Category Archives: History

Bowditch’s Birthday

I hope that mariners all over the world are celebrating the birthday of one of Salem’s most eminent native sons, the nautical scientist Nathaniel Bowditch, who was born on this day in 1773. The author of the pioneering, and still authoritative, New American Practical Navigator, I like to think of Bowditch as one of the last self-taught, “practical” scientists: he was forced by family necessity to abandon his academic studies at a young age and taught himself classical and modern languages, algebra, calculus and astronomy while working as an apprentice at a ship chandlery in his teens. Here we have a perfect example of the determinative role of birthplace: Bowditch is clearly a product of worldly Salem in its golden age, when opportunities were many and limitations few, for men that applied themselves–and had connections and resources, of course. Even an apprentice ship’s chandler accountant, Bowditch had access to the 116-volume library of Irish scientist Richard Kirwan (1733-1812). Acquired by a Beverly privateer during the Revolutionary War and auctioned off in Salem in 1781, it is one of the foundational collections of the Salem Athenaeum. Armed with his self-education from books, Bowditch went to sea following the completion of his apprenticeship and in the course of seven voyages gained the empirical experience and data that enabled him to correct some 8000 errors in the then-authoritative navigational manual, John Hamilton Moore’s Practical Navigator and eventually issue his own American Practical Navigator in 1802. Thereafter his life was one of choices (except, of course, for his unfortunate death from cancer in 1838) and he chose the more practical role of insurance-company financial statistician rather than the academic offers that came his way, first in Salem and after 1823 in Boston: the laudatory speeches given at his farewell dinner at Hamilton Hall are still ringing in the eaves!

Bowditch Birthplace Kimball Court

Bowditch Apprentice Carry On 1956

Bowditch Navigator

Bowditch Hastings Smithsonian

Bowditch Bust Smithsonian

Nathaniel Bowditch’s birthplace on Kimball Court in Salem; Bowditch as role-model apprentice in Jean Lee Latham’s influential Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (1956); The Title Pages of the first edition of The New American Practical Navigator (1802); Artist Pattie Belle Hastings’ take on the Practical Navigator, from the Smithsonian Institution’s 1995 exhibition “Science and the Artist’s Book”; Engraving of Bowditch by J. Gorss from a drawing by J.B. Longacre, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.  


Mid-Century Colonial

I have recently discovered the work of prolific Boston-area photographer Arthur Griffin (1903-2001), who was the exclusive photographer for the Boston Globe Rotogravure Magazine and photojournalist for Life and Time magazines for a good part of the twentieth century. There’s an entire museum in Winchester, Massachusetts dedicated to his work, and thousands of images have been digitized at the Digital Commonwealth. Griffin was a pioneer in the use of color film, but I love his black-and-white but still very bright pictures of Salem in the 1940s and 1950s because they depict a place that was decidedly not Witch City. There’s not a witch to be found in his photographs of the perfect Pickering House, the various house museums of the then-Essex Institute (now Peabody Essex Museum) and the House of the Seven Gables: instead we see well-dressed tourists and guides garbed, for the most part, in “colonial” dress. I always like to see occasions of colonial dress-up, and these photographs depict a decidedly mid-century display.

Griffen 1

Griffen 2

Griffen 2a

Griffen 3

Griffen 5

Griffen 4

Griffin7

Griffen 6

Visiting the Pickering House; Pioneer Village with the extant Arbella; the Retire Becket House at the House of the Seven Gables; inspecting the hearth and bed hangings at the John Ward House; a nice shot of the Solomon Chaplin House on Monroe Street.


Sepia Streets

The other day I came across a cache of historic photographs of Boston and its surrounding communities at the turn of the last century among the digitized collections of the Boston Public Library. The Salem scenes caught my attention but as I had seen most of them I moved on and examined the rest of the 320+ photographs: sepia scenes of lost Boston, lost Chelsea, lost Arlington, lost Medford….lots has been lost but some of the structures in these photographs still remain. I had to check on each and every one, of course, and so hours passed, maybe even days….I lost track. These photographs remind me of those taken by Frank Cousins in Salem around the same time; he may even be one of the photographers as no credits are given. There is an explicit reverence and respect for the pre-Revolutionary structures and streets captured, and an implicit message that they not be there for long. The collection was commissioned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, then quite a young organization, founded in 1890. Certainly the DAR has not been the most progressive of institutions over its history, but historic preservation was absolutely central to its mission then, and it remains so today. I certainly get that as I gaze at these photographs, and I am reminded of just how many early preservationists were women: Ann Pamela Cunningham and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Margot Gayle, the savior of Soho, fierce urban renewal opponents Jane Jacobs and Ada Louise Huxtable. Certainly we have had our share here in Salem: those avid advocates of “Old Salem” culture and architecture, Mary Parker Saltonstall and Mary Harrod Northend, Louise Crowninshield, an influential board member of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England) who facilitated the acquisition of the Richard Derby House by the new Salem Maritime National Historic Site in the 1930s, and many of my own contemporaries who have contributed much to the preservation of Salem’s existing fabric in this challenging environment.

But I think I’m digressing a bit, let’s get to the pictures, starting with a few long-long scenes of Boston: Webster Avenue (Alley!), and Hull and Henchman Streets.

Wesbster Avenue BPL

Hull Street Boston PBL

Henchman Street Boston BPL

A bit further out, the Dillaway House in Roxbury, built by the Reverend Oliver Peabody who dies in 1752. The headquarters of General John Thomas at the time of the siege of Boston. The Dillaway House about a century later, and at present, at the center of the Roxbury Heritage State Park.

Dillaway House Roxbury BPL

Dillaway House 2 MIT

Dillaway House 3

Three seventeenth-century houses that survive to this day: the Pierce House in Dorchester, the Cradock House in Medford (more properly known as the Peter Tufts House, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, all-brick structures in the U.S.), and the Deane Winthrop House in Winthrop:

Pierce House Dorchester BPL

Cradock House Medford BPL

Deane Winthrop House Winthrop BPL

As I said above, most of the Salem photographs were familiar to me and I’ve posted them before: with a few exceptions. Clearly the DAR was looking for Revolutionary-related sites, so their photographer captured the much-changed locale of Leslie’s Retreat on North Street, along with a few other predictable sites like the Pickering House. Two houses identified as “Salem” in this collection are unfamiliar to me: the first (in the middle below) is–or was–obviously situated downtown, but I don’t recognize it: maybe someone out there will, or maybe it is gone. The second looks like it was located on a country lane: not very Salem-like, even a century or more ago, but it could be North Salem, or possibly even Salem, New Hampshire?

North Bridge Salem 1890 BPL

Old House in Salem 1890 BPL

Country House Salem BPL

North Bridge, Salem, “Old House” Salem, and a country house in Salem, c. 1890-1905, from the DAR-commissioned Archive of Photographic Documentation of Early Massachusetts Architecture at the Boston Public Library, also available here.


Lion’s Paw

When I was assembling my portfolio of Renaissance “green” merchants, I came across a Lorenzo Lotto portrait that I had seen long ago and then forgotten: I remember being perplexed by it then and remain so now. It is Man with a Golden Paw, dated 1527, featuring a man leaning forward and slightly to the side with a (embellished, sincere) hand on his heart and a lion’s paw in his other hand. When I first saw the portrait in my early 20s I remember being struck by his appearance (is he wearing earmuffs?), now I’m more interested in the lion’s paw.

Lorenzo_Lotto Lion's Paw

Lorenzo Lotto, Man with a Golden Paw, 1527, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The meaning and placement of this particular paw has not been established with great certainty, but most art historians seem to think it offers a clue about the name or occupation of the sitter: a Leo-like name, a goldsmith? Lions in general, and pieces of lions in particular, are so often utilized in art forms throughout history that context is all-important. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, the lion had myriad religious and secular associations: as the long-reigning King of Beasts, he represents strength, majesty, courage and fortitude, even Resurrection. Conversely, but still expressions of his power, the lion could represent pride or vengeful wrath. In religious iconography he is associated most strongly with St. Mark and St. Jerome, who removed a painful thorn from a lion’s paw and received a friend and servant for life in return: any possibilities for our painting in this particular story? In various poses, the lion represents a range of attributes in heraldic devices as well, always kingship, bravery, fierceness, and more subtle watchfulness (as it was a medieval belief that lions slept with their eyes open). Lotto’s paw-holding man holds my interest because at this point in time (again, 1527) the lion reference could mean anything: a rather mundane association to family name or profession, a testimony to skill, strength, or power, an expression of faith. But not long after this moment, his prized paw will be reduced to a mere decorative motif, shorn of its long-held symbolism and so commonly featured in the decorative arts from the eighteenth century onwards that it becomes almost invisible–certainly not the focal point of the piece.

Detached (literally and symbolically) lion’s paws, 17th- 21st centuries:

Lion's Paw Furniture Mount MET

Lion's Paw Raphael

Lion's Paw excavation

Lion's Paw bookend RH

Gilt Bronze Lion’s paw furniture mount, French, late 17th-early 18th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Sketches of Raphael Cartoons by Sir James Thornhill, c. 1729-1731, Victoria and Albert Museum; Excavated Lion’s Paw from the Victorian conservatory at Tyntesfield, Archaeology National Trust SW; Lion’s Paw bookends, Restoration Hardware.


The Color of Money

It’s not a hard-fast Renaissance rule, but mutable green was often associated with those who worked or lived in the world of money, as opposed to those who were born into privilege or manual labor. Artists loved to experiment with their greens–verdigris, terre verte, malachite–and so you see emerald backdrops for a variety of subjects, but nearly every time a merchant or a moneylender was in the picture, he is in close proximity to green. Green was not yet of the earth, but still in the realm of humans, and attached to the more dynamic middle of society rather than the more steadfast upper or lower levels. That vibrant green, also attached to youth and fertility, adorned the merchant Arnolfini’s wife, and dominated the settings of his commercial successors, who appear to have dwelled in a world of green and gold, inside. Look at all these merchants from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, beginning with Jan Gossaert’s confidant man of business, who appears to have been given a green halo of sorts.

Jan-gossaert-merchant-001

Man Wearing Gold

Hans Holbein 1532

Bildnis-eines-jungen-Kaufmanns Hans Holbein

Jan Gossaert, Portrait of a Merchant, c. 1530, National Gallery of Art; Adriaen Isenbrant, Man Weighing Gold, c. 1515-1520, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Member of the Wedigh Family, probably Hermann Wedigh, c. 1530, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Young Merchant, probably Hans von Muffel, c. 1541, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

There is always a bright green cloth on which the money, or its instruments, rests. While the men above look like honest brokers, green was also used as the color of greed in the more satirical compositions of Northern Renaissance artists like Marinus Roymerswaele and Quentin Massys, which retain the setting but distort the faces or avert the gazes of bourgeois money-changers, scary tax collectors, and lawyers.

Quentin Massys Tax Collectors

Lawyers Office

Quentin Massys, The Tax Collectors, first quarter of the 16th century, Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein; Marinus Roymerswaele, The Lawyer’s Office, 1545, New Orleans Museum of Art.

I’m not sure that merchants and bankers and bureaucrats were aware of such color associations, but there is ample evidence of clothing consciousness in the Renaissance. A perfect example of self-fashioning through clothing choice is the amazing “Book of Clothes” by aspirational accountant Matthäus Schwarz of Augsburg, who commissioned 137 watercolors depicting outfits he wore for each stage and event of his life, from infancy to death. Discussed at length in Ulinka Rublack’s wonderful book, Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe (2010), Schwarz’s Klaidungsbüchlein seems strikingly modern to me–like a blog or a selfie–and is a great visual reminder of just how modernly materialistic this era really was. And while he was in his still-slim youth, Schwarz wore several striking green outfits.

Book of Clothes

More images of Schwarz’s Klaidungsbüchlein, which is at the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum , here.


Fabled Friday the 13th

What’s wrong with Fridays that fall on the 13th day of the month? I thought I might try to uncover the foundations of this supposedly long-held western superstition but as is generally the case, all I found was a mishmash of “biblical”, “medieval”, and mostly-Victorian assertions. The biblical basis is the Last Supper, at which there were thirteen attendees including Jesus of Nazareth and his betrayer, Judas Iscariot, followed by the fateful/fatal Friday on which Jesus was crucified. Somehow, somewhere (the story goes) the gathering of 13 and the Friday execution are assimilated to create a dreadful day on which evil or (in Chaucer’s middle English verse) “mischance” can occur: And on a Friday fil al this mischaunce (The Nun’s Priest’ Tale).

Friday 13 Flinch Cards

There is an entire book about the number 13 and its associations are easily discerned, both negative (the antithesis of the perfect 12; 13 steps to the hangman’s noose; the 13th tarot card represents death; Apollo 13) and positive (a baker’s dozen; thirteen colonies, the thirteenth amendment), but the customary connection between the number and the day is a bit more elusive. One particular Friday the 13th that is often mentioned is Friday, October 13, 1307, the date on which the Order of the Knights Templar in France were formally indicted by King Philip IV “the Fair”, so that he might confiscate their vast wealth during the first years of the Avignon Papacy which rendered them defenseless. Certainly the Templars have resurfaced in the last decade or so with the publication of Dan Brown’s incredibly popular Da Vinci Code, but the Victorian era–a golden age of fraternalism–was also intensely interested in this suppressed and secretive order, and the fates of its members.

Royal 20 C.VII, f.44v

Tarot Cards XIII

British Library MS Royal 20 C VII, f. 4v: Templars being burnt at the stake; Tarot Cards no. XIII, representing Death, from the later 15th century (Victoria and Albert Museum Collection) and the later 19th century (see here for the full deck).

In the first decades of the twentieth century, this particular Black Friday (preceding our own commercial one) seems to have been become firmly established. There was the bestselling novel of Thomas William F. Lawson about a plot to bring down Wall Street on Friday the 13th (by sheer coincidence [?], the author’s namesake 7-masted schooner sunk on Friday the 13th) and then, in an obvious nod to the general acceptance of the day, Miss Rose Cade was crowned Queen of the Lemons on Friday, February 13, 1920.

Friday 13th.

Friday 13 Queen of the Lemons Rose Cade

Miss Rose Cade as Queen of the Lemons in California, February 13, 1920, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


Curtmantle

Though my primary field is Tudor-Stuart history, occasionally I teach a more general English history survey which spans from Roman era to the seventeenth century. My biggest challenge in this course, which I am teaching this semester, is to refrain from settling into mere storytelling about the characters and exploits of a succession of colorful kings and queens. The students in this course are generally not history majors, and their knowledge and interest in history tends to be quite History Channel-ish, meaning that they are more interested in personalities than structures. I try to balance it all out, and for the most part I think I’m successful, but periodically I must slow down and simply consider the character and reign of a monarch in rather narrative fashion. Such is the case with King Henry II, nicknamed Curtmantle for the shorter French/Angevin mantle he supposedly wore, who was born on this day in 1133. It doesn’t matter how much I dwell on King Henry–they want more, and I’m wondering why? Of course the broad strokes and details of his life are dramatic–the rise to power in the wake of Civil War, his conquest and contests with Queen Eleanor, his family fights, his multi-front wars, the murder of Archbishop Becket in Canterbury Cathedral and the penitential consequences–I still think that it’s the popular characterization of Henry rather than the historical one that has captivated my students. Even though they’re far too young to remember Peter O’Toole in Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968), he is still their Henry.

Curtmantle O'Toole Becket

Curtmantle Lion in Winter

Peter O’ Toole in a publicity photograph for Becket (1964) and a still from The Lion in Winter (1968).

My students are so young they haven’t even seen or heard of O’Toole’s portrayal of Henry II, but when I ask them what they know about him, they describe O’Toole’s portrayal:  now that’s a powerful performance! Once again, we see that history is produced by film (sigh). But I think you have to go further back:  not (of course) to the actual era of Henry II, but to that which produced the characterization that inspired O’Toole’s performance. Henry became Henry because of his hand in martyring Becket, of course, but also because of his women: his wife Eleanor and his mistress Rosamund Clifford, the “fair Rosamund”. Henry’s struggles with the Church in general and Becket in particular appealed to 18th and 19th historians charting secular “liberation”, while their more romantic counterparts in the arts focused on the women: the Pre-Raphaelites in particular seem to have been obsessed with Eleanor and particularly Rosamund, featuring them both individually and together in mythical contest (based on an old fable alleging the Queen tried to poison the mistress). This is all very dramatic stuff, almost equaling the narrative of that dynasty of the (long) moment, the Tudors. I predict a Plantagenet comeback.

King Henry II

Henry II Thornycroft framed

Curtmantle chapbook

Queen_Eleanor__Fair_Rosamund1-619x744

Fair Rosamund 1916

Henry II as characterized by Alfred Crowquill’s Comic History of the Kings and Queens of England (Read & Co, c 1860) and Rosalind Thornycroft in Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon’s Kings and Queens (1932). A chapbook of folk ballads with Henry II and the Fair Rosamund on the title page, c. 1815-30, British Museum; Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund by Evelyn de Morgan, 1905, De Morgan Centre, London;The Fair Rosamund by John William Waterhouse, 1916, National Museum Wales.


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