A Slave Trader in Salem

I’ve learned a lot about Salem’s African-American history while writing this blog; I don’t think I would look at the city the same way otherwise. I associate Chestnut Street, where I live, much more with the Remond family and their myriad activities centered on Hamilton Hall than with any particular Salem merchant or sea captain. When I walk to work down Lafayette Street, I pass a neighborhood of parallel streets on my right, beginning with Pond and ending with Cedar, on which numerous African-American families lived in the mid- and late nineteenth century: John Remond had a house on Pond, and his eldest daughter Nancy Shearman lived in the neighborhood with her family, along with his successor as caterer to Hamilton Hall, Edward Cassell. I don’t have the same place-association as I do with the Hall on Chestnut Street, as all the structures on these streets burned to the ground during the Great Salem Fire of 1914, but I think about the neighborhood that was there before. The city directories make it clear that this wasn’t an African-American neighborhood; it was rather an integrated neighborhood, just like the Salem public schools from 1844. This neighborhood was so diverse that it was even home to a notorious Virginian slave trader, who resided at 29 Cedar Street intermittently for a decade or so, from 1851 to the beginning of the Civil War, along with his common-law African-American wife and their four children. As they say, you can’t make it up.

Part of Salem’s Ward Five: Henry McIntyre / H. E. B. Taylor / Friend & Aub’s Lith., MAP OF THE CITY OF SALEM MASS. From an actual Survey By H. McINTYRE. Cl. Engr. H. E. B. TAYLOR, ASSISTANT. Philadelphia: Henry McIntyre, 1851.

The slave trader in question was named Bacon Tait and his common-law wife was named Courtney Fountain. Both came from interesting Virginia families. I certainly did not discover their stories: as much as the limited sources allow, Hank Trent pieced together what can be known about their lives in a slim well-sourced volume entitled The Secret Life of Bacon Tait. A White Slave Trader Married to a Free Woman of Color (LSU Press, 2017) and you can also read an excellent summary at the Encyclopedia Virginia. But I think we need more Salem context, and I have questions; actually, just one: how did a notorious domestic slave trader maintain a residence in which was supposedly such an abolitionist stronghold as Salem? Obviously there are two assumptions in that particular question: that Tait was notorious (or at the very least conspicuous) and that Salem was abolitionist. To support the first assumption, we’ve got to start in Richmond, the second-largest slave-trading market of the antebellum domestic slave trade (after New Orleans). When he traveled to the United States as secretary to the popular novelist William Makepeace Thackeray in 1852-1853, the artist Eyre Crowe took advantage of downtime in Richmond to walk several blocks from his fashionable hotel to the slave market to sketch the scenes he saw there (before he was asked to leave), publishing them in the Illustrated London News upon his return to Britain. These sketches were studies for two paintings which illustrated and publicized the process of slave-trading on both sides of the Atlantic: Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia and After the Sale: Slaves Going South from Richmond.

Eyre Crowe, Slaves Waiting for Salem, Richmond, Virginia (1861), Heinz Collection, Washington D.C.; After the Sale: Slaves Going South from RIchmond (1853), Chicago History Museum.

Bacon Tait was a major player in this Richmond trade and in Richmond itself: the pages of the Richmond Enquirer, the Richmond Dispatch, the Richmond Daily Times and the Richmond Whig record his real estate transactions, his political successes, and his slave-trading activities from the 1820s to the Civil War, even after he had moved to Salem in 1851: he traveled back to conduct business and also employed surrogates. His trade is also documented in the Slave Ship Manifests at the National Archives (a chilling source that I had never consulted before: not my period, thank goodness!) Notices of his “holding” facilities are particularly lengthy, and the Visitor’s Guide to Richmond (1871) records that Tait was the original builder of the infamous “Lumpkin’s Jail” (otherwise known as the “Devil’s half-acre”) in 1825. An “under new management’ advertisement from several years later reveals the inhuman dimensions of this particular side of the business.

In Massachusetts, William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, printed excerpts from the Richmond papers frequently, with lengthy commentary and annotations. When Tait announced the opening of his new “private jail” in 1834, The Liberator reprinted the copy and commented upon it, and a certain “P.H.” took the liberty of rewriting it for its readers: the entire piece was featured prominently on the front page of the December 27, 1834 edition of the paper. Charles Lenox Remond was the agent of The Liberator in Salem at the time: it’s unlikely that this item escaped his notice.

Tait’s relationship with Courtney Fountain began in the early 1840s, while she might have been in his employ as a housekeeper. She was originally from Winchester, Virginia and part of a minority (10%) of free blacks in Richmond at the time, but members of her family resided in the North and were active in abolitionist circles in both New York State and Massachusetts. It’s not entirely clear from Trent’s book how they ended up here, but Courtney’s sister Ann and brother John resided in Salem, as well as several cousins. Tait and Courtney had four children in the 1840s: Celine, Constance, Bacon Jr. and Josephine, each two years apart. Salem’s schools were desegregated in 1844 (thanks to the efforts of the Remonds) and Massachusetts abolished its anti-miscegenation law the year before. You can certainly understand the lure of Salem for Courtney, but it’s hard to picture Tait as a doting family man, which seems to be the only incentive for his departure from Richmond in 1852. In any case, he purchased the Leach House at 29 Cedar Street in July of that year: it looks like it was a lovely property, located on a bluff at the end of the street overlooking Mill Pond.

Bacon Tait is listed in the Salem Directories of the 1850s as a “merchant” living at 29 Cedar Street and in the 1855 state and 1860 federal censuses as well: there are no indications that Salem residents were outraged by his residence in their town or even aware of his existence. Charles Lenox Remond was living on Pond Street during the 1850s, just three streets over, and just a few doors down Cedar Street lived Adeline Roberts, a Salem schoolteacher and long-time corresponding secretary of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society. Miss Roberts corresponded regularly with William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, and other abolitionist leaders, and in the very year that Tait moved to Salem, she was organizing a series of seven lectures on the abolition movement to be held at the Salem Lyceum in the fall. Tait never appears in her letters, but she must have been aware of his residency. Were there whispers at the Lyceum before every lecture? Was Salem society gossiping behind closed doors? I just don’t know. Tait seems like a ghost in Salem, but he was still conducting his business in Richmond: I suspect a lot of family letter-burning later on. That’s the problem: we can’t see (or hear) whispers from the past or letters that have been destroyed, we can only speculate. I’m assuming that Courtney’s family was protecting her and her children (and by extension, him), and I’m also assuming he kept his head down and conducted his trade via post and travel. All census documents from Salem indicate that Courtney and Tait were married, but there is a difference between state and federal censuses in designation of race: the federal census indicates that the entire family was white while the Massachusetts censuses indicate that Courtney and her children were of mixed race. I’m not sure what this means in terms of their presentation or perception.

What happened when the war broke out? Tait seems to have returned to Richmond permanently, leaving his family in Salem. He instructed one of his daughters to sell the house on Cedar Street in 1864, yet they all appear on the Massachusetts census as living there in 1865. Both Courtney and Tait died in 1871: she in Salem, he in Richmond: their four children remained in Salem, residing at various addresses. Tait left several wills, and the most recent one, leaving his fortune “to his illegitimate children by a mulatto woman, who held to him the relation of housekeeper, he having no lawful wife” was contested by various partners and employees in Richmond. Many transactions dissolving his real estate ensued, but I have no idea where the money went. Courney’s death notice was printed in the Salem Register (as “Mrs. Courtney Tait, Richmond papers please copy,”) as was Tait’s, with no further identification or detail. She is buried in Harmony Grove Cemetery with a lovely epitaph from her children; he is buried at another Gothic Revival cemetery, Hollywood in Richmond, with no epitaph at all. As for his reception, or lack thereof, in Salem, I haven’t found the answer to my question, but maybe my presumption is wrong. Maybe Salem wasn’t an “abolitionist stronghold;” maybe it was home to only a small minority of very vocal abolitionists in the 1850s who invited William Lloyd Garrison to speak every other month, protested the Dredd Scott decision vehemently, organized August 1st Emancipation Day celebrations, and pushed for Charlotte Forten’s appointment as the first African-American teacher in the Salem public schools. We always want righteous causes to be more popular than they generally were. Or maybe Tait just maintained his privacy: this seems more possible at that time than today. As I think about the past and the present I am struck by how wide the gap was between Bacon Tait and many of his Salem neighbors: we tend to think of our own time as divisive, but our divisions seem relatively insignificant compared to theirs.

No stigma in Salem: Celine Tait Burding, Courtney and Tate’s eldest child, commissioned a Tait family plot in Harmony Grove Cemetery for her mother as well as her own family: she married Willard Burding in 1873, had four children, and died in Salem in 1886. Courtney’s gravestone in the center reads simply “Our Mother” and bears an inscription derived from Shall we Gather at the River, published only six years before: “on the March of the Beautiful River that flows by the Throne of God she waits for us.” In Virginia, Tait’s family is described in less reverential terms: Petersburg Progress-Index, June 21, 1871.


Some Great Early Gloucester Houses

I feel like I should know more about Gloucester, the port city about a half hour to the north of Salem. I have quite a few Salem friends who have summer homes in Gloucester, or have moved to Gloucester, or just go to Gloucester often: it’s like an escape hatch of sorts. 2023 marks Gloucester’s 400th Anniversary, and I have been super impressed with the city’s commemoration efforts: they are creative, comprehensive, and most importantly, expressions of the community rather than of a limited pool of “stakeholders,” as seems to be the case with Salem as it gears up to its 400th in 1626. I’ve been to Gloucester often, but I can’t even begin to characterize it as a place: it doesn’t seem like one city to me, but rather several. It’s certainly big: I decided to drive around in search of some of its earliest houses the other day and it took me all afternoon and I feel like I barely scratched the surface! I’m not even sure that I have the neighborhoods straight, to be honest: I started out in West Gloucester, then drove downtown, then to East Gloucester and Rocky Neck, then through Rockport to the northern side of Gloucester, stopping in Lanesville and Annisquam. Depending on where you are, you can find any style of house you want in Gloucester: big old shingled “cottages,” smaller cottages in a variety of styles, Greek Revivals, vast Victorians, stucco Craftsmans and even a Tudor or two. Not too many three-story Federals so prevalent in Salem, Newburyport, and Portsmouth: Gloucester was/is a fishing port so not as many wealthy merchants. I was looking for Colonials on this little expedition, the older the better, so that determined my route. Unfortunately, I forgot my sources: Prudence Paine Fish’s excellent books on Gloucester’s old houses (Ms. Fish died recently; a great loss for Gloucester) and Edwin Whitefield’s Homes of our Forefathers. On my own I missed quite a bit of this sprawling old city with its innumerable inlets so expect return trips over the next year or so!

I started out in West Gloucester where I drove way out along Concord Street: in my experience streets named for other Massachusetts towns have the oldest houses. At least part of the first house below, the Ella Proctor Herrick House, was built in the seventeenth century and the last one proudly bears a first-period plaque as well.

Along Concord Street, West Gloucester.

Then I drove miles to downtown Gloucester, overlooking its expansive harbor. This is the most densely-settled area of the city, obviously, and also where you can find the most architectural variety. It’s also where the Cape Ann Museum (CAM) is, a museum of art and history which also owns and operates several house museums. Of course I’m jealous that Gloucester has a professional local museum, but CAM’s existence is just one of several indicators that Gloucester is serious about preserving and interpreting its heritage, material and textual: I also like the way older houses are interwoven with newer, professional and institutional structures in the city center. The first house below, on Middle Street, is wedged between a bank and some other professional office building, and has lots of Georgian neighbors.

Along Middle Street, Gloucester.

On the way to the Green, where CAM owns and operates two historic houses, I passed by this first cute and very characteristic of Gloucester house and one of the city’s oldest houses, the Whittemore House (1700), now a frame shop. The Green, situated right on Gloucester’s traffic rotary on Route 128, features three historic structures (the White Ellery House, 1710 and the Babson-Alling House, 1740 are below) and CAM’s newest exhibition space, the Janet & William Ellery James Center (2020), which has expanded the museum’s exhibition and archival space signficantly.

I hopped right on the rotary and drove to East Gloucester, which was a pass-through for me as I didn’t have my sources! So I did the Cape Ann loop, enjoying the views and driving through Rockport, and ended up in Lanesville and Annisquam on Gloucester’s northern shore. As you can tell from these photographs, it was a cloudy, dreary day (as has been the case for most of January in our parts) and so I had to snap this bright orange cottage in Lanesville and then it was on to Annisquam, which is really almost too precious and perfect (and with too many “private drives”!) but I had to see the Edward Harraden House (c. 1660)—one of several structures built by this family in Gloucester. It’s a storied name in Salem too as Jonathan Harraden was one of our most famous revolutionary privateers. It did not disappoint.

Eighteenth-century houses in the Lanesville (ORANGE!) and Annisquam villages of Gloucester, and the Edward Harraden House, c. 1660.


Beverly Jogs

I was following the discussion on a facebook group dedicated to the restoration of Colonial homes the other day, very deliberately avoiding preparing my syllabi for the new semester, when the term “Beverly jog” came up, and it was clear that a lot of people on the thread did not recognize it. That surprised me, but it might just be an eastern Massachusetts phrase. There might be other terms: I was reading Frank Cousins’ Colonial Architecture of Salem last week and he used the phrase “jut-by” to refer to such additions, as in: occasionally the rear half of a gambrel-roof house was extended several feet beyond the front half, as had often been the earlier lean-to, forming a “jut-by” to provide a side door facing front. All old houses have all sorts of additions and protuberances of course, and I think “lean-to” and simply “addition” can cover all the bases, but I learned the phrase “Beverly jog” when I was taking a tour of the Peabody Essex Museum’s Crowninshield-Bentley House long ago. It remains a perfect example of a very specific type of addition.

So here’s a good definition, from the Dictionary of Building Preservationa narrow addition on the end of a house with the back slope of its roof in the same plane as the back slope of the main roof; originally found on late 18c houses in the Boston, Massachusetts, area; now found in other areas. I had thought it was an Essex County building practice—hence the reference to Beverly, Salem’s neighboring city to the north—but over the past few years I’ve seen such additions in southern New Hampshire and on the Cape. The addition of a staircase was likely the primary reason for a Beverly jog: I remember from my historic plaque researching days how many people lived in these old houses: you don’t want them all coming in the front door, especially in the middle of the winter! And then you get the added benefit of the mudroom: another New England necessity. I don’t think a Beverly jog can be on any house other than a Georgian, or at least that’s where you’ll see them in Salem. Some of my favorites are below (these photos were taken two days ago, when the sky was white with our first snow, as opposed to the Crowninshield-Bentley photos from yesterday when the sun finally came out after several dreary weeks!)

The first house above is on Federal Street and its Beverly jog is perfect! My neighbor’s house on Broad Street; the green house on Andover Street, which belonged to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s aunt, has TWO Beverly jogs—one on each side. Does the orange house on River Street have a jog or merely an addition? I’m not sure about the plane……and the last house is no longer with us, a victim of urban renewal.


Secret Staircases

Every old house has secrets, but every old house does not have deliberately-constructed secretive places for hiding or hidden means of conveyence: such spaces are special. Novelists love secret staircases, and historians do too: they are evidence of intent. Well, I think everyone is fascinated by secret spaces in general: I have been since I was a child and my mother told me all about priest holes in England and that was that. When I was older and in England I was determined to find as many as I could, armed with the books below. When I was older still, and looking at the house I now live in, its owners (who were also realtors) showed me its two secret spaces: a door hidden in the master bedroom closet that opens up into the in-law apartment next door and a tunnel in the basement that opens up under the street. There’s a big door, with a big lock, leading to some underground space! I always call it a tunnel but I’m not sure how far it goes under Chestnut Street: as soon as the previous owners opened up the door and I saw black I ran upstairs! Twenty years later, I still haven’t been in that space: it’s too scary. I can assure you, however, that my husband and every single contractor who has worked in this house has been in there—they all seem to think it’s some sort of large coal bin but of course the previous owners told me it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. I have a theory that it might have been a space to store rum, as the man who built my house was Salem’s biggest distiller and he lived right across the street, but I’ve yet to find proof. So all of this is just an introduction to say: I’m interested in secret spaces! (And I was a Nancy Drew fan too and the Hidden Staircase is my favorite.)

I think that the American equivalent of priest holes are secret staircases and one of the most important secret staircases in America is right here in Salem, at the House of the Seven Gables. For generations of children in our region and beyond, myself included, the first impression or memory of the Gables is undoubtedly of the secret staircase: every child (and many adults) that I have taken to the Gables has been struck by both the idea and the experience of the secret staircase. Its aura is very interesting because it is a twentieth-century installation rather than an original feature of this seventeenth-century house. The House of Gables Settlement Association’s founder, Caroline Osgood Emmerton, and her architect James Everett Chandler, were “inspired” by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel in their restoration of the house: and so it acquired four more gables, a rebuilt central chimney, a second-story overhang, and a cent shop as well as additional room for the companion settlement mission. I love the headline for this Boston Sunday Globe article from January 1910:  all is revealed!

The house also acquired a secret staircase, right alongside the new chimney, even though there is no secret staircase in The House of the Seven Gables. So why? There are several reasons. The house’s previous owner, Henry Upton, maintained that there had been a secret staircase and so Emmerton believed that she was putting something back that had been there before. She also believed, apparently, that the novel needed a secret staircase and so she was giving the house one: “For it seems to be that we feel the absence of the secret staircase in the story just as we feel the absence of a bit of a picture-puzzle that has been lost and has left an unfiled place in the picture.” [The Chronicles of Three Old Houses,1935]. This seems like a bit of a rationalization to me, so I’m wondering if she merely wanted a secret staircase in the house to increase its allure: such discoveries made headlines in those days and they still do.

Boston Evening Transcript 8.5.1911 (not the word “museumized”!); the era of secret staircases: that found in Governor Tilden’s Gramercy Park mansion made national headlines in 1905.

And once the secret staircase was there, it took on a life of its own. I’m working on an article on the Colonial Revival in Salem, and just read a wonderful study on interpretation at the House of the Seven Gables over the last century, based on a succession of scripts [Tami Christopher, “The House of the Seven Gables. A House Museum’s Adaptation to Changing Societal Expectations since 1910,” in Amy K. Levin, ed., Defining Memory: Local Museums and the Construction of History in America’s Changing Communities (2007); the chapter on the Gables in Colin Dickey’s Ghostland is great too.]. In the beginning, the staircase was explained in terms of smuggling/tax evasion or “a means of escape in witchcraft times.” Then there was a shift to the Underground Railroad, and finally an admission of its 20th century origins. The staircase has reflected historical interests, and historical inquiry over time, but it has also been a means to express simple (childhood) curiosity, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Early twentieth-century postcard and the secret staircase in 1950 (National Geographic) and today (or recently).


When the Frame is in the Picture

Starting 2023 off with some color and creativity; I need some brightness. There is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I which I have long admired: it’s from relatively early in her reign, and the artist is anonymous. It’s a serious portrait of a young woman of faith: holding a book (for prayer, presumably) and with a poetic inscription about transubstantiation below: it’s certainly not an official portrait as she would never be so open about her personal religious beliefs in her quest to be Queen of the English people rather than just Queen of the English Protestants. The other notable aspect of the portrait is the frame: there really isn’t one, it’s a faux gilt “frame” which is painted on the same board as the portrait. Later on, much later on, this will become a more common trompel’œil technique, but I think it was pretty novel in 1565!

@Christie’s Images Ltd. The caption reads: Twas God the Word that spake it: And what that Word did make it, That I believe and take it.

When I was looking for a nice image to post for Elizabeth’s birthday this past fall, I came across one of the “Runneth Over” adaptations by DVM/Maloos: and that of another Renaissance Woman! More Rainbow portrait and Mona Lisa, you can’t beat that.

Then I was off and running, discovering lots of cool images. I like to use a relatively narrow focus to discover things, but as I moved forward in time I realized that “frame as part of the picture” is not a discreet search term for modern art. There are indeed quite a few such playful paintings, so I’m just including a few of my discoveries below: I really like the work of Jorge Alberto, whose encased queen card is just one of his faux frame paintings, and I also like this shadowy lemon. As their titles suggest, Sarah Gilman’s Trompe l’oeil after Gijsbrechts paintings reproduce the framed “memo-board” paintings of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish artists rather deliberately.

As the Runneth Over works demonstrate, not all “integrated frame” paintings need to be illusory: my last featured artist is Carolyn Misterek, whose “Everyday Occurences” paintings feature an assemblage of botanicals, flat color, and frames. They seem unassuming yet striking at first glance, but the frame adds something besides dimension: formality, finish, fancifulness?

Three “Everyday Occurences” paintings by Carolyn Misterek.


Anniversary History: Local Edition 2023

Looking ahead to the new year from a local history perspective, there are commemorative moments for at least six events: five European settlements and a tea party, the 250th Anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, to be precise. A century and a half earlier, there were settlements at Gloucester, Massachusetts and Portsmouth, Rye (the Pannaway Plantation) and Dover (the Cocheco Plantation), New Hampshire. The ill-prepared and -fated Wessagusset Colony was established in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1622 but its demise came the following year after the brutal Wessagusett “Incident,” more appropriately referred to as a massacre. Commemorative history should acknowledge both the good and the bad, the heroic and the tragic, the kind and the cruel, and so the Wessagusett Massacre of March 1623, a veritable “red wedding” which harmed relations between Native Americans and English settlers for years to come, demands a spotlight. Like the first Gloucester settlement by the Dorchester Company, Wessagusett was decidedly not a plantation in the seventeenth-century sense, but rather a fishing and trading station of 60+ men financed by London merchant Thomas Weston. “Weston’s Men” were completely unprepared for the New World and by the winter of 1622-1623 they were starving, and altogether dependent on both Plymouth and the Native Americans in the region. But foodstuffs were scarce for everyone that winter, and everyone was anxious. Rumors of an impending Native American raid on both settlements drove the Wessagusett men to seek aid from Plymouth, and militia leader Myles Standish and eight men sailed a shallop to the northern settlement and issued an invitation to Massachusett tribal leaders Pecksuot, Wituwamat, and others to attend a summit during which commenced a slaughter just as they all sat down to dinner. I’m going to let Charles Francis Adams tell the tale, as he presented it in his anniversary address on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Weymouth: the savages were taken by surprise, but they fought hard, making little noise but catching at their weapons and struggling until they were cut almost to pieces. Finally Pecksuot, Wituwamat and a third Indian were killed; while a fourth, a youth of eighteen, was overpowered and secured; him, Standish subsequently hung. The massacre, for such in historic justice it must be called, seeing that they killed every man they could lay their hands on, then began. There were eight warriors in the stockade at the time,—Standish and his party had killed three and secured one; they suddenly killed another while the Weston people despatched two more. Only one escaped to give the alarm, which spread rapidly through the Indian villages. Interesting language for 1873: savages is employed, but Adams does not refrain from calling this slaughter a “massacre” unlike many of his contemporaries who labeled it a pre-emptive strike. Several Wessagusset men also died during the massacre, and the rest opted to abandon the settlement; Standish returned to Plymouth with the head of Wituwamat on a pike in ancient English warrior fashion, “to ornament the Plymouth block-house as a terror to all evil-disposed savages” in the words of Adams. This massacre seems worthy of a bit more commemorative reflection, at least a fraction of what the Boston Massacre receives continuously.

“The Return of Myles Standish from Wessagusset,” from Pioneers in the settlement of America: from Florida in 1510 to California in 1849 by William August Crafts, 1876. Ironically, nearly 300 years later (299!) Myles Standish lost his head when the Standish monument in Duxbury was struck by lightning: according to this post by Carolyn Ravenscroft, archivist of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society, his replacement head was too heavy for the damaged “body,” so an entirely new Standish was created by Boston sculptor John Horrigon, pictured here in 1930.

I’m not sure what the plans for the commemoration of the Wessagusset Massacre are but all the early settlements have been planning their 400th anniversaries for quite some time, particularly Gloucester, which has assembled a multi-layered calendar of commemorative initiatives and offerings focused overwhelmingly on the city’s social history. I’ve been so impressed with the “400 Stories” project, which aims to collect, present and preserve stories from 400 of Gloucester’s residents from 1623 to 2023, thus connecting the past to the present. There are books, an artistic competition for a new commemorative medal, walking tours, festivals, and a gala: the evolving celebratory schedule is at Gloucester 400.

Portsmouth is all geared up too, although its big reveal party is on January 6 so I don’t know all the details. The PortsmouthNH400 site is here, and so far its signature product is a lovely bookA History of Portsmouth NH in 101 Objects, to which both my Salem State History colleague Tad Baker and alum Alyssa Conary have contributed. There’s an ongoing speakers’ series and exhibition based on the book, and on January 6 Portsmouth’s Memorial Bridge will be illuminated in blue, PortsmouthNH400th’s commemorative color. Like Gloucester, Portsmouth is also collecting stories (of 400 words) from its residents, to be compiled in a commemorative book designed to update its 350th anniversary history. Rye and Dover also have their 400th anniversary committees and calendars, derived from considerable public participation: the mission of Dover400 is “to honor our past, celebrate our present, and to inspire our future through meaningful and creative community engagement.”

The 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party is going to be big: after all, from the Boston perspective, it was “the single most important event leading up to the American Revolution.” I’m excited about all of the offerings by Revolutionary Spaces at the Old South Meeting House and the Old State House, including an exhibition on the power of petitions, an “immersive theatrical experience,” and various programs on the nature and expression of protest. Of course the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum has plans as well, and is already counting down to the big reenactment on December 16, 1773. And there will be merch, including lots of commemorative tea.

Teas from Elmwood Inn & Oliver Pluff & Co.


A Big end-of-year Book Post

I always do a book post at this time of year for several reasons: it’s fun to go through the mental process of compiling “best of” lists, I like to offer gift suggestions, and the time between semesters is always one of intense reading for me. This year, I’m a little late for gift suggestions, but the two other inspirations apply: I read some great books over the past summer and I have my usual stack of unread books right by my bedside, all ready for December 26. This was the year that I published my own book, so I had more time for reading, but now I’ve just finished proposals for two new books, so the next year might not be so free (hopefully). I want to take advantage of the time that I have to read as much as I can, and I’m driven to learn more about: 1) Ukraine (because war); 2) commodities and trade in the pre-modern world (because saffron, the subject of one of my proposed books; 3) information dispersion, broadly defined (because academic+general interest); 4) the history of science (because academic+general interest); 5) early American history (because Salem, the subject of the other proposed book); and anything to do with design (just because). No fiction recommendations here, sorry: I  like fiction, I try to read fiction, but I just don’t seem to be able to finish novels at this point in my life. I put them down because I get curious about something: there are dog-eared spine-cracked books all over the house! So here goes: this is a “best of” list of what I’ve read or was on my radar in 2022 rather than what was published this year, and it’s pretty academic, but there are some fun and beautiful books here too.

Ukraine: I read Yale historian Marci Shore’s The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of the Revolution this past summer (and into September—it took me a while): I really learned a lot. My Ph.D. is in European comparative history, but boy, this book made me realize how little I know about Eastern Europe—and the twentieth century. The Ukrainian Night places the Crimean crisis of 2014 in historical context and thus also provides the context for the current crisis, and it is very much a personal, “intimate” history rather than an academic tome. I picked up Polish journalist Pawel Pieniazek’s Greetings from Novorossiya (2017) for more personal history of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine and Timothy Snyder’s introduction: the latter (also at Yale) is my guide to everything Ukraine on Twitter (still). I imagine we’ll get “first-draft” histories of the Russian assault and Ukrainian response soon.

The demand, supply, consumption, and exchange of a range of commodities in the late medieval and early modern world are all academic and personal interests of mine, and 2022 was a banner year for books on all sorts of economic history. Any former student of mine will tell you that I believe that the Black Death was the most consequential event ever, for a variety of reasons, so I have been waiting for Belich’s book forever. It’s brilliant, and ties together all the trends and themes I have been teaching for years. I wanted to assign it to my undergrads this past semester, but I thought it would be a bit much for them. Future grad students, however, are duly “warned.” In terms of economic dominance in the world the plague made, it’s increasingly all about the Dutch, so Pioneers of Capitalism. The Netherlands 1000-1800 is a welcome book too. I like its long time span: too often the Dutch “Golden Age” seems to spring from a rather shallow pool. Anne Gerritsen’s The City of Blue and White has been by my bedside for a year or so, but I recently moved it to the top of the stack.

The City of Blue and White is definitely calling me, but it will probably have to wait until I have finished Pamela H. Smith’s latest book From Lived Experience to the Written Word. Reconstructing Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern World as I’m reviewing it for an academic journal. I wish I had read this book before I wrote my own, but Smith is a prolific and active scholar so I had the benefit of her prior publications. She teaches at Columbia, where she is also the Director of the Center for Science and Society and its Making and Knowing Project, which “explores the intersections between artistic making and scientific knowing.” There’s nothing new about “maker culture” and it was far more robust and fluid in the early modern era, when making became knowing. Jumping up a century or so and into the realm of visual information dissemination, I am obsessed with the new book series from San Francisco’s Visionary Press : Information Graphic Visionaries, edited by RJ Andrews, who told Print magazine’s Steven Heller that he is “obsessed with craft. To me, the most fascinating thing is to understand the story behind how something came to be.” That’s just how I feel, so I wish I had put these three books on my Christmas list. I’ll just have to buy them myself, beginning with volume on Emma Willard’s history maps (the “Temple of Time,” above, is just one) which are just fascinating in so many ways.

Speaking of ambitious and confident Victorians who believed in progress passionately, Iwan Rhys Morus’s How the Victorians Took Us to The Moon is a survey of nineteenth-century British innovators as well as the innovative “spirit” of their era. It’s a bit biographical for me but that approach definitely increases its accessibility. The other history of science, broadly and brilliantly focused, which I purchased this year is Lorraine Daston’s Rules: A Short History of What We Live By. I thought it would be a good aid for teaching, but I just devoured it, and find myself picking it up often: reference and readability: you can’t beat that!

My Salem State colleagues and I are collaborating on a book of essays for Salem’s 400th anniversary in 2026 and I’m going to have to do a deep dive into several periods of American history for my contributions. Since I’m not an American historian, I need some foundations, and I really like the “American Beginnings” series from the University of Chicago. Three series books are above: the first two explore a topic that my colleague Dane Morrison has been working on for a while: how trade to the East in particular and maritime history in general contributed to the formation of American identity. Dane has a book out this year too: Eastward of Good Hope. Early America in a Dangerous World. Salem was absolutely central to this expansive trade and thus to America’s emerging identify, and this is the broad context that we want for our book.

I’m just realizing that this is a very serious list so let’s lighten it up a bit! I’m not sure it’s an actual genre, but my favorite books to read for pleasure are “house stories” focused on houses and their evolution over time, along with, and because of, the people who lived in them. Here are three examples I picked up this year:

I absolutely hated the recent Netflix series on Anne Boleyn, Blood, Sex & Royality: it is that same weird hybrid documentary drama approach last seen in The Last Czars, which remains the most appalling historical “thing” I have ever seen. It’s so odd to see the main characters, actual historical people, engaging in intimacies followed by the commentary of a talking head. Anyway, one of the talking heads in Anne’s story, Owen Emerson, is one of the authors of The Boleyns of Hever Castle, which I absolutely love. I bought the book after I viewed the program, just to get all the horribly imagery of the latter out of my head, and it did. Clive Aslet’s The Story of the Country House is just wonderful, and I think Ruth Dalton’s Living in Houses. A Personal History of English Domestic Architecture (over four centuries) is going to be great too: I do hope I have time to read it. As you can see, I really need some stories of houses outside of Britain, so please send recommendations! Merry Christmas to all, and to all: try to reserve the week between Christmas and New Year’s for yourself: for reading (or whatever else you like to do).


Christmas Shopping in Salem: the Macabre and the Merry

I try to shop local whenever possible: compared to decades past, it’s not difficult as Salem seems to have become as much of a shopping destination as a dining one. But you’ve got to pick a side: goth or gleeful? dark or bright? macabre or merry? Krampus or Santa Claus? Because of the ever-increasing exploitation of the tragedy of 1692 and its contrived connection to Halloween, “witchy” shops, an aesthetic very broadly defined in Salem, have proliferated over the past few years, reaching the level of self-sustaining demand. This article asserts that Salem has become an “alt fashion hotspot” for those seeking gothic garb, and explains the supply and the demand far better than I can! Maybe you can have it both ways—there are certainly some Salem shops that manage to merge the macabre and the merry quite creatively—but with a list consisting of babies and mostly middle-aged people, I’m squarely in the Merry Christmas camp.

It’s difficult to take photographs of shop windows in the daytime, but Witch City Consignment’s windows represent Salem Christmas shopping well: all is bright but there are looming monsters!

So let’s take a walk down Essex Street from the Witch House to the Hawthorne Hotel and I’ll point out some of my favorite shops along the way and on the side streets. Remember my “merry” bias: this is not an all-inclusive tour! I’m so down on witch-kitschiness that I’ve sworn not to patronize businesses that even have “Witch City” in the name, but I have to make occasional exceptions. I can’t resist Witch City Consignment: there’s so much to see and buy there, though generally I end up buying more things for myself rather than friends or family. I can’t resist the Salem stuff and right now I’m into “apothecariana” or whatever you call it: I love these turn-of-century gold-lablel pharmacy bottles and they are on sale! Witch City Wicks across the way has great candles: I’ve been buying them from the pre-brick-and-mortar days. This section of Essex Street is pretty gothy with the looming Vampfangs and the new Blackcraft, a southern California company which transformed a Colonial Revival bank building into an all-black emporium with a red witch descending from the center ceiling medallion. I skipped the former and went into the latter, for a very brief spell. There’s a lot of black in the store, but very little craft: strictly made in China as far as I could tell. On to Town House Square past the Christmas Tree in Lappin Park.

Witch City Consignment wares; nice to see the cheery windows of the Gulu-Gulu Cafe after I left Blackcraft.

I craved more craft and more merry after Blackcraft, so I headed right for a trio of shops on the corner of Washington and Front Streets owned by a very creative and entrepreneurial couple: the brand new Spruce Home, Oak+Moss, and Roost & Company. Much shopping ensued: these shops have something for everyone, and their wares are unique yet usable, tactile and textural, both decorative and utilitarian. I scooped up napkin rings and onesies, managed to resist all manner of cocktail culture, but had to have my very own merry & bright banner!

Spruce Home and Oak+Moss.

There is great shopping on Front Street (particularly at J.Mode for women’s clothing) which runs paralell to Essex on either side of Derby Square, but I did so well at the Spruce/Oak/Roost triumvirate that I headed straight for Emporium 32 on Central, before getting back on Essex. Here we have the curation of yet another creative couple, who have packed their tin-ceilinged shop with more whimsical wares, including nostalgic Christmas decorations, jewelry, prints, very visual books, barware and outerware. It’s a great accessory shop, and also a wonderful place to shop for men with hats, gloves, and shaving stuff galore. Plus it’s just a merry place, which always cheers you up, no matter the season (and they always have the best windows, in every season). At this point, I have to admit that I had my husband with me and we had nearly reached his shopping capacity, so it was time to break for lunch at the tavern at the Hawthorne Hotel (and drinks, of course: I had this delicious blood orange & bourbon cocktail, below). 1925, the latest venture from the Emporium entrepreneurs, will be opening in the corner shop of the Hotel in the new year.

Shopping at Emporium 32 and drinks (+ food and a pointsettia Christmas tree) at the Hawthorne Hotel.

With sustenance, my husband declared he could do two more shops and no more, so we set off for the Peabody Essex Museum shop and DiehlMarcus & Company, a lovely store located in a Bulfinch building almost across from Emporium 32 on Central Street. Even when I was furious with the PEM for removing the Phillips Library to Rowley (five years ago!) I still shopped in its lovely shop: its buyers have always found the best things. This particular year, the PEM shop seems to have embraced all things Salem, commissioning little wooden replicas of all of its buildings from The Cat’s Meow. I want them all and I couldn’t possibly choose, so I “settled” for some Ropes Mansion placemats, among other items. There’s no question that more damage would have been done if my husband wasn’t with me, and I will have to return to do some actual shopping for others. It does seem a bit odd to me to be featuring all these buildings that are not presently open to the public, particularly the empty Plummer Hall, long home to the Phillips Library, and its adjoining and also-dark Daland House: maybe these little houses are a sign of future openings?

All the PEM houses! The Museum even installed a ye olde Salem Christmas neighborhood in the windows of one of its empty storefronts on Essex Street.

After DiehlMarcus, my husband dropped out and I was on my own in the shops of Church Street and at Pickering Wharf: the former is a sparkling street of signs while the latter is looking a bit shopworn, I must admit (no fault of the shopowners but rather of their landlord, of course). But I always like to buy a few things at the Marble Faun at the Wharf, a book and gift shop for anglophiles and Hawthorne-philes (more books at the PEM shop and Wicked Good Books on Essex Street), and I knew that Joe’s Fish Prints had some cute coffee cups which would work for everyone on my list except the babies.

Candles (+ great tea and soap and lots of other things) at Diehl-Marcus, fish impressions at Pickering Wharf, very pretty hand-crafted jewelry at Jenni Stuart Fine Jewelry and more apothecary bottles at Hive and Forge/Red Antler Pharmacy. This combined and eclectic shop also features a lot of taxidermy, so be forewarned if that’s not your thing, but also the crafts of 30+ makers.

I realize that my shopping guide is a bit late and long, but I’d like to mention a few online local makers and sellers as well: please add more in the comments!

Kamillascrochet for cute hats, made very speedily.

JandJGraphicsLLC for merry and bright calendars with local scenes.

EVArtandDesign for merry and bright “windows of Salem” digital illustrations.

Chloesgoodstuff for cat drawings.

WidowsWeedsAntiques for interesting ephemera.

 


Christmas Trim

It’s going to be a super busy December, so I got a jump start on decorating my own house: we have eight fireplaces with mantles plus several other surfaces which “require” adornment so there’s a lot of sorting out and arranging to do. I have two rules, or should I say practices, which I observe for holiday decorating: I don’t bring greenery in until just before Christmas and I always choose a creature theme. Down in my basement, there’s a little room with shelves full of creatures of Christmases past: swans from last year, and then bears, foxes, sheep, hedgehogs, rabbits, mice, cats and lots of deer, of course. This year is all about pheasants, as I found some Royal Copley ones that I really liked this fall and wanted to keep them out: I’ve glitzed them up a bit and added some gilded companions. I love natural greenery but I can’t stand to see it fade, so usually I wait until the last possible moment to mix it in with my other decorations. This year I hedged on the rule, and added a few greens because I wanted some warmth and contrast, but more is coming! Someday I might go for simpler decorations but my holiday aesthetic is still pretty much all about abundance. The exception to the greenery rule has always been the Christmas Tree, but over the last few years we’ve had trees die on us before Christmas, so now we’re going to wait for that too. There’s nothing more depressing than a crispy Christmas tree, in my opinion.

Downstairs mantles, the “mantle” in the kitchen, measuring-cup creatures from Anthropologie and my pantry. The glittery squirrels always come out: they’re in the library. By the time I got to the second floor, I was running out of pheasants, so substituted a lowly duck. (There’s a few peacocks mixed in with the pheasants downstairs too, because peacocks). Last year’s swans on the shelf in the basement.

This past weekend was the Christmas in Salem tour, the major fundraiser for Salem’s historic preservation organization, Historic Salem Inc. It’s in a different neighborhood every year, and this year was all about North Salem, encompassing Buffum and Dearborn Streets, on either side of North Street, and a few homes off Dearborn. It was not at all a “colonial” tour, rather it had a bit of a retro feel to me despite the presence of many later nineteenth-century homes, including the gorgeous Queen Anne Ropes House. There was also a stunning 1915 bungalow on the tour, an unusual style for Salem. Gratitude and congratulations to all the homeowners: it’s quite an effort to open your home to 1000 people (believe me, I’ve done it twice). Christmas in Salem always puts me in the holiday mood: it’s such a lavish display of generosity and creativity and cheer: hopefully I’ve captures some semblance of these things in the pictures!

At the Ropes House: love, love, love the button garlands!!! Below: my friend Bradley guiding us through the kitchen in his Princess Diana black sheep sweater and everyone’s favorite “simple” decoration: red branches and floating candles.

Below: lots of textures and nooks and crannies on this tour! These are the details that gave me the retro feel.

What we want to see: table settings, a wreath, and a Christmas tree.

I hope all these homeowners are having a drink just about now (Sunday @5pm)!


Deerfield Thanksgiving

I know that it was a back-to-big-family-Thanksgiving for many people, but because of health and almost-conflicting family events my husband and I found ourselves alone this year. We made a last-minute decision to head to Historic Deerfield, where we stayed at the Inn for two nights and had a lovely Thanksgiving dinner at the Inn at Boltwood (previously the Lord Jeffrey Inn) in Amherst. We ran into old Salem friends and made new Pennsylvania friends at the Deerfield bar, walked around and in as many of those magnificent houses as we could, and “played” in the attic of the Flynt Center for Early American Life. I have under-appreciated this experience on past visits: there was something about this particular visit that made the “visible storage” of all sorts of items from Historic Deerfield’s collections—everything from ceramics to muskets to wrought iron, in multiples—so very engaging. Maybe it’s because we had this “attic” to ourselves. My husband and I have very different tastes, but he could be over there in the realm of metal-working tools while I was lingering in mocha ware, both of us content. We left the attic only because the weather was so beautiful: clear and sunny and bright, casting all those Connecticut River Valley doorways in stark relief.

Historic Deerfield has always been an exploration of maker/craft culture as much as architecture so a focus on objects on this particular visit seemed correct: I’ve always been too dazzled by the houses to take in the Deerfield-made baskets, famous blue-and-white embroidery pieces and pottery to take proper note of them in situ. Before there was Historic Deerfield, there was Arts and Crafts Deerfield, a haven and destination for traditional crafts and preservation at the turn of the last century, and before then there was of course colonial Deerfield: you can see and feel the layers as you walk down Old Main Street. We had the neighborhood to ourselves as we took a long walk on Thanksgiving morning, so we looked in a lot of windows and hung out in back amongst the barns.

A walk down Old Main Street from South to North and then back towards the Inn: village map with house names and dates.

A recent addition to Old Main Street are the Witness Stone markers laid before every house in which an enslaved person live and worked: these were installed just last month in partnership with the Connecticut-based Witness Stones Project. So there’s another layer uncovered and exposed. Museum neighborhoods can feel a bit static and fixed in time, but I’ve never felt that way about Historic Deerfield: rather it has always seems like an engaging mix of past and present or a cumulative work in progress to me. At the same time, time moves slower there: just turn off Route 5 for an hour or a day or two and catch your breath, take a walk, or rummage around in an attic.

Witness (to slavery) stones, a work in progress, and a signpost right in the midst of Deerfield Academy.