Tag Archives: Popular Culture


I have never been a fan of H.P. Lovecraft but having spent most of my professional life in the company of 20-year-olds here in Salem I’ve definitely been exposed to the man and his works, especially as they (supposedly) relate to our gothic city. Many of my students believe that the Lovecraftian city of Arkham was modeled on Salem, and its Miskatonic University, our university. They might be right about the former, as the fictional Arkham does indeed have a lot of Salem features, but Lovecraft’s Miskatonic U. is a lot more ivy-covered than our concrete Salem State: most experts assert that is modeled after Bradford College, a now-defunct college up in Haverhill, or perhaps even Brown University, located in Lovecraft’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. We have a great nursing program but no medical school (to service our sanitarium) or Department of Medieval Metaphysics. Apart from the University, The Arkham/Salem connection seems so well-established that I’ve always been curious that Lovecraft has not been assimilated more comprehensively into the relentless Witch City campaign, but that seems to be changing now: I’ve seen Lovecraft walking tours and an exhibit over the past year, and for the next few weeks the Salem Theatre Company is staging an adaptation of The Thing on the Doorstep, the Lovecraft story most closely associated with Salem through its references to the old Derby house and the old Crowninshield place.

Thing on the Doorstep

One of my former students directed me to a site that really drives home the Salem/Arkham connection: The Miskatonic Railroad, 18821907. The centerpiece and absolute focus of this Arkham is Salem’s fortress-like train station, which was demolished in 1954. I don’t believe that Lovecraft ever mentioned the Salem Depot in his works, but it certainly appears Lovecraftian, both in photographs and as recreated for the model Miskatonic Railroad. Its creator, John Ott, doesn’t care much for the rest of Salem, but he is duly impressed by our long-gone station: “Salem today rates about a seven on the dreary scale—not much to see, despite its touristy cant. But up until about sixty years ago, Salem boasted the most spine-tingling eerie Gothic-Norman stone train station in North America”.  Apparently he doesn’t share Lovecraft’s affection for Federal architecture!

Salem Train Depot SSU

Salem Train Depot Razing SSU

Arkham Ott

Arkham Ott 2

Salem Train Depot side view LOC

Miskatonic RR Station

Photographs of the old Salem Train Depot from c. 1905, 1910 & 1954 (the razing!!!), from the Dionne Collection at Salem State University Archives and Special Collections and the Library of Congress interspersed with John Ott’s model Miskatonic Railroad Station. Many more images (and stories) of the latter here.

American Girls

Countless cards were inserted in countless packs of cigarettes for decades starting in the later nineteenth century, for product (to avoid crushing the cigarettes inside), advertising, and revenue purposes (encouraging the formation of collections) and consequently cigarette cards form a huge category of ephemera. This is not really my category, but I do find some of the collections to be really interesting expressions of their era. A case in point are the several series of “State Girls” or “State Belles” offered by various publishers in the first decade of the twentieth century: the girls (or young women) are portrayed in a way that supposedly characterized their state, accompanied by other state symbols, and sometimes situated in representative settings. I became acquainted with these particular cards, which I have seen in both cigarette and postcard forms, through a flea market discovery of a Massachusetts girl, wearing academic dress while standing out on some North Shore rocky coast. This find occurred just several days after I received my Ph.D., and so this girl had a particular appeal to me: here I am, I thought, Scholar Girl, a Bay State Belle!

MA Girls Collage

As you can see, not all Massachusetts girls walked around in academic gowns, books in hand. The Raphael Tuck (on the rocks), Langsdorf (schoolmarmish) and National Art Company (sans glasses) girls do, but not those on the Platinachrome Company’s “alphabet” cards, which focus more on the letter and the state seal and flower, or the Fatima Turkish Cigarettes cards, which are all about the elaborate hats which adorn the heads of rather indistinct state girls. The ladies from all 45-48 states (depending on when these cards were published, and sometimes including the District of Columbia) get more detailed characterizations on some cards while on others they are simply idealized lovely-but-generic belles. Miss Pennsylvania is portrayed in colonial dress, armed with a musket and adorned with a tricorner hat, on the National Art Co. and Langsdorf cards below, while the “Keystone Belle” stands before the bustling factories of what I presume is Pittsburgh on the Tuck Card: the past and the present. Not yet quite a golden girl, Miss California is identified with her steamship and her oranges. The “Lone Star Girl” of Texas has her bluebonnets, and the “Opera Belle” of New York comes equipped with a skyscraper. There are girls equipped with fishing poles (Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon and Maine), swords (Maryland), paddles (Virginia), riding crops (New Jersey) and locomotives (Illinois), but the majority of young women are pictured with farming equipment or produce, a reflection of our then still-agrarian nation. A 21st century update on these cartophilic characterizations would be quite interesting.

PA State Girl Collage

State Girls CA collage

State Girls TX Collage

State Girls NY Collage

(Just click on the collages to enlarge)

Casting Dice

The sheer beauty of the Chestnut Street park this spring–just outside my bedroom window–combined with the solicitousness of my neighbors in picking up after their dogs (newly allowed this year) has got me thinking about lawn games, played, of course, on a perfect summer day (or early evening), g&t in hand. There is always croquet or bocce, but somehow three pictures of lawn dice popped up on my computer screen in the last few days, so right now that’s my focus: I’m not quite sure what you do with these jumbo dice, but I like the concept. When looking around for some game possibilities, I fell down the rabbit hole that is the history of dice–back to antiquity. What we think of as a simple game certainly had some weighty symbolism attached to it in the past: the die is cast for Julius Caesar, Roman soldiers casting dice to determine who would get the bloodstained garments of Jesus after the crucifixion, dice games played with Death Personified during the Middle Ages, vice, vice, and more vice. Think about the evolution of the verbs associated with dice: casting is somewhat suspicious, but once it evolves into a game of throwing, it becomes an increasingly harmless activity. And tumbling dice are clearly even more innocuous.

Park 002

Lawn Dice

Dice Smithfield Decretals BL

Dice Players Walters Art Gallery

DES94132 Fashion textile design depicting tumbling dice, French, c.1930s (gouache on paper) by French School, (20th century); © The Design Library, New York, USA; French,  it is possible that some works by this artist may be protected by third party rights in some territories

Jumbo Wooden Dice sets from Paper Source, Crate and Barrel, and The Grommet; lazy (half-naked!) dice players in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (The Smithfield Decretals, British Library MS Royal MS 10 E IV; Walters Art Gallery MS W4492V by Master Jean de Mauléon, c. 1542); the modern design motif: tumbling dice fabric from the 1930s, ©The Design Library, New York.

Bawdy Ballads

One of my favorite tweeters posted an image of a rather racy seventeenth-century ballad yesterday which prompted me to take a break from all the boring administrative things I have to do at this time of the year to search out some more examples of bawdiness for my last English history class. This was a much more pleasant activity than scheduling and it’s always good to end on a high note! Virginity grown troublesome is just one of many later seventeenth century ballads–drinking songs, working songs, walking songs–focused on human relations in general and maids who are either too chaste or too wild in particular: another of my favorites is The wandring virgin; or, The coy lass well fitted; or, the answer to the wand’ring maiden (1672). Every title which refers to ladies from London is an almost certain reference to their looseness, as in the case of The ansvver to the London lasses folly, or, The new-found father discoverd at the camp (1685). Country girls don’t get off easy either, but generally (not always) they are duped and remorseful. Poor Celia, the subject of the 0ft-printed (and apparently sung) ballad Celia’s Complaint (1678-95?) who was “quickly won” by a rogue’s fair words and is now, forever, “quite undone” and an example to all:  My Spotless Virgins Fort, thou strongly didst assault/ My Favor thou didst Court, and this was my great fault/ So soon to yield, to thee the Field, which did my Honour stain/ And now I cry, continually, poor Celia Loved in Vain.

Virginity Troublesome

Virginity Troublesome cropped

London Lasses Beineke

Kentish Maiden crop

Celia's Complaint cropped

Later seventeenth-century ballads from the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Beineke Library at Yale, and a great database for English broadside ballads: The University of California at Santa Barbara’s Broadside Ballad Archive. You can actually hear variations on these ballads performed, including the classic “Maid’s Complaint for want of a Dil Doul”, on the City Waites’ album Bawdy Ballads of Old England.

The Consummate Fool

As the title of Beatrice K. Otto’s engaging book, Fools are Everywhere. The Court Jester Around the World, asserts, fools are a universal phenomenon in the pre-modern world. Still, maybe it’s just my Anglophilia, but it’s always seemed to me that fools were a particularly prominent feature of the court in early modern England, and one fool in particular:  Will Somers, who appears in both “official” portraits and more casual ones, both from his own time, and well after: I wonder why?


Tudor Family Portrait


The Family of Henry VIII, with Will Somers under the right arch and his counterpart, “Jane the Foole” (sometimes alternatively referred to as “Mother Jak”, Prince Edward’s nurse), on the left, c. 1545, Hampton Court Palace; Tudor family portrait from the Duke of Buccleauch’s Collection at Boughton House, c. 1650-1680–supposedly based on an earlier painting–featuring King Henry VIII, Will Somers, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth; King Henry and Will in an illustration from Henry’s Psalter, c. 1530-45; British Library Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 63v.

The first reference to Will Somers is in 1525, as a man in his twenties, and he died about 1560. His presence at court is one of the few continuous aspects of the Tudor dynasty: he served, or entertained, King Henry VIII and all three of his children: Edward, Mary and Elizabeth for the opening years of her long reign. Clearly he and King Harry were close, literally in the pictures. This psalter image clearly has religious symbolism–Henry is a harp-playing King David, and Will the fool of Psalm 14 (the fool saith in his heart, there is no God)–but the Tudor family portraits point to a closer personal connection. Following the distinction first made by Robert Armin (an actor in Shakespeare’s company), in his Foole upon Foole (1605) and A Nest of Ninnies (1608), historians and literature scholars still seem most interested in assessing just what kind of fool Will was: “natural” or “licensed”/”artificial”: a natural fool was one with mental challenges or disabilities, an artificial fool was playing the part. There seems to be evidence for both types: in John Heywood’s Wit and Witless, Somers is among the latter while other sources refer to his wittiness. The discussion about the nature of Somers’ foolishness has lasted for centuries, and I think it makes him a rather more interesting character than his Elizabethan successors, Richard Tarlton and Will Kempe, who were obviously artificial, acting fools. Somers experiences a posthumous resurrection in the seventeenth century, which produced some charming portraits of his image and a lively biography entitled The Pleasant History of the Life and Death of Will Summers (1676): And how hee came first to be knowne at the court, and how he came up to London, and by what meanes hee got to be King Henry the eights jester. And over time, Will Somers seems to evolve into the both the wise fool and the full-fledged jester, keeping us guessing all the while.

STC 23434.5, D2v

Will Somers 1620

Will Somers 1798

Will Somers 1814

Title page of  William Sommers, engraved by R. Clamp, 1794; W.H. Ireland, Chalcographimania; or, the portrait-collector and printseller’s chronicle, with infatuations of every description. A humorous poem. In four books. With copious notes explanatory. By Satiricus Sculptor, Esq., 1814.

From Fast to Feast

Today, a national holiday of Wales based on its association with the Welsh patron Saint David (c. 500-c. 589), affords yet another opportunity to explore one of my favorite themes: the secularization of saints’ days. This is a touchstone in several of my courses and a subject I’ve returned to here again and again: on Halloween, St. Nicholas’s Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and even the feast day of the lesser-known St. Swithun. There’s no question in my mind that one of the most basic tasks, and most popular consequences, of the Reformation was the transformation of the Christian calendar. This transformation was dramatic: Saint David appears to have been one of the most ascetic of saints (a bold claim, perhaps too bold), forswearing beer and meat in favor of water and bread seasoned with a few grains of salt and herbs, yet today his day is celebrated with parades and cupcakes embellished with Welsh dragons and daffodils, and the leeks which became more particularly associated with him over time.

Saint David's Day

Saint David's Day cupcakes

British School, A Celebration of Saint David’s Day, c. 1750, National Museum Wales, Cardiff; Dotty Cupcakes, Cardiff, featured here.

The most revealing illustration of this process occurred during the Elizabethan era, when the Queen–or her advisers and followers and assorted hangers-on–rather deliberately emphasized the coincidence of dates shared by Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary: September 7 (Elizabeth’s birthday and the Eve of the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary) and March 24 (the day on which Elizabeth died in 1603, and the Eve of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary). Moreover, the “Queene’s Day”, November 17, the day of which Elizabeth acceded to the throne in 1558, achieved the status of both a national holiday and a religious holiday over her reign. And thus the Virgin Queen and “the cult of Elizabeth” (a phrase first used by Sir Roy Strong) emerged. There’s no agreement that the feast displayed below represents an early celebration of the Queene’s Day, but I like to think that Joris Hoefnagel’s iconic painting Fete at Bermondsey (c. 1569-70)–one of my very favorites– does just that.


Joris Hoefnagel, A Fete at Bermondsey. Copyright The Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House

Valentines from the Great War

Oddly enough, love and war often do go together and we all know that absence often makes the heart grow fonder, so it’s only natural that the burgeoning greetings card industry would flourish during World War I. In the west, domestic producers had to replace that large part of the market that was previously produced by Germany, and “WWI silks”, embroidered greetings produced in France and Belgium, constituted one of the most important cottage industries of the war. It can be a little jarring to see military themes on cards that were supposed to foster sentiment, but it was a competitive market, and I’m sure that manufacturers wanted to seem current, and relevant. And you really can’t beat the sentiment when you see my ammunition, you’ll surrender your position, which was evidently quite popular as it was issued with a variety of images. So in celebration of St. Valentine’s Day and commemoration of the Great War, here is a selection of valentines from 1914-1919: from Great Britain, the United States, France, and (the most intimate of all, handmade on the Front) Australia.

Valentine Ambulance Bod Lib

Valentine Ambulance Interior Bod Lib

Valentine Nurse Bodleian Lib

Valentine LOC 1918 Over There

WWW Valentine LOC 1919

WWW Valentine LOC 1919 2

Valentine 1918 LOC

PicMonkey Collage


Valentine slogan WWI


Valentine 1917 French Hearts

Love Letter Australian War Memorial 1918

Sources: Nancy Rosin Collection; Bodleian Library, Oxford University; Library of Congress; Ebay; Etsy; The Old Print Shop; Australian War Memorial.


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