The Knight’s Tale

Every single day this week Geoffrey Chaucer came up in discussion, and only once in class! So it seemed like no coincidence when an old textbook I was consulting for something else entirely reported that on this very day in 1397 he first read the Canterbury Tales at Richard II’s court. I’m not sure this is true, but as Chaucer was already on my mind I indulged myself a bit more. I use many of the Tales in my courses to illustrate various aspects of late medieval culture and society, but I read them for pleasure as well–and a few translated lines from The Knight’s Tale even made their way into my wedding ceremony. This is the tale that my students favor–even as I push the Pardoner and the Franklin on them, but of course their “veray parfit gentil knight” is Heath Ledger! I can’t blame them: I like that movie too, as its egalitarian spirit seems vaguely late medieval (and I prefer blatant anachronism to what passes for “accurate” historical dramas). But The Knight’s Tale and its companion stories were not rediscovered only in the 21st century: every generation seems to have their Chaucer, from the 80+ manuscript versions produced shortly after his death, to William Caxton’s printed versions, seventeenth-century theatrical productions, or the beautiful texts and images of William Blake and William Morris, for as Blake noted in 1809, Chaucer’s characters live age after age. Every age is a Canterbury Pilgrimage; we all pass on, each sustaining one of the characters; nor can a child be born who is not one or other of these characters of Chaucer.”

Knight's Tale Ellesmere

Knight's Tale Caxton BL

Knights Tale Kyngston

Two_Noble_Kinsmen_by_John_Fletcher_William_Shakespeare_1634

William_Blake_-_Chaucer's_Canterbury_Pilgrims 1810

Knight's Tale Kelmscot

Knights Tale 19th

Canterbury Tales 1968

Canterbury Tales 2013 Penguin

Cropped leaf from the  “Ellesmere Chaucer” MS., c. 1400-1405, Huntington Library; page from William Caxton’s 1483 edition, British Library; 1561 edition printed by John Kingston for John Wight; a 1634 theatrical adaptation of the Knight’s Tale by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare; “Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims”, engraved and published by William Blake, 1810; Illustration by Edward Burne-Jones for the “Kelmscott Chaucer”: The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, now newly imprinted. Kelmscott Press, 1896; Illustration by William Clark Appleton from Percy Mackaye’s The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer. A Modern Rendering in Prose, of the Prologue and Ten Tales, New York, 1904; Poster for the “bawdy” musical, 1968, Victoria & Albert Museum; Penguin Clothbound Classic cover by Coralie Bickford-Smith, 2013.


The Carriage Houses of Oliver Street

Salem is rich in historic carriage houses and I’ve posted on them before, but this Oliver Street cluster definitely deserves a spotlight. This short street runs from the Common to Bridge Street, and is named after the diversely prolific Henry Kemble Oliver (1800-1885), who served as mayor of both Salem and Lawrence as well as in various prominent state positions, during which he managed to publish both mathematical and musical compositions. His namesake street features a variety of predominately nineteenth-century buildings, and obviously served as the “back” of larger estates on Washington Square and Winter Street, consequently the carriage houses. The first one below belongs to the impressive White-Lord estate, built on the Common in 1811–as does this beautiful side door (I just love this door–I go out of my way to see it as often as possible). The White-Lord carriage house has recently been converted to a residence while its neighboring structures remain utility outbuildings, but now housing cars rather than carriages, of course.

Oliver Street 1898 Salem Atlas

Oliver Street White Lord House

Oliver Street White Lord Carriage House

Oliver Street on the 1898 Salem Atlas (digitized here); Side Door and carriage house of the Washington-Lord House at 31 Washington Square, Salem, above; Carriage Houses of the Joseph Story House on Winter Street and the White-Silsbee House at 33 Washington Square, both also built in 1811, along (the other side of) Oliver Street, below. As you can see, the Story Carriage House even has its own plaque!

Oliver Street Carriage Houses Salem

Oliver Street Story Carriage House

Oliver Street Carriage House 2

All of these late-Federal brick structures–carriage houses and main houses, were built in the same year: 1811. This happens to be the very same year that the man who crafted material Salem, Samuel McIntire, died. So this year must be the absolute pinnacle of golden-age ascendant Salem, especially as the War of 1812 and its attendant consequences effectively ended Salem’s commercial heyday as a maritime port. A new era began, but these structures seem to have made that transition, and several more, quite smoothly. And here’s one more transitional Oliver Street outbuilding: not a fancy carriage house, but a good old barn, I think, converted into an equally utilitarian garage.

Oliver Street Barn


Two Days of Sun

Two days of sun has resulted in nearly (but not absolutely) all of the snow disappearing from the streets of Salem, so finally I am able to show you colors other than white. It is an early New England spring, so the predominant color out there is brown, and there remain several hills of dirt-covered snow out at the Willows–a striking reminder of just how much of the white stuff we received in February. It will be interesting to see when those hills actually melt: I’m thinking June! But I’ve decided not to show you those: they are impressive, but so dirt-covered they look like actual hills emerging from a muddy parking lot–not pretty. This was a pretty weekend, so I want to capture it by showing pretty (and very random) pictures of things I saw around town as I was simply walking around in the sun, like everyone else, noticing things I had not seen for months. First–one last image of predominate white: it was definitely a cats-seeking-sun kind of weekend.

Sping Cat

Spring 2015 032

Spring 2015 039

Spring First Muster Salem Common

Spring 2015 Muster Salem Common

Spring 2015 014

Orange House Forrester

Orange Houses Salem 038

Spring 2015 008

A Federal Street cat and rope wreath; the First Muster commemoration on Salem Common, colorful houses off the Common and Bridge Street; the view from a Salem Willows house.


A Big Week at the Hawthorne

It must have been a very interesting week for the staff of the Hawthorne Hotel: early on it was a film set, this weekend a paranormal conference called Salem Con 2015 is on site. Strange bedfellows indeed: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and a convention of ghost hunters. Jennifer and Bradley have been in Salem before–or at least their director, David O. Russell was: filming scenes for American Hustle in and around the courthouses on Federal Street. This film, called Joy, will tell the story of “Miracle Mop” founder Joy Mangano (Lawrence) and her rise to fame and fortune, with the help of a Home Shopping Network executive (Cooper). Another Russell favorite, Robert DeNiro, plays Mangano’s father, and I think he was filming here as well. This is really nothing new for the Hawthorne, which has served as the temporary home for a succession of Salem-visiting celebrities for years, from its opening in 1925 to the present. The hotel even had a starring role of sorts, as the stucco-clad “Hawthorne Motor Hotel”, in two episodes of Bewitched in 1970: Samantha and Darrin drive right by the real hotel, turn the corner, and park outside of the Hollywood Hawthorne.

Bewitched Salem Sign

Bewitched still 3

Bewitched Still 2

Still scenes from “The Salem Saga”, Season 7 of Bewitched (1970-71).

No fake Hawthorne for Russell: he was filming in the real thing, although I’m sure the name will not make it into the movie outside of the credits. As is always the case, movie-making requires a lot of stuff, so equipment vans and trucks clogged the Common neighborhood surrounding the hotel. Descending well down the ladder of celebrity—to the very bottom if not below the ground–next up for the hotel is this weekend’s “Salem Con 2015” , at which attendees can“meet some of your favorite paranormal celebrities, see and purchase some of the latest “gadgets”, and investigate beside them [the gadgets?] during the celebrity “Ghost Hunt”. I think I’ll let this event speak for itself, with that line and its lovely poster: such a subtle use of the noose! I have just one closing question: WAS THERE EVER AN EVENT SO APTLY-NAMED?

Hawthorne Salem News

Salem Con

All in a week at the Hawthorne Hotel: Day for night on this past Tuesday, KEN YUSZKUS/Staff photo, Salem News; charming poster for Salem Con 2015.


The Historiscope

I’m fascinated by a visual device produced by Milton Bradley in the later nineteenth century called “The Historiscope:  A Panorama and History of America”. Swann Auction Galleries has one for sale in their upcoming auction. Here’s the description and an image: Printed hand-colored box, 5 1/4 inches tall, 8 1/4 inches wide, 2 1/4 inches deep, with long paper scroll on two spindles within, and mounted on a later(?) painted board; lacking wooden crank pieces and rear cover with caption information, otherwise moderate wear to exterior. The scroll is difficult to turn and has not been examined in full; sold as is. (MRS) [Springfield, MA?]: [Milton Bradley & Co.], circa 1870.

Historiscope Swann Auctions April 14

What fascinates me about this panorama is the early attempt to introduce some interaction into history instruction, although Jennifer Lynn Peterson (in “The Historiscope and the Milton Bradley Company:  Art and Commerce in Nineteenth-century Aesthetic Education, Getty Research Journal, No. 6 (2014): 175-184) informs me that each box came with a script, an “eight-page dramatic description of all the images in the moving panorama, characterized by a lively tone and filled with numerous attempts at humor”. So maybe it was a rather one-way “show”. The other thing that interests me is what the selective/reflective nature of this lens: any historiscope much necessarily reflect the society which produces it rather than the “history” which it purports to reveal. If we could turn the scroll of this Swann lot, we would see 25 iconic images of early American history, including the landing of Columbus in the West Indies, Pocahontas and John Smith, the Pilgrims’ arrival in Massachusetts, and Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. (Another contemporary Milton Bradley product, the Myriopticon, focuses solely on scenes from the Civil War, or “Rebellion”). Would the same scenes have been chosen in 1920, or 1950, or 2000, or now? I’m fairly certain that Columbus would not make it into our 2015 historiscope, at least not in his circa 1870 characterization.

Historiscope Cover Yale

Historiscope Native AMericans Getty

Historiscope Christopher Columbus

Box cover and scenes (Native Americans in full regalia before the arrival of Columbus and the man himself) from Milton Bradley’s Historiscope, c. 1870, Beinecke Library, Yale University and Getty Museum.

So I guess the theatre-guise of the Milton Bradley Historiscope is appropriate: it projects as well as reflects. Even modern historiscopes function this way, literally: my case in point is the Historoscope de Saint-Laurent project in Montreal, which utilizes architectural projection to tell the story of a neighborhood. I love it, and I think it’s probably the best we can do with this genre while we wait (forever) for the development of a real historiscope, a time-traveling telescope which can reveal the past rather than just scroll or screen it.

P.S. Another Milton Bradley Historiscope is available here, mounted on cute little legs!


My Favorite Portsmouth House

I was running early for Easter dinner in York Harbor, and by myself because of a sick husband, so I decided to take a detour off 95 into Portsmouth to take a look at my very favorite house. As I grew up just over the bridge and down the road apiece in southern Maine, Portsmouth was our go-to town for pretty much everything, and its downtown became my ideal setting: small New England seaport with plenty of historic housing. There’s no question I settled in Salem in large part because Portsmouth was just too far away from Boston. There are several Portsmouth streets to which I return to time and time again, but only one favorite house:  the Tobias Lear House on Hunking Street, which to my untrained eye looks like the purest of Georgian structures. I think I first saw it when I was maybe 16, and it’s been part of my life ever since.

Lear House 004

Lear House 015

Lear House 008

The Lear House, built in 1740, was home to several generations of a Portsmouth family including Tobias Lear, one of George Washington’s personal secretaries. After it passed out of the family in the later nineteenth century it descended into multi-family tenement status (along with much of Portsmouth’s South End), only to be rescued by Wallace Nutting, who purchased the Lear and neighboring Wentworth-Gardner House in 1917. Both properties were eventually transferred to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA–the forerunner of Historic New England) and then to the newly-formed Wentworth-Gardner and Tobias Lear Houses Association in 1940, in whose possession they remain. It seems to me that the Lear House has always been overshadowed by the High-Georgian Wentworth-Gardner, which Nutting restored in the Colonial Revival style he preferred for his ghostly photographs. Here is the sentiment of the SPNEA directors in 1919 that captures this “underappreciation” perfectly: the Society was urged to buy this house, which came on the market in 1917 for $1500, a price considerably higher for which it eventually sold. While considerably out of repair, it was a house but little altered since the days when Tobias Lear, private secretary to Washington, was its owner. Although a house we would have gladly preserved, it lacked the distinction worthy of a campaign for its purchase. It was bought by Mr. Wallace Nutting, whose famous Wentworth-Gardner house adjoins it. [Old-Time New England, 1919] It appears that the present-day restoration of the Lear House will have to wait, once again, until the Wentworth-Gardner houses is put to rights; nevertheless, when President Washington visited Portsmouth in 1789 (just a few days after he left Salem and this house), it was the “best parlor” of the Tobias Lear House to which he came.

Lear House 1917 SPNEA Old-Time New England

Lear House 009

Lear House 021

Lear House 022

The Tobias Lear House on Hunking Street in 1917 and today, and adjacent Wentworth-Gardner House on Mechanic Street.


Hatching Hostilities

Well this is not really a post that speaks to the spirit of Easter, but it does involve eggs…..I think I’ve written about all of the usual Easter topics over the years, including rabbits, the White House Easter Egg Roll, and Swedish Easter witches, but never war, until today. The minute I saw some egg-themed postcards from the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), I knew I had to write about them, and this seems like an (oddly) appropriate time. Even though it was a relatively short war, this cross-cultural conflict was nevertheless a major turning-point in Russian history, Japanese history, and world history, and it anticipated the truly global nature and coverage that would characterize World War I in the next decade. A good part of this coverage was pictorial: photographs, editorial images, and postcards–the latter was new media at the turn of the last century, and producers and artists in the west and the east embraced them as a multi-national form of war reportage. Cards produced for domestic audiences tend to be more propagandistic and jingoistic, obviously (you can see a sampling at MIT’s “Asia Rising” online exhibit), but those oriented towards an international market tend to be more symbolic, allegorical, and (above-all) humorous. Because of the universal symbolism of the egg and its all-too-apparent nature, these egg-themed cards, all from the vast Leonard A. Lauder Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, are not too difficult to understand: an “Easter Egg of the War” is about to hatch hostilities in Manchuria, a Russian soldier cracks opens a “boiled egg” filled with his enemy, and the theater of war is played out in two postcards from the “Easter Eggs of the Mikado” series.

Japan Easter Egg of the War

Boiled Egg

Japan PC 1 MFA

Japanese PC 2 MFA

A.F. Delamarre, “The Easter Egg of War”, 1904-1905; Fernet, “Boiled Egg”, 1904-1905; and unidentified artist, “The Easter Eggs of the Mikado” series, 1904-1905, all from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection of Japanese Postcards, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The meaning behind these next four postcards is even easier to grasp: an egg fight, in which eggs are broken, and scrambled (leaving behind a big mess!):

Egg Battle 1 Fact to Face

Egg Battle 2 Start the Fire

Egg Battle 3 Fire at Will

Egg Battle 4 Body to body

Egg Battle 5 After

Unidentified (Japanese?) artist, The Egg Battle series: face to face, start the fire, fire at will, body to body, after the battle, 1904-1905, Leonard A. Lauder Collection of Japanese Postcards, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


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