1868.
The Andover-Medford Turnpike was built by a private corporation in 1806-7. This road, now known as Massachusetts Route 28, provided the citizens of Reading with a better means of travel to the Boston area. In 1845, the Boston and Maine Railroad came to Reading and improved the access to Boston, and the southern markets. During the first half of the nineteen century, Reading became a manufacturing town. Sylvester Harnden's furniture factory, Daniel Pratt's clock factory, and Samuel Pierce's organ pipe factory were major businesses. By the mid 1800s, Reading had thirteen establishments that manufactured chairs and cabinets. The making of shoes began as a cottage industry and expanded to large factories. Neckties were manufactured here for about ninety years. During and after Civil War the southern markets for Reading's products declined and several of its factories closed. For many years, Reading was an important casket manufacturing center.
During the Civil War, members of the Richardson Light Guard of South Reading fought at the First Battle of Bull Run. A second company was formed as part of the Army of the Potomac, and a third company joined General Bank's expedition in Louisiana. A total of 411 men from Reading fought in the Civil War, of whom 15 died in action and 33 died of wounds and sickness. A memorial exists in the Laurel Hill Cemetery commemorating those who died in the Civil War.
In 1944, Reading adopted the representative town meeting model of local government in place of the open town meeting. In 1986, a new charter was adopted by the towns voters. This retained the representative town meeting and board of selectmen, but focused policy and decision making in a smaller number of elected boards and committees whilst providing for the employment of a town manager to be responsible for day to day operations of the local government.
Basketball player Bill Russell lived in Reading in the 1960s next to a gas station on Main Street, but later moved to another part of town. Due to his race, vandals broke into the basketball player's home and damaged his property, and his residency was petitioned against by a small group of townspeople. Russell left Reading after several years.
Reading town officials raised a national controversy in the late 1970s when they refused to grant a common victulators license to the Sambo's restaurant chain on the ground that its name was based on racial stereotyping. A Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the chain, but the restaurant opened and failed. The chain subsequently filed for bankruptcy protection and liquidated its assets in the Eastern United States.
In recent years the town of Reading struggled with the decisions to build a new elementary school, to cope with the influx of new families to the community, and renovate the severely aging Reading Memorial High School. Both of these projects were approved and as of August 2007 the new building at the High School is completed.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the town has a total area of 9.9 square miles (25.7 km²).None of the area is covered with water.
There were 8,688 households out of which 36.7% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 63.5% were married couples living together, 8.3% had a female householder with no husband present, and 25.9% were non-families. 22.4% of all households were made up of individuals and 9.9% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.71 and the average family size was 3.22.
In the town the population was spread out with 26.3% under the age of 18, 5.1% from 18 to 24, 29.8% from 25 to 44, 24.6% from 45 to 64, and 14.2% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 39 years. For every 100 females there were 93.2 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 88.3 males.
The median income for a household in the town was $77,059, and the median income for a family was $89,076. Males had a median income of $61,117 versus $39,817 for females. The per capita income for the town was $32,888. About 1.7% of families and 2.6% of the population were below the poverty line, including 2.7% of those under age 18 and 3.2% of those age 65 or over.
The town meeting in turn elects a five member board of selectmen, who serve for overlapping three year terms. The selectmen are responsible for calling the elections for the town meeting, and for calling town meetings. They initiate legislative policy by proposing legislative changes to the town meeting, and then implement the votes subsequently adopted. The also review fiscal guidelines for the annual operating budget and capital improvements program and make recommendations on these to the town meeting. In addition the board serves as the local road commissioners and licensing board, and appoints members to most of the town's other boards, committees, and commissions.
The day to day running of the town government is the responsibility of a town manager, appointed by the board of selectmen.