Tag Archives: Flora and Fauna

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.


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Fall Windows

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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:

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Fall Immersion 13

Fall Immersion 17

Fall Immersion 15

Turnip Ghosts

There is a great quote from the prolific and eminently quotable British writer G. K Chesterton about ghosts–or really belief– in general which references turnip ghosts in particular: I am quite ready to believe that a number of ghosts were merely turnip ghosts, elaborately prepared to deceive the village idiot. This is from a column in the Illustrated London News in 1936: the assumption is that his audience would immediately understand the phrase “turnip ghost”, and as they were British, they probably did. An American audience would and does require some translation. A turnip ghost refers literally to a Jack o’lantern made out of a turnip (but I would also include turnip-headed scarecrows)–something out there in the fields that was not a real ghost but that could create fear–a bugaboo (the best word ever). Old World turnips predated New World pumpkins as the material of choice for All Hallows Eve Jack o’lanterns, and remained predominate for some time, both in the British Isles and on the Continent. And you can easily see why: turnips are scary.


Turnip Seed Packet Ghosted

Turnip Jack o’ lanterns from Work of Fiction (+directions); my own ghosted turnip seed packet.

The turnip-headed scarecrows are equally eerie: they turn up on Halloween postcards from the early twentieth century in both the United States and Europe, but are not exclusively tied to the holiday. Turnips just easily lend themselves towards anthropomorphic expressions.

Turnip Halloween Card

Turnip Head Howl's Moving Castle

Turnip Head Shakers

Vintage Halloween card, c. 1920; the Turnip-head scarecrow from  Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle; Vintage salt & pepper shakers available here.

I bought some turnips the other day–larger ones from a farm up north and smaller ones at our farmers market–with the intent to carve them into something scary, but I’m not sure I can do it–even with Martha Stewart’s assertive advice. They don’t have the soft insides of a pumpkin, and they are much more diminutive. I might chicken out and merely draw on them, because I’m not sure that I want to put in the time and effort: every single time I’ve carved out a pumpkin it has been stolen days before Halloween, and I’m sure my little turnip lanterns would be even more vulnerable!

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Martha Stewarts Turnips

My turnips and Martha’s creations: I might just settle for the turnips (and radishes) in a dish decoration, lower right. See a very scary traditional turnip Jack o’lantern here.

Handsome Heifers and Copious Carrots

Harvest time is Fair time, and in our region that means the Topsfield Fair, which advertises itself as the country’s oldest and dates its origins to a cattle show sponsored by the newly-formed Essex Agricultural Society in 1820. I found an interesting pamphlet (An Address Delivered Before the Essex Agricultural Society: at the Agricultural Exhibition in Danvers [and]  The Trustees’ Account of the Agricultural Exhibition at Danvers, October 16 and 17, 1821) about the fair’s second occasion that lists its award-winning cultivators, crafters, and exhibitors and was surprised to see quite a few Salem names among them. Then as now, Salem was pretty urban in comparison to the surrounding communities, but its northern and southern jurisdictions were still “fields”, so I suppose there was still sufficient acreage to compete with farmers from the more rural communities of Essex County.  Here are the big Salem prizewinners of 1821:


Breeding Sows: Mr. Elias Putnam of Danvers won best ($8) but Mr. Jonathan Osborne of Salem won second best ($5).

Bulls: Mr. Ezekiel Hersey Derby, Esq. awarded first prize ($15) for his “deep red bull of two years old”. Noted also are his “very handsome” heifers.

Cows: Mr. John Barr, Esq. awarded first prize ($15) for his seven-year-old “bright red cow”; Mr. Aaron Waitt, Esq. awarded third prize ($5) for his six-year-old “light red cow”.

Domestic Manufactures: (Salem residents dominated in this category, I must say, although it seems to have been an exhibition rather than a competition).

Imitation Beaver Hats: from Major Samuel Mansfield’s Factory, Salem: water-proof, highly recommended for beauty and economy:  “they exhibit an admirable imitation, formed by the skillful use of cheap materials–the nap of muskrat is laid upon lambswool bodies, which are stiffened with gum shellac”.

Imitation Merino Shawls: by Mrs. Thompson of Salem. Cotton and wool carded together, rich colors, exhibiting “great taste and skill”.

Imitation Leghorn Bonnets: from Miss Mary Raymond of Salem “the happiest imitation in point of color”.

Beautiful specimens of Vitriol and Alum” : from the Salem Laboratory (must research this).

Carpeting: “a well-executed piece of Venitian carpeting” from Mrs. Dwinnel of Salem and “Gobelin-worked Crickets” by the young Misses Page of Danvers are praised–what are Gobelin-worked Crickets????????????

The Ploughing Competition: this seems to have been the highlight of the exhibition, but the root vegetables (see below) received much commentary as well. Benjamin Savory of Newbury won, but Mr. Ezekiel Hersey Derby came in second, with his team of oxen driven by Henry Barrich, ploughman, who ploughed 36 furrows, 6 inches deep, in 70 minutes, “very handsomely”.

Crops: here the Salem farmers seem to be disadvantaged, but John Barr won the barley competition, and Salem dominated the exciting carrot competition:

First Prize ($15) to Mr. John Dwinnel of Salem: 360 bushels raised on a half-acre. Mr. Dwinnel also received second prize for his potatoes.

Second Prize ($10) to Mr. James S. Cate of Salem: 276 bushels raised on a half-acre.

Fourth Prize ($5) to Mr. Ezekiel H. Derby, Esq. of Salem: 256 bushels raised on a half-acre.

There seems to have been intense interest in root and fodder crops at this time, so there were also “claims” or documented harvests of certain crops including rutabaga and “mangel wurtzel”, a kind of beet. Mr. Derby submitted a claim for the latter: reaping 287 bushels of the crop from a half-acre of land, “twice-ploughed and received a slight dressing of manure”, along with Russian radishes and Swedish turnips. The seed was sown on May 23, 1821, and the crop harvested between October 27 and November 3rd. The Salem surveyor came out to verify the claim.

Such information in this report! It makes me want to abandon my ongoing exploration of cultural and social history and become an old-fashioned agricultural historian! It’s no surprise to any Salem historian to see Ezekiel Hersey Derby so oft-mentioned in this account, however, as there is an amazing painting of his family farm in South Salem by the Salem émigré artist Michele Felice Corné dated from about 20 years earlier in the collection of Historic New England. I walk by the former site of this farm (basically Lafayette and Ocean Streets) on my way to work, and generally I think about what it looked like before the Great Salem Fire of 1914, but now I have an entirely new pastoral perspective.

Corne Derby Farm 1800

Cornè, Michele Felice (1752-1845) Ezekiel Hersey Derby Farm, c. 1800, Cogswell’s Grant, Historic New England. This painting is also notable as it represents the artist and his friend, Salem’s famed architect and woodcarver Samuel McIntire, in the lower left-hand corner adjacent to the fence.

Fleeting Phlox

I’m going take a break from berating ugly buildings and stop and smell the….phlox, because it’s that time of year, or maybe even past time. My garden is shaded quite a bit by Hamilton Hall next door so my bright white “David” phlox is in full bloom, but I took a walk around the beautiful gardens of Glen Magna Farms in Danvers yesterday afternoon and saw that their multiple varieties were on their way out. Still lovely, though. I always think of phlox as the ultimate country New England perennial–in Vermont and Maine and western Massachusetts you see it everywhere adjacent to old houses but less so in the old seaports like Salem. It’s a North American native that became so beloved in England in the later nineteenth century that English botanists created unique varieties that they then sold back to American gardeners, who were desirous of colorful versions of “antique” flowers for their Colonial Revival gardens. When I was planting my own garden, I just wanted a mildew-resistant variety, so I went with “David”, but the phlox in all shades of pink at Glen Magna have made me a bit envious. The source for all varieties of phlox is Perennial Pleasures up in northern Vermont, and their annual Phlox Festival is on right now, so if you have the time and the inclination this weekend by all means go—it’s well worth the trip, believe me.

My small patch of phlox, and the more lavish display at Glen Magna Farms, set against the McIntire main and summer houses:

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Phlox in its heyday: adopted by English illustrators, artists, and horticulturists: Frederick William Hulme (1816-1884; Victoria & Albert Museum), Bertha Newcomb (1895, Southwark Art Collection), and a seed packet from the 1930s (Victoria & Albert Museum).

Phlox Hulme VA 19th century

Phlox Seed Packet V and A 1930s

Can you find the phlox in the pioneering Cubist painting by the French artist Albert Gleizes, La Femme aux Phlox (1910, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)?


Spider Web Windows

Sitting on the huge back porch of my parents’ house in York Harbor the other day, I became fixated on the spider web design of the windows of the house next door. This house (unfortunately) blocks quite a bit of our view of the ocean, but is (fortunately) a magnificent creation: large and white and gleaming, with lots of architectural details. It has the appearance of a Colonial Revival house and I know it was built after our Shingle “cottage”, so the dates fit–but the spider web windows do not: they look a little whimsical for this classically-constrained house. I’ve been looking at these web windows my whole life but never really considered them before. Years ago my mother transformed a small window in the front of our house into a stained-glass mosaic in the design of a web; I doubt she was inspired by the web windows in front as a veritable forest existed between that house and ours at that time.

Spider Web Windows 4

Spider Web Windows York

Spider Web Windows 3

Apparently the spider web was a prominent design motif of the Arts and Crafts movement, along with the dragonfly, the firefly and the crane, all indicating the influence of Japanese visual culture in the later Victorian era on both sides of the Atlantic. Just a few minutes of web research brought me to the spider web windows in the famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, and more interestingly (to me) to the work of Chicago-era architect R. Harold Zook (1889-1949), who incorporated spider webs motifs in all of his houses and even as his trademark. I had never heard of Zook before: wow!  And just to illustrate how ageless and universal the spider web window can be I’ve included a charming little pane from the Zouche Chapel at York Minster, dating from the late medieval era and encased in a chapel panel in the sixteenth century.

Spider Web Windows Winchester Mystery House

Spider Web Window Zook House

Spider Web Window

Spider Web Zouche Chapel York Minster 16th century

A great site for R. Harold Zooks Houses, both lost and surviving.

Event-fully Salem

There is so much going on in Salem this summer that I’m a bit overwhelmed, and have taken to hiding in my garden! This was my strategy this past weekend, which was hot and sunny and jam-packed with things to do: sadly I inadvertently missed PEM Curator Dean Lahikainen’s lecture on the recent renovation of the Ropes House and the Salem Garden Club’s seaside garden tour, along with the “Paddle for Plummer” fundraiser for the Plummer Home, though I deliberately missed the Salem Willows Seafood Festival, which is not a community “festival” at all but a corporate event held in a (roped-off) public park. There’s still plenty of time to see the Thomas Hart Benton exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum and the exhibit on the alchemical activities of John Winthrop at the Witch House is just opening today. In a metaphor for this “close to home” summer, I also missed this weekend’s pop-up installation of giant inflatable rabbits down in Boston (Intrude by Australian artist Amanda Parer), but spent Saturday weeding with (three? four? rabbits) hopping (and napping) right in my backyard! On Sunday however, I could not avoid another event which happened right in my (de facto) front yard: Salem’s 4th annual Diner En Blanc pop-up picnic, which was held in the Chestnut Street park. You may be familiar with this……movement? (this sounds like too strong a word) in which people dressed in white “spontaneously” set up a picnic (with more white stuff, including food) in some secretive (right up to the afternoon of the event) location and dine together in pristine magnificence–it started in Paris nearly 30 years ago and now has spread to over 40 cities around the world, probably more, including Salem. As elsewhere, the dinner gets bigger every year as friends invite friends who invite friends….I wasn’t going to post on this happening (better word) as I thought it might seem a bit exclusive, almost as if we’re in Marblehead or Manchester-by-the Sea, but then I thought: what’s exclusive about this? Anyone can come, and they don’t have to pay for the privilege, like the Salem Willows Seafood “Festival”. Plus there was a great hat in attendance, which you simply have to see, and I am proud of my own blanc arrangement, made up exclusively from flowers from my garden.

Mid-July Weekend in Salem (and Boston–“Intrude” Rabbits courtesy of Mark Favermann):

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Intrude Mark Favermann July 12

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Diner et Blanc

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All that’s left is my ghost-like chair this morning.

Lawnmowers for Ladies

My occasional wanderings through the world of Victorian ephemera have definitely convinced me that bicycles represented a form of liberation–physical and otherwise–for women a century or so ago, but I’m confused by the multitudes of similar contemporaneous images of women operating lawnmowers: why would women actually choose to do tedious men’s work–didn’t they have enough to do, or, weren’t they in a good position to get out of it? Is this a case of advertising push rather than feminine pull? Women in short shorts and other inappropriate attire seem to be featured regularly in post-war advertisements for lawnmowers, but I’m more curious about trade cards and such appearing fifty years earlier, when women were supposed to be a bit more closeted. The first “lady with lawnmower” that captured my attention featured was an apparently quite famous English actress named Marie Studholme (1872-1930), who posed with all sorts of things, so I thought the lawnmower was just one more thing. But she was in good company: between 1890 and 1910 or so there were several manufacturers that seem to be marketing lawn mowers for women, or lawnmowers that were so easy to use that even girls could operate them (in their perfect pinafores). Perhaps this is a case of class trumping gender: after all, the majority of women didn’t have expansive lawns in need of tending. The lawn itself, like the lawn mower, is a nineteenth-century creation. I must confess to having a rather romantic attachment to my own manual lawnmower, but only because my backyard is mostly garden with very little lawn–and my husband always does the mowing.

Marie Studholme

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Ladies Lawnmower BPL DC

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Ladies Lawnmowers

Miss Marie Studholme with her bicycle and lawn mower, c. 1900; Lawn mower trade cards from c. 1880-1910, Boston Public Library and from a selection at the Trade Card Place.


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