Tag Archives: Collectibles

Bicycles Built for Everyone

While many European countries have had a consistent bicycle culture for a century or so, America’ s relationship with two-wheelers seems to run in cycles (pardon the pun).  I think we want to be a bicycling nation now, but this was certainly not the case twenty years ago and our national obsession with the automobile will never go away.  This weekend, instead of getting out on my bike (one of the few forms of exercise that I really enjoy) I read (or perused) two books on bicycles, both of which made a pretty strong visual case for the existence of a vibrant American bicycling culture at the turn of the last century.  Cyclopedia by William Fotheringham is an illustrated reference book about the history and trivia of bicycles, a pick-up-and-learn-all-sorts-of-little-things type of book, while Wheels of Change:  How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (with a Few Flat Tires along the Way)  by Sue Macy explores the interesting relationship between women’s’  liberation and bicycling, a connection that is easily supported by the print and popular culture of the period.

An editorial cartoon from the June 19, 1895 edition of Puck magazine links the many varieties of the “new woman” (wearing pantaloons!) with bicycles, and a poster advertisement for the New York Ledger from a couple of years later features a woman wearing even shorter bloomers.  It appears that the bicycle aided the progress of dress reform, at the very least.

Actually the famous bicycless (?) Elsa von Blumen was one of the first ladies to blaze this trail, winning races against horses and other women racers on her high-wheel bicycle in the 1880s and marketing photographs of herself in full bicycle dress.  Bicycle racing of all forms seems to have been extremely popular in the two decades on either side of the turn of the twentieth century:  women against women, women against horses, men against men.

Elsa von Blumen in 1889

A very alliterative advertisement for the "Racycle"

The replacement of the high-wheel (penny-farthing) bicycle by the modern “safety” bicycle intensified interest in two-wheelers in general and racing in particular.  Bicycle clubs were very common and there was a brief window of opportunity just after the turn of the century  for bicycles to become the primary means of transportation, particularly in urban areas.  Advertisements and other forms of ephemera were very prevalent; Americans just seemed to like the image  of the bicycle, as the last poster below indicates.

Bicycle Races in 1895, Library of Congress

Library of Congress

After about 1910 or 1920, with the increase in the production of automobiles and the consequential decrease in price, bicycles seem to have lost their appeal as an adult form of transportation.  The advertising of that era onwards clearly indicates that bicycles were now marketed primarily to children.  Here in Salem, Parker Brothers took advantage of the emerging juvenile market by turning out bicyle-themed books and games.

No matter what product or service they were selling, late nineteenth -and early twentieth-century trade cards often featured children, as well as cute and fuzzy little animals.  Add a bicycle motif and you have an even more adorable image, if that’s possible.  The J & P Coats Thread Company’s bunny and kitten cards below, have always been among the most popular cards with ephemera collectors.

Back to the Future:  Britain’s “Tweed Run” movement (a crusade against bike shorts founded in 2009) spawns American’s “Tweed Ride” movement:

The Key to……..

This was a week of keys; I lost a key (temporarily), got a new key, and seemed to be perpetually teaching about Renaissance popes who asserted their power visually by wielding big keys (to the kingdom of heaven, of course) in an age of questioning authority.  I have always liked keys, both their material existence and their symbolism.  They represent access, understanding, the revelation of secrets, possession. When I moved into my house a decade ago I found a big box of skeleton keys in the basement, far more keys that I have doors.  So I strung them up on ribbons which I hang from hooks on my back stair landing.  Of course, everyone who passes by thinks I have a key fetish so I have collected even more keys over the years.

Fifteenth-century popes seem to be in the possession of an ever-present key, symbol of their possession of jurisdiction over salvation, bequeathed to them by St. Peter.  Here are images from two mid-fifteenth century illuminated manuscripts in the British Library showing popes and their big keys:

Jumping forward into the modern era, keys have lost their religious symbolism and taken on all sorts of associations.  Here they appear on tarot cigarette cards, in illustrations from a mid-century text called Robbery as a Science (with instructions on how to pick a lock, very useful for potential burglars!) on an abolitionist envelope, in a political cartoon entitled “the key to the situation” featuring President Grover Cleveland (all from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery), and in the titles of  two popular genres of twentieth-century entertainment:  sheet music and a Clark Gable film from 1950 (Library of Congress Digital Collections).

The keys to the city custom has a history all its own, dating back to when medieval cities were independent entities that extended the “freedom of the city” to special visitors.  There are lots of references and images of early modern kings like Louis XIV entering, claiming, and receiving keys to cities (like Strasbourg below, in 1681) but obviously the modern custom represents recognition rather than possession.  Below Louis, we have presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower receiving the keys to the city of Rock Island, Illinois from its mayor Melvin McKay in 1952 (Time-Life Photographs) and a very recent photograph from the Wall Street Journal of Ralph Lauren with his newly acquired key to the city of New York.

Below are some neat keys that I’ve had my eye on for a while:  a porcelain set made in Japan, a “steampunk clockwork magic key” textile border, and USB flashdrives, “the key to love, success and all your photos, files, and music”.  What better key for our age?

Playing Cards Present and Past

Look at these jokers! I virtually stumbled upon the playing cards of Utrecht art student Felix Blommestijn, and was immediately charmed and curious about this genre of ephemeral art.  Playing cards are very ancient, but it turns out that jokers are a fairly recent (later nineteenth century) American addition to the pack.  To me, these cards look both very modern and very old, my favorite aesthetic.

Another relatively recent addition to the standard card deck is the jack, which replaced the earlier knave. Knaves seem a little bit more intriguing to me, and there were all different kinds of them, depending on which country or “master” produced the cards.  Below are 15th and  early 16th century German knaves of the hares and acorns (Victoria & Albert Museum), followed by more familiar knaves of diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades from the early modern era:

Master of the PW, Cologne c. 1500

Early 17th Century Knave of Diamonds, Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum


Early 18th Century Knave of Hearts, Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum


A Knave of Clubs card from the era of the Scientific Revolution, Parsons Collection, NYPL Digital Gallery

Knave of Spades, c. 1827, Victoria & Albert Museum

 Once we get into the mid-nineteenth century, chromolithography, industrialization, and consumer demand combined to create infinite varieties of playing cards, many of which were marketed in series of collectible cigarette cards like the “beauties” below.  


Another development from the mid-nineteenth century were “dedicated deck” card games, and Salem’s own W. and S.B. Ives Company issued the first popular proprietary game in 1843,  Dr. Busby.  The Ives Brothers had a successful (multi-generational) printing, publishing, and stationary business in Salem and developed games as a sideline, but I think the sideline became the most profitable part of their business.  In addition to Dr. Busby, they also issued the first American board game in 1843, The Mansion of Happiness, and less than a decade later they came out with the very collectible tie-in card game to the recently-published abolitionist novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which is no surprise, as Mrs. William Ives was the President of the very active Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society at the time).  In 1887 the Ives Company was sold to Parker Brother of Salem, and its games began reaching an even larger market.

Dr. Busby 1843 game box and Dr. Busby card; Uncle Tom’s Cabin cards from the University of Virginia’s Multimedia Archive:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture.

Even with industrialization, playing cards continued to be hand-produced as an art form rather than merely merchandise, just as they are today.  One of the most charming examples of vernacular production is the “Nursery Rhymes” suite, produced around 1880 by an unknown maker.  The Jack of Hearts is pictured below, just after he stole the tarts.



A Succession of Souvenir Plates

Apparently our British cousins across the Atlantic are not entirely pleased with the official royal wedding china issued in advance of the upcoming nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton, provoking the production of unofficial alternatives like the plate below, one of several offered by London-based KK Outlet:

This got me thinking about souvenir or commemorative china in general, and plates in particular.  Actually I was inspired by an earlier post on Frank Cousins and his wares to look closer at Salem souvenir plates, but it seems sensible to take a longer (and broader) view.  As they are with so many advertising innovations, I assumed that the Victorians were the pioneering producers of commemorative china, but if we examine the genre in terms of  its most basic purpose—remembrance—we can go back further, to at least the Renaissance.  Italian Renaissance maiolica potters regularly produced domestic pottery to commemorate family events, generally betrothals and births, as these two examples (Urbino, 1530 & 1540)  from the huge majolica collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum illustrate:

Moving forward several centuries we have two amazing examples (also from the V & A)  of European commemorative china commissioned from China, reminders that Europeans had their “China Trade” well before Salem merchants established their Asian trading connections.  Both plates are from the mid-eighteenth century; the first commemorates the arrival of a Dutch East India Company ship in Chinese waters, the second marks the Jacobite Uprising in Scotland in 1745 (Strange Kilts!  Actually the wearing of all tartan kilts was banned by the British government—until 1782—in retaliation for this rebellion).

As we move into the nineteenth century, souvenir china is transformed from bespoke to retail trade because of changing conditions in both supply and demand, converging in the foundation of a “mass market”.  Still mining the vast collection of the Victoria & Albert, I’ve come up with several Victorian and  Edwardian souvenir plates, capturing such iconic British images as the great Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Year, and the Bard.

This last Shakespeare plate dates from 1904, and is similar in color, style, period and origin to the Salem souvenir plates below, which represent a very small sample of English plates produced for the American market prior to World War One.  The Boston firm Jones, McDuffee & Stratton had a virtual monopoly on importing the popular Wedgwood blue-and-white transferware decorated with “historic” American scenes (listing 78 designs in their 1910 catalogue and as many as 300 patterns overall), and so their Salem competitor Daniel Low & Company turned to smaller Staffordshire potteries for the production of their designs.  With the earlier success of their witch spoon, it was only natural that they would now offer “Salem Witch” plates.

Fortunately there is another Salem image that has appeared in ceramic form over the past two centuries:  that of the famous Salem East Indiaman Friendship, which made 17 global voyages before its capture by the British in the War of 1812.  Just a few years later (1820), the beautiful Chinese Export Friendship platter below might have been commissioned by some sentimental Salem merchant, and just last year, it was auctioned off by Sotheby’s with an estimate of $6000-$8000 (and a realized price of over $53,000!)    It contrasts quite sharply with the last plate, from a line produced by Wedgwood around 1977, which is widely available on the second-hand collectibles market for around $40.

Vintage Salem Items on Etsy

In addition to its newly-made creative offerings, Etsy offers vintage items, including clothing, books, and a variety of collectibles.  The following listings appealed to me for both their Salem connections and their patina, for lack of a better word:

Salty Sailors Salt and Pepper Shakers (stamped Historic Salem, Mass on the bottom—an unusual non-witch collectible!) from Etsy seller dimestorejunkie.

Early (1910-20) Parker Brothers Tiddledy Winks Game  from Etsy seller FlosFullWagon.

A Little Girl in Old Salem (1908) by Amanda M. Douglas, from Etsy seller GryphonVintage.

1911 Massachusetts Atlas  from Etsy seller bananastrudel.

Frank W. Cousins and Salem

Quite possibly Frank Cousins (1851-1925),  photographer, author and entrepreneur, has contributed more to the evolving image of Salem than anyone else.  His primary contribution is photographic:  Cousins took thousands of pictures of Salem’s colonial and federal buildings prior to World War One, and the Cousins Collection remains an essential visual record of the pre-war, pre-fire, pre-modern city.  Cousins was a pioneer in the specialized genre of architectural photography, and his photographs of Salem exteriors and interiors can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the archives of university libraries and architectural firms, as well as in the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum.  The series of photographs published between 1891 and 1901, entitled “Historic Views of Salem” , established his reputation and led to photographic endeavors in other historic eastern cities as well as to his authorship (with Phi Madison Riley) of The Wood-carver of Salem:  Samuel McIntire, His Life and Work and The Colonial Architecture of Salem.    

 Peirce-Nichols House, Federal Street


 Timothy Orne House, Essex Street


 Narbonne House, Essex Street


Miles Ward House, Derby and Herbert Streets


Caroline Emmerton House, Essex Street


Lindall-Andrews House Interior, Essex Street


 Exterior Door Detail, Gardner-Pingree House, Essex Street

Cousins was a great advocate for Salem and Samuel McIntire, but he was also an entrepreneur, operating a successful store called the “Bee-Hive”, or more accurately “Frank Cousins’ Bee-Hive”, at 172 Essex Street for many years.  His success was clearly based on his ability to offer products representing ALL of Salem’s attractions, not just its architecture.  This was, after all,  the era of Daniel Low’s “Witch Spoon”.  An 1891 Scribner’s Magazine advertisement placed by Cousins reads:  HISTORIC SALEM.  The Scene of Witchcraft and the Home of Hawthorne.  Views of its nooks and corners, highways and by-ways, from “Witch Hill” to the “House of the Seven Gables”.  If surviving copies are any indication, Cousins also issued many trade cards to advertise his business, including the unusual patriotic cards featuring the opposing candidates of the 1880 presidential election, as well as more conventional examples.

 Matched trade cards courtesy Rare Flags


 In his shop, Cousins was not averse to selling witch wares.  His postcards bore the title Ye Olde Witch City Salem, and he also sold souvenirs such as the ceramic boot and  dish below,  marked “Salem 1692, Carlsbad China, Made in Austria for Frank Cousins, Salem, Mass.”  Cousins’ offerings of  “historic souvenir china” also included an early example of Hawthorneana (if there is such a word):  the Hawthorne Tile, made at the famous Staffordshire pottery in England, showing Hawthorne, his birthplace, the House of the Seven Gables and the Old Town Pump, available for 50 cents according to an 1893 advertisement in Putnam’s Monthly Historical Magazine.  I’m still on the hunt for this tile, but I’m sure that Cousins produced enough inventory for me to find at least one.

Transatlantic Trade Cards

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the printing industry in England during the Tudor era and continue to be interested in the history of printing and print culture, not just book and informational publishing but also practical or “job” printing, preserved as what we call “ephemera” today:  newsbooks, handbills, broadsides, catalogues, tickets, labels, and a host of other forms of printed matter.  John Johnson, Printer to Oxford University in the mid-twentieth century and a major collector of ephemera, defined it as  “everything which would ordinarily go into the waste paper basket after use, everything printed which is not actually a book.” 

 Despite real and digital survivals in collections around the world, these pieces of paper were and are ephemeral—-who knows how many were produced?  Survivals are like captured fleeting images from the past, and great examples of both print and popular culture.  What did you throw in the trash today that might be valued by historians tomorrow?   My focus today is on trade cards, an early form of advertising, whose production definitely peaked in the  later nineteenth century, after the diffusion of color lithography and before the onset of electronic media.  Trade cards seem to be inextricably linked to the Victorian era when they were colorfully pictorial and prolific, but they actually go way back to the first centuries of print.  Below are some examples from the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries and both sides of the Atlantic. 


 The two early English cards (c. 1680-1700) are from the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera in the Bodleian Library of Oxford University;  the Salem and Lowell examples are from the Baker Library at Harvard and the Library of Congress.  I particularly like both the image and  the tag line of  T.W. McKean, Tailor:   Ladies’ Tight Fitting Garments a Specialty (but the lady dreaming of her well-dressed husband and son on the last card is hard to beat).

An Assemblage of Owls

Inspired by news and a great photograph of a big barred owl that has recently taken up residence in south Salem, I assembled a little group of owls on my bedroom mantle.  Several of these guys come from the two connected shops on Front Street in Salem,  Roost and the Beehive, which I stop by with increasing regularity.  I love printed and figural representations of birds and animals and am rather enthusiastic about displaying them in our home:  elephants are always around —to the point of near-tackiness and maybe beyond—and I’ve gone through bear, deer, swan, snail, and rabbit phases with little restraint.  I’m thinking about foxes for the future.  I had a brief bout with owls this fall and thought I was done, but apparently not.  A passing glance at that great owl on McKinley Road drove me to retrieve my “owl box” in the basement and to my favorite medieval bestiary, the “Salisbury” Bestiary from circa 1250, for the images below.  To illustrate the increasingly realistic (and scientific) perception of the owl, I’ve also included images from Konrad Gessner’s Histories of the Animals (1551-58), one of my favorite teaching texts because of its beautiful woodcut illustrations and its nascent empiricism, and John Gould’s more recent Birds of New Guinea and the Adjacent Papua Islands (1875).

Salem Items on Etsy


In the tradition of Daniel Low & Company, Salem continues to inspire artists, collectors  and craftspeople!  Here are some items that caught my eye during a recent Etsy browsing session:

Small Town Salem from Above   by Etsy seller lbarryphoto

Vintage Parker Brothers “Authors” Game   by Etsy seller sadieolive

Salem 1692 Cotton Pillow   by Etsy seller alexandrarosie (which I nabbed for myself but maybe she can make more) 

“Scarlet Letter” Hand Marbled Paper  by Etsy seller mymarbledpapers

Witch City, part one


This is a topic which I will probably return to again and again—hence the “part one” in the post title.  The Witch City to which I refer is not the city of Salem, but rather the image of Salem, which is a different topic altogether, and an important one, I think.  My academic specialty is early modern Europe, an era in which tens of thousands of people were executed for witchcraft, but not one of the cities or towns in which trials occurred have transformed themselves into “Witch City”.  Yet Salem has clearly done so.  Has this been a deliberate development?  I’m not sure, but it is certainly one that intensified over the twentieth century.











Did it all start with a spoon?  There are many factors which contributed to the making of “Witch City”:  the loss of Salem’s commercial hegemony following the Embargo Act of 1807 and the progressive silting up of  its harbor,  Nathaniel Hawthorne’s popularity and personal connection to the Witch Trials, the publication of the first interpretive history of the trials by Charles Wentworth Upham in 1867, the increasing popularity of Halloween, and the parallel marketing efforts of Salem’s civic and business leaders.  The aggressive marketing of what may be America’s first souvenir spoon, the “Witch Spoon”  produced by Daniel Low & Company from 1890, has been the focus of those who have studied this topic and I can see why.  Daniel Low, Jewelers and Silversmiths , operated an impressive retail establishment in the former First Church building in Townhouse Square for over a century (1867-1995), but maintained a national presence through the publication of their annual mail-order trade catalogues which prominently featured their witch wares, not only the spoons but also assorted “witch novelties”.

I don’t want to give the impression that it was all about witchcraft merchandise for Daniel Low & Company; they operated a big business and their production both tapped into and reflected national trends and interests.  Below is their trade catalogue from 1927, illustrating the Colonial Revival interest in all aspects of pre-revolutionary material culture, as well as a 1902 advertisement for a William McKinley spoon, issued in the immediate aftermath of the president’s assassination in 1901.

Historic New England, Collections Access Database




One way to ascertain Salem’s changing  public attitude towards its witch-trial past is to examine guide books and brochures, issued by both private and public entities in increasing numbers from the later nineteenth century.  When comparing the Visitors’ Guide to Salem of 1880 to 1915’s What to Do in Salem the trend is clear:  the former has a few sentences devoted to the “witchcraft delusion” while the latter sets forth a prioritized list of reasons why Salem possesses such historical importance.   At the top is the city’s claim to the title of oldest city in Massachusetts, followed by 2) the “terrible witchcraft craze”, 3) its port and commercial prosperity in the eighteenth century, 4) its “exceptionally active part in the Revolution and War of 1812, 5) Hawthorne, and 6) its colonial architecture.  Clearly the success of the Witch Spoon had influenced both the city’s perception and projection of itself.

Library of Congress




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