Category Archives: Salem

Tumbling Blocks

It’s an old, old pattern, utilized in ancient Greece and Rome and maybe before, revived in the Renaissance, Baroque, and Victorian eras. Actually “tumbling blocks”, also known as rhombille tiling, reverse cubes, or cubework, probably never went away. It’s got to be one of the most popular–and most effective–optical illusions used in tile and textile design–both in the past and the present. I’ve always loved this pattern, and after I saw it on some chairs in one of the bedrooms in the newly-restored Joshua Ward House, soon to open as The Merchant, I started thinking about it and looking for it and it was suddenly everywhere. I always knew it was ancient, but my first introduction to tumbling blocks came via an amazing and influential eighteenth-century pattern book,  John Carwitham’s Floor-decorations of Various Kinds, Both in Plano & Perspective: Adapted to the Ornamenting of Halls, Rooms, Summerhouses (1739). Carwitham’s 24 plates, including several three-dimensional patterns “compos’d of three different kinds of marble, as white, black and dove-coloured, which are so disposed of, that in the dark of an Evening they both appear as if they consisted of a number of long cubes, lying with angles upward, forming of ridges, like the roofs of houses…..”, were apparently very influential on both sides of the Atlantic. I wouldn’t be surprised if Joshua Ward’s beautiful Mansion House, built less than 50 years later, did not feature some surface in the tumbling blocks pattern, so it seemed very appropriate to see it reappear on a pair of modern slipper chairs in 2015.

Tumbling Blocks Pompeii House of the Faun

Tumbling Blocks Carwitham 1739

Tumbling Blocks Firescreen V and A

Tumbling Blacks Quilt crop NMAH

Tumbling Blocks Tunbridge Ware Box

Optical Illusion Below Getty

Tumbling Blocks Bowl Jayson

Tumbling blocks

Merchant Salem

Tumbling Blocks:  House of the Faun at Pompeii; plate for John Carwitham’s Floor-Decorations of Various Kinds (1739); Victorian firescreen, c. 1865-1875, Victoria and Albert Museum Collections; Connecticut Child’s Quilt, c. 1860-1880, National Museum of American History; Tunbridge Ware Tea Caddy, c. 1860, available here; floor of the Getty Villa; bowl at Jason Home; Anthropologie Diamond Interlockrugs; guest room corner at The Merchant, Salem.

Salem Spirits

After the various map posts, which go viral immediately and retain a steady following thereafter, the most popular posts on my blog have been those focused on spirits, in particular an examination of a peculiar Salem drink from colonial days named Whistle Belly Vengeance and the story of a libelous temperance pamphlet directed at the wealthy rum distiller who happened to build my house. I can understand why: there’s just something very alluring about alcohol! The process of distillation, in particular, has always had a rather mysterious and even diabolical reputation, from the days of alchemy to that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, when a certain ambitious temperance minister named George Cheever targeted the largest rum distiller in town, John Stone (who built my house and styled himself Deacon for his role at the First Church of Salem) in an allegorical pamphlet entitled  The Dream, or, The True History of Deacon Giles’ Distillery (1835). In the thinly-veiled Deacon Giles, who concocted barrels of cholera, murder, fever and delirium with the aid of his demon workers, Deacon Stone saw the inverse of his pious self: both men were (hypocritical) bible-society members, both lost relatives in the diabolical vats of their distilleries, both had alcoholic sons, both made demon rum. Stone sued for libel and won, but Cheever became a cause celebre and temperance hero during the trial. His little story was reprinted for a national audience, and within the next decade Stone’s largest distillery was converted into a sawmill.

Deacon Giles Frontspiece 1835

Domestic and Demonic Distillation: Rebecca Tallamy’s Book of Receipts. Written in the margins and blank spaces of a copy of John French’s Art of Distillation, 1651, Wellcome Library, London; the frontspiece to George Cheever’s True History of Deacon Giles’ Distillery, 1835, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

But now Deacon Giles, and rum distillation, has returned to Salem in the form of a new (and real) craft distillery named after the fictional distiller. Deacon Giles Distillery, located just off Canal Street, not only reflects the current appetite for crafted spirits, but also Salem’s rich rum-selling past. Rum is as “Salem” as the Witch Trials of 1692, Samuel McIntire, Hawthorne, and (unfortunately) Halloween: with eight distilleries in operation in 1821 and a reputation for the best “New England” rum around, the city logically became the target of the evangelical temperance movement in the next decade. It wasn’t just all about Deacon John Stone! And as the distillers were walking me around their beautiful “still house” this afternoon while talking about their triple-distillation process and pursuit of “purification”, I couldn’t help but think back to the days of the medieval alchemists, who also pursued the ultimate quintessence, or “elixir of life”, through a multi-step process in which distillation, the next-to-less step, effects the ultimate purification.

Spirits 121

Spirits 106

Spirits 112

Spirits 117

Spirits 103

Deacon Giles Distillery, 75 Canal Street, Salem: Tasting Room mural, the distillers at work, the products–Liquid Damnation Rum and Original Gin.

Deacon Giles was aided by the path which Salem’s craft hard cider brewery, Far From the Tree, paved and the amendment of the Salem zoning ordinance to allow Massachusetts Farmers Series licenses allowing them to produce, pour, and sell. Both businesses have great tasting rooms and really knowledgeable people eager to tell you all about their products while you sip them. I was really tempted today, but I didn’t think having a swallow of rum (or more) was a good idea when I had class in an hour!

Spirits 085

Spirits 091

The Far From the Tree Tasting Room on Jackson Street in Salem and two Far from the Tree ciders: they also have Rind (my favorite–but I think it is a seasonal variety), Spice, and several others. These ciders are great because they are really dry, as advertised. Next up: Notch Brewing on Derby Street!

Wooden Water Pipes

There are holes all over Salem, granting access to traces of our infrastructural past below. Lots of utility projects this summer, and even now, and each time I see men’s (it is always men) heads semi-submerged I run over to see what I can see. Generally, it’s just road layers and cobblestones–not very exciting. So when a friend posted a picture of the wooden water pipes uncovered during a big project on Boston Street, I got over there as quickly as possible. And there it was, just one pipe in pieces, except where it opened up into the property from the street. Amazing!


WWPipes 2

WWPipes 3

I am fortunate to have an archaeologist/historian and an architectural historian among my colleagues, so I obtained the essential information about how this pipe came to be on Boston Street relatively quickly. Apparently Boston, Salem, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire were laying such pipes in the 1790s, initiatives of incorporated aqueduct companies which were formed by the merchant communities of all three cities. In the case of Salem, the Salem and Danvers Aqueduct Company was established in 1797, “for the purpose of supplying the inhabitants generally of Salem and Danvers with pure spring water”, and in the spring of 1799 water began running through wooden pipes (pine was preferred) to the properties of its subscribers. The first reservoir was on Gallows Hill, in relatively close proximity to Boston Street. According to the Company’s history, demand was ever-increasing: the 3-inch-wide pipes were replaced by 5-inch pipes in 1804, iron replaced wood in the 1850s, at around the same time that the still-beautiful Spring Pond, bordering Salem, Lynn and Peabody (then South Danvers) became the primary reservoir, supplying the city of Salem with “the elixir of life” as author Samuel W. Cole observed in 1858. There were many leaking issues too, and the extraordinary craftsman/engineer Benjamin Clark Gilman (1763-1835) from Exeter, New Hampshire was called in to fix them, based on his experiences in Boston, Portsmouth, Exeter, and New London, Connecticut. Industrial demand kept the pressure on the Salem system, and in 1869, the private Aqueduct Company transferred the ownership of its corporation to the city of Salem.

Water Receipt 1844

Water Works Map 1893

Lynn Mineral Spring Hotel

Lynn Mineral Springs Hotel ad

Subscriber receipt, 1844, Peabody Institute Library. Note the stipulation about wasting water! 1893 Map of part of Lynn and Salem, including Spring Pond, which indicates the main water route–Wenham Lake soon replaced Spring Pond as Salem’s reservoir; The famous Lynn Mineral Springs Hotel at Spring Pond–later the Fay Estate–from Alonzo Lewis’s History of Lynn, 1844; 1831 advertisement for the Hotel, Boston Evening Transcript.

Oyster Square

Time to return to the very basics of life:  food, and plumbing! Today I’m thinking about oysters, and up next I’ve got a special post on wooden water pipes. Oysters–their harvest, sale, and consumption–have always been big business in Salem: Wellfleet is hardly the only Massachusetts oyster town! At present we have three restaurants which feature oyster bars: the excellent Turners Seafood at the Lyceum, the oddly-named Village Tavern Grill & Oyster Bar, and the relatively new and very popular Sea Level Oyster Bar on Pickering Wharf. In the past, Salem probably had many more oyster establishments that were also actual oyster bars, as this particular commodity has evolved over time from a working man’s food to a bit more of a delicacy. Today, Salem’s many restaurants are spread out across its downtown, from the water to the train station, but in the past they were concentrated in the area around the Old Town Hall or Market House. Derby Square and Front Street today are still busy commercial spaces while an adjacent alley that served as an “Oyster Row” of sorts a century or more ago is now silent: yet Higginson Square still bears the signs of its purveying past.

Higginson Square

Higginson Square 2

Higginson Square 3

The large brick commercial buildings on the east side of Higginson Square were built between 1895 and 1915, replacing earlier, smaller structures that served as dining rooms, bars, and wholesale purveyors of oysters and other foodstuffs. Their surviving shop windows indicated that they were functioning as retail establishments in the twentieth century too, but I don’t think this remained a restaurant row. These building have Derby, rather than Higginson, Square addresses now, but the one adorned with the fire escape was the earlier site of the Remond residence/restaurant/and oyster operation at 5 Higginson Square operated by John and Nancy Remond, the parents of Salem’s pioneering African-American abolitionists Charles and Sarah. The spotlight is always on the Remond children (a new park named after them is in the works now) but I’ve always been more interested in their entrepreneurial parents, who operated several businesses in Salem. Surviving advertisements for Remond oysters (“Let them be roasted, stewed, or fried; Or any other way beside; You’ll be well served, or ill betide”) indicate that the North Shore was no longer viable oystering ground in the mid-nineteenth century, as John was bringing in large supplies of oysters from Wellfleet and New York, enough to operate a veritable wholesale monopoly in Salem.

Oyster Square Trade Card

Oyster Trade Card SSU 2

Oyster Trade Card SSU

Oyster Trade Card 2

Oyster Square Trade Card Lynn

Trade cards from the collection of Salem State University Archives and Special Collections and the Digital Commonwealth–I had to include the Lynn fish! The Remond businesses came a bit too early for these cards. Below–Salem’s 19th century Market Square, where oyster and other eating establishments were clustered. Higginson Square is marked in blue.

Salem 1851

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.

Calm Descends 519

Calm Descends 514

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.

Calm Descends 525

Calm Descends 384

Calm Descends 527

Calm Descends 373

Calm Descends 528

Calm Descends 379

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

Calm Descends 535

Calm Descends 543

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.

Witch City 191

Witch City 187

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.

Witch City 065

Witch City 047

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.

Witch City 116

Witch City 123

Witch City 126

Witch City 163

The Business of Witch City.

Witch City 147

Witch City 127

Witch City Businesses

Witch City 166

Witch City 143

Witch City 179

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

Witch City 144

Witch City 142

Witch City 038

Witch City 150

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

Witch City 092

Witch City 098

Witch City 100

Witch City 111

Witch City 114

Witch City 101

Witch City 172

Witch City 177

Witch City 167

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.

Season of Contrasts

I have some free time on Saturday, so I’m going to walk around and take pictures so that I can present Salem’s Halloween to you in its full glory, but today I have prettier, and for the most part, calmer pictures of Salem and Essex County that I’ve taken over the last few weeks. When looking through my picture files, I was struck by how many contrasts were depicted:  between city and country, Salem in its Witch City mode and the county in its luxuriant fall mode, a lot of energy in Salem and a lot of tranquility on its outskirts. But everywhere there is color at this time of year, contrasting color: bright, dark, golden. October is such a beautiful month, but I really do prefer the slightly starker, Halloween-free November: just a few more days.


Fall 7

Fall Windows

Fall Immersion 9

Fall Immersion 12

Fall 5

Fall Immersion 4

Fall 032

My back yard at night–the mansard tower of the building on Broad Street that was the original Salem State Normal School and is now condos is always lit of with purple flashing light during October. It looks cool but I can never take good night pictures.

Ipswich, Newbury, Newburyport:

Fall Immersion 11

Fall Immersion 14

Fall Immersion 13

Fall Immersion 17

Fall Immersion 15


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,302 other followers

%d bloggers like this: