Category Archives: Current Events

Whiteout

One day into the first big snowstorm of 2015, I have measured two feet in my backyard, but my inches could be padded a bit by drift. No school today and no school tomorrow: as I have decided to take Thursdays off this semester this week is shaping up to be pretty pleasurable! The cable was out all morning which meant no internet or television: no work and no endless snow coverage. This first annoyed me and then pleased me as I settled into a good book. A bit fortified with spirits, we braved the outside in the later afternoon–all was perfect pristine whiteness with not a car in sight. We could have been walking down Chestnut Street in 1915 or even 1815, I suppose, except for a few later-built houses. On days like these, it seems like we could all live much more graceful lives without cars, but I’m sure I’ll get a bit restless tomorrow, or maybe Thursday.

Picking off where I left off…the snow is much higher on the deck, and the rum is out.

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Chestnut Street today….and (last picture below) a century ago, in a photograph taken by Mary Harrod Northend for her 1917 book Memories of Old Salem, Winterthur Library.

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White Out Northend Memories of Old Salem


White Report

Oh the indignity! All day long yesterday (and still) the Skinner’s site reported that Frank Weston Benson’s Figure in White, recently deaccessioned by the Salem Public Library so that funds could be raised to fix a fountain, went unsold, but now the Salem News is reporting that BENTON’s painting went for $300,000, far below its estimate. And in other news, we had our first snow storm, which cast everything in white–more, much more apparently, to come on Tuesday. Winter has arrived rather later here in eastern New England, but it appears to be making an entrance!

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Frank Weston BENSON’s Figure in White, and more white outside.

 

 


The Worldly Remonds of Salem

Great news on this Martin Luther King Day weekend: the Mayor of Salem has announced that a rather barren strip of waterfront land adjacent to the Salem-Beverly bridge will be reconstituted as Remond Park, after the prominent pair of African-American Abolitionist advocates and natives of Salem, Charles Lenox Remond (1810-1873) and Sarah Parker Remond (1824-1894). The announcement refers only to these famous siblings, but I prefer to think of the new park as a tribute to the entire Remond family, as the Remond parents, John and Nancy, created the material and cultural foundation that supported their children’s full-time advocacy against slavery. All at the same time, the Remond narrative is a great African-American, American, and Salem story, and it all began when the ten-year-old John “Vonremon” arrived in Salem in the summer of 1798–very much alone. He had been sent north from his native Curacao by his mother “for schooling” apparently, and the owners of the brig that transported him (the Six Brothers, John and Isaac Needham) employed him in the family bakery almost immediately upon his arrival. By his late teens he was in Boston, learning some of the “traditional” trades for freemen of color in the north, hairdressing, wig-making, and catering, and becoming acquainted with his future wife Nancy Lenox, by all accounts an excellent cook herself. In 1805 he returned to Salem and took up residence in the newly-built Hamilton Hall, working as its “Colored Restaurateur” for several decades, always referred to as Mr. Remond. Nancy and he married and had ten children between 1809-1824, all the while building their hair-dressing, culinary, and food provisions businesses. Two of these children died in infancy, Charles (b. 1810) and Sarah (b. 1824) became anti-slavery orators for the local, state, and national conventions while in their twenties, and the rest carried on–and expanded the family businesses in Salem.

The Remond American story started with John–and the Remond Salem story really started right next door at Hamilton Hall. I often think of John and Nancy as I work in my garden and look at its eastern wall, knowing that right on the other side was their home, their workplace, the birthplace of their children. I was stirring my tea this afternoon thinking about all that activity over there, and how great that the family name is now (or will shortly be) a place.

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Remond Hamilton Hall

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John Remond (1786-1874) later in life, Library of Congress; the wall of Hamilton Hall from my kitchen; the soon-to-be Remond Park in Salem, courtesy Salem News.

Charles and Sarah became forceful advocates for Abolition because they had a secure Salem base but they were not grounded by Salem: after he built a reputation as an effective orator for the cause in Massachusetts in the 1830s he became a paid lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society and attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London with William Lloyd Garrison in 1840, after which he lectured throughout Britain. He continued his advocacy upon his return to the U.S., though was eclipsed in the national realm by the man whom he once mentored, Frederick Douglass. (They seemed to have been rivals, yet Douglass named his son Charles Remond Douglass). Once the Civil War began, Charles became a fierce proponent of African-American engagement, and a major recruiter for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Sarah was even more worldly than her brother: after her first speaking tour for the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1856, she left for Britain and never came back. She continued her advocacy (now for the Northern cause), but combined lecturing with studies at the Bedford College for Ladies (now part of the University of London) and after the Civil War she left Britain for Italy, where she graduated from medical school, married an Italian, and remained for the rest of her life.

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Charles Lenox Remond and Sarah Parker Remond; Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society Broadsides from the 1850s, Massachusetts Historical Society.

And while their children spread their wings, John and Nancy Remond remained in Salem, minding to their varied, expanding businesses. John appears so entrepreneurial that I can’t quite grasp the full range of his activities: the catering operation was moved out of Hamilton Hall in the mid-1820s to a series of locales in Derby and Higginson Squares, on Front Street, and on Derby Street. According to advertisements placed in the Salem Gazette in the later 1820s, he became a purveyor of fine wines and oysters, lots and lots of oysters, along with curry powder, East Indian soy sauce, pickled nuts, Virginia hams, and “catsup” (a very early use of this word, surely?). He operated both a wholesale business and several retail establishments, including an oyster bar and an ice cream parlor. He evolved from caterer to “trader”, although Nancy seems to have continued her culinary activities, and offered lunches and dinners at 5 Higginson Square in downtown Salem, “at the sign of the big lantern”, above which they also lived. The 1850 census values John’s assets at $3600; in 1870 the man who is identified as a “dealer in wines” has $19,400 worth of real estate in Salem and $2000 in personal assets. Though he seldom left Salem after his childhood arrival, John was not only a wealthy but a worldly merchant, in the Salem tradition, with stores of exotic goods ready to “ship to any market.” I’m impressed by the ambition and achievements of both John and Nancy, but I don’t want to depict them as singularly focused on the family economy: both were members of anti-slavery societies and active in abolitionist circles. Their primary focus was on education: they actually left Salem, and their many businesses, when Sarah was denied entrance into Salem High School in 1835 and only returned six years later after the Salem schools were desegregated, in no small part to their efforts from Rhode Island. They opened their (busy!) home up to the young Charlotte Forten, the first African-American woman to graduate from my university, when her father sent her north from Philadelphia to attend Salem’s desegregated schools in the 1850s. They provided for their children, and changed the world.

*Sources: Sarah Parker Remond has received a lot of attention from historians; her brother and family less so, but I found Willi Coleman’s “Like Hot Lead to Pour on the Americans….Sarah Parker Remond—from Salem, Mass. to the British Isles”, in Kathy Kish Sklar & James Brewer Stewart’s Women’s Rights and Transatlantic Anti-Slavery in the Era of Emancipation (Yale, 2007) to be particularly helpful; there’s a podcast by Julie Winch with a very promising title here, but the link doesn’t seem to be working!


Deaccessioning Salem

The vast wealth accumulated by Salem entrepreneurs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created a cultural landscape that still characterizes the city to some extent, encompassing institutions that inherited this wealth in the form of both currency and treasures. When the former runs out, the latter are tapped, and priorities shift over time: such is the pattern of deaccessioning. The First Church of Salem sold 14 pieces of colonial silver nearly a decade ago, and built an addition with the profits. The Trustees of the Salem Athenaeum have considered the sale of their 1629 Massachusetts Bay Charter, sealed with the signature of King Charles I, from time to time, with the earnest approval of some and the deep disdain of others. Sometimes a deaccessioning will enhance Salem’s heritage rather than take it away: such was the case of the Richard Derby House, which was donated to the City by the Society of the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England) in 1937 to serve as a cornerstone of the new Salem Maritime National Historic Site. When it comes to smaller treasures, I think more things have left Salem than remained, and apparently another prize is about to depart: this week the Salem Public Library announced that it had consigned a painting by Salem’s most notable modern artist, Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951), to Skinner Auctions for its January 23 auction of European and American Works of Art. The painting, entitled Figure in White, apparently depicts Benson’s older sister, Georgiana, and was completed about 1890: he retained it throughout his life, and after his death his children bequeathed it to the Library, for which Benson had served as a Trustee from 1912 until his death.

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Benson plaque Figure in White

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Figure in White (1890), by Frank Weston Benson, and frame plaque, Skinner Auctions; Benson c. 1907-1908, Benson Family Papers, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

I am very torn on this one: obviously this man demonstrated a life-long commitment to the Library and his heirs wanted to honor that commitment in both a personal and generous way. When you approach the sale from that perspective it looks rather cold and cavalier. On the other hand, I’ve never seen this painting: its value (it has an estimate of $350,000-$550,000) has necessitated its securement behind closed doors. The Trustees of the Library, the successors of Benson, have a duty to the public as well as to the institution, and there must a long list of wants and needs that could be funded by the proceeds from the sale: one project that has been mentioned is the restoration of the Victorian cast-iron garden fountain adjacent to the Library building. The painting is one bequest, the entire library complex (building and fountain) another: it was donated to the City by the family of Salem’s most eminent philanthropist, Captain John Bertram, in 1887. Should one be “sacrificed” for the other? I’m just glad that I didn’t have to make this decision!

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Captain John Bertram’s House (and a bit of his fountain), built in 1855 and donated to the City of Salem by his heirs in 1887–now the Salem Public Library, Detroit Publishing Company, 1910; Let’s bring some Salem back! Beautiful heraldry paintings for the Vincent and Cogswell Families by Salem artist John Coles, c. 1794, from another upcoming Americana auction @ Christie’s.


Time Capsules

Greater Boston has been all abuzz this week about the opening of what has been called “the nation’s oldest time capsule”, a brass box deposited by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House in 1795. The box was opened by a conservator from the Museum of Fine Arts on Tuesday, in the company of the Executive Director of the Commonwealth’s Archives and before flashing cameras. Inside were items that our founding fathers wanted us (or someone in the future) to see: a silver plaque engraved by Revere, a copper medal depicting George Washington, two dozen coins dating from 1652 (before the colonists were allowed to coin their own money), and a title page from the Massachusetts Colony Records. The box was not a big surprise: it had been discovered in 1855, and a few items (mainly newspapers) from that time had been placed within–so we have two generations from the past communicating to us through objects that they chose to represent their times.

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Photographs of the Revere plaque by Jessica Rinaldi @ Boston Globe and conservator Pam Hatchfield by Brian Snyder @ Reuters.

As I read the various accounts of the Boston time capsule’s contents and saw the face of the very excited conservator’s face (above) on television, several thoughts ran through my mind. The first was empathy: every historian (at least historians who work on periods before the twentieth century) has felt that feeling of sheer excitement as they see and touch (through gloves!) crusty old documents from their period for the very first time–or again and again. Working with manuscripts is often difficult but always intimate–much more so than with printed matter. But obviously there’s a difference between an archive of documents and a time capsule: the former is not a “composition”, in that the historian is crafting the interpretation and presentation rather than the historical subjects. And this (rather obvious) realization led me to my second thought, which I’m still considering:  the difference between “accidental” time capsules like Pompeii and Herculaneum and very intentional ones, like the “Crypt of Civilization” in Atlanta, sealed in 1940 and scheduled to be opened in the year 8113. Actually, according to the reigning time capsule expert, William E. Jarvis (author of the 2002 book Time Capsules: A Cultural History and one of the founders of the International Time Capsule Society), the Boston box is not really a time capsule, which much have a specified opening date like the Crypt of Civilization, but rather a “foundation deposit”, a practice that goes way, way back—to Mesopotamia. So I guess there are three forms of object messaging from the past to the present: the intentional time capsule, which Jarvis credits as an innovation of the nineteenth century, the foundation deposit–which is still an attempt on the part of contemporaries to shape the future’s perception of their era–and accidental entities like Pompeii, the uncovered Anglo-Saxon ship burial mound at Sutton Hoo, or the abandoned Antarctic buildings of Carsten Borchgrevink and Ernest Shackleton. Which, I wonder, is more revealing about these past people?

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The dedication of the “Crypt of Civilization” door in Atlanta, 1938, Oglethorpe University Archives; a royal belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo burial ship, British Museum; Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds, Antarctica, ©Nigel McCall for the Antarctic Heritage Trust.


Mummers Mumming

A 14th-century manuscript in the Bodleian Library contains the first illustration of mummers, costumed players or “guisers” performing occasionally out-of-doors in a merry band, for amusement and/or some form of compensation. These mummers, wearing masks of stag, rabbit, and horse heads, are in good company: accompanying them in the margins of this cycle of Alexandrian romances are knightly puppets, dancing monkeys, hunting hares, monks and nuns on piggyback, and monstrous men. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to associate their appearance with Christmas revelry in the text of the manuscript, but several centuries later the Jacobean playwright Ben Jonson did just that in his 1616 Christmas Masque, in which the progeny of Father Christmas personify and epitomize the main institutions of the season: “Mis-Rule, Caroll, Minc’d Pie, Gamboll, Post and Paire, New-Yeares-Gift, Mumming, Wassail, Offering, Babie-Cake”. And from that point on, mumming was an essential part of the Merry Old English Christmas, as described by a succession of English social “historians” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From his American heritage perspective, the novelist Washington Irving (whose biography of Christopher Columbus laid the very solid foundation for the Flat Earth Myth), contributed to this association with his Bracebridge Hall sketches, first published in 1820. Mumming is part invention of tradition, part social commentary in the industrializing nineteenth century, both a sentimental look back to the way things were in a supposedly-simpler society and a controlled expression of seasonal “misrule” by the villagers or the workers for that society.

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Mummers 14th 19th c.

Bodleian MS Bodley 264, f. 21v: The Romance of Alexander in French verse, by Flemish illuminator Jehan de Grise and his workshop, 1338-44, with additional sections added in England c. 1400; Illustration from Old England, A Pictorial Museum, edited by Charles Knight (James Sangster & Co, c. 1845).

In the vast revival (or creation) of Merry Old Christmas that occurred over the nineteenth century, one book really stands out for me: Thomas Kibble Hervey’s The Book of Christmas:  descriptive of the customs, ceremonies, traditions, superstitions, fun, feeling, and festivities of the Christmas Season (1836). This is really a delightful book, made more so by the original illustrations by Robert Seymour. Hervey presents mumming as traditional custom and folklore, in the company of Morris and sword dances, regional plays and London pantomimes, and Christmas caroling, and definitely de-emphasizes the misrule. And Seymour’s illustrations (which you can see almost in their entirely here) depict the Christmas that we all want to have. Their audience was perhaps interested in escaping the increasingly-complex world that was being created by industrialization and urbanization, but it is rampant Christmas commercialization that makes me want a Merry Old Christmas with mummers, whether it was real or not!

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Hervey’s Book of Christmas (1836), with illustrations by Robert Seymour,University of St. Andrews Special Collections.

Modern Mummers (excluding those from Philadelphia–a whole other story!):

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Mummers, 1952, Frank Ernst Eurich, Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries; Fritz Wegner commemorative stamp for the 1981 GB Folklore series.


Holiday Happenings

Material girl that I am, my Christmas spirit starts to surface with the first parties, at which (I have to admit) I relish the setting and scenery almost as much as the company. While I am always very happy to see all of my friends on festive occasions, I love Christmas decorations, both for their own aesthetic, traditional and seasonal qualities as well as all for all the effort and creativity that goes into their display–and last week was most definitely one of display. I had to get my own house in order for a Christmas tea at the beginning of the week, and at the end came the Christmas Dance at Hamilton Hall, which always kicks my seasonal spirits into high gear. Each year the committee which organizes the Dance chooses a group of patronesses who host dinner parties before the festivities–and these parties are often just as major as the main event; speaking as a former patroness, I would say more so. Hosting 30 or 40 people for dinner while you’re in an evening gown is never easy, and so when we all finally get ushered into the Hall these women deserve the bows and curtseys that we give them! We were fortunate to attend a pre-Dance party at a beautiful c. 1795 gambrel-roofed house on Federal Street, at which our hostess (who had just finished putting up beautiful Waterhouse wallpapers) had enlisted her children to serve us our home-cooked dinner on (50!!!) Friendship dinner plates accompanied by silver and linen. Then off she want to stand in the line of patronesses, leaving us to enjoy her beautiful house until our own departures for the Hall. I don’t have too many pictures of the Dance itself, for two major reasons: 1) I like to dance myself, and 2) I just can’t get the light right–with the only camera small enough to fit into my evening purse. But let me assure you, it was a lovely night.

My Christmas Decorations:  I’m big on bunnies this year, and deer as usual. The tree has a nice shape, but it’s dropping needles like crazy–I hope it makes it to New Year’s.

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On Federal Street: this house has the most amazing details and scale. One of my favorite mantel displays any time of year, and great entry and dining room. Besides the mantel, the living room has a lovely chair rail detail.

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At Hamilton Hall: the dance floor from below and above; my Hamilton Hall ornament next door.

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Addendum:  The Caterer’s View of the Hamilton Hall Christmas Dance! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dHf5PnT8z0&feature=share.


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