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“Burglarious Tools”

The police blotter headline caught by eye–Salem Police Nab Alleged Copper Thief on Flint Street–because, frankly, copper downspouts are far too vulnerable in Salem (and I have one right on the street!), but as I read the details, one particular phrase really captured my attention: At 10:18 a.m., police responded to a report of stolen copper down spouts on Flint Street. [The alleged thief] was arrested on charges of larceny over $250, malicious destruction of property valued above $250 and possessing burglarious tools. Burglarious!!! Is that really a word? Burglarious tools!!! I can only imagine. Is there a precise definition–lots of things could be considered “burglarious tools”, I should think. And is there really a law against possessing them apart from using them?

Well I went right to my legal history colleague who directed me to the statute to answer these questions. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts (along with several other states) does indeed have a statute regarding burglarious tools among its General Laws (Chapter 266, Section 49):

Whoever makes or mends, or begins to make or mend, or knowingly has in his possession, an engine, machine, tool or implement adapted and designed for cutting through, forcing or breaking open a building, room, vault, safe or other depository, in order to steal therefrom money or other property, or to commit any other crime, knowing the same to be adapted and designed for the purpose aforesaid, with intent to use or employ or allow the same to be used or employed for such purpose, or whoever knowingly has in his possession a master key designed to fit more than one motor vehicle, with intent to use or employ the same to steal a motor vehicle or other property therefrom, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than ten years or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars and imprisonment in jail for not more than two and one half years.

I’m no lawyer, but the key words here must be “knowing”, “knowingly” and “with intent”: you can’t just arrest someone for having a toolbox in their possession. I know that Massachusetts has long taken theft seriously (it was a capital crime from 1715 to 1839) but I presume that the “burglarious tool” law came later, maybe in the late nineteenth century, when there seems to have been a preoccupation with more deliberate, strategic, involved crimes, requiring some serious tools. I found an interesting article in the May 1874 issue of  Manufacturer and Builder on “Burglar’s Tools” which seems to present their manufacture as the dark side of the industrial revolution, and there are several other contemporary publications which seem to be a less preoccupied with the perpetrators than their paraphernalia (and, as several commentators have pointed out, more prescriptive than preventative!)

Burglarious Tools 1874 manufacturer and builder

Burglarious Tools 1875 Montreal NYPL

Burglarious Tools

Manufacturer and Builder, 1874; Aftermath of a Bank Robbery in Montreal, New York Graphic, January 9, 1875 (New York Public Library Digital Gallery);“Bank Burglars’ Outfit”, from George Washington Walling, Recollections of a New York Chief of Police. New York: Caxton Book Concern, 1887.


Ceramic City

My material side–always simmering under the surface–almost takes over during the holidays: I have no doubt that I would be consumed by it if I didn’t also have lots of academic responsibilities at the same time. It’s not just shopping, it’s really more about decorating–I have to have a theme, and the theme must layered all over the house–which means I have to get ready now. This year, I’ve decided to go with little clay villages, a ceramic city of sorts, interwoven with the usual holiday stuff (but not a kitschy enchanted village). I was inspired by the “Town Square Sculptures” of ceramicist Molly Hatch, but as soon as I started looking, I’ve been finding little clay houses everywhere. Here are a few of my favorites on the web, and next weekend I’m off to check out a potential treasure trove in New Hampshire. Please forward any additional sources, as right after Thanksgiving, I’ll have to be ready to assemble my ceramic city.

Ceramic City Hatch

Ceramic City Hatch 2

I adore these little houses by Rowena Brown, modeled after the cottages of St. Kilda, the westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides off Scotland, but they might be a bit too rustic for my little city, and definitely too precious to display for only one month a year:

Ceramic Houses 2

Ceramic Houses

The houses which I am eying on Etsy:

Ceramic City Poast

Ceramic Houses Poast 2

Ceramic Houses Poast 3

Ceramic House Red

Ceramic City White Cottage

Lots of tea light holders–lighthouses–out there (these are my favorite), but most are a bit too cute for my taste, and I think I’m going to refrain from all of the collectible series of miniature houses, from Europe and America and the past and the present, as well. So it’s going to take a while to build my city, but in the meantime the many deer I’ve collected over the years can dominate the landscape.


Edith & Jane, and Penguins

I have never been a good sleeper, but over this past summer I developed a very regular sleeping pattern:  I wake up exactly at 4:00 every morning. If only I was a farmer–or worked for the Today show! After a few weeks of tossing and turning, I now get up and do something–generally read or write–so not to wake my soundly-sleeping husband. I’ve been reading Edith Wharton all summer, so her characters are often the last thing I’m thinking about when I fall asleep. When I wake up at 4:00 (and believe me, it is always precisely at 4), I generally go upstairs to my study, which is lined with academic books that seem far too intimidating for that early in the morning–and Jane Austen. So I pick up Jane, and read for a couple of hours. And then I fall asleep for a half-hour or so, and wake up with “memories” of odd Wharton-Austen mash-ups:  Lily Bart from The House of Mirth is navigating Regency society rather than that of New York; Anne Elliot from Persuasion is sitting quietly in a Gilded Era drawing room rather than back in Bath. I’m all confused when I wake up.

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Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Edith Jones Wharton (1862-1937).

Now I’m sure that I’m not the first person to draw comparisons between these two iconic authors, who captured their relatively rarefied worlds a century apart. They both write about women, women who face social, economic, and cultural constraints. Jane’s women face different constraints than Edith’s, but the latter’s more modern characters seem to be living in a darker world, without much help, from either their creator or their fellow characters. I think that’s why I’m engaging in these subconscious mash-ups:  I want to rescue Edith’s young women by transporting them back to Austenland, where Jane will take care of them. Lily Bart and Summer‘s Charity Royall are certainly not as nice, and consequently deserving, as Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood, but they have no family, no hope, and no future in Wharton’s script. Jane would do better by them, I think. I have no idea why I would transpose Austen characters to turn-of-the-century New York:  they would not do well there.

Apart from this brief foray into lit crit and armchair psychology, this post provides yet another opportunity to showcase my absolutely favorite books, as nearly all of my Austen volumes are Penguin Clothbound Classics with covers designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith. And now I find that there are companion Wharton volumes in Penguin’s relaunched English Library line of more affordable paperbacks, also with Bickford-Smith covers. I just love the whole idea of book design in this digital age.

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Some Penguin Wharton Covers, and the Penguin 150th anniversary volume, Three Novels of New York, with cover design by Richard Gray.

Edith House of Mirth Penguin English Library

Edith Wharton Ethan Frome Penguin

Edith and Jane


Summer Arrives

Summer arrived in Salem in a big way this past weekend with several days of 90+ degree heat; it felt more like early August than June. This is a bit of an aberration, and we should be back in the 70s this week (it’s raining this morning). I braved the heat and went out into the garden, armed with a quart of “half-and-half”, half lemonade, half unsweetened strong black iced tea–my second favorite summer drink (after gin & tonics). On Sunday I was able to have a few of my VERY favorite summer drinks out in the garden of the Salem Athenaeum, at the annual garden party. This event is timed to coincide with the blooming of the massive multicolored rhododendrons in the garden, and I think the timing was perfect this year.

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At home the lady’s slippers have arrived and the catmint is in full bloom, beckoning Moneypenny. On a less happy note, someone stole my three large planters–filled to the brim with hydrangeas and Memorial Day flags!!!!–as well as my neighbors’ in the middle of the night. Not a tragedy obviously, but sad that someone would do this.

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Summer 101

Summer 114

Path leading into the garden of the Salem Athenaeum, lined by huge rhododendrons, which frame a beautiful 18th century house next door. Another beautiful house, on Chestnut Street, with the street’s only surviving Elm tree in front. I’m on a quest to find all the elms I can this summer, so if you know of a particularly majestic one in eastern New England, please let me know!


Wayward Wisteria

I walk to work along a street named Wisteria, where there is no wisteria to be found, and planted wisteria in my backyard 12 years ago, but it has yet to bloom; nevertheless, it is wisteria-blooming time nearly everywhere else in Salem. Maybe even just past-time, so I took a walk and tried to capture some good shots of the exuberant purple and white blooms, which was not too difficult. The great thing about wisteria it that it needs support, so you get architecture and flowers at the same time. Even when the wisteria was not in bloom–as in my backyard, or on my next-door neighbors’ beautiful fence, or the arbor at the Ropes Mansion, it was still quite abundant in its more restrained way. Given the east Asian source of wisteria, I can imagine Salem’s merchants and adventurers bringing it back from China and Japan in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, carefully packed in their ships’ holds, to adorn their houses, fences and outbuildings–and so it does.

Wisteria at my next-door neighbors’ (side and back) and across Chestnut Street:

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On a Tudor “automobile house” on Botts Court:

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The Ropes Garden and Federal Court:

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And the surreal wisteria tunnel at the Kawachi Fuji Gardens in Kitakyushu, Japan, via Slate.com.

Wisteria Tunnel


May Day

Thanks to fond childhood memories (which I wrote about in last year’s May Day post) and my own rather whimsical penchant for the past, the first of May is one of my favorite days of the year. This year it is even better than usual because it marks the end of classes (yes, professors look forward to this just as much as students, perhaps more). There is lots of age-old advice about May Day, which, combined with artistic representations of bringing in the May–feasting, dancing, and processions (all while wearing garlands)– leads me to believe that it was once a much more important holiday than the non-event it is today. This is just a small list of things that you are supposed to do or not do in May, culled from a variety of sources, most from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries:  take off your “flannels”, organize a parade (especially if you are a milkmaid or a chimney sweep), cut down trees and greenery and deck the halls, dance, pick a May Queen, move house (???), but do not get married (unfortunately my anniversary is in May) or sleep with a blooming Hawthorn branch in your bedroom.

For my own May Day observance, I’ve collected a few flowery images from the past–where May Day is depicted with a strong undertone of liberation on at least this first day of the merry month of May–and my own present-day Salem. I think everyone feels a bit more liberated in the springtime, and students and professors at semester’s end.

May Day 1820

Thomas Lord Busby, Costumes of the Lower Orders of London, 1820 (New York Public Library Digital Gallery).

Here is a rather fanciful depiction of  milkmaids and chimney sweeps in their May Day costumes, with the traditional Jack in the Green in the center, covered by a more masculine version of the traditional garland. Quite elaborate costume for the “lower orders”! This is one of 24 hand-colored etched plates “engraved from nature’ by Thomas Lord Busby in 1820: a rather voyeuristic, and expensive, collection that is brand new to me. Both milkmaids and chimney sweeps (but no Jack in the Green) are the central subjects of Francis Hayman’s earlier (and even more romanticized) painting, The Milkmaids Garland, or Humours of May Day (1741-42), below.

May Day Garland

Victoria & Albert Museum, London

More than a century later, Walter Crane’s images of May Day are both romantic and relevant: as devoted to the cause of the “lower orders” as he was to his art, he created the iconic Garland for May Day, 1895 which grounded politics in the same traditional imagery that is evident in his later illustration for Charles Lamb’s A Masque of Days (London: Cassell & Company, 1901).

May Day Garland 1895

May Day Masque of Days Walter Crane

Rather than a full-floral display, there are pops of color around town this morning:  it’s still early Spring in Salem. In my own garden, my perfect pulmonaria (lungwort) was in full flourish, and the boring forsythia a little past. Elsewhere in Salem, there was a lot to see on this May Day morning on my brief run around before (the last day of) classes.  I particularly like the last little striped flowers in the herb garden behind the Richard Derby House at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site–some type of tulip?

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May Day 008

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 May Day 029


Tea with White Rabbits

For a little tea party I was giving, I decided to go with an Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland theme, as I have quite a few of the necessary characters, including many white rabbits, who could do double duty for Easter. I looked around the web for some inspiration, found some cute cards on Etsy, and bought lots of flowers in an attempt to bring Spring indoors (because it is still not outdoors). Every time I entertain, I spend far more time cleaning and decorating than I do cooking, which I imagine must be somewhat disappointing to my guests. But I don’t think the expectations are really that high for tea (at least my tea) and I did make some really delicious little sandwiches out of a cream cheese, hot pepper jelly, and pecan mixture (on Pepperidge Farm white bread, of course) if I do say so myself. No one was late!

Tea 8

Tea 2

Tea 4

Tea 5

I LOVE anemones, indoors and out.

Tea 7

Tea 10

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Spring Fancy (Chairs)

The combination of the Metropolitan Museum’s current exhibition, Plain or Fancy? Restraint and Exuberance in the Decorative Arts and the onset of Spring (even though it looks very much like winter here) got my thinking about “fancy” chairs. I use this term very liberally, probably too liberally, to refer to any decorated chair with a vaguely  Sheraton and/or Empire profile produced in America in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. I have maybe 7 of these chairs, which represent the full spectrum of fanciness, from basic Hitchcock models with stenciling to hand-painted examples which I think are a bit more special. I have had more, I could buy more–they’re everywhere and I love them. I can’t imagine how many of these chairs were made:  certainly Lambert Hitchcock started the trend with his Riverton (then Hitchcockville), Connecticut factory in the 1820s, but he must have had many imitators because there are so many fancy chairs out there. Several of my fancy chairs  (the ones that are less fancy) have cushions which I had custom-made, and it’s a spring ritual to take the cushions off for the warmer seasons, exposing the rush seats, just as I put slipcovers on some of my upholstered chairs.

The (English) Sheraton inspiration and some of my chairs, the American interpretation: from fancy to plain.

Fancy Chairs Sheraton

Fancy Chair Green2

Fancy Chair music

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Fancy Hitchcock Chairs

You still see fancy chairs in Salem dining rooms today, but the photograph below shows a room from 1916 (not sure in which house; it’s from an article in the long-defunct Mentor magazine), well after the fancy craze was over. These chairs endured and became classic, and their style was revived multiple times in the twentieth century. Back in their heyday, the prolific New England folk artist Joseph H. Davis (active 1832-37) featured very fancy chairs in many of his parlor portraits, like that of Mr. Demeritt below.

Fancy Chairs Mentor 1916

Fancy Chair Joseph H. Davis

Joseph H. Davis, John F. Demeritt, probably Barrington, New Hampshire, 1836, American Folk Art Museum, New York.

Because of a number of factors–the sheer number of chairs that were made, both in the “fancy” period and after, the great variety of chairs, and the range of imperfections on their painted surfaces–you can find these chairs pretty easily in New England, and often for a very good price. I was looking through the sold lots of several auctions at Skinner this month, and found the groups of chairs below: the entire first lot, a set of 6 chairs made in Newburyport in 1825, went for a little over $1000, while the pair of grain-painted and gilt-stenciled chairs went for $615.

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Fancy chairs grain painted and gilt stenciled 1825 Skinner 615

Then again, these are rather restrained examples of the “Fancy” style, which encompassed not only furniture but all of the decorative arts in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. One of my very favorite exhibitions at the Peabody Essex Museum here in Salem was American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840, on view in 2004 (curated by Virginia antiques dealer Sumpter T. Priddy III, who appears to have made the study and appreciation of “Fancy” his life’s work and who wrote the beautiful companion volume). Talk about exuberance! Chairs and settees were a big part of this exhibition, and it was clear to me that the most fancy chairs were not made in New England but in the mid-Atlantic, in Baltimore to be precise. The “Baltimore Fancy Chair” makes all others pale in comparison (and fetches prices that indicate its enduring appreciation) but I think I prefer my own chairs–less perfect, less brilliant, less valuable, but still fancy.

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More variations on the fancy chair:  a Baltimore chair by the Finlay Brothers, c. 1815-20, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Portrait of Mrs. Edgar Paschall (Martha Eliza Stevens) by unidentified artist, 1823, National Gallery of Art.


Absinthe Accessories

Since its (re-) legalization a few years ago, I have somehow acquired three bottles of absinthe. I found them while I was cleaning out the liquor cabinet the other day, all largely untapped. I think I tried a few sips, and a few more cocktails, and then put all three bottles on the top shelf and forgot about them. Even though it comes in my favorite color green, is made of one of my favorite herbs (wormwood–which grows vigorously in my garden every summer), and I find its long history fascinating, I cannot seem to acquire a taste for la Fée Verte. Maybe it’s too strong for me, maybe I just haven’t found the right cocktail recipe (please forward if you have one), and maybe I just don’t have the right stuff: my tea strainer is clearly no substitute for an absinthe spoon, and my sherry glass can’t compete with the Pontarlier glass of the proper absinthe set-up. And then there are special fountains, decanters, seltzer bottles, sugar tongs, and saucers:  the Absinthe Ritual was quite a production.

Absinthe service

Absinthe Drinkers 1910

A contemporary absinthe service and the absinthe ritual in 1910:  photograph from the Virtual Absinthe Museum, a great site for all things absinthe.

I do like the slotted spoons:  they were made in many different designs and seem to be quite collectible. I’m sure most of them have been serving as pie knives for the last century or so. With the lifting of  the ban on absinthe and the diffusion of steampunk culture (which seems to give absinthe pride of place, right of there with gears and octopuses), new absinthe accessories are also being produced, including all manner of spoons.  The possibilities are endless.

Absinthe spoons

Green Fairy Absinthe Spoon Etsy

A selection of antique absinthe spoons from Absinthe Originals; Green Fairy Wing Absinthe Spoon by Etsy seller DangerAwesomeLasers.

The other type of absinthia (it is a word) that seems to be very collectible are images. Obviously the café paintings produced by nearly every French Belle Epoque artist are out of reach, but there was also a lot of more ephemeral absinthe art produced in the period as well:  posters, photographs, cards. I particularly like the posters produced around 1910, when a fierce debate was being waged over the Green Fairy. Advocates for and against the prohibition of absinthe put out very compelling images, like these posters below. In the first one, published by A.H. Gantner is Switzerland in 1910, a menacing man representing the coalition of religion and medicine (strange to have faith and science on one side!) is literally skewering the green fairy and Swiss freedom at the same time. That was the central pro-Absinthe argument at the time:  temperance is anti-freedom, not just freedom to drink absinthe, but civil liberties in general. Five years after absinthe was banned in Switzerland, France followed suit, and an Audino poster from 1915 presented the Green Fairy as Joan of Arc, burning at the stake while her ghostly Swiss sister looked on. In the last image, an advertisement for a 1913 film titled Absinthe produced by the Gem Motion Picture Company in New York, an absinthe addict stares at the evil substance, mesmerized.

L0030543 An evil man, representing medicine and religion (?), gloats

Absinthe Suppression in France 1915

L0038329 An absinthe addict eyeing three glasses on a table;

Wellcome Images, Wellcome Library, London.

Well I think I’ve gone off on a tangent:  the suppression of absinthe is another subject altogether, really, as is its early history, before the nineteenth century, when it was perceived as medicinally beneficial rather than addictive and destructive (as well as pleasurable).  I’m talking about stuff today. Though I haven’t acquired a taste for absinthe, I do like its smell (and color), especially as contained in my candle from Witch City Wicks.

Absinthe candle


Trees in the House

I was intent and inspired to have a rather spare Christmas tree this year, but once again we have a huge and furry white pine (I think I incorrectly called last year’s tree a Scotch pine) tree, over nine feet tall, that just eats ornaments.  Oh well, the house probably calls for such a display, in contrast to the more minimalist Scandinavian looks, featuring branches and twigs more so than trees, that I collected in a pile of tear sheets. I particularly like this beautiful Toronto house, owned and decorated by designer Ingrid Oomen, that is featured in this month’s issue of Canadian House and Home.

Tree in the House HH

Tree in the house CHH 3

I don’t know why the second scan came out so grainy–sorry. These minimalist tree branches go so well with this decor, and they could really be maintained all year round, minus the ornaments. I also like this simple display from Country Living, counterposed with the more traditional tree in the adjoining room.

Tree in the House Country Living

I have not managed to go the overly-creative or minimalist route this year.  The Christmas season is always a little frustrating for me, as I have high decorating hopes and not much time, with lots of papers and exams to correct and grades to turn in. I have a few little live trees around the house, like this one on the dining room mantle next to my new deer from Wisteria, and then the big tree in the front parlor (which I am showing you in both undecorated and decorated states so you can see what a monster it is). It doesn’t matter how many ornaments or garlands you put on this tree, it still looks essentially green.

trees Mantle

tree in the house

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Two of my favorite historical images of Christmas trees: Eastman Johnson’s Christmas-Time, The Blodgett Family (1864) and a print of President Roosevelt’s children showing him their closeted Christmas tree in 1903:  he was an avid environmentalist and would not have one in the house (or so he proclaimed).

Christmas-Time, The Blodgett Family Eastman Johnson 1864

Tree Roosevelt 1903 WH Hist Assoc

Eastman Johnson, Chistmas-Time, The Blodgett Family (1864), Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Roosevelt children show the President their tree, 1903, White House Historical Association.


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