I Went for the Wallpaper

love Waterhouse Wallhangings, a company which has been manufacturing wallpapers based on historical patterns for decades, and will do anything or go anywhere to see their papers in situ, so when I saw an instagram post about a recently-completed restoration project up in Amesbury featuring their work I drove right up there despite the fact that I had just returned from another road trip and was fairly exhausted. The Amesbury house was where Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science faith and church, had lived for a time, and it was restored under the auspices of the Longyear Museum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, an instiution which is charged with presenting and teaching all aspects of Eddy’s life. Towards this aim, the Museum owns and operates 8 historic houses (all in New England) in which Eddy has lived, and the Amesbury house is the latest restoration. I confess to knowing very little about Eddy and the Christian Science church, even though I’ve lived in fairly close proximity to three of her houses: the Chestnut Hill Mansion in which she died, which is quite close to Newton Center where I lived while I was in graduate school (now undergoing an extensive restoration), and the Lynn and Swampscott houses which are not far from Salem. My motivations for running up to Amesbury this weekend were exclusively materialistic: I went for the wallpaper, and not for Mary Baker Eddy. But when I got to this lovely little c. 1780 house and talked to the Longyear staff on hand for its open house, I came away very impressed with the overall restoration effort: it was almost as if they had pursued preservation as an act of faith. It is not a grand house, and Eddy did not live there for very long, but it was part of her story and thus no detail was spared to make it shine again. We could only see the shine, but an extensive and costly restoration, inside and out, preceded the decoration. I came for the wallpaper, but left with a great deal of restoration respect, and now I need to see more Longyear houses!

A wallpaper tour of the Bagley House in Amesbury, where Mary Baker Eddy lived for brief periods in 1868 and 1870:

Waterhouse has extensive archives of wallpaper prints, and can also reproduce from fragments, as you see here. The aqua floral paper that you can see in the larger bedroom above is “New England Floral”, the same paper we have in our dining room (below) and library. 


After the Fire: a New Salem Saltbox

I like to recognize the anniversary of the Great Salem Fire (June 25, 1914) every year, or most years, as it was such a momentous event in so many ways, starting, of course, with sheer destruction and dislocation: 1376 buildings burned to the ground (out of around 5000 structures in Salem proper), 18,000 people lost their homes and 10,000 people lost their jobs. Only three people died, which seems incredible given the magnitude of this conflagration, but 60 people were injured. Like every disaster of this scale, there are so many topics to address about its aftermath: the immense shelter and aid effort, the rapid rebuilding program, the plans for a “new” Salem. New might not be the correct word, as the architects and planners and owners who sought to rebuild on the broad swath of fire-ravaged land along Lafayette streets and the harbor were very interested in fire-resistant building materials but their aesthetic preferences were more traditional. This is a moment when Colonial Revival Salem comes into full flower, after germinating for several decades. You could label the traditional brick, stucco, and wooden buildings which line lower Lafayette and its side streets “conservative” but I prefer the terms referential or contextual: I’m always impressed with the deep appreciation displayed by early twentieth-century architects for Salem’s colonial and federal architecture and their desire to study and emulate heritage buildings. Perhaps post-fire architects, builders and planners were a bit too deferential to the past (architectual author and photographer Frank Cousins seems to view the opportunity before Salem as one of colonial compensation after all those sub-par Greek Revivals and Victorians were swept away) but I’m alway happy to see the past privileged over the present. I thought I’d illustrate this Colonial Revival moment with just one “new” house: a saltbox built on Cedar Street for Mr. and Mrs. George A. Morrill as designed by architect A.G. Richardson.

Two Cedar Street, built 1815: today, in the 1980s, and as newly-built.

A.G. Richardson was a Boston architect who lived in Salem, and thus the recipient of quite a few post-fire commissions. His pre-fire work does not seem to be overwhelmingly reflective of colonial inspiration, but more like a mix of old and new. He did design a “new Colonial house” for a harborview lot on Lafayette which was featured in House and Garden magazine in June of 1907. But the Morrill house at 2 Cedar Street looks much more traditional, and Frank Cousins and his co-author Phil Riley even praised it as “practical” in their Colonial Architecture of Salem (1919): “the resulting house as it stands to-day represents virtually and exact copy of the Maria Goodhue house in Danvers, erected in 1690 and destroyed by fire in 1899. Its long roof-line, formed by the lean-to continuation of the same pitch, contributes a uniquely appropriate character to the modern architecture to the modern architecture of Salem and was found to provide a very practical way of bringing a piazza in the rear and all service appurtenances under one roof, thereby saving expense and avoiding all leadage complications common to roors considerably broken by gables or dormers.” Riley had praised the Morrill house earlier as “in the spirit of old Salem” in his 1916 article in The House Beautiful, but I think I should note that there were not many surviving saltboxes in early twentieth-century urban Salem, so Richardson had to look to nearby Danvers for inspiration! Fortunately Cousins had photographed the Maria Goodhue house (see below, from the Cousins Collection at the Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth) before it was destroyed by fire. The new door of Two Cedar Street was definitely old Salem, however: Richardson copied the entrance of the Captain John Hodges House on Essex Street.

There was something about the Fire that fueled preservation in Salem and elsewhere, as story after story in national newspapers and periodicals emphasized the fact that the older sections of Salem escaped its path: an early report indicated that the House of the Seven Gables had been swept away, and it seems like there was a collective sigh of relief when it was revealed to be false. Wallace Nutting, that exemplar of the Colonial Revival, featured ethereal ladies draped in timeless white dresses on the steps of Chestnut Street houses spared from the fire in his 1915 “expansable” catalog, and the equally timeless saltbox merged colonial charm, clean lines, and (space for) modern conveniences.


A Juneteenth Tour of Salem

I like to craft my own walking tours for every major holiday just for myself, so that I can get in the proper celebratory or thoughtful frame of mind. This weekend, I put together my first Juneteenth tour and it really took some time: I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to focus strictly on Salem sites related to abolition or spaces which are connected to more general African-American history. But it was time well spent as I reconsidered some special people from the past who have always inspired me, and also learned some new stories. There might be two tours leading off into different directions (literally), but I managed to do both pretty easily in an afternoon. As always, I started at Hamilton Hall, the home of the justly-celebrated Remond family of Salem because 1) it is right next to my house; 2) they have served as my “guides” to the nineteenth-century struggles, opportunities, and achievements of free blacks in New England; and 3) As an institution, I think the Hall has made the most serious commitment to African-American History in Salem and there is lots to learn there. This is a subjective tour but objectively I think that Hamilton Hall is the logical starting place for any African-American history walking tour of Salem. The Remonds of Hamilton Hall are being honored this coming week with a marker from the Pomeroy Foundation and the Womens Suffrage Celebration Coalition of Massachusetts for their commitment to the Suffrage movement: more information is here. While I think the overwhelming focus of their advocacy efforts was on abolition rather than suffrage the entire family was focused on improving human rights above all, and the youngest Remond, Caroline R. Putnam, was a dedicated suffragist.

Stop #1: Hamilton Hall, 9 Chestnut Street & the “northern” branch of my tour.

From the Hall I walked down Cambridge Street to the Ropes Mansion on Essex, because I really think it might be a good idea to consider that before this lovely Georgian mansion was known as the “haunted” home of Alison from Hocus Pocus there were enslaved persons held here by Samuel Barnard during his occupancy. If we are going to appreciate and understand  Juneteenth, we must consider what came before. Then I walked over to another house which belongs to the Peabody Essex Museum, the Peirce-Nichols House on Federal Street, to consider the setting of the wonderful 1907 portrait of the Remonds’ successor at Hamilton Hall. Edward Cassell. It’s one of my very favorite photographs of anyone: such dignity of place and person! Cassell is connected to the Remonds through their eldest daughter, Nancy Remond Shearman, so there was really a catering dynasty at the Hall. From the Peirce-Nichols House, I walked all the way down Federal Street to Flint, and then towards North Salem and Oak Street, where Caroline Remond Putnam lived with her husband James and his family, who were also active and prominent abolitionists from Boston. Charlotte Forten, the first African-American graduate of theSalem Normal School and Salem’s first African-American teacher, lived with the Putnams for a while. It’s a short walk from Oak Street along Mason to Harmony Grove Cemetery, where most members of the Remond Family are buried, and according to her diary, a place where Charlotte walked often.

Stop #2: the Ropes Mansion, Essex Street; Stop #3: the Peirce-Nichols House, Federal Street (photograph of Mr. Cassell courtesy of Historic New England); Stop #4: Oak Street (the Putnams’ house at # 9 no longer exists, this woodworking business occupies its site); Stop #5 Harmony Grove Cemetery.

So back at my house on lower Chestnut, I ventured south into a neighborhood associated with Salem African-Americans in the early nineteenth century around High Street, which descended almost down to the water at that time. That’s the thing: the landscape of Salem is so different now that we can’t really envision neighborhoods from this time. There was the large Mill Pond right in the center of Salem, with several African-American families on either side: around High Street on the western shore and on Pond, Ropes, Porter, and Cedar Streets on the easten side. These streets off Lafayette all got wiped out by the 1914 Salem Fire so it’s impossible to see the structures in which they inhabited, but the Salem Directories from the mid-nineteenth century document their residency. The Remonds had a house on Pond Street; Edward Cassell lived on Cedar Street and I came across the most amazing story of another Cedar Street resident in the 1850s: Bacon Tait, a notorious Richmond slave trader who moved north with his common-law, African-American wife, Courtney Fountain and their four children in 1851! What is going on here? I found Courtney Fountain (Tait’s) brother living on Cedar so I suppose that was the draw, but how did Mr. Tait escape the watchful eyes of Salem’s prominent abolitionists? I need to know more! Then it was on to the Derby House,, Derby (and Higginson) Square, the site of much commercial and community activity in the past and the present, and home via Norman and Crombie Streets. This was by no means an exhaustive tour of African-American heritage sites in Salem, but it was a meaningful one for me.

Mill Pond on Henry McIntire’s beautiful 1851 map of Salem; Stop #6: High Street, where Clarissa Lawrence, schoolteacher and aboliltionist, lived in the 4th house down the street; #7 Cedar Street, rebuilt after the Fire but home to several African-American families before, including Edward Cassell, and the family of the notorious Bacon Tait. #8 is the Richard Derby House of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site: constructed by Derby for his son Elias Hasket Derby while he lived just up Derby Street in what is commonly called the Miles Ward House–another example of slavery’s co-existence with Georgian elegance. The Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum has recently digitized a collection of broadsides, and one sheds a bright light on Derby’s slaveowning. Stop #9: Higginson and Derby Squares were very much the center of the Remond Family’s culinary enterprises outside of Hamilton Hall—and 5 Higginson Square was the residence for many Remonds at different stages of their lives. My last (#10) stop on the way back to Chestnut was at Crombie Street, where John Remond’s friend, fellow abolitionist, and culinary competitor Prince Farmer lived: such warriors were they!


Landmark Lineage

I’ve been obsessed with the work “landmark” ever since the Samantha statue incident of last week: a succession of news stories in the days following reported the vandalism inflicted on this famous Salem “landmark” and each time I heard or read that term applied to this horror installation I screamed “she is not a landmark!” in my head. Isn’t a landmark something notable, of value, an attribute of place or a place itself, but nevertheless something we admire and want to preserve? Several people pointed out that the word doesn’t have to connote subjective judgements: it is merely  something recognizable. I’ve just written a book which has chapters on both surveying and navigation, so you’d think I’d be a bit more confident in my understanding of this term. Its original use in navigation refers to a physical feature of the land with which you can find, or mark, your way, but I thought its meaning evolved in the past centuries with respect to architecture, historic preservation, and the recognition and  designation of built landmarks. My understanding of the term is coming more from those fields, so using the same term to apply to Samantha and say, the Ropes Mansion just seems wrong! Clearly it is time to look this word up, so I went straight to the Oxford English Dictionary (I am fortunate to have an institutional subscription but I go there only when I really need to, as it is a rabbit hole for me. But needs must.)

LANDMARK: object marking a boundary line; district;

 2. An object in the landscape, which, by its conspicuousness, serves as a guide in the direction of one’s course (originally and esp. as a guide to sailors in navigation); hence, any conspicuous object which characterizes a neighbourhood or district.

 3. (In modern use.) An object which marks or is associated with some event or stage in a process; esp. a characteristic, a modification, etc., or an event, which marks a period or turning-point in the history of a thing.

Ok, I’m going with the second part of #2 “any conspicuous object which characterizes a neighborhood or a district.” The key word for me here is characterizes. I’m just not comfortable with Samantha characterizing Salem: I want Samuel McIntire to characterize Salem. But obviously there has to be some sort of standard for designating a landmark, or is it all subjective? To try to answer this last questions, I decided to do a search for “Salem Landmark” in all of my newspaper databases. This query produced hundreds of hits, but I quickly determined that many of these references were to the Salem Landmark newspaper of 1835-36 which first published the wildly popular “Enquire at Amos Giles’ Distillery” temperance parable, which was reprinted all over the country. So I eliminated those entries, and came up with a clear succession of Salem landmarks.

For the most part, the word landmark was used in referenced to historic buildings in Salem, but there were some exceptions. Beginning in the 1870s, there seems to be an emerging concern that Salem is losing its historic structures because there is a succession of titles to the tune of “another Salem landmark gone.” Clearly the word could be used to ascertain an increasing interest in historic preservation, but it’s not just about loss: landmark appears when particularly old or otherwise notable buildings are sold or “substantially altered,” when there’s a fire, or some event happens in a well-know location. Here’s a few examples, starting with the “old Putnam Estate on Essex Street,” a house with which I’m not immediately familiar—I’m not quite sure about this Bridge/Osgood Street house either, but it has an interesting story! Sounds like part of it might still be around?

It’s easy to get caught up in the stories attached to these old buildings: I did so several times and forgot all about Samantha (which is good)! The two above are a bit more obscure landmarks, but anything to do with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Samuel McIntire, the Witch Trials, the Revolutionary War, and political leaders or wealthy Salem merchants were designated as such. Sometimes I think the word was used a little loosely: a sailcloth factory? Well, it was a sailcloth factory that belonged to the legendary Billy Gray and was the studio of Ross Turner: I hope he didn’t lose any paintings! I had heard about the threat to the Pickering House before, which is why I am not expressing shock and awe now. Everything else below is pretty self-explanatory, but I should report the the Silsbee/Knights of Columbus mansion has just been completely restored and expanded and it looks great.

Besides Derby Wharf (above), the only designated landmarks I could find which were not buildings were a landmark store which closed after 114 years in business, and the famed “Brown’s Flying Horses” of Salem Willows. This carousel had been a major attraction of Salem Willows since the 1870s, and its sale to Macy’s Department Store in 1945 was big news and a big loss. By all accounts, it was a beautiful example of craftsmanship by a Bavarian woodworker, so comparing it to Samantha is a stretch, but both were/are popular “attractions,” so I guess that’s the landmark connection. I think I’ve worked myself out of my landmark labyrinth, but I’m still troubled by placement: certainly nothing could be more evocative and appropriate in a seaside amusement park than a carousel, but I still don’t think Samantha belongs in Town House Square.

Apparently this business had started in 1794 by the Driver Family and was run by relatives or in-laws until 1908, Boston Sunday Globe, September 20, 1908. Brown’s Flying Horses at Salem Willows, photographs from the “Essex Institute”/Phillips Library via Painted Ponies: American Carousel Art by William Manns et. al.


Local Color: Salem June 2022

This is going to be an odd post which will start out sweet and end up a bit sour, but I can promise you that it will be colorful throughout. There’s one aspect of Salem’s history that I never seem to be able to cover completely, despite the longevity of this blog: its horticultural history. Salem was really famous for its horticulture a century or so ago: you can’t browse through a stack (or a database) of house and garden magazines from the first half of the twentieth century without encountering articles on the “old–fashioned” gardens of Old Salem. Several really notable cultivators and landscapers lived here, and one still does! There is continuity: the city still has some wonderful private and public gardens: among the latter are the Ropes Mansion and Derby House gardens, which are open to the public. There are so many flowering trees and to see in Salem just while walking down the street, especially at this time of year or a bit earlier. So I’ve got some nice photos from the past two weeks or so, and that was going to be the exclusive focus of this post: a parade of colors in Salem for Pride month! But, stuff happens, and in the middle of this very a trouble man painted the Bewitched statue in Town House Square red, setting off a wave of national headlines and local commentary. So I think I’ll add Samantha to this colorful mix. But first: Ropes and Derby:

Salem in June: the Peabody Essex Museum’s Ropes Mansion garden is really more of a high/late summer garden, but the Derby House garden at the Salem Maritime National Historic site is perfect in June.

My garden can’t really compete but I do want to show you my lady’s slippers and I really like the meadow rue that blooms at this time of year. I’ve thinned out my rose bushes, because they just don’t earn their keep in my small garden, so I only have the best bloomers and they are putting on a show right now. This the lady’s mantle time too: I’ve been training my younger cat Tuck on a leash, and the minute he gets it on he goes right for it, so you can see pre-bloom last week and bloom this week. Then there is the vertical garden at the new downtown condo building named Brix (not a fan of this building but I do like its exterior embellishments), peonies from around town, an impressive plant for which I need an identification outside the Peirce-Nichols house (baptisia?) and more roses, on Cambridge Street.

So that brings us to more unnatural color: blue trees and a red Samantha. In the side yard adjacent to the Peabody Essex Museum, the trees have been painted bright blue, a very bright royal blue. This is the 27th international installation of the artist Konstantin Dimopoulos’s The Blue Trees, an “environmental call to action” with watercolor which will fade with time. Very striking, especially at this time of year. With no manifesto and paint that was certainly not biologically-safe, a homeless man spray-painted the upper part of the Bewitched statue a few blocks away in downtown Salem in the middle of this past week. Red Samantha didn’t last long; indeed I’ve seldom seen a quicker response by the City. By the end of the day she was cleansed and a gofundme account set up to restore her to her former “glory”. For those of us in the never-Samantha camp, it was hard to bear the comments on social media protesting this act of vandalism as “disgusting” and “disrespectful” because that’s just how we view the statue: as disgusting and disrespectful to the victims of the 1692. Or maybe I should just speak for myself. As the story created regional and national headlines that night and the next day, I just couldn’t bear the use of the word “landmark” applied to this horror: a landmark should be something that one points to with pride, not embarrassment, which is generally how I feel every time I pass by Samantha. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll praised the quick cleanup by her public services team and opined that “Samantha brings a degree of joy and whimsy to our downtown and has become a landmark location for thousands of visitors to Salem each year” but such craven capitalization on suffering remains incomprehensible to me. To return to my color theme (and lighten up things a bit), there was also a difficult juggling act for those who did not want to praise vandalism by any means, but at the same time thought that Samantha looked better draped in red. Anything could improve that eyesore, and I always see red when I gaze in her direction.

The Blue Trees of Konstantin Dimopoulus; and a fleeting Red Samantha.


A Salem Slaver

It’s beautiful here in Salem and I had a very colorful post all lined up for you: gardens, the arts festival, blue trees, doors of many colors, cats, my lady’s slippers, simple pleasures. But no, I had to read a letter from a son in a distant port to his mother back in Salem informing her of his father’s and her husband’s death during a slave revolt. I’ve even read this letter before, I’ve seen it quoted in undergraduate papers, I’ve been aware of its existence for years: but for some reason when I read it last night I knew I had to write about it, to exorcise it. I have been thinking about Jeremiah Lee of Marblehead and his wealth for several days, ever since I visited his beautiful house last week. I was curious about whether or not his wealth had been expanded through enslavement, and so I consulted the Massachusetts Slave Census of 1754, which has been digitized and made searchable by a very useful website entitled Primary Research: unfortunately, there was no return for Marblehead, but there was for Salem (83 enslaved persons) and since I was there I looked for some other Salem sources and then I found the letter. I thought, “I should read this again” and so I did and since then I’ve been unable to think of much else. It’s a terrible letter, but a very, very important one.

Transcript of the Fairfield/Felicity letter from Primary Research: it is also available in several collections and studies, and was first printed in the Essex Institute Historical Collections in 1888 (Volume XXV) where it is called a “strange epistle”. The original is in the Phillips Library. Crop of John Cary’s New Map of Africa, from the Latest Authorities (1805); A very complete description of Cape Mount several decades later is in Théodore Canot’s Captain Canot or Twenty Years of an American Slaver (1854): Canot was apprenticed in Salem, which he calls a “seafaring emporium” in the 1820s.

Here we have an early typed transcript of the letter of April 23, 1789 in which William Fairfield Jr. recounts a “very bad accident” which happened aboard the ship captained by his father William Fairfield, Sr., the schooner Felicity of Salem, while engaged in an illegal triangular trade: the legal institution of slavery had been outlawed in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1783 and the slave trade in 1787. Bound for Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana and a major slave market, with a cargo of 35 enslaved persons on board, the “slaves rised above us” on March 26, killed Captain Fairfield and held the ship for a while, before young William and his confederates regained control. It sounds like William was incapacitated for a while as a result of being “scalt with hot chocolate” so I suppose it was the Felicity‘s crew who repossessed the ship without his help. After recounting the death and burial of his father, William adds that “we have sold part of the slaves [in Cayenne] and I hope to be home soon.” He’s so callous, so matter-of-fact, talk about the banality of evil: I scalded myself with hot chocolate but am otherwise in good health and we sold part of the slaves—I hope to see you soon! He is writing to his mother, of course, but this is a man who sounds as if he fears no consequences, and I couldn’t find any consequences for him or the crew of the Felicity. Young William continued his maritime career, often sailing on ships belonging to one of the Felicity’s owner Joseph White, who would be murdered in his bed in one of Salem’s most scandalous crimes in 1830. There is no mention of how he died in Captain Fairfield’s brief death notice in the Salem Mercury. 

The only person who seems to cast judgement on the Fairfields, or Mr. White, is (of course) the Reverend William Bentley, our constant commentator, who criticized all the vague trips to an unspecified “Africa” during the 1780s and 1790s in general and Captain Fairfield’s voyage in particular. In the Fall of 1788, he wrote: Captain William Fairfield, Felicity, Sch. sailed, according to clearance for Cape Verde Islands. It is supposed from the cargo, this latter carried and the character of the owner, that the vessel is intended for the slave trade. The owner confesses that he has no reluctance in selling any part of the human race. The even in its probably consequences gives great pain to thinking men, and in consideration of the owner’s easy circumstances, is supposed to betray signs of the greatest moral depravity. It is a daring presumption to dictate to divine wisdom, but when God’s judgements are abroad in the earth, sinners will tremble. The positive law of this Commonwealth is against the Slave Trade which it is to be hoped will be seriously noticed [Diary, Volume I, 104]. Well obviously Bentley spared no words regarding Mr. White, but does not opine on the death of Captain Fairfield, noting only that he was “killed by negroes” in the following June. And I don’t seem to be able to find any “serious notice” taken of this particular voyage or the sixteen other slave voyages from Salem before 1860 listed in the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database [another extremely valuable source]. Perhaps that’s why there was a slave ship sitting in Salem Harbor on the eve of the Civil War.


The Jeremiah Lee Mansion

There are two structures which made an impression on me early in my childhood and sort of set the standard for historic grandeur in my mind: Dartmouth Hall at Dartmouth College, where my father began his career, and The Lady Pepperrell House in Kittery, Maine, close to my hometown of York where we moved when he moved on to the University of New Hampshire. Of course, Dartmouth Hall is a Colonial Revival reproduction of an earlier building, though apparently a very faithful one. I didn’t know that when I stared up at it when I was five or so, and a decade later when I first became concious of the Lady Pepperrell House it evoked that memory. To me, both were New England Georgian exemplars. And yesterday I visited another Georgian exemplar, the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in nearby Marblehead. It was the opening day of its season, and I knew that the charming Rick, one of the most knowledgeable people around about all aspects of local architectural history (just follow his instagram account and you will learn something every day, sometimes every hour) was on docent duty, so I made my reservation and ran over there. It was a cold and gloomy June 1 (especially after a warm Memorial Day weekend), but the house seemed warm and cheerful to me despite its size: this is a grand mansion in every sense of both words.

The Mansion is made entirely of wood, but designed to give the appearance of an ashlar stone facade.

A bit of history and then I’ll show you some of my interior shots—the gloom outside really highlighted the color inside and I got some great views, if I do say so myself! The mansion was built by 1768 by Colonel Jeremiah Lee (1721-1775), a wealthy “merchant prince” of Marblehead, who was just as engaged in the civic and political life of this bustling maritime community as he was in his brilliant shipping career. Lee was the wealthiest merchant in Massachusetts acccording to tax records from 1771, and he might have been America’s largest pre-revolutionary shipowner with full shares in over twenty vessels. For someone who clearly had so much at stake within the commercial context of the Atlantic world and the British Empire, it’s quite remarkable to see how Lee risked all by becoming a committed Patriot, and even though he did not die in battle, he contracted pneumonia by sleeping in a chilly and wet cornfield on the outskirts of Lexington and Concord on the eve of those battles in April of 1775, certainly a martyr to the cause. So Lee only lived in his trophy house for seven years, and his widow Martha Swett Lee for another decade. We have to dwell in the past a bit longer to understand the sheer scale of this mansion: it seems almost oversized for Old Town Marblehead now, but Marblehead in 1770 was the second largest settlement in Massachusetts, while Salem was the fourth! After the Revolution, Salem commenced its economic and demographic boom, but while the first US census of 1790 reported Salem as the 7th largest city in the new nation (with a population of nearly 8000), Marblehead was still in the pack in 10th place (with a population of 5661). So this mansion represents not only the wealth and cosmopolitan taste of Jeremiah Lee, but also of pre-revolutionary Marblehead. That said, this structure is so very conspicuous and grand, that I understand the words of Miss Hannah Tutt, historian of the Marblead Historical Society, which acquired and restored it after 1909:  Fashioned as it was, after the homes of his ancestors, it needed but the hawthorne and the hedgerows to transport one to old England, and indeed the very timbers, of which it was framed, were grown in the mother country. Built at a cost of over ten thousand pounds, it could hardly be rivaled throughout the whole province of Massachusetts Bay—and overshadowing, with its grandeur, the humble home of the fisher folk, no wonder it became to them the “Mansion,” and the “Lee Mansion” it has always been, the pride of the whole town (The Lee Mansion. What it Was and What it is, 1911). Ok, context completed, let’s go inside: first floor first.

Through the front door, you step into this amazing 16-foot-wide entrance hall which extends to the back of house, and it’s all about the central staircase and the handpainted English wallpaper panels, which extend up to the second floor. The house served as the Marblehead Bank for about a century after it left the possession of the Lee family and before it came under the stewardship of the Marblehead Historical Society, so the back and upper stories were closed off. According to Rick, visitors could strip of pieces of this wallpaper as souvenirs in the front part of the first-floor hall, so reproduction paper replaced those parts, but the most of the wallpaper is original and glorious. There is a grain-painted “banquet hall” to the left, and a parlor/drawing room to the right.

There are actually very few items related to Jeremiah Lee in the house; most of the decorative accessories derive from the period but not the family. One feels the presence of Jeremiah and Martha (especially as you pass the copies of their full-length portraits painted by John Singleton Copley on the way to the second floor; the originals are in the Wadsworth Athenaeum), but you feel like you are visiting an eighteenth-century house rather than their house. A very grand eighteenth-century American house. I really appreciated the curation: the Marblehead Historical Society/Museum has been the recipient of a steady succession of decorative donations over the century since it has acquired the Lee Mansion, but the decorative accessories on display were chosen clearly to highlight and complement rather than overwhelm. Nothing competes with the architecture (well, I don’t think anything really could.) On to the second floor.

Second-floor Chambers: the two front rooms are still of considerable size, but things get a bit cozier in the back. The blue-trimmed chamber is a suite of connected small rooms including one with odd proportions and amazing wallpaper! The room with all the yellow damask—a guest room according to Rick—is simply stunning. And you can see that the furniture is top-notch and very complementary.

Beautiful rooms on the second floor, as you can see, but what I am not really showing you is the view. Remember, Marblehead was a busy seaport when this mansion was built: it was not, and is not, a rural estate. Now its grounds are a bit deceptive: there’s a nice side garden but the original lot was quite shallow and a large parcel of land in the back was a later acquisition by the Museum (there is a very interesting article by Narcissa Chamberlain, the wife of photographer Samuel Chamberlain who lived just one street over, about its original boundaries in the April 1969 issue of the Essex Institute Historical Collections). The large windows of the mansion frame the street views out front and the very green views out back, but all I could see was yellow inside, because there is a lot of yellow, but also because I’m working on my new book, a study of saffron, and so I see it everywhere. On to the third floor.

More saffron and more chambers on the third floor: I need these “bed chairs” or whatever you call them! Writing in bed is one of my favorite activities but it takes a toll on one’s back. These third-floor bedchambers were precious. I love this portrait of Miss Selman, the hatboxes, these curvy fancy chairs and settee. Two other rooms on the third floor were a catch-all room with a random collection of museum items (including sea chests with their charts still inside!) and a parlor/playroom/servant’s room in the rear, also filled with wonderful items. I’m not really focusing on the portraits in this post, but there are many interesting ones to see.

And down another side staircase (I seem to remember that there are four staircases in the house) to the first-floor kitchen and a small dining/breakfast room where one of Colonel Lee’s logbooks rests on a table and his contemporary Elbridge Gerry looks on. I starting writing as soon as I got home so I wouldn’t forget all the detailed information which Rick imparted to me, but of course everything was just too much to take in so I’m going to have to go back again. I can think of so many sub-stories: the people in the portraits, a Dartmoor Massacre drawing, the wallpapers and printed tiles, those bedchairs, the contributions of my favorite preservationist, Louise du Pont Crowninshield, a summer Marblehead resident. The Marblehead Museum purchased the adjacent property, the site of the Mansion’s brick kitchen and slave quarters, just last year and archeological investigations into the histories of slavery and service in this corner of Marblehead are commencing this very summer. So while there is a lot to see in this majestic mansion, it is not a static site but rather a dynamic one, engaged in an evolving process of discovery and reinterpretation.

The Jeremiah Lee Mansion & Garden: more information and reservations here.


Tattered Flags

The Civil War began with the lowering of a tattered 33-star flag from Fort Sumter in 1861 after which tattered flags defined, symbolized and memorialized the bravery, sacrifices and experiences of its participants on both sides for at least a half century—and likely much longer. There is no more powerful symbol of both commitment and conflict, and no more inspirational object. After surrenduring the Fort on April 12, Major Robert Anderson brought the Sumter storm flag with him to New York City, where it became the focus of a patriotic rally just a week later and then was put on a tour of northern cities to raise funds and rally troops. Almost exactly four years later and after the Confederate surrender of the fort, then Brevet Major-General Anderson returned to Charleston to raise the flag in a momentous ceremony that was overshadowed unfortunately by the assassination of President Lincoln. And in the interim, many flags were reduced to tatters and fragments.

Flag fallout: Edwin Francis Church painted several different versions of Our Banner in the Sky (Fine Art Museums of San Franciso, above), inspired by the tattered flag of Ft. Sumter. Commercial adaptations were printed, along with other Remember Fort Sumter! ephemeral images. Library of Congress.

Ever since I first saw the striking photograph of Sgt. William Carney of the Massachusetts 54th bearing the standard he rescued from the bloody battle of Fort Wagner in 1863 in Luis Emilio’s Brave Black Regiment I have been struck by the visual poignancy of the tattered flag. He just wouldn’t let that flag go, and consequently he became the first African-American recipient of the Medal of Honor in 1900. Just a few years later, Sargeant Samuel Hendrickson Smith bore the colors of the storied 8th Massachusetts in a Salem parade: he suffered permanent damage to his sight, hearing, and speech during the War but lived until 1910.

Newspaper drawing of Sergeant Carney holding the American flag during the battle at Fort Wagner: from an article in the Boston Journal, “Hero of Fort Wagner: Tale of Color Bearer William H. Carney,” published on December 29, 1898; Sgt. Samuel Hendrickson Smith of Salem and the 8th and 19th Massachusetts Regiments, 1905.

It’s easy to grasp the symbolic importance of the tattered flag image, during the Civil War and all wars really, but I never realized it was a distinct photographic genre until fairly recently. The enormous popularity of the carte de visite, the new photographic technology of the mid 19th century, accounts for many images of flags and flag bearers. Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Evrard had invented albumen printing, in which a negative photograph was printed on paper coated with egg whites (albumen) and mounted on thick cardstock, in the 1850s, resulting in a new mass media with expanded access to  photographic images. The Fort Sumter flag tour could be expanded by degrees, and remembrance of individual, regimental, state and national service and sacrifice recorded for posterity. Tattered flags became “relics” of the war, both in the hands of their bearers and simply standing there in their distressed state. Here are a few of my favorite images among the collection of “Tattered Flag CDVs” (actually the their preferred term is “battle-torn”) at the Library of Congress:

19th Massachusetts; 7th Connecticut; 4th New Hampshire; 44th New York; 30th Ohio; 21st Mississippi, Library of Congress.

The images above were public: I’m wondering if war-torn flags confiscated during battles were also made so. The American Civil War Museum has a large collection of confederate flags captured by Union soldiers and the National Archives has an inventory entitled “Records of Rebel Flags Captured by Union Troops after April 19, 1861” (RG 94). Every state historical society or museum or state house has a collection of war-torn flags, “brought home” during or after (sometimes well after) the war. Sometimes there is just an assemblage of scraps and threads, or perhaps just a material outline of what is sometimes referred to as a “ghost” flag: and like any ghost, it is haunting.

Flag of an unidentified unit. Captured at the battle of the Wilderness, Virginia, May 12, 1864 by Lt. Benjamin Y. Draper, 1st Delaware Infantry and scraps of a confederate flag confiscated (and divided) during the occupation of Richmond by troops from Springfield, Massachuesetts, American Civil War Museum. Remnants of the 95th Pennsylvania and 1st Massachusetts flags, Cowan’s Auctions and Morphy Auctions.

Can’t We Copy Concord?

The Concord Museum has been one of my favorite local history museums for some time, but I haven’t been there since the completion of a major expansion and reinterpretation initiative during the Covid years. Late last week I found myself with some free time and so off to Concord I went. I was impressed with the update, but just like the last time I visited, I could only really see the Concord Museum through the prism of a missing Salem Museum: I walked through the exhibits, which manage to be both chronological and thematic, sweeping yet very focused, thinking: Concord had this, but Salem had more of this, and also that! Salem did that first! OMG I can imagine a perfect Salem exhibit just like this Concord one, just change the names. And ultimately: can’t Salem just copy Concord? Why can’t Salem have a Concord Museum?  This is really not fair to the Concord Museum, which should be viewed on its own merits rather than comparatively, but lately (well, not so lately) I’ve become obsessed with the idea of a comprehensive Salem Museum which lays out ALL of Salem’s history in a chronological yet thematic, sweeping yet focused way: from the seventeenth through the twenty-first century, first encounters to Covid. It should be accessible and inclusive in every way, downtown of course, and it must be a collaboration between the City and the Peabody Essex Museum, because the latter possesses the greater part of Salem’s history in textual and material form. Really lately, I’ve come to think of Salem as experiencing an invasion of the body snatchers scenario, in which all of its authentic history has been detached to another town, only to be replaced by stories that are not its own: real pirates from Cape Cod, vampires who could be from anywhere and everywhere. Can’t we tell the real story, and the whole story?

So, with apologies to the Concord Museum, I’m turning it into a sort of template while also (I hope!) presenting its exhibits in some interpretive and topical detail. The museum lays out an essentially chronological view of Concord’s history, while first identifying Concord’s most prominent historical role, as a center of the emerging American Revolution, and both acknowledging and examining its regional indigenous history. Then we stroll though Concord’s history, which is told through both texts and objects, and lots of visual clues asking us to look closely.

Indigenous regions & English plantations: the Concord Museum explores the land negotiations in detail.[Salem also posseses a 17th century land-transfer document, held at City Hall. The 1686 “Original Indian Deed” of Frank Cousin’s photograph below features many more signature marks of Native Americans, testifying to a more complicated negotiation? I don’t really know: it’s not part of Salem’s public history.]

“Original Indian Deed” at Salem City Hall, c. 1890, Frank Cousins Collection at the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum via Digital Commonwealth.

You walk through the Concord Museum viewing exhibits in chronological order, but there are necessary tangents, and the biggest stand-alone exhibit is devoted to the events of one day: April 19, 1775. This is a new permanent exhibit, and it utilizes all the latest technology of visual storytelling while at same time focusing on the personal experiences of those involved. The famous Doolittle images, rendered dynamic, rim the perimeter of the exhibition room and a large digital map illustrates the events of the day. There’s a lot of movement in this room! We also hear from some of the participants and see the texts and objects which highlight their experience. How does one get ready for a Revolution? How does war affect daily life?

[Obviously, in a Salem Museum, one permanent exhibit would have to be devoted to the Witch Trials: interpreted not only as a story but as a collective and contextual experience. Apart from 1692, Salem should be paying a lot more attention to its Revolutionary role(s): not just Leslie’s Retreat, but also its brief role as a provincial capital and those of all of its privateers! Real Salem privateers.]

There is a continuous emphasis on how individuals experienced and shaped their world in the Museum’s exhibits, encompassing both big events, pressing issues, and daily life. We learn about the African-American experience in Concord through both official documents and the lives of two black families in town: the Garrisons and the Dugans, whose members were acquainted with both enslavement and freedom. Thomas Dugan’s probate inventory is posted, alongside a display of the possessions listed thereon. Concord’s dynamic abolitionist movement is another window into the institution of slavery, but it is not the only one. As would certainly be the case with a Salem presentation, abolition provides an opportunity to showcase female agency, and the Museum’s exhibits do not disappoint. But again, all I could think of was: Salem’s Female Anti-Slavery Society predates Concord’s Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society by several years, AND it was desegregated because it was an extension of the first female abolitionist society in Salem, which was founded by African-American women.

The Museum’s exhibits on slavery and abolition: Mary Merrick Brooks was a particularly active member of the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, and because her husband did not support its efforts, she sold her own tea cakes; “potholder quilts” were made up of squares like this one, which were also sold at Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Fairs in Concord (as well as Salem).

[The Histories of Slavery and Abolition illustrate the Salem problem really well, as there has been lots of research into both over the past few years by several institutions, including the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Peabody Essex Museum, and Hamilton Hall. But their efforts are all SILOED, and this prevents the diffusion of a comprehensive history of both to residents and visitors alike. Salem Maritime has developed walking tours and a research guide into African-American history in Essex County, the PEM is currently exhibiting an examination of school desegregation in Salem, and Hamilton Hall has had lots of materials and texts pertaining to the Remond Family on its website for several years, but are all these resources really getting out there? A common space and place for historical collaboration and exhibition would amplify all of these efforts considerably. We have so much information, from Salem’s 1754 Slave Census entry (below), to the recently-rediscovered 1810 Census for Salem, to the digitized records of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society (credit to the PEM’s Phillips Library for getting both the Census and the SFASS records out there), to the abolition petitions digitized by Harvard: but it’s not being used to tell a cohesive and comprehensive story! The Concord Museum has an Uncle Tom statue which once belong to Henry David Thoreau, but the Salem Museum could display an Uncle Tom’s Cabin card game manufactured by the Ives Brothers in 1852.]

There were 83 enslaved persons in Salem in 1754 according to the Massachusetts Slave Census of that year.

Like Salem, Concord has many heritage sites, so I imagine the Concord Museum serves as an orientation center from which people can go on to visit the Alcott’s Orchard House, Minute Man National Historical Park, or Walden Pond (among other places!) The Museum has reproduced Ralph Waldo Emerson’s parlor—while the actual room is just across the way–and utilized digital technology to enhance its interpretation. There’s also a great exhibit on Henry David Thoreau, but Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne seem a bit short-changed—maybe there’s an evolving emphasis? A Salem Museum would have a host of public intellectuals to juggle as well. Lots of material objects “made in Concord” or purchased in Concord and we also get to learn about the town’s conspicuous visitors—some of whom stayed at the famous Old Middlesex Hotel. [it would be so much fun to research an exhibition on who stayed at Salem’s equally famous Essex House.]

Details from the Concord Museum’s Emerson and Thoreau rooms—the star is one of several placed by Concord antiquarian Cummings E. Davis, whose collection is essentially the foundation of the Museum, along a trail in Walden Woods to lead people to Thoreau’s cabin. Loved this image of the Old Middlesex Hotel which seems to have played a hospitality role similar to that of the Essex House in Salem, below (an 1880 photograph).

I’m skipping over a lot, as there was a lot to see, so you’ll have to go to the Museum yourself, but I did want to mention its engagement with Concord’s storied history as well as the documented past. Concord is a famous place, just like Salem, and so there is an obligation not only to present the past but also to address how the past has been presented, to take on “Paul Revere’s Ride” as well as April 19th. I really liked how the Museum presented the process of commemorating the Battles of Lexington and Concord a hundred years later, chiefly through the commission of Daniel Chester French’s Minute Man statue. A photograph of a group of disenfranchised Concord women surrounding the statue at its unveiling on April 19, 1875 makes a big statement, especially as Louisa May Alcott, present on that day, later noted that women could not march in the grand parade unescorted or even sit in the stands to listen to speeches of the day (maybe this was a blessing).


Lilac Days

Lilacs are so ubiquitous in New England in May that you tend to overlook them, but over the past pleasant days I have been seeking them out in some of my favorite spots. I’m always so conflicted during this month, as my academic responsiblities conflict with my desire to immerse myself in all things horticultural. Over the last few weeks, I missed both Lilac Sunday at the Arnold Arboretum, as well as the peak spring blooming at the Stevens-Coolidge garden in North Andover. But I finished my grading over the weekend, and found myself going to and from my family’s house in York Harbor, Maine on my own wayward routes, chasing lilacs along the way. I saw lilacs by the sea, lilacs in town, lilacs in the country, lilacs by front doors, back doors, bulkheads, gates, and many many fences.

Starting out in York Harbor yesterday (where it seems to me that there were many more lilacs in the past; I guess childhood memories are always like that!), then on to Portsmouth, where lilacs peaking through garden gates and alongside foundations lured me into Strawberry Banke. I really loved the garden at the Nutter House, the boyhood home of author Thomas Bailey Aldrich–this last lilac bush is in the garden his wife designed for him later and it is at least a century old. More on this garden later in the summer!

From Portsmouth, I drove to North Andover, as I decided to visit the Stevens-Coolidge garden even though I knew the tulips would be a bit past their peak: it’s still a lovely garden! Not many lilacs though: just a couple of tall hedges, which were waving constantly on this very breezy day. North Andover is an old town, so I knew I’d find some lilacs peaking out from any number of places, and I was not disappointed: they enclose several venerable house lots, the Parson Barnard House included.

From North Andover I headed home on the old Salem Road that takes you through Middleton and Danvers: bound for the beautiful Glen Magna garden in the latter town. I ended the day in a purple haze, but also with lots of gratitude and appreciation for the North Andover, Topsfield and Danvers Historical Societies, which maintain all these properties in such beautiful condition. From my jaded Salem perspective, the absence of cash-cow commodification of heritage sites is so welcome and refreshing. I visit the Glen Magna garden all summer long, and view it much in the same way that its founder and his successors, the Salem merchant Joseph Peabody and several generations of the Endicott family, must have: as a retreat from bustling Salem. Of course I can’t set myself up in the house like they did, but I’m very grateful for the open garden! The last Endicott to summer at Glen Magna, William Crowninshield Endicott, Jr., brought the 1794 summer house designed by Samuel McIntire for the Derby farm on Lowell Street in Peabody to Glen Magna in 1901. This amazing structure is worth a visit at any time of the year—it looks just as strking in the midst of winter as it does in the midst of all this green, and purple.

Lilacs against the Parson Capen House’s barn, and the gardens at Glen Magna.