Lit Up

The streetlight right near my house has been out since January, so lower Chestnut Street is bathed in darkness every night. There are some benefits to this, as this light shines right into my bedroom window when operational, but I still hope it gets fixed soon: the residents of our street purchased period-esque streetlights over a decade ago and I like my light. Because it’s been so dark–and I can see walking-tour leaders walking by with lanterns—I’ve been thinking about both historical darkness and the coming of light onto the streets of Salem, and then the other day I found a cache of cool photographs illuminating the latter era from the General Electric Company archive at the Museum of Innovation and Science (MiSci) via Google Arts & Culture. Salem definitely has electrical credentials: Moses Farmer illuminated a room in his Pearl Street house every July night of 1859, an early “All-Electric” home on Loring Avenue drew headlines and crowds when it was first opened in 1924, and just down the street, the GTE-Sylvania plant employed hundreds of workers during its heyday (1936-1989). The source of these photographs, however, is the even larger General Electric River works plant in nearby Lynn, which featured a large street lighting department. A 1916 GE catalog titled The Splendor of Well Lighted Streets showcases the company’s latest streetlights and observes that in the vicinity of Lynn are sections of streets and roads lighted in every different fashion to demonstrate in actual practice the differences in units and types of lighting: Salem clearly provided an effective demonstration setting, offering all sorts of opportunities to showcase GE’s newest lighting and traffic-signal products. The photographs below date from 1916 to 1931.

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Salem 1916 electrified General Electric Co archives

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Electric City BridgeEssex Street, 1918-1927(including a new Novalux light decorating for Christmas), the Hawthorne Hotel, 1926 (showcasing streetlight AND stoplight) and Bridge Street, General Electric Company Archives, MiSci: the Museum of Innovation and Science.

Electrical Lafayette

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Electric City Not Sure.Lafayette Street, the intersection at West, Loring, and Lafayette, and (I think???) the road to Marblehead.

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Electric City William WebberInterior Lighting at the Almy, Bigelow & Washburn and William G. Webber stores on Essex Street.

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Electrical ShootWashington Street during World War I: the new Masonic Temple building and the illuminated war chest; floodlights at a trapshooting competition somewhere in Salem.


Hildegarde’s Gardening Book

The granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hildegarde Hawthorne (Oskinson) followed in the family business and published a wide variety of works over her lifetime (1871-1952), including children’s books, travel books, poetry, and biographies. I posted previously on one of her “rambles” books, Old Seaports of New England, because it features Salem prominently, but it is not my favorite of her titles: that preference is her garden book, The Lure of the Garden (1911). Gardening books by society ladies such as Hildegarde are a dime a dozen in this era, but The Lure of the Garden is different: it’s not a practical tome or simply an appreciation of the botanical beauty, but rather a series of essays on different cultural aspects of the garden, in her time and over time: from “Our Grandmother’s Garden” to “Childhood in the Garden” to “The Social Side of Gardens” to “Gardens in Literature”. It’s beautifully written (I think shorter-form essays are her strong suit) and beautifully illustrated, by Maxfield Parrish, Jules Guérin, Sigismond de Ivanowski, Anna Whelan Betts, and others, with plates in both color and black and white, paintings, drawings, and photographs. Throughout the book, the theme of the garden as a private refuge and true reflection of one’s inner self emerges, both very literally in considerations of enclosure and garden gates as well as through textual and visual illustration, as she shows off her connections and takes us into the “Gardens of Well-Known People” such as Parrish, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Cecilia Beaux, Edith Wharton, and Stephen Parrish. For all this (and because I am dealing with the menace of powdery mildew right now), I think my favorite chapter is “Some Garden Vices”, in which the garden is portrayed as an autonomous entity, showering “pity and love to its ugliest weed” to a touching though infuriating extent: it will spare no pains to convey to this voracious plant all the delicately prepared food destined for your lilies or your phlox, will discover the utmost art in draining its water toward the thick roots of its favorite, give it sun and shadow, sweat and labor for it. If you snatch the hateful progeny from its arms, leave only the slightest portion of root behind, that patient, devoted garden will nurse the battered and wounded thing back again to life and health, to flaunt triumphantly in bed and border. As this is Hildegarde’s extravagant prose in reference to weeds, you can imagine her descriptions of more covetous cultivations.

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Hildegarde Hawthorne’s The Lure of the Garden is available here.


Now I feel even worse for the Romanovs

I’ve had this dreadful summer chest cold over the last week or so; it’s taking forever to go away. I have tried to go about business as usual, but it persists, so on Monday I just laid in bed all day determined to vanquish it with as much liquids, honey, throat lozenges, and rest as possible. I was too miserable to read, so television was the only option. I turned on my reliable Turner Classic Movies only to find that forgettable 1930s caper movies were the order of the day, and so surfed around on Netflix for a bit and chose one of their new offerings called The Last Czars, and once it was on, streaming and streaming, I found that I could not look away, simply because it was so awful. I was aghast; I remain aghast. If this is where history dramatizations are going, it’s over for us a civilization. Let me just start with one illustration of the series’ sloppiness: a screenshot supposedly representing “Moscow in 1905” with Lenin’s Mausoleum (which assumed its present form around 1930) clearly visible! Everything is fluid, right; Russian Empire, Soviet Union, what’s the difference?

Last Czars screenshot

I’m certainly not the first to point this error out: the series has received scathing reviews both in the West and in Russia (this particularly essay is great). And I’m also no Russian history expert, but even I noticed all sorts of little “discrepancies” and much chronological confusion: without sufficient context, the Russo-Japanese War seems to morph right into the First World War. But these are not the primary sins of The Last Czars (why “czars” and not “tsars”; and why plural?): its most glaring fault is its format, a weird, even bizarre, hybrid of talking-head commentary and very intimate drama. One minute we’re hearing that the Nicholas and Alexandra had a rare royal loving relationship and the next minute we’re seeing them rolling around on the bed and the floor with very little left to our imaginations. These transitions are far from seamless: when it first happened I thought (in my cold-medicine-induced haze) that I had somehow changed the channel. There’s nothing particularly new about the docudrama, but the contrast between the drama and the commentary is heightened to an unwatchable degree by the intense focus on the personal in the scripted scenes of The Last Czars, so that both parts of the production do not add up to something whole or greater, but something far less. It is neither feast nor fowl.

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It’s all so personal and so sexual: perish the thought that an idea, a consideration, or even a well-articulated sentiment existed in the realm of the Romanovs. Even before the inevitable arrival of Rasputin there is gratuitous sex and once he is in the picture there is of course more, much more. No doubt the producers of The Last Czars have rationalized the inclusion of so much sex as a way to uncover their subjects’ humanity but instead they have robbed them of their dignity, particularly the Tsar and Tsarina, and their daughter Maria, often described as innocently flirtatious but ready to go all the way with a Bolshevik guard in the series’ last episode. Obviously there’s nothing fresh or new about the focus on Rasputin or the continuous thread of the Anastasia impostor, which serves no purpose that I could see. The sole redeeming features I could find in this soulless series are the contemporary film clips and anti-Rasputin ephemera (though I have since learned that the latter date from after the mad monk’s death in 1916) but even they add to the confusion of the presentation. After watching as much of The Last Czars as I could take, I felt worse, both for myself and for the Romanovs, who died very early on this very day one hundred and one years ago.

Last Czar Last PictureThe last photograph of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family, at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, where they were executed in the early hours of July 17, 1918.


(Reen-)Action in Marblehead

There is filming or preparation for filming all around us this July: on Salem Common, in Forest River Park, in nearby Danvers and Marblehead. On Saturday I drove over to see Marblehead’s Old Town dressed as Salem during Halloween for a Netflix film starring Adam Sandler titled Hubie Halloween. I knew that the Revolutionary reenactment company Glover’s Regiment would also be camped out at Fort Sewall in Marblehead, and I thought the two “sets” might make for an interesting cultural clash. I was right: it was a theatrical afternoon. I have to admit to being a little annoyed that Salem could not play itself: we have to deal with the real Halloween but aren’t good enough to play the fake one? But watching the set designers put together their perfect Halloween town, it was obvious that they were going for a cute, hometown Halloween, not the darker version that has emerged in Witch City. At least Salem Common will see some action. The camp at Fort Sewall was well-established by the time I got there, with cream canvas tents all in a row, and visiting “French” and “British” soldiers—the latter were appropriately camped outside the fort’s walls!  For an hour or so, it really did seem like I was wandering around some Hollywood backlot to go from Halloween in July to an eighteenth-century encampment.

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Salem’s Newest Park

Salem’s newest public space was recently unveiled, situated in the former gas station/carnival lot at 289 Derby Street along the South River. The reaction has been a bit mixed, I would say. I think some people were expecting more of a green space, but it is not really that kind of park; it’s more of a concrete (plaza? court? square?) built for activity rather than rest and contemplation. Some people are critical of its cost, particularly of the land. It’s also been identified as a homeless magnet, which strikes me as an unjustified criticism as it is a public space after all. I first went down to see it on a bright sunny day and it did seem a bit inhospitable as it is primarily a bright swath of concrete, but I returned at night and found it much more inviting. I’ve decided that I like it: the swings, the topographical “maps”, and particularly the lighting around the perimeter.

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As you can see, it’s built for movement (and sound), to be a happening place rather than a tranquil one, so when things start happening we will see how the space works. We have been invited to name the new park but restricted in our choices: South River Park, Charlotte Forten Park, Nathaniel Bowditch Park, 289 Derby, Naumkeag Park. While I’d love to see something in Salem named after Charlotte Forten, the first African-American teacher in the Salem Public Schools and a graduate of Salem State, this is not the place: I can’t see how it has anything to do with her, spatially, thematically, or aesthetically. Same with Bowditch; the other names are bland and generic. Because this is a playful place, I propose moving the dreadful Samantha statue from Town House Square (where she does not belong) to this new park and naming it Bewitched Park. People seems to think that a few days of shooting that show on location here in 1970 somehow saved Salem by enabling it to realize its full potential as Witch City, so naming rights seem in order.


A Genteel Boarding House in Salem

My fascination with the newly-digitized glass plate negatives of Frank Cousins, documenting Salem at the turn of the last century, continues: right now I’m curious to know all there is to know about the legendary Doyle Mansion on Summer Street, home to many members of ancient Salem families, whether they were “in transition” or truly settled in. Cousins gives us a glancing view of its Summer Street facade in one photograph, but he’s clearly more interested in its rambling additions in the rear. There are also several drawings by a Miss Sarah E. C. Oliver included in an absolutely wonderful 1948 article in the Essex Institute Historical Collections based on the memoirs of Miss Bessie Fabens, whose aunt was a fabled resident of the Doyle Mansion. This same article also includes the first-floor plan of the “ell-ongated” composition by architect Phillip Horton Smith, likely rendered just before the mansion was taken down in 1936.

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Doyle Mansion EIHC 1948

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Cousins Doyle House 2Summer Street from Broad with the Doyle Mansion on the right, Frank Cousins collection of glass plate negatives from the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, via Digital Commonwealth; drawings by Miss Sarah E.C. Oliver and first-floor plan by Phillip Horton Smith in “The Doyle Mansion—Some Memories and Anecdotes” by Bessie D. Fabens, Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. 84 (1948); Cousins’ views of the back of the house and its many addition (+ the lost Creek Street). 

This house was huge and home to 30-35 inhabitants during its peak years: from the 1880s until its closure in 1933.  The original rectangular Federal construction was built by the Reverend Joshua Spaulding of the Tabernacle Church around 1800, but a half-century later it became a boarding house under the ownership of an Irishman named Thomas Doyle: as the tenants of “Doyle’s” increased so did its additions. Miss Caddie (Caroline Augusta) Fabens, Bessie’s great-aunt and the inspiration for her mansion memoir, moved in in 1878 intending to stay only a few weeks; instead she became its “star boarder” over the next 58 years. Bessie visited her often, and got to know the house very well, and so her memoir is incredibly detailed. As verified by Cousins’ photographs, she notes that “ell after ell” was added on “until one side extended the whole length of the old-fashioned garden which sloped down from the back of the house”. These ells very clearly demarcated on the exterior, but inside “no one knew where the original house ended and the additions began”. Bessie describes a rabbit warren with eleven staircases, countless rooms, but only three toilets (all on the ground floor), and a single bathtub for the mansion’s 30+ residents, secured by “appointment only”. Within members of all the “distinguished” families of Salem lived together, “stray survivors” of the Silsbee, King, Cushing, Shepard, Trumbull, Brown and Chase families, in relative harmony, as “not only did [the Doyles’] denizens all know each other, but they knew all the ramifications of their family histories for at least four generations. It was sort of a big family party with the likes and dislikes which go with New England families, and the impersonal toleration which prevents them from being obnoxious”. Wouldn’t this be a great setting for a novel or play?

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Doyle Table Cousins_02351Views of the exterior and interior of the Doyle Mansion by Frank Cousins, collection of glass plate negatives at the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, Digital Commonwealth.

All of these people brought their furniture and furnishings—including “shelves of blue Staffordshire and Canton China never used in all those years”, documented by both Bessie and Cousins. Bessie adds that “almost every room had its fireplace or Franklin stove” and all the comforts of home except perhaps for the “scanty” plumbing, and concludes that A legend grew up that every true Salemite must at sometime or other stay at the Mansion and there were very few of us who had not done our time there. The Mansion’s time came to an end in 1933 and much of the land on which it sat—as well as Samuel McIntire’s house next door at #31–was sold to the Holyoke Mutual Fire Insurance Company for the construction of their behemoth concrete building in 1934. Despite the recognition that both houses were “historic”, they were both swept away (along with Creek Street) by 1936 for the block-filling structure that still stands there.

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20190708_162115Boston Globe, June 1934; the Holyoke Mutual Fire Insurance building, built in 1936 and now owned by Common Ground Enterprises (and its rather weedy sidewalk!)


Cousins Comparisons

It’s been really wonderful to see people in Salem respond to the large collection of Frank Cousins glass plate negatives which were digitized and uploaded to the Digital Commonwealth by the Peabody Essex Museum just last week. It was verified that columns from Mechanic Hall, which burned down in 1905, had been situated in a River Street garden for quite some time, we all saw how connected the city was a century ago with tracks running everywhere, and people are zooming in on all sorts of details we could never possibly grasp without these visual “windows” to the past. Sometimes I’m a bit wary about historical photographs: people do tend to get focused on the details rather than look for the bigger picture. But it is impossible to deny their instant accessibility and capacity for driving historical engagement, especially by enabling comparisons of the past and the present. That’s what I have been doing all week, whenever I could find or make the time: walking around with the Cousins collection and placing myself in the spot (or vicinity) where he took the picture a century and more ago. So much is revealed when you look at the city through a historical lens: some places have hardly changed, others are unrecognizable, everything is illuminated. Before I get to the details, some big picture observations: the city appears much cleaner in Cousins’ day (most of these photos are from the 1890s) than ours, and much less crowded (although he is not showing us Salem’s working-class neighborhoods), and the impact of cars is obvious. I do wonder about the pristine streets in Cousins’ photographs as this was a world of horses: did Cousins bring his own broom or helper to sweep the streets before he took his photographs? But there was no food-and-drink detritus then: Salem is awash in coffee cups, paper plates, and nip bottles now.

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pixlr-1The John P. Felt House on Federal Court past and present: despite a rough last half-century or so, the house is still standing in good form, lacking only its widow’s walk and shutters.

pixlr-2Barton Square has been pretty much annihilated.

pixlr-3Change and continuity on Bott’s Court: old house on the left, newer (both 1890s) houses on the right. Cousins is showing us the demolition of the former house on the right with his preservationist eye.

pixlr-5Kimball Court present and past: Cousins is showing us the birthplace of Nathaniel Bowditch below: this house is in the top right corner above. In front of it today is a house that was brought over from Church Street during urban renewal in the 1960s when that street was wiped out.

pixlr-618 Lynde Street: this appears to be the same house, with major doorway changes.

pixlr_20190705142016939The house on Mall Street where Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the Scarlet Letter: there was an addition attached to the house at some point in the 1980s or thereabouts.

pixlr-7134 Bridge Street: As a major entrance corridor–then and now—Bridge Street has impacted by car traffic pretty dramatically over the twentieth century; Cousins portrays a sleepier street with some great houses, many of which are still standing—hopefully the progressive sweep of vinyl along this street will stop soon.

pixlr-817 Pickman Street seems to have acquired a more distinguished entrance; this was the former Mack Industrial School (Cousins’ caption reads “Hack” incorrectly).

pixlr-9Great view of lower Daniels Street–leading down to Salem Harbor–and the house built for Captain Nathaniel Silsbee (Senior) in 1783. You can’t tell because of the trees, but the roofline of this house has been much altered, along with its entrance.

pixlr-10Hardy Street, 1890s and today: with the “mansion house” of Captain Edward Allen still standing proudly on Derby Street though somewhat obstructed by this particular view. You can read a very comprehensive history of this house here, drawn from literary sources in the Phillips Library’s collections.


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