Category Archives: Culture

Crafting a Colonial Salem

There are many people who have contributed to the creation and projection of Salem’s image over the last century and more, beginning with the rather solemn portrayals of Nathaniel Hawthorne and proceeding through the material-based photographs and writings of Frank Cousins and Mary Harrod Northend towards the Witch City profiteers of our own time. But perhaps no one was more avid and energetic in these efforts than George Francis Dow (1868-1936), a prolific author and editor, secretary of the Essex Institute (now absorbed into the Peabody Essex Museum), director of the museum of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England), and the principal force behind Salem’s recreated colonial settlement, Pioneer Village. It’s difficult to categorize Dow: he was not a trained historian but this was no obstacle to his efforts and achievements. Generally he is referred to as an antiquarian, which is a rather antiquated word now. He certainly possessed the technical expertise of a preservationist. Above all, I think, he was an interpreter and an admirer of the colonial past. When he was 30 years old, he simply quit his job at a wholesale metal company in Boston and began to indulge his passion for the colonial history of Essex County full-time, with rather impressive results: a succession of books (The Sailing Ships of New England,  Whale Ships and Whaling, The Arts and Crafts of New England,  Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, just to name a few titles), the installation of pioneering period rooms at the Essex Institute, the relocation and restoration of the seventeenth-century John Ward House, and “Salem in 163o: Pioneer Village”, erected for the 300th anniversary of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1920 (at the age of 52) he married Alice G. Waters, one of the co-editors of his four-volume edition of The Diary of William Bentley and a long-time librarian at the Essex Institute (so romantic!).

I often think about Dow when I come across one of his books, but most especially whenever I go to Pioneer Village, which still survives as America’s first living history museum, predating Colonial Williamsburg by several years. The village was meant to be a temporary installation for the Tercentenary celebration but Dow and his associates (principally architect Joseph Everett Chandler) put so much effort and thought into its design and construction that it remained a tourist attraction well into the 1950s. Shuttered for several decades thereafter, it deteriorated precipitously, but was restored in several sequences by devoted Salem museum professionals in the later 1980s and after 2007. This past weekend, I went to the village for the first-ever “Salem Spice Festival” and began thinking about Dow’s work–and vision–again. The village is much changed from its original appearance, as will be immediately obvious by the contrasting photographs below. But it’s all in the details: in several structures the colonial craftsmanship which Dow so admired and strove to recreate is still in evidence, almost 85 years later.

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Pioneer Village 1 Ryerson

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Pioneer Village 3 Ryerson

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Pioneer Village 4 Ryerson

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Pioneer Village 6 Ryerson

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Pioneer Village, Forest River Park, Salem in the 1930s and today, including the Governor’s “Fayre” House interiors: period photographs from the Ryerson & Burnham Archives Archival Image Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago (several of which were used in Dow’s Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony). Dow’s narrative of Pioneer Village can be found in the journal he edited for the Society of New England Antiquities: “Old-Time New England”,”A QUARTERLY MAGAZINE DEVOTED TO THE ANCIENT BUILDINGS, HOUSEHOLD FURNISHINGS, DOMESTIC ARTS, MANNERS AND CUSTOMS, AND MINOR ANTIQUITIES OF THE NEW ENGLAND PEOPLE”; Volume XXII; JULY, 1931; Number I. Sadly, the reproduction Arbella, which carried John Winthrop’s expedition to “Salem 1630″, has not survived, but Leslie Jones captured it in all its glory for the Boston Globe in 1930.

Arbella

 

 

 


Procuring Pepper

In my last post I decried the dehumanization of microhistory in favor of “commodity history” but truth to tell there is definitely some value in the latter, particularly in reference to the big three global commodities: salt, sugar and pepper. When it comes to Salem’s history, pepper is big: Salem merchants established trading contacts in Sumatra in the 1790s which gave them a near monopoly on the lucrative trade for nearly fifty years, during which 179 Salem ships sailed to the Aceh Province, bringing back millions of pounds of pepper, much of which was re-exported to Europe. The immense profits from pepper–black gold–built the street on which I live and made Salem Salem: whenever I get depressed about living in “Witch City”, all I have to do is look at the city seal, emblazoned with the motto “to the farthest points of the rich East”, the source of all that pepper. At the intersection of global history and local history is national history, and here, too, pepper plays a big role:  when the crew of the Friendship were massacred by natives of the chiefdom of Kuala Batu in February of 1831 while their captain, Charles Endicott, was ashore securing his cargo of pepper, the United States Navy responded with at retaliatory expedition a year later: Salem’s trade was apparently “too big to fail” at the time.

As daring and entrepreneurial as Salem’s pepper merchants were, they were just the latest purveyors of an eastern commodity that had long been desired in the West. Alexander the Great supposedly developed a liking and a name for it, and centuries later Pliny the Elder observed that “its fruit or berry are neither acceptable to the tongue nor delectable to the eye: and yet for the biting pungency it has, we are pleased with it and must have it set forth from as far as India.” Marco Polo presented pepper as one of his wonders of the world, and it was so valuable in the Middle Ages that it was accepted as currency, collateral, and a very appropriate gift for a King. Pepper was a prominent motivation for the discovery of a sea route to the East, which would effectively bypass Muslim middlemen, and consequently Portuguese, Dutch, and British ships became the major European suppliers in the early modern era. What is so interesting to me about the Salem re-export trade in pepper is that the Americans replayed the European role a few centuries later: in seeking to cut out intermediaries, they became the intermediaries themselves (for a while).

Pepper Marco Polo

L0006013 Indigenous people collecting pepper grains.

Pepper WH BM

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Joseph Peabody by Frothingham

Procuring Pepper:  harvesting and presenting pepper in Marco Polo’s Livre des Merveilles du Monde, MS Français 2810 , Bibliothèque Nationale de France; more harvesting in Les oeuvres d’Ambroise Pare … / Diuisees en vingt sept liures, auec les figures et portraicts, tant de l’anatomie que des instruments de chirurgie, et de plusieurs monstres, 1579 (Welcome Library Images); pepper varieties in Johannes Nieuhof’s ‘An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperor of China’ (London: 1669, British Museum); An East India Company catalog from 1704, British Library; James Frothingham, Portrait of Captain Joseph Peabody (1757-1844), privateer, shipowner, and Salem’s richest pepper importer.

 

 


Microhistories used to be about People

The book that convinced/inspired me to be a historian was Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, which teased out the cosmology of a sixteenth-century northern Italian miller named Menocchio through his encounters with the Venetian Inquisition. Ginzburg’s ability to get inside the head of a sixteenth-century, semi-literate person was awe-inspiring to me when I first read this book as an undergraduate, and it still is: I regularly assign it to my own undergraduates. Ginzburg was perhaps not the first, but certainly the most famous pioneer, of a historical methodology called microhistory, in which the scope and scale of inquiry is so narrowed that the impact of historical events and forces is revealed through an almost-intimate perspective. Microhistories have the added benefit of giving agency–and presence– to people who might not otherwise appear in history books:  Menocchio, the peasants of a medieval Pyrenean village who also come under the scrutiny of the Inquisition in Emmanuel de Le Roy’s Montaillou:  the Promised Land of Error, a litigious Italian couple in Gene Brucker’s Giovanni and Lusanna:  Love and Marriage in the Renaissance, a London lathe-worker in Paul Seaver’s Wallington’s World:  a Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-century London, a Maine midwife working just after the American Revolution in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812.

I could go on and on listing classic microhistories, but as I was putting together my syllabi for this semester one macrohistorical trend became blatantly clear to me: while the first examples of this genre were all about people, the latest (and most popular) are all about things. Rather than examining a precise place in time through the prism of one person’s life, we are now invited to partake of the history of the world from the perspective of beverages (Tom Standage’s History of the World in 6 Glasses), sugar (several books, beginning with Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: the place of Sugar in Modern History), salt (Mark Kurlansky, Salt: a World History), pretty much every other spice including NUTMEG (Giles Morton, Nathaniel‘s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History–actually this book focuses on the man as much as the spice), drugs (David Courtwright, Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World), and stuff (Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects). It seems to me that consumerism is definitely defeating humanism in historical studies: we are now what we seek and eat.

World History

Sarah Tyson Rorer, ed., Cereal Foods and How to Cook Them (1899); Duke University Digital Collections

 


Blending Past and Present

Thought the first examples of the technique date back to the nineteenth century, composite photographs of past and present have become quite the thing in this internet age. For at least the last decade photographers have been blending vintage images with contemporary views to create captivating–and attention-grabbing– results. I think modern “rephotography” can be dated to the 2004 History Channel “Know Where you Stand” campaign based on the photographs of Seth Taras, but recent composite creations have focused more on locations than events, bringing historic preservation (or the lack thereof) into focus. Just this past weekend in Newport, I saw Past Meets Present: an Exhibit of Composite Photographs at the Newport Historical Society, an exhibit timed to coincide with the city’s 375th anniversary. Photographer (and preservationist) Lew Keen believes that his images “promote appreciation of Newport’s historic streetscapes” and “suggests that our role as caretakers of these remarkable treasures has not been without some losses—and encourages us to do better for the future.”

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Thames Street [Newport], Now and Then, Lew Keen

I’m inspired and wish I could create similar images for Salem, but neither my photography or photo-shopping skills are up to the challenge. I did play around with some of my favorite photos of Norman Street in the 1890s and today (you can see the original, individual images here and here), but they’re not quite right: I’m more of a contraster than a blender, so hopefully someone more skillful will create some better composite creations of Salem scenes past and present.

Composite Norman

Norman Street composite

Until that happens, we have lots of composite photographs of other urban streetscapes to amaze and inspire, including Marc Herman‘s New York images (The Daily News On-Scene, Then and Now), Shawn Clover‘s amazing images of San Francisco in the wake of its 1906 earthquake and today, Paris in 1900 fused with contemporary images by Golem13, Harry Enchin‘s Toronto “timescapes”, and the haunting images of old and new London generated by the Museum of London’s Streetmuseum app. Perfect matter for social media, these images have given natives, visitors, and distant admirers of these cities a lot to think about:  in a word, change.

Herman Brooklyn 1961

Clover

Paris1900-golem13-Bourse

Enchin Queen Street

Bow Lane London

A Brooklyn Gas Explosion in 1961 and today, Marc Herman/ San Francisco 1906 and today, Shawn Clover/Place de la Bourse, Paris, 1910 and today, Golem13/Queen Street, Toronto, past and present, Harry Enchin/Bow Lane, London, Museum of London

 

 

 

 


September Spread

I love to read old cookbooks–I mean really old cookbooks, from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and of course these texts reflect a culinary culture that is far more tied to the land than that of the present: farm to table was the rule rather than the trend. From a pre-modern culinary standpoint, September is the month of feasting, the time when all manner of meats and fruits are now in their proper vigor and perfection in the opinion of Richard Saunders (Apollo Anglicus: The English Apollo, 1665). September was not only the time of the harvest, but the commencement of both Oyster and Partridge seasons, so it was truly the time of plenty. One of the most popular cookbooks of the seventeenth century, reprinted time and time again, was Robert May’s The accomplisht cook or, The art & mystery of cookery, which contains a bill of fare for an extravagant September feast–beginning with an “Olio”, a stew of beef, lamb, veal and poultry mixed with herbs and vegetables and proceeding through many dishes. Even though May claimed to be writing for the “greater good” and “meaner expenses” in his preface, this particular menu definitely reflects more aristocratic tastes and pockets.

Robert May’s September Feast (1665)

FIRST COURSE:

OYSTERS/ An Olio/Breast of Veal in stoffado/ Twelve Partridge hashed/Grand Sallet/Chaldron Pie/Custard

SECOND COURSE:

Rabbits/Two Hearns, one larded/Florentine of tongues/ 8 Pigeons roasted, 4 larded/ Pheasant Pouts, 2 larded/ A cold hare pie/Selsey cockles broil’d after

There is certainly no sentiment of saving or storing for the lean months ahead here, but rather fattening up for the winter. I just love the language of these dishes:  Florentine of tongues, Pheasant pouts! Essentially there are lots of baked stews and pies on this menu: “sallet” is the seventeenth-century spelling for “salad”, chaldron refers to a measure of coal, but there is a traditional recipe for calf’s foot chaldron pie, so I assume that is what May is referencing, and “hearns” are herons. The Sussex seaside town of Selsey had definitely earned a reputation for its catches of cockles by this time, so May is using that term in much the same way we would say “Maine lobster”.

September Fare

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Title page of Robert May’s The Accomplisht cook (1671 edition), British Library; Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Turkey-Pie (and Oysters!), 1627, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

 

 


Salem needs a (real) Tavern

There are three bar-restaurants in Salem with the name “Tavern”: the Tavern at the Hawthorne Hotel, the Village Tavern, and the Tavern in the Square. None of these places are really taverns. The Hawthorne Hotel’s Tavern probably comes closest, but it is a tavern-esque room in a 1920s hotel, the Village Tavern and the Tavern in the Square are charmless modern sports bars which are located in neither village or square: they are certainly not taverns (see Matt’s comment below–it’s not in the square, it’s on the square, surely?). We have other places that come close to being taverns in some ways (In a Pig’s Eye, Naumkeag Ordinary) but I want the real thing. What I want is the long-lost Black Horse Tavern, or something very much like it.

The Black Horse Tavern/ Trask Homestead, built c. 1680

The Black Horse Tavern/ Trask Homestead, built c. 1680

I think every town in the greater Boston area had a Black House Tavern in the eighteenth century: Salem’s was located on Boston Street, a main entrance corridor then and now, and operated from about 1680 to 1740 by all accounts. The house survived until the later nineteenth century, I believe–certainly long enough to be photographed—but by that time it was primarily known as the old Trask house, after one of the seventeenth-century “Old Planter” settlers of Salem. I walked over to Boston Street to photograph its location and became quite excited when I found a near lookalike (disguised by 1970s siding and replacement windows)–but alas, its surviving neighbor is indeed the Samuel Bell House, built in 1721.

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The Black Horse was hardly Salem’s only colonial tavern: these essential institutions are inextricably interwoven with the Witch Trials and every other public event in the past. Those two grande dames of Colonial Revivalism, Alice Morse Earle (1851-1911) and Salem-born Mary Harrod Northend (1850-1926) both loved taverns and revealed the names of Salem’s finest in Stage-coach and Tavern Days (1900), Memories of Old Salem (1917) and We Visit Old Inns (1925): the Ship Tavern, Thomas Beadle’s Tavern, the Kings Arms (which acquired the more politically correct name the Sun Tavern with the Revolution, and where John Adams frequented when he visited Salem), the Bunch of Grapes. In the words of Northend, in imagination you can enter one of these old Ordinaries, seat yourself by the side of the broad fireplace, warmed by the lively wood blaze that crackled in the hearth, and meet distinguished strangers. You can easily discern her fascination with taverns!

My tavern would look like an urban version of the Black Horse, because the post roads that Boston Street used to be ceased to exist in the age of the automobile. The hard and soft furnishings would be relatively easy to assemble, I think, so I’m fixated on the all important sign. If I were going to stick with the name Black Horse, a slightly more colorful version of the sign below (from a 2010 Skinner auction) would do nicely–but I think I might go for something more eccentric. I love the twentieth-century “Raven & Ring” sign, but this seems more appropriate for Baltimore than Salem. Whenever I do come up with a name (and a tavern) I have my signmaker all picked out:  Heidi Howard, Maker & Painter, who produced the White’s Tavern (with black horse) sign below.

Black Horse Tavern Sign Skinner

Tavern Sign Raven and Ring

Tavern Sign White


Big Dogs on Bartlett Mall

I am not really a dog person, but as I was driving into Newburyport the other day I spotted some BIG dogs that stopped me in my tracks. They were “gathered” on the Bartlett Mall, Newburyport’s Common, overlooking the Frog Pond and Essex County Superior Courthouse (the country’s longest-serving, I believe), as one recognition of the city’s 250th anniversary. [Newburyport is so young--compared to its sister port cities to the north (Portsmouth, est. 1653) and south (Salem, which is over 380 years old)-- because it split off from the greater Newbury in 1764]. They are traveling dogs, the work of Haverhill artist Dale Rogers, who is a big believer in public art and strives to craft works that become “mental postcards”. These dogs will only be on the Mall until the 24th, so if you’re in the area stop by and see them; if not, here are some real postcards to remember them by.

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Big Dogs 6

Big Dogs 7

 


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