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

pepper - lg

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

 

 

 

 


In Newport, Briefly

We are recently returned from a quick visit to Newport, Rhode Island, somehow refreshed and fatigued at the same time. My husband and I are both so busy at this time of the year that we don’t have much time to get away, so we could only steal a day and a night for this particular trip, which was not enough to do Newport justice. But it’s not far from Salem and we’ve both been there many times, so we just wandered about in the glorious weather. I always think there are at least three Newports– sailing Newport, Gilded Age Newport, and Colonial Newport—but I’m sure locals will tell you there are even more. With our limited time and my inclinations–we really focused on the latter, with a lot of eating and drinking thrown in—though we did start and end our day at the expansive, busy harbor.

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There are streets and streets of colonial clapboarded houses surrounding Trinity Church in Newport’s equally expansive historic district: I’m always struck by just how many structures have survived and their amazing condition. To me, the nouveau riche mansions on Bellevue Avenue pale in comparison: Newport’s wealth was well-established before the New York millionaires came to town.

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Despite its impressive historic infrastructure, Newport is not a museum fixed in time but rather a place where the physical past and the present are intermingled rather creatively. We were inspired by our inn, The Francis Malbone House (very highly recommended), which consists of a well-preserved 1760 house with a 1996 annex out back joined together by a mutable, lovely courtyard, to look for other examples of adaptive reuse and historically-sensitive additions. And we found many: I particularly liked the parking courtyard of the 1748 Billings Coggeshall House with its adjacent annex of offices. And even when the historic structure was not adapted, its foundation was preserved–as in the case of this hearth and chimneys nestled in the rear of a twentieth-century school.

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The Francis Malbone House: exteriors, interior public room and courtyard; the Billings Coggeshall House and courtyard; just one Newport foundation.

I think I should include one “cottage” in here, but it is a subtle one, which reads (at least to me) more New England than New York even though it was designed by the ultimate New York firm of McKim, Mead and White: the shingle-style Isaac Bell House, built in 1883 and pictured here at twilight. Love these chimneys!

Newport 110

Newport 119


A Lost Lafayette Mansion

A few years ago I published the first of what could be many posts on the prolific Salem publisher Samuel E. Cassino, whose diverse publications encompassed several popular periodicals and more technical reference works (including 30 editions of the Naturalists’ Directory published between 1877 and 1936). In that post I included a cropped postcard of what I thought was his grand residence on lower Lafayette Street, but it turns out I was incorrect, as his great-grandaughter has sent along a family picture of this very impressive house, which was completely destroyed in the Great Salem Fire of 1914. I think the real Cassino house is the house next door to the Greek Revival structure I featured in my earlier post: both were located in the vicinity of 190-194 Lafayette Street and both were completely destroyed by the Fire. I am so grateful to have received this photograph as we don’t have many of the pre-Fire streetscape of Lafayette, which was turned into a pile of ash (and a “forest” of chimneys) on June 25, 1914. Literary references to the Cassino house always use the words “stately” and/or elegant, and as you can see, these were understatements!

Cassino house burned 1914 Salem Fire

Cassino Home in Salem-before and after

Cassino Estimate

Cassino 006

Photographs of 194 Lafayette Street before and after the Great Salem Fire of June 25, 1914, Blackburn Archive; Valuations of loss from the F.W. Dodge Company’s Report “Data on Burned District at Salem, Mass.”, Digital Commons, Salem State University; 194 (blue house) and 192 (white house) Lafayette Street today.

It was a beautiful house to be sure, but let’s not dwell too much on material loss. Mr. Cassino was a survivor: he was born in 1861 and was still living in Salem (on Savoy Road–much further down Lafayette Street) according to the 1940 Federal Census. His great-grandaughter recalls that he was greatly loved, especially by his grandchildren with whom he spent much time.

 


Paper Queens

It’s back-to-school time and that mean I’m spending money: on myself. When I was a little girl, my elegant grandmother (still quite immaculately dressed at 101) would drive up from Massachusetts to Maine with a trunkful of dresses in late August or early September, and I would immediately run up to my room with all my loot, change into these beautiful frocks, and “treat” everyone to a fashion show. Many years later, I still think I deserve a back-to-school shopping spree every September, even though I’m a professor rather than a student (and I have to pay for it myself). I remain the clotheshorse/monster that my grandmother created, but this year I haven’t been spending much money on clothes:  instead I seem strangely drawn to stationery. In the past week I’ve purchased calendars, planners, notecards, mousepads and other pads, and lots and lots of folders. I’m concerned that this is the administrative side of me taking over, now that I’ve been department chair for a year, and hope that my materialistic side reasserts itself when my term is over. And looking at the array of paper spread out before me, one thing is patently obvious: there are a lot of queens. Apparently mere mundane paper products are not enough for me; I must have royalty.

Just a few of my purchases:

Paper Queens elizabeth-notebook

marie-notebook

Queen Elizabeth I and Marie Antoinette notebooks from SHHH My Darling.

Paper Queens Eliz

Paper Queens Marie

Queen Elizabeth I and Marie Antoinette note cards by Rifle Paper Co.

Paper Queen Album

Post-marked Photo Album from Campbell Raw Press.

Paper queens wrapping paper

Queen Elizabeth II stamp wrapping paper at Kate‘s Paperie

Alexa Pulitzer — Royal Elephant Mousepad Notepad

And a reorder of a perennial favorite, Alexa Pulitzer‘s Royal Elephant mousepad (although I think he’s a king).

 

 

 


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

Claesz-turkey-pie-large

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

 

 

 


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