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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?

May Day 2 010

May Day 008

May Day 026

 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

PicMonkey Collage

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.

PicMonkey Collage

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

trees2 007

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.

Flawed by Design

Several years ago I sold my rather large collection of red transferware, and cleansed the house of most of the odd bits of toile:  it was pretty clear that my husband hated these romantic patterns–particularly in red.  I think most men share his opinion. I miss the dishes more than the textiles, and have been looking for ways to sneak a few transfer pieces back into our home.  Two versions of modern transferware on the market right now might be just creative enough to overcome their toileness:

Target Too by Blu Dot dinnerware and Anthropologie “Dipped Toile” desert plates.

The first set of dishes–the result of a rather stealth collaboration between Target and the modernist manufacturers Blu Dot–are so subtle I think they could make it into my cupboards unnoticed.  Both of these collections are charming, I think, because they are flawed by design, achieving difference (and whimsy) through apparent “defects”.  It occurred to me that only in our modern industrial age could you possibly have such a design concept as deliberately imperfect:  the standards of pre-industrial craftsmanship would simply not allow it. Then I thought (and read) about the traditional Japanese philosophy and aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which embraces the incomplete and imperfect as a way to grasp simple beauty and transience:  yet another cultural distinction between east and west. In the first half of the twentieth century, similar values were embraced by artisans of the Arts & Crafts movement, who were trying not only to revive craftsmanship but also differentiate their products from those that were mass-produced.  Skip forward a century or so, and differentiation through mass production seems to be the aim of some industrial designers.

Porcelain Tray by Bernard Leach, 1931, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

While exploring the art of imperfection a bit further, I came across this perfectly-matched (at least to me!) pair of objects of flawed beauty, one the result of the passage of time, the other deliberately modern.  Bear in mind that as I am writing this, I am staring at a large crack on my bedroom wall, a flaw that always reappears no matter how many times we reapply plaster.  I’m searching for an empty gilt frame–and trying to have an optimistic outlook!

Highworth Roman milk pot in unrestored state, via The History Blog; crack “painting” via A Lovely Escape.

“Salem Style”

The online private sales site Joss & Main is currently featuring an array of goods under the label “Destination: Salem” and when the notice popped up in my email inbox (I subscribe to far too many of these sites, unfortunately) I was both curious and excited:  would there be Federalist McIntire reproductions or would they go the witchy route?  Here’s the description of the look book and you can guess for yourselves:

The iconic “Witch City” of Salem, Massachusetts evokes the spellbinding designs of New England’s rich history. Transform your home into a stylish haunt with classic chandeliers and wingback chairs, experience the drama and dark grandeur of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings with handsome poster beds, conjure the infamous trials of 1692 with captivating prints and décor, welcome the spirit of commerce with captain’s quarters-worthy consoles, and illuminate All Hallow’s Eve with timeless lanterns and candleholders.

No Samuel McIntire-inspired goods, but it’s not all kitschy witchy either.  I’m pretty comfortable with a Salem that conjurs up the image of  “dark grandeur” and the “spirit of commerce”.  At this time of year, I’ve become resigned to the other stuff.  The actual goods seem to be evocative of a more colonial feel, and despite their overt Halloween appeal, I like the black cat andirons and was disappointed when they sold out.

And here are a couple of other “Salem” items among the collection that caught my eye:  the “Broad Street” wing chair, the “Salem” Kichler chandelier, and “All Hallow’s Eve” pillows:

There are witchy prints, apothecary jars, cauldron planters, and ye olde Salem lanterns to complete the look, along with lots of Windsor-style furniture. And then there were these two pieces, which confused and charmed me:  I can’t quite figure out how the rather glam “Prisca mirror” fits into this scheme, except that it might be the “grandeur” in “dark grandeur”, and I was amazed to see that Salem’s own Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838), the eminent mathematician and acknowledged father of modern maritime navigation whose book The New American Practical Navigator (1802) is still carried on every U.S. naval vessel, has also inspired his very own “Bowditch drop-leaf table”.  The other Salem Nathaniel, Nathaniel Hawthorne, has one too!

An Array of Elephants

I know that they’re trendy now and have been for some time, but I’ve been an elephant afficionado since I was a little girl, so I have many, many elephants that run the range from extreme tackiness to quite elegant.  I’ve had to edit my collection of elephants down rather dramatically to avoid their takeover of the house, so most of them are in boxes in the basement now (I could not, of course, get rid of them!)  I think that I should forgo future pachyderm purchases, unless they are of the ephemeral variety and don’t take up much room. Nevertheless, I am always looking…and several very different and unattainable elephants  have caught my eye over the past few weeks, renewing my appreciation for those in my own house at the same time.

Three great elephants: a “change packet” (a kind of ephemera I didn’t even know existed! nineteenth-century shopkeepers would give you your change back in these cute little paper packets, which provided them with another avenue for advertising) from the Graphics Arts Collection at the Princeton University Library, the mechanical elephant of the Machines of the Isle of Nantes, which can carry around up to 49 people for 45 minutes, and an elephant embroidered by Mary, Queen of Scots about 1570 from the collection of the Victoria & Alfred Museum in London.

I like this last embroidery panel because it indicates that the Queen had access to the first great Renaissance zoological work, Conrad Gessner’s Historiae Animalium (1551-1558).  Mary’s elephant clearly seems to be based on the image in Volume One of Gessner, and I like to think of the plotting Queen and her ladies leafing through the tome for inspiration.

Elephants in my house:  a few of my favorite elephants, still upstairs, beginning with the wallpaper in my first-floor powder room. I can’t remember what the maker or pattern is.

The little guy below is my very favorite elephant:  I have no idea what he is made of or how old he is. He was in a box with some other little elephants–all cast iron–which I bought for a $1.00, but he is not cast iron but rather a hard plaster-like material.

A recent purchase from an antiques shop in Maine:  this guy seems to be made of old college pennants.  I have no idea what to do with him, so he just sits on a chair in the guest bedroom.

A sixteenth-century book illustration:  I purchased it after it was already cut out, but I still feel guilty.

Moneypenny, one with the elephant garden seat.


I’m never quite sure what to do with fireplaces in the summer time:  just leave them alone, throw a potted fern in them, or a few of those old-fashioned fireplace fans?  Books?  The television? (I’d rather put the television in the fireplace than over it; I hate that television-over-the-mantle look) It seems like a wasted space and opportunity, as the fireplace remains the focal point of the room no matter what the season. Our ancestors had the solution to what was for them not just a decorating problem:  they filled their damperless hearths with fireboards or chimney boards, decorated with flowers, street scenes, ships, or whatever caught their fancy. These boards would keep out (or hide) soot, dust, and birds and brighten up the dark and dusty cave in the room at the same time.

Here in Salem, the Peabody Essex Museum has several fireboards from the early nineteenth century that I have long admired and which have inspired me to try to find my own period fireboard, but I’ve never been able to find one that was even remotely affordable and fit any of my fireplaces at the same time.  But the hunt continues because it’s always nice to have a quest!

Here are some of my favorite fireboards from the PEM, beginning with a beautiful scene of upper Washington Street and the Samuel McIntire courthouse painted by George Washington Felt about 1810-20 and a view of Beverly from the same period, by an anonymous artist.  Departing from street scenes and bird’s-eye views representing pride of place, the last two boards represent an historic gale which sank eleven Marblehead fishing boats in 1846 and the stately mansion of Chatsworth in England.

Fireboards from the Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem:  View of Court House Square by George Washington Felt, c. 1810-20; View of Beverly by an anonymous American artist, c. 1800-20 (from the Safford House); The Great Gale of 1846 by William Thompson Bartoll; A Distant View of Chatsworth, Derbyshire, England by Michel Felice Corné, c. 1800 (from the Bertram K. Little and Nina Fletcher Little Collection auction at Sotheby’s,  January 29, 1994).

Pieces such as these have fetched high prices at auction:  most recently, a mid-eighteenth century board featuring the John Hancock House in Boston (below) went for over $600,000 at a Sotheby‘s auction (against an estimate of $150,000-$250,000), but this is a very early and apparently very special piece. The trompe loeil louvered fireboard depicting an idyllic landscape was probably made in Philadelphia around 1810-40: it sold for $60,000 in 2005 and is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The MFA example above features two motifs that often appear on fireboards:  louvers and trompe l’oeil decoration.  In fact, it combines them:  some of the louvers are apparently real and some are fake.  I’ve seen some other louvered boards around, which has made me wonder if something could be made of all the old and abandoned exterior shutters in my basement?  A very literal trompe decoration is on the c. 1820 board below from a Skinner auction a few years ago. I wonder what the purpose was of replicating the bricks behind the board? A more charming example (to me) is the “watermelon” fireboard made in Salem, New York, about 1840, now in a private collection.

A variation on the fireboard is the dummy board or “silent companion”, which did not have to go before the hearth but certainly could and did. You could choose an iconic or period person to go before your fireplace, or you could place a pig there, like the eighteenth-century English example below. In my continuing search for a fireboard (or two), I’ve looked for new sources as well as old, and while most of the former are a bit too rustic for my taste and house, these blue and white pots by British decorative painter Lucinda Oakes look really beautiful.

Pig feeding from a Bowl Dummy Board, c. 1750-1800, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Blue and White Pots I fireboard by Lucinda Oakes.

Salem on the Fourth: 2012

A dreamy Fourth for me as I was up half the night before due to random fireworks going off across the street.  I was half asleep when I woke up and for most of the day.  I missed the 9:00 reading of the Declaration of Independence on Salem Common (which was apparently moved to the ballroom of the Hawthorne Hotel because of our morning rain), but I did make the Horribles Parade in the Willows.  Horribles parades are old New England traditions, still very much alive in the towns and cities north of Boston:  here in Salem, Marblehead, Beverly, and Gloucester–maybe more.  The original idea behind the parades–which date back to the middle of the nineteenth century–was to mock inflated public figures, so politicians get a lot of play, along with anyone else in the news too much.

On the eve of the Fourth, all was quiet and peaceful on Chestnut Street (before the fireworks started) so I took a few pictures of flag-bearing houses.  I was particularly impressed by the efforts of my neighbors (in the blue house below), who are away: they had someone come over merely to put their flag out while I was snapping away.  I went a little crazy with our house this year; as the apartment is empty I draped my veteran ancestor’s coffin flag from its roof.

A completely different scene in the Willows the following morning as crowds came out for the Horribles Parade, which was a little heavy on the Penn State scandal so I’m not going to show you too many pictures. The residents of the Willows really embrace the holiday and the parade, so nearly every cottage is decorated for viewing parties.

We were all hot and tired after the parade, so it was back home to rest and watch old patriotic movies on TCM (Drums along the Mohawk is my absolute favorite, followed by 1776, not so much), have our own little barbecue, and then head back to the other side of town as it was our idea (not mine, actually) to take a flotilla of kayaks out into the middle of Salem Harbor to watch the fireworks. After much preparation, and a drink at our camp on the island, we did this, and it was an invigorating experience.  Unfortunately, none of my pictures came out, so I’ll have to give you a verbal picture: we’re in the middle of the harbor, surrounded by a panorama of light: threatening lightening, the fireworks on Derby Wharf in Salem, Marblehead fireworks to the east, Beverly fireworks to the north, those of some Cape Ann town to the far north, and several other towns to the south.  Then a strange, full, red moon rose, right in the middle of all this man-made light!  The heavens opened up, the rain poured down, and we went in, for one more drink and home. A happy, busy, sleepy Fourth.


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