Stepping off in Salem

I browsed through a few promotional publications issued by the Boston & Maine Railroad Company a century and more ago this past weekend and was reminded of just how integral the train was to Salem’s economic and cultural life at the time, and well after. In 1909 New England Magazine emphasized the former in an interesting article called “The New Salem” which charts Salem’s transition from seaport to manufacturing center: “its railroad facilities (it is on the main line, Eastern Division of the Boston & Maine railroad, and has direct lines to Lowell and to Lawrence, which are great coal-carrying roads), are unexcelled, for its manufactured products can be loaded into box cars and sent with expedition to any part of the United States, Canada, or Mexico, where standard gauge rails run, without transfer”.  Boston & Maine emphasized their economic role in slimmer, more ephemeral publications, but their illustrated guide books, highlighting the shore, the mountains, and “picturesque” New England, tended to focus on their ability to effect cultural connections. Down East Latch Strings; or Seashore, Lakes and Mountains by the Boston & Maine Railroad. Descriptive of the tourist region of New England (1887), Here and There in New England and Canada (1889), and All along Shore: a booklet descriptive of the New England coast (1907), all issued by the “General Passenger Department” of the Boston & Maine, were clearly oriented towards “the vacationist’s enjoyment”. These books have instructive descriptions of what the vacationist should look for in each town once he or she steps off the trains, wonderful illustrations, and great maps—I could look at these railroad maps forever. All trails seem to lead to Old Orchard Beach or North Conway, but there’s lots to see along the way—or on the way back.

Train touring collage

Train Touring DE LATCHSalem was one recommended stop along the eastern line up to Maine in the 1880s–but Old Orchard Beach was really the place to be in the summer. Bird’s Eye and route maps are always included and tipped in.

Train Tour 5

Train Tour Map 1902

The chapter on Salem in Moses Foster Sweetser’s Here and There is a fascinating mix of past and (1887) present, with a slight reference to the witchcraft “delusion” and much more emphasis on the China Trade and Hawthorne: before the 1892 Bicentennial Salem hadn’t quite evolved into its Witch City identity. Sweetser refers to Salem as a “mother-city”, and notes its somewhat-faded grandeur as well as its current vitality: “Of late years there has sprung up a new Salem within the old, a metropolis for the adjacent populous towns of Essex South, with active manufactories, richly-endowed scientific institutions of continental fame, and a brilliant local society, made up in part of cultivated immigrés from Boston, who find here the choicest advantages of urban life in a venerable and classic city”.  I love this observation—it contradicts what I think is the mythology of a long decline for Salem and it also sounds like now (although the émigrés are coming more from Cambridge and Somerville than Boston).

Train Tour

Train Tour 4 The North and South Churches in Salem, and the “Old Witch House” in Here and There in New England and Canada (1889): I’m not sure the Witch House ever looked like this!

Sweetser departs Salem for points north “passing out from the castle-like stone station of Salem, the cars rumbling into the the long, dark Salem Tunnel, for half a century happily known as the “Kissing Bridge” of this route, and the locale of more than one bright osculatory poem”. Well there’s one avenue for further research—and once again I wonder, why did we tear our depot down?

Train Tour 6


May Flowers

I’m sorry that my posts are short and spare these days, with more space between them: this is the busiest time of the year for me. The spring semester is technically “over”, but it dies a lingering death: with reports to write, two commencements and many meetings to attend. I want to spend as much time in my garden, which is overrun with violets, but can only snatch an hour or two each day. The weather has been very erratic here: rainy and raw last weekend, followed by lots of sun and very hot days, then a big cool-down. It ranged from 90-something degrees to 60 degrees at the end of the week: on Thursday night I sweated through our graduate commencement wearing my polyester and velvet academic regalia in an un-air-conditioned gymnasium, but yesterday I was pretty comfortable, even a bit chilly. Fortunately, it’s a beautiful time of year, so even though I don’t have much to say to you at the moment I have lots to show you: some shots of the most beautiful May flowers in my garden and around my neighborhood. We have shifted from the pink period of spring into a mostly-white-with-purple-accents phase, with many more colors to come.

May FLowers T

May Flowers TBW

May FLowers LW

May Flowers A

May Flowers LV Trillium, lungworts, anemones and lillies of the valley in my garden above; viburnam, wisteria and irises at the Ropes Garden below, along with the best viburnam hedge in Salem along Federal Court and Solomon’s Seal in the Peirce-Nichols garden.

May Flowers BW

May Flowers Ropes

May Flowers I

May Flowers V

May Flowers SS2

May Flowers SS

P.S. I did see some real mayflowers in the Salem Woods a few weeks ago but unfortunately did not take a picture!


Harbor Views

Among my collection of Salem stereoviews I have very few of the coastline or harbor, preferring structures to nature, always. But Salem’s coastline–and especially its harbor–has been built almost from its founding as both a settlement and a working port, so I’ve started to look for some shoreline stereoviews. I haven’t had much luck in terms of items for purchase but the other day I dipped into the digital collections of the American Antiquarian Society and came up with several harbor views unknow to me–the only one I was aware of is the first one by Frank Cousins, the others are new (to me) perspectives. These are all undated but I think they are from the late 1880s and early 1890s: it is notable that I’m searching for “Salem Harbor” but finding very few images of the “working” harbor, which would have consisted of rotting wharves by this time. The images below portray a harbor of leisure: the Willows, beaches, docks for day trips. Salem was emerging as a tourist destination at this time because of its carefully-crafted history, but also because it could tap into the draw of the New England seashore. No one wants to see those old wharves at this time, but fortunately artists like Philip Little were capturing them for posterity.

Salem Harbor Stereoview Cousins “Pennsylvania Pier” by Frank Cousins, from his “Salem in 1876” series, which was published in the early 1890s.

Salem Harbor Stereovew 6

Salem Harbor Stereoview 7 Collins Cove “Collins Cove” is written on the back.

Salem Harbor Stereoview 8

Salem Harbor Stereoview 4

Salem Harbor Stereoview Naugus Head “Salem Harbor from Naugus Head”.

Salem Harbor Stereoview 2

Salem Harbor Stereoview 5

Salem Harbor Stereoview 3 This last view is the most rare and mysterious: no date, no photographer, no publisher. I think it is from the end of the Willows looking back towards Salem on the Beverly Harbor side but am not sure—any other ideas?

All Stereoviews courtesy the American Antiquarian Society.


Victorian Slum Sightseers

Years ago I remember enjoying historical-reality series like The 1900 House, Frontier House, and Colonial House, but I’m not having quite the same response to the current representative of this genre, Victorian Slum House. Two shows in, I have spent most of my watching time trying to figure out what bothers me about the premise and the presentation, rather than enjoying the process of “historical” immersion. I’m usually a fan of creative approaches to history, and I think “historical empathy” is a worthy, if unattainable goal, but there’s something about this particular series that is troubling me. I thought I’d use this post to isolate my concerns.

Victorian Slum House Cover

I’m sure you can guess the premise even if you haven’t seen (or heard of) the show: several 21st-century British families of different composition are installed in a meticulously-recreated slum house in London’s East End (actually Stratford) to play out the working- and living-conditions of the 1860s through the 1910s each week in survival-of-the-fittest fashion. Among the families there are ties to the East End of the past and what appears to be a very earnest desire to “know” and “understand” their ancestors by living their lives for a few weeks. There have been very few pop-up historians so far, but nevertheless lots of historical information is put out there for context: the high price of food, the importance of piece-work, the constant in-migration into London leading to ever-increasing rents and density, mechanization, globalization and (in weeks to come) political empowerment. The cast talks about the filth all around them, and we see some of it, but we don’t see the darkness and we can’t smell the smells: the communal outhouse is shown only (so far) as a place where kippers were smoked.

Victorian Slum House

Victorian Slum House 8

Ultimately two very random references surfaced in my brain: one quite silly and the other more serious. Everyone does everything on their beds, together, so I was immediately reminded of all those scenes of the Bucket family home in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. More seriously, the impactful words of E.P. Thompson, written in the preface to his classic tome The Making of the English Working Class (1963), kept surfacing in my mind: his intent to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity”. The enormous condescension of posterityThe English working class was rescued by a half-century of social historians, so now they are far more familiar and heroic to us, but perhaps another form of condescension has emerged in this age of history-as-entertainment: it’s more about us than it is about them.

Victorian Slum House 5

I do think the “cast” was earnest and well-intentioned, though rather craftily put-together by the producers: obviously the 21st-century bespoke tailor (above) was in the best position to succeed in the Victorian era: the administrative assistant, disabled professional golfer, and retired carpet-store salesman were not so well-equipped. And they threw an American in there too, who proclaims her interest in migration. Ultimately we’re only supposed to really experience “history” through these people, so we need to know what they are seeking. We know they have learned something when they shed tears: when they realize how hard their ancestors had to work or how close they are to the edge with no safety net beyond. These are the moments when we–the audience–are supposed to get it as well, as we put ourselves in their places. But the tears don’t last long, and are followed by smiles when the players admit they can go back to their comforts and devices. They are just historical tourists, and we are daytrippers.

Victorian Slum House 3

Victorian Slum House 7

Victorian Slum House 9

Scenes from Victorian Slum House watched from my comfortable parlor.


Out of the Closet

This is actually a post on Salem wallpaper, but there are so many anecdotes about long-forgotten patches of paper found in closets and cupboards by vintage wallpaper hunters/reproducers like Dorothy Waterhouse and Nancy McClelland that I thought I could get away with a more provocative title. A great example is “The Creamer” pattern manufactured by Thomas Strahan & Company in the 1930s after its discovery in the upstairs closet of a house (still very much standing) on Essex Street which belonged to the Salem stationer Benjamin Creamer. Before his untimely death in the early 1850s, Benjamin and his brother George were major stationers in Salem, supplying both writing papers and “room-papers” to their customers; George carried on alone from that date.

Salem Wallpaper Creamer

Salem Wallpaper 361 Essex

Salem Wallpaper Creamer Ad

“The Creamer”, manufactured by Thomas Strahan & Co., after a fragment found in the Nicholas Crosby House on Essex Street, home of the Benjamin Creamer family in the mid-nineteenth century; a trade card for Creamer Stationers.

I’ve checked in all (12) of my closets and found no remnants of rare French wallpaper, sadly: just dull old paint befitting a house that was once home to boarders and one very large family. But there are lots of other places to look for Salem wallpapers: Historic New England has digitized its extensive collection, the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum of the Smithsonian maintains a treasure trove of wallpaper images online, and both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, also have wallpaper samples among their digitized collections. And if you can’t find the original paper, images and descriptions of colonial reproductions in trade catalogs can also offer impressions of what once was, as well as verification of the importance of Salem as source. I love to look for and at old wallpaper for both aesthetic and historical reasons: it gives you the ability to imagine existing houses in earlier incarnations, and verifies the existence of houses that no longer exist. First the former.

Salem Wallpaper collage

Salem Wallpaper Capt Farlen House

Salem Wallpaper collage 2

Salem Wallpaper Nathaniel Hawthorne 1920

Salem Wallpaper collage 3

French block-printed paper, c. 1820-25, manufactured by Jacquemart & Bénard, originally in the Lindall-Gibbs-Osgood House on Essex Street, Cooper-Hewitt Collection; A fragment of paper taken from the upstairs chamber of the Capt. Thomas Farless House at 120 Derby Street, 1862, Cooper-Hewitt Collection; Two wallpapers associated with the Gardner-Pingree house: Zuber et Cie’s “Grinling Gibbons” and Nancy McClelland’s “Pingree House”, Cooper-Hewitt Collection and Hannah’s Treasures on Etsy;  “Nathaniel Hawthorne” wallpaper, c. 1920, once installed in the House of the Seven Gables, Cooper-Hewitt Collection; a Nancy McClelland catalog from 1941.

The wallpaper samples below were taken from houses that no longer exist: I had no knowledge of most of them so now I’ll have to go down another rabbit hole and find out everything I can about them! Just look at the first fragment below, from the Louisa Rhodes house on Essex Street (where was that?) and the collection of Historic New England: stunning. There are three Salem reproduction wallpapers manufactured by the venerable firm M.H. Birge & Co. in the collection of Cooper-Hewitt, all from houses that are no longer standing. One pattern (the last below), simply called “Old Salem” is also in the Historic New England archive, which includes the extraordinarily detailed notationan old colonial paper……laid by J.W. Everill on Dr. Cook’s house in Norman St., Salem, Mass., Oct. 22nd and 25th, 1852. A notation on the old paper from which this was taken established its age in this country as 63 years. Yet, the fact that this sample was made in sections or black, and fastened together, offers evidence that it was many years older. No papers being produced in rolls or continuous strips until after the year 1790. This Louis XV paper with its Swiss influence comprises a vista of romantic scenes, medieval castles and crags above a river. The author gets a bit more fanciful here, but his observations are still interesting: In picturing Dr. Cook’s house, as it was in the old days when the Halls echoed with laughter, and wax tapers were in vogue, the customs of dress with the men in knee breeches with silver buckles and gold lace, women in trailing brocades and rare laces, not to overlook the powdered puffs, and the negro servants coming and going on household errands, all tend to show why the charm of coloring, as well as the decorative character and excellent drawing of this design prompted its appropriate use. But I thought it was laid in 1852, hardly the setting described above: maybe it was stuck in a closet until that time?

Salem Wallpaper Rhode House HNE

Salem Wallpaper Sible Hancock ST

Salem Wallpaper Elm and Charter

Salem Wallpaper Old Salem

Wallpapers from the lost Salem houses of Louisa Rhodes (Historic New England); Mr. Sibble of Hancock Street (Birge, Cooper-Hewitt); Mr. Holbrook’s house at the corner of Elm and Charter Streets (Birge, Cooper-Hewitt), and Dr. Cook on Norman Street (Birge’s “Old Salem”, Cooper-Hewitt and Historic New England collections).


Pink Portfolio

Certain times of the year are just defined by colors: early May reads pink to me, with touches of white (and green of course) for contrast. It’s all the flowering trees and shrubs and the pink version of one of my very favorite plants, Bleeding Hearts. Spring has been rather chilly here in Salem so far, and this is a really busy time on the academic calendar, but the quest for pink gets me out there on the streets, and in some cases, in (public!) backyards. The sloping garden behind the Peirce-Nichols house, for example, is Bleeding Heart heaven, and while I found no pink (though sometimes lilac can pass) behind another PEM house, the Gardner-Pingree, I did find a rabbit, so I’m including him/her too–along with a photograph of some absolutely beautiful pink borscht from a new bedside book which I bought more for its colors than its recipes: Dinner with Georgia O’Keeffe: Recipes, Art & Landscape (Assouline, 2017).

Pink and White 8

Pink and White 7

Pink and White 5

Pink and White 6

Pink Bleading Heart

“Papplerose” (which looks like Bleeding Hearts to me) drawing by Dagobert Peche (Austrian, 1887-1923); watercolor on paper, Smithsonian/Cooper Hewitt Museum.

Pink and White 4

Pink and White2

Pink and White 3

Pink and White

Pink and White 3

Pink Tulips

Pink and White georgia-o-keeffe-cookbook

Drawing of pink and white tulips by Tommi Parzinger, ca. 1930; graphite on paper, Smithsonian/Cooper Hewitt Collection; borscht from Dinner with Georgia O’Keeffe: Recipes, Art & Landscape by Robyn Lea.


Preservation Awards 2017

Every May (which is Preservation Month in case you didn’t know it), Salem’s venerable preservation organization, Historic Salem, Inc., holds its annual meeting at which a slate of officers are elected and a slate of preservation awards announced–with the latter taking up considerably more time than the former. The awards are culled from nominations by HSI’s membership and the community, and generally include a variety of projects: private residences meticulously restored, adaptive re-use projects, large public projects that privilege preservation. I look forward to these awards every year, but for some reason I haven’t “covered” them in my blog:  I think it’s because annual meeting nights have fallen on teaching nights in years past and so I haven’t been able to attend, but that’s a poor excuse as I certainly could and should have featured the list in years past. These awards go to individuals (owners, developers, architects) but represent material and aesthetic contributions to the entire community as preservation is a public good. In any case, this year the HSI annual meeting fell on a Friday, but I would have attended regardless as (shameless full disclosure here) my husband’s firm received not one but two awards: for the Howard and Derby Street condominium projects through which a 1960s convent and the former Settlement House of the House of the Seven Gables were transformed into residential buildings. These projects were in good company: the newly-restored (and expanded) Essex Probate and Family Court (now the Thaddeus Buczko Building) the Notch Brewery & Tap Room, the Pickering House, the Baker’s Island Light Station, Old Town Hall, the former Klondike Building–turned-offices for the North Shore Community Development Corporation, and a beautifully-refurbished Victorian house in North Salem were also recognized on this past Friday night. Together, they represent the sheer variety of preservation work going on in Salem by individuals and institutions, efforts that are more important than ever in this era of bland new building.

Preservatio Overview

Preservation Old Town Hall

Preservations Awards Nursery

Preservation Awards Lafayette Street

Preservation Awards Howard Street

Preservation Derby

Preservation Awards Federal Street

The 2017 HSI Preservation Award winners: Old Town Hall was recognized for the rehabilitation of its historic windows, and the Pickering House for its fence and balustrade. The Nursery Street Victorian sets the standard for meticulous restoration, inside and out. The second-floor North Shore CDC offices on Lafayette Street, also stunning. Seven Howard Street is a mid-century modern convent turned condominiums, and the former Settlement House of the House of the Seven Gables led many lives before its recent transformation into residences.

Looking forward to 2018: The Salem Maritime National Historic Site is in the process of restoring the windows of the Derby House, the old “Grimshawe House” on Charter Street (where Nathaniel Hawthorne courted his wife Sophia) is in the midst of a thorough rehabilitation, and I’m really hoping that my employer, Salem State University, not only saves but restores this historic bungalow on Loring Avenue.

Preservation Derby 2

Preservation Charter

Loring Bungalow


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