Category Archives: Current Events

Fabricating the Feast

Can there be any other holiday more closely associated with women than Thanksgiving? Forget the quasi-mythical “First Thanksgiving”, for which we only have references to men fowling and feasting–after that it’s all about women. What emerged as a New England tradition in the early nineteenth century was transformed into a national holiday through the intense efforts of author and editor Sarah Josepha Hale, eventually resulting in Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863. Several other New England ladies contributed to this effort, including Lydia Maria Child, whose “Over the River and through the Wood” we traditionally associate with Christmas but was first published in 1844 as “The New England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving”. Successive presidents followed Lincoln’s precedent until 1941, when Congress established the fourth Thursday of November as a permanent Thanksgiving holiday. In the interim, a major medium for the adoption of a national harvest holiday seems to have been women’s magazines, chief among them Hale’s own Godey’s Ladies Book and later Good Housekeeping, The Ladies’ Home Journal (and Practical Housekeeper), (The) House Beautiful, and even Harper’s Bazaar. There was definitely a bit of culinary imperialism at work here: the ideal Thanksgiving menu published in Hale’s first novel, Northwood, was Yankee fare (cranberries!), but as turkey assumed the center stage (pushing out the very popular chicken pot pie and assorted other fowl) regional dishes could be assimilated as “sides”. And need I even say it? Women were making all those Thanksgiving feasts.

Thanksgiving HP 1894

Thanksgiving 1895 Bradley

Thanksgiving LHJ 1897-98

Thanksgiving 1904 Puck

Thanksgiving Pictorial Review 1906 Cover

Bearing Thanksgiving HP 1914

Thanksgiving gh 1937

Fabricating a very FEMININE Thanksgiving in the popular print media, 1894-1937: 1894-95 covers by Louis John Rhead and William H. Bradley, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Ladies’ Home Journal Thanksgiving covers for 1897 and 1898; 1904 Puck Magazine cover, Library of Congress;  Pictorial Review and Ullman Manufacturing calendar page for November 1906; Harpers Bazaar and Good Housekeeping covers, 1914 and 1937, Library of Congress and Good Housekeeping archive.

To Market, to Market

A few weeks ago I accompanied several friends up to Pettengill Farm in Salisbury, Massachusets for the holiday version of their occasional Vintage Bazaars. It was a bit early for a “holiday” market for me, but this was a juried affair, packed with vintage items, crafts made from salvaged materials, botanicals and art, so it was well worth the trip, and I delayed looking at, much less posting, the pictures until just this morning. With a healthy respect for a calm Thanksgiving, I do feel the urge to start getting the house ready for the season now. Christmas shopping for other people I will leave to later: everything I bought at this bazaar (a rather random assortment of a handmade mouse, typographic magnets, and a painting of a lime for my 1970s china cabinet/bar) was either for myself or my house (which clearly I think of as an entity separate from myself). This weekend, Salem’s flourishing farmers’ market evolves into the Winter Market, and then we are off……..

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Market Collage

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Market in Salem Winter

Some offerings from Pettengill Farm’s Holiday Vintage Bazaar earlier this month, and the poster for this weekend’s Salem Winter Market. Another Salem holiday market next month.

Lafayette, We are Here

Over this past weekend I caught many references to the storied phrase “Lafayette, we are here” on my twitter feed and the radio, so many that I woke up on Monday morning with it ringing in my ears! I can appreciate the American-Lafayette connection, after all I live right next to Hamilton Hall, where a “Lafayette Room” memorializes the Marquis’s visit to Salem in 1824 and walk to work on Lafayette Street every day, but I wasn’t quite sure about the complete context of the phrase. I think I always assumed that General John. J. Pershing uttered it when he arrived in France with the first American forces in the summer of 1917, but it was actually one of his aides, Colonel Charles E. Stanton, when both he and Pershing visited Lafayette’s tomb after a triumphant parade through the streets of Paris on July 4, 1917. Apparently the Colonel was much more eloquent than the General, and often called to come up with appropriate remarks, though he was very humble about this role during and well after the war. You can easily understand Stanton’s inspiration when you consider other contemporary American references to Lafayette: a Lafayette U.S. dollar minted in 1899, the work of the Lafayette Memorial Commission which was charged with raising funds for the installation of a Lafayette statue at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900, the Lafayette Fund established in 1914 to aid France once the war began, and of course the famous Lafayette Escadrille with its daring American volunteer flyers. With the predominant mood of isolationism in the U.S. prior (and even after) 1914, entry into this European war had to be justified by an American interest–and “paying back” Lafayette became one. Either Stanton’s words really struck a chord in 1917, or the government promoted this sentiment to increase popular support for the war. Maybe a bit of both?

Lafayette and Washington sheet music

Lafayette Stantion NYT Jan 18 1931 Framed


Lafayette Calling LC 1918

Lafayette We are Going Over LC 1917

Lafayette We are Here Sheet Museic

Lafayette We are Herd 1919 LC

Lafayette were here 1918 LC

Lafayette Rebuild LOC 1918

Lafayette Paid Debt LC 1919

Washington-Pershing song sheet, 1917, Cornell University; the story of Stanton’s phrase in the New York Times, January 18, 1931; “Lafayette, We are Here” poster, Lafayette University; the progress of the war from the American-Lafayette perspective in song sheets from the Library of Congress; below, post-war Washington-Lafayette-Handkerchief from the Boston Athenaeum exhibition: Over There: World War One Posters from Around the World.

Lafayette Handkerchief Boston Athenaeum

Calm Descends on Salem

It always takes me a few days to recover from Halloween here……two nights ago I had an all-too-vivid nightmare about a bacchanalian orgy in the Charter Street cemetery. But I woke up to a calm and beautiful day: Election Day, always a hopeful day for me. You’ve got to love off-year, local elections when the big issues are new trash barrels and cobblestones! Actually I am trivializing our election quite a bit: the large, looming development projects that I’ve been writing about all year are also big issues (but trash is big too). After I voted, I walked to work and checked the cemetery and Witch Trials Memorial along the way: all was calm and a few respectful people were walking around, really looking at the grave- and memorial stones rather than sitting on them! Salem has been returned to its residents, the dearly departed are not being trespassed, and I slept much better last night.

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Feeling fortunate that two great, smart people ran for councilor of the ward that I live in, and that I can walk by the beautiful PEM garden on a 70-degree day in November.

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Feeling fortunate that all those disrespectful people are GONE………

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and that someone left an appropriate memorial to their ACTUAL ancestor, and that I get to walk by my favorite Salem house, now artfully adorned with pumpkins, several times a week.

Greetings from Witch City

I really tried to give Salem Halloween a chance this year. I kept telling myself to forget that this celebration is based completely on the tragic death of innocent people over 300 years ago and that there is no connection between Halloween and the Salem Witch Trials other than a manufactured one that has to be based on the completely unfounded assumption that these people WERE witches. People just don’t want to hear that, and my persistent haranguing has made me into a bit of a pest to my family and friends. A lighthearted attitude towards the month-long Haunted Happenings “celebration” is completely impossible for me to adopt, so instead I went for detached, either in time or of place: concentrate on the past (this always works for me) and avoid downtown at all costs. But yesterday I just put myself right into the fray, for you, dear readers, who have also been exposed to my Halloween snarkiness for years. I tried to adopt an objective attitude as I mingled among the huge crowds, but I couldn’t really maintain it and then I lost it altogether! So here are my observations, both in words and pictures–that latter a bit more objective than the former–I actually think they are a fair representation of what Salem looks like on Halloween. From my street-level perspective, however, I couldn’t quite capture the immensity of the crowd: estimated at 100,000 people, more or less.

What I observed (words):

  1. Huge crowds, very international in nature: I heard Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and (I think) Polish.
  2. Mostly they just mill about, taking pictures of themselves and others.
  3. There were some great costumes, but also a sea of generic witches and zombies. Lots of ghoulish brides, for some reason. My favorites were a pair of tarot cards, which I didn’t quite catch (see below). People really seemed to enjoy dressing up (humiliating) their dogs–this is just one reason I am a cat person.
  4. Long lines at all the schlocky businesses (the Salem Witch Museum, the Salem Witch History Museum, all the witch and “horror” shops). The Peabody Essex Museum was completely empty, but I was glad to see the House of the Seven Gables doing a brisk business. Kudos to the PEM and the National Park Service for keeping the Ropes Mansion and the Customs House open and free. These were the only real historical sites available to people, apart from the Witch House and the Gables.
  5. Good for business? This is the major reason people think Haunted Happenings is good for Salem. I suppose it is, but I’m really not sure. It seemed to me that the seasonal businesses were bustling while many of the more permanent ones were relatively empty, or even closed altogether. All the restaurants were packed, with long lines, but don’t all those sausage and fried dough stands eat into their business?
  6. Tours: one business that is obviously profiting big time from Haunted Happenings is that of walking tours, which seem to have multiplied exponentially from previous years. Both former and current students of mine were giving tours while I walked about, and I tried not to get too close so that I might hear what they were saying……
  7. Comments overheard during the crush. There are so many people packed together, that you can’t help but hear what they are saying (unfortunately). Most common comments/questions: where were the witches burned? what does that [building] have to do with the witches? Look at that dog!
  8. Crowd control: there is a huge police presence downtown, which is very necessary but must also be very costly.
  9. Trash: everywhere. Salem gets trashed during Haunted Happenings. The city was definitely on top of the trash situation, but again, at what cost?
  10. Desecration: the two most sacred sites downtown, the Old Burying Point on Charter Street and the adjacent Witch Trials Memorial were completely desecrated yesterday. There is no word more appropriate: desecration. The cemetery is simply fodder for tour groups and photo shoots, and the Memorial was reduced to a place where people could sit down and eat their fried dough or text. Drunken clowns (literally) sat on the stones representing the victims of 1692 while smiling tourists took their pictures. I ran home and poured myself a stiff drink.

What I observed (pictures):

Crowds converge around the Witch House and towards downtown; the requisite “sea of heads” shot, on Washington Street.

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The center of the storm, Lappin Park, at Washington and Essex Streets. Here Samantha, evangelical preachers, tourists, and fried dough converge. It’s really hard to convey how odd this juxtaposition of elements is.

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Some of the more creative costumes I spotted…..and uncreative: the last ladies were all sporting the super tacky “Salem Witch” costume I featured in a post a month ago.

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The Business of Witch City.

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Witch City Businesses

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A few random shots. Overheard in front of both the Derby House and the Ropes Mansion: did a witch live here?

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The Burying Point on Charter Street and Witch Trials Memorial. No comment.

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End note: Things did pick up after I went home and had a drink and received my trick-or-treaters, who were cute and gracious. There were the usual pirates and princesses, but one costume, worn by a boy about 10 years old, I found quite perplexing:: a black, inflated, puffer suit of sorts, rendering him quite round. No mask, no graphics. I asked him what he was supposed to be, and he shrugged while his sister answered for him: America. Morbid Obesity.

Cakes for Souls and Spouses

Some day, some night, I swear I am going to offer the hordes of Halloween trick-or-treaters that darken my door traditional soulcakes rather than Kit Kats or Butterfingers: now that would be asking for a trick! I think about doing this every year but never follow through: I’m too scared of the consequences, I think, or lacking in confidence in my ability to produce some decent looking cakes. I have already purchased my requisite 1400 pieces of candy so I’ll probably chicken out this year too. Soul cakes are often described as a cross between a biscuit (in the English sense, or an American cookie) and a scone, and sometimes as shortbread: there are lots of recipes available on the web, many adopted from early modern cookbooks. If I were going to go for it, I would probably go with one of the two recipes available here, my go-to source for food history. I suppose that the cakes are more appropriately distributed on All Saints or Souls Day (November 1 and 2), but no one will be coming to my door then: Salem will be returned to its residents! In any case, my Halloween cakes would be perfectly respectable with recognition of the pre-modern Hallow-Tide, which covers all three Hallowed days: from All-Hallows Eve or Halloween on 31 October through All Saints and All Souls Days. These Christian days were superimposed upon earlier Pagan holidays and traditions, creating a period in which the dead and the living were particularly close, and could affect one another’s fate. The medieval Christian view was that this was a time that the living should be working to get the dead out of purgatory, so bells were run, prayers were said, and gifts were given–in the form of cakes disbursed to bands of “soulers” who went from house to house singing ancient souling songs and offering prayers for the dearly departed. After the Reformation and the disappearance of a soul-packed Purgatory in most of Protestant Britain, souling evolved into outright begging, and eventually (jumping the Atlantic) into trick-or-treating. If there was no English Reformation, I wonder if we would all still be giving out soul cakes? Probably not.

Souls 17th Century



Seventeenth-century Souls, simply existing and ascending directly to Heaven without stopping at Purgatory–they don’t need any prayers or cakes! (Karel van Mallery after Jan van der Straet, Antwerp, 1609 and Johannes Amos Comenius, Orbis sesualium pictus, Nuremburg, 1658 , both Wellcome Library Images); Shropshire Soul Cakes, from a recipe available here, and a more modern Halloween cake on an early 20th century postcard.

Another cake long associated with Halloween in parts of the British Isles, most particularly western Scotland and the Isle of Man, is dumb- cake, very simple, salty grain and water cakes baked in the fire by unmarried women at midnight, with the aim of revealing their future spouses. While holding the pan, they were said to recite an ancient rhyme—Two must make it, two must bake it, and two must break it— and afterwards their future mates would be revealed in their dreams. Presumably the word “dumb” is a variant of “doom”, the Old English word for fate or destiny, although I’ve also read that the girls were supposed to remain mute while they baked the cake (then how would they recite the rhyme?). This kind of “divining for husbands” takes many different forms (cabbage-pulling, mirror-gazing) on both sides of the Atlantic, and survives in the form of various cultural expressions into the twentieth century.

Dumb Cake Play 1907

Halloween cake postcard

Title and first page of the play entitled The Dumb-Cake by Arthur Morrison and Richard Pryce, London, 1907, and an early twentieth-century variant of a dumb cake on a postcard from the same era.


Nearly every year, someone from “outside” writes an opinion piece on the exploitative, hypocritical, and tacky nature of Salem’s month-long celebration of Halloween which is pretty much ignored here in the Witch City. Last year, there was a riveting piece by a Huffington Post columnist, and this year we have a column by the Pulitzer Prize winning author Stacy Schiff, who just happens to have a book coming out about the Trials entitled The Witches: Salem 1692. Schiff’s piece has a great title, “First Kill the Witches. Then Celebrate Them”, and asks the key question, “How did Salem, Mass. repackage a tragedy as a holiday, appointing itself Witch City in the process?” but offers few new insights in the way of an answer. It’s the same old inevitable story, told time and time again: economic decline, Arthur Miller, Bewitched, entrepreneurial “Museum” owners, shopkeepers, and Wiccans. She really dwells on the dreadful Samantha statue (which I don’t think Salemites take a seriously as we perhaps should) and concludes that “You can leave Salem today without a hint of what happened in 1692; in a sense we’ve moved from tragedy to farce without the pause for history in between”. At first reading, this seems like a great line, but I’m not sure about the use of the collective “we”, nor of the reference to history–as the Salem Witch Trials is one of the most intensely researched topics in American history. Every year we get a new Salem book or three or four, while notable trials in Europe during the same era have yet to receive even sufficient attention. Yet we seem to learn very little, or just want to read the same old (inevitable) story, over and over again. I haven’t read Schiff’s book yet–it comes out this week–but I did read her preview article in The New Yorker last month and found it to be rather….conventional, and quite dependent on the well-worn path of context and causality charted by historians like Richard Godbeer, Mary Beth Norton, and my colleague Emerson Baker (and generations before them). Nevertheless her publisher asserts that the book is “historically seminal” and I keep seeing the words “masterful” in initial reviews. The word “new” crops up a lot too but it seems like the same old story to me. In terms of novelty, I’m a bit more interested in the book that seems to be paired and compared with Schiff’s Witches in reviews due to their coincidental, opportunistic publication dates, Alex Mar’s study of contemporary Paganism, Witches in America. The most recent scholarly publication, Benjamin Ray’s Satan & Salem. The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692, seems to be getting squeezed out by these two blockbusters, although it was published earlier in the year.

Colburn Illustrations

Witches 2015

Martha Coburn’s illustrations for Stacy Schiff’s Oct. 25, 2015 column in the New York Times: “First Kill the Witches. Then, Celebrate Them”. Just three witchcraft titles published in 2015.

There is a great review of Schiff’s work by a historian who I really admire, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, in the Wall Street Journal which praises the author on her narrative abilities and contemporary allusions but faults her on her knowledge of the historical context: he observes that  “Her knowledge of the 17th century is less secure than her grip on journalistic topoi.” Indeed it is difficult to develop mastery of personages as diverse as Cleopatra, Véra Nabokov, and the victims of Salem. Despite the glut of Salem Witch Trials studies, Fernández-Armesto believes we have room for one more: “We still need someone to do for 17th-century Salem what Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie did for 14th-century Montaillou in his work on the Cathars”. That would be a dream as Montaillou: Promised Land of Error is indeed one of my favorite books, but I don’t think Salem–the city, the “problem”, the industry–is ready for that kind of definitive l’histoire totale: “we” need to continue our search for the “real” story and feeding the beast.

Montaillou Cover


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