The Most Magical Plants

Well, October is upon us here in Salem, so that means I’m going to spend all my time inside or on the road. I’m just not a fan of Haunted Happenings, the City’s Halloween festival that starts earlier with each passing year: crowds are converging from at least mid-September now. On September 22, when eight convicted “witches” were hung at Proctor’s Ledge in 1692, you can see people dancing in the streets in Salem. Haunted Happenings is now in its 50th year and this is an anniversary worth celebrating for many, but for me, it’s just fifty years of turning tragedy into treasure. While I do not see or celebrate the connection between the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials and Halloween, I still find the customs and traditions associated with the latter holiday very interesting, and as I’m teaching my “Magic and Witchcraft in early Modern Europe” course this semester, I find myself subsumed in the source and secondary literature of these complex topics. I haven’t taught this course in 5 years so it definitely needs a refresh! I have learned so much teaching this course over my career at Salem State: at the beginning I offered it simply as a corrective to what I saw (and still see) as a simplistic understanding of witch trials here in Salem, but every time I taught it I learned more about Christian theology and European folklore: after about a decade of teaching it I felt that I needed to undertake more serious study of the former and and contemplated going to Divinity School and now I feel like I need an advanced degree in folklore! It’s all so interwoven, and the focus on both magic and witchcraft over the medieval and early modern eras enables one to see how and why pre-Christian beliefs were assimilated into Christianity—and/or demonized. This coming week we are going to look at some important high and later-medieval herbals and the “magic” that was contained therein, so I decided to make a list of the top ten magical plants. This was a more difficult task than I though it would be as so many plants have protective/proactive virtues associated with them, but this is my list. I’m leaving out Mandrake because we all know that’s the most magical plant of them all, and as many plants were seen to be powerful in both facilitating and dispelling magic I’m going with the most efficacious, by reputation.

Vervainactually might be more powerful than mandrake. It was known as both an “enchanter’s plant” and an antidote against witchcraft. Gathering vervain seems to have been somewhat of a sacred ritual and there doesn’t seem to be anything that this plant could not do: protect, predict, heal, preserve chasteness and procure love. Snakes are often included in illustrations of vervain: both slithering varieties in the marginalia and more threatening serpents at center stage. Clearly it was percieved as an effective weapon against both.

British Library MSS Sloane 1975 and Egerton 747.

St. John’s Wort: a powerful demon-repellent as you can see by this retreating demon in the fifteenth-century Italian Tractatus de Herbis (British Library Codex Sloane 4016). Referred to as a “devil-chaser” on the Continent, St. John’s Wort was also worn as a protective amulet and used as decoration for doorways and windows on St. John’s Eve at midsummer, when its yellow flowers bloom. Its association with St. John the Baptist also bequeathed it medical virtues, and it was used to staunch bleeding, especially from the thrusts of poisoned weapons, and treat wounds.

British Library Codex Sloane 4016 and MS Egerton 747.

Rue: one of my very favorite herbs, and the sole survivor of my garden of plague cures from twenty years ago! The “herb of grace” was prized for its potency against the plague, infections, and also poison, signalled by its bitterness. It was also believed to be a preserver of eyesight, but it’s best to focus on the general rather than the particulars with this very efficacious herb, which could ward off witchcraft and was used in masses and exorcisms as well as an abortifacient. I just think its gray-green leaves are beautiful, and it adds structure to the garden all season long.

Plantae Utiliores; or Illustrations of useful plants, employed in the Arts and Medicine, M.A.Burnett,1842. 

Scabiosa: was far more interesting in the medieval period than its profile as a perfect cottage garden plant now. It was known as “Devil’s Bit” because of the appearance of its root, which looks like someone took a bite out of it. According to John Gerard, who was known to “borrow” information rather indiscriminately, “the great part of the root seems to be bitten away; old fantastic charmers do report that the Devil did bite it for envy, because it is an herb that has so many good virtues, and is so beneficial to mankind.” It was perceived as particularly beneficial to the skin, hence its name, a far cry from “pincushion flower.”

British Library MS Egerton 747; William Catto, 1915, Aberdeen Archives, Gallery & Museums.

Garlic: also has a devilish nickname, the “Devil’s Posy,” and cure-all connotations, so that it was also known as the “Poor Man’s Treacle.” (Treacle is an English sweet now, but in the late medieval and early modern eras it was an anglicization for “theriac,” the universal panacea.) There’s an interesting old tale that when Satan stepped out of the Garden of Eden after his great triumph, garlic sprang from the spot where his left foot lay, and onions from where he had placed his right foot. Like so much folklore, I’m not entirely sure what to do with this information. The key attribute of garlic was its pungent odor: like the bitter taste of rue, this signalled strength: enough to ward off witches, plague, and I guess vampires (though medieval people do not mention the latter).

Garlic (right) and a coiled snake, British Library MS Egerton 747.

Foxglove: a plant with more folkloric pseudonyms than any other! Foxglove: gloves for foxes or fairies or witches? Fairy fingers, ladies’ thimbles, rabbit flowers, throatwort, flapdock, cow-flop, lusmore, lionsmouth, Scotch mercury, dead man’s bells, witches’ gloves, witches’ bells: these are just some of its variant nicknames. Dead man’s bells indicates some knowledge of its potentially poisonous effects, but its cardiac attributes were not known until the eighteenth century. What a tangle with all these names! It’s so interesting to me that a plant can be associated with both witches and the Virgin Mary, as digitalis apparently was. Some of its names also testify to belief in the “doctrine of signatures” by which the appearance of herbs signals their use: foxglove flowers were said to look like an open mouth, and their freckles symbolic of inflamation of the throat: hence, throatwort.

Woodblock trial proof for textiles, 1790-1810, Cooper Hewitt Museum.

Hollywas perceived as very holy, of course. Very little nuance or contradiction with this plant, which Pliny, who seems very accepted by the medievals even though he was a Pagan, credited with the powers to protect and defend against withcraft, lightening, and poison. Its red berries became associated with the blood of Christ over the medieval era, along with its thorny leaves, which made it even more potent. Plant it close to the house, all the traditional authorities say (I feel fortunate that someone did that for my house long ago).

Elizabeth Blackwell’s Curious Herbal, 1737-39.

Moonwort: a little lesser known, but worthy of inclusion if only because it supposedly possesses the ability to open locks and guard silver, as well as unshoe any horses that happen to tread upon it or even near. Ben Jonson referred to it as one of the ingredients of “witches’ broth,” but by his time I think they were throwing everything into that brew. It’s a tiny, tight-fisted, flowering fern (Botrychium lunaria) that just looks like it must have magical qualities, but was also used to heal wounds.

George William Johnson, The British ferns popularly described, and illus. by engravings of every species (1857).

Henbane: is perhaps the most powerful of the bane plants, indicating death by poison, and another plant with both harming and healing virtues, demanding skillful use. It is always mentioned in reference to witchcraft in the late medieval and early modern eras, specifically as an ingredient in ointments (and salves which enabled witches to stick to their brooms!) This might be why it was referred to as the “Devil’s eye” in some regions. But it was also a powerful sedative, known to take away pain, and a hallucinogenic which could take away sense.

Henbane (on the right) in BL MS Egerton 747; Patrick Symons, Still Life with Henbane, 1960, Royal Academy.

Deadly Nightshade: related to henbane, but even more potent. Every bit of this plant was known to be poisonous, and early modern botanical authors urged their readers to banish it from their gardens. With knowledge and caution, henbane was a plant one could work with, but hands off deadly nightshade! Only the Devil tended it; in fact it was difficult to lure him away from this menacing crop of  “devil’s berries” and of course it was yet another ingredient in the strange brews of witches. Its botanical name, Atropa belladonna, indicates its use:  The eldest of the Three Fates of classical Greek mythology, the “inflexible” Atropos cut off the thread of life, and the “beautiful ladies” of Renaissance Venice used it in tincture form for wide-open, sparkling eyes. The English adopted the term belladonna in the later sixteenth century, but they also referred to deadly nightshade simply as “dwale,” a stupefying or soporific drink.

William Catto, Aberdeen Archives, Gallery & Museum.


My Salem Heritage Trail

I’m still frustrated with our city’s “revisioned” “heritage” trail: its blatant commercialism, its yellow color (the exact same shade as the lines in the middle of the road; tour guides have told me that their tourists ask if they have to keep right on the sidewalk which actually might not be a bad idea with the crowds at this time of year), the missed opportunities it represents. None of the promised streamlined signage is up yet so all we have is a yellow line superimposed right on top (or sometimes beside) the still-visible objectionable red line. Any criticism is met with a chorus of “it’s not finished yet!” from all involved, but it’s hard to have confidence going forward when the “product” is so obviously flawed, in terms of both presentation and content.

I’ve laid out my concerns about the latter in detail in an earlier post, but after walking the yellow line a few times I have another complaint: it’s not telling a story. It’s just a string of places, with no connecting narrrative or theme. Maybe this is coming too, but it’s not here yet. There seems to be a mismatch between narrative history and the built environment in Salem: you can have one or the other but not both. I’m sure the countless private tour guides are out there telling stories because that’s what successful, marketable walking tours do, but they are handicapped by Salem’s overwhelming focus on the Witch Trials. If you’re trying to present place-based history, the Trials don’t offer you a lot of options for Salem as there are only two actual material places associated with them: Judge Corwin’s House or the “Witch House” on Essex Street and the Witch Trials Memorial/Old Burying Point on Charter Street.  A few “sites of” are fine for a walking tour but ten or more? It’s difficult to conjure up 1692 while standing in a parking lot. The combination of the emphasis on the Trials and the relative absence of structures from that era has placed an emphasis on performances in commercial interpretations, and ghosts, of course. But Salem has a wealth of historical structures, and they can and should tell stories too. My alternative Salem Heritage Trail is built primarily around buildings, and inspired by the Creating or Building walking tours you see in many cities, tours which are designed by heritage professionals to present a comprehensive and materialistic history of urban development. It’s a stripped-down version of tours I give to family and friends, and following the example of Toronto’s exemplary tour, Creating Toronto: the Story of the City in 10 Stops, I limited myself, with great difficulty, to ten sites.

Trail Sites/Stops: My trail starts at the Pickering House on Broad Street and ends at Salem Common. I’ve chosen the sites along the way because they are beautiful and important buildings and spaces, but also because they represent a number of events and themes in the “making of” Salem: they have to do double or triple or more interpretive duty! I’m aiming for 400 years of history through 10 buildings or sites, on a tour that should take about 90 minutes. It’s definitely a work in progress.

The Pickering House: Salem’s oldest house is a marvel visually and historically. It can represent both the first wave of European settlement and because of its conspicuous and active family, also a series of events and relationships that shaped Salem: King Philips’s War and relations between European and native populations, transatlantic trade, the Revolutionary War. As the house evolves, so does Salem. From the vantage point of the house, one can see the outskirts of Salem’s first African-American section as well as its Italian-American neighborhood, and the line at which the Great Salem Fire ended in 1914.

Hamilton Hall: Built on former Pickering land, along with the rest of Chestnut Street, Hamilton Hall represents the dynamic civic culture of Salem following the Revolution as well as the singularly Federal style of Samuel McIntire and the range of reform and entrepreneurial activities of Salem’s most prominent African-American family, the Remonds. It is also an important site of women’s history, as so many philanthropic events organized by Salem women were held at the Hall: from Abolitionist and soldiers’ aid events in the middle of the nineteenth century, to Red Cross efforts during World War I to the creation of the Hamilton Hall Ladies’ Committee after World War II.

The First Church: It’s the First Church, so it has to be on the tour even though its not in its original location—we’ll pass by there later. The history of the congregation should be prioritized over the history of the building: the transition from Puritanism to Congregationalism to Unitarianism, Hugh Peter & Roger Williams, the religious aspects of the Trials, Leslie’s Retreat, and then Salem’s (19th century, as opposed to today’s) Gothic phase (with a tie-in to the Pickering House).

The Witch House: The home of Witch Trial Judge Jonathan Corwin is the authentic witch-trial site in Salem, but also a place that can represent and illustrate the commercialization of the trials in the nineteenth century as well as the increasing role of historic preservation in the twentieth. This is a good spot to start the discussion of the legal aspects of the trials, but the next stop is better.

Court Houses on Federal Street: These courthouses are a great illustration of Salem as “shire town” or county seat, a very important part of its history and identity. When I was on History Alive’s “Charlotte’s Salem” tour a few weeks ago, Charlotte explained some of the legal aspects of slavery which were causing her anguish in 1857 right in front of the courthouses, and I thought it was the perfect spot, particularly because it was so quiet on a busy Saturday night. The Witch Trials were of course, trials, so this seems like a good spot to address their legal aspects, as well as the famous “witch pins” and several other important Salem trials. The different architectural styles of the court houses evoke their eras in Salem’s history.

Old Town Hall: The terrain between the court houses and Old Town Hall is full of important sites……that are no longer there: the actual 1692 court house, Town House Square, the site of Salem’s first meeting house, and the former sites of conspicuous residents like Judge John Hathorne and Lady Deborah Moody. I guess that dreadful Bewitched statue is part of the “creation” of Salem but I prefer to look at it as an abberation and I don’t want it in my story/tour. So we’ll just skip through Town House Square to the Old Town Hall or walk down Church Street past the Lyceum and cut over to Essex Street. Old Town Hall (long known as the “Market House”) and Derby Square remains a very busy place, so it’s the perfect space to represent the extremely dynamic and diverse commercial history of Salem. It’s also a great place to focus on food food: Salem seems like a foodie designation now but I think it always has been, and Derby Square and adjacent Front Street was a restaurant row. I guess it’s been reduced to an Instagram stage now, which seems appropriate since Instagram photos are one of Salem’s major products.

Old Burying Ground/ Witch Trial Memorial: The last three stops of my trail consider Salem’s evolving public presentation of history, along with other themes and events associated with each site. From the later nineteenth century on, as the City focused increasingly on tourism, there were three major draws: the Witch Trials, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and maritime history. For me, the Salem Witch Trials Memorial represents the triumph of the Trials: the City could go forward into full-fledged witchcraft tourism now (in 1992) as it had erected a memorial and pledged itself to toleration going forward. The more recent restoration of the adjacent Old Burying Ground and addition of the first-period Pickman House as a welcome center for both seems to me an admission that Witch City needed a bit more regulation: Salem has always taken care of its cemeteries.

The Salem Maritime National Historical Site. Carved out of Salem’s Polish neighborhood along Derby Street, Salem Maritime is also an illustration of history in the public sphere: it is a rebuilding and reframing of the City’s glorious maritime past, almost like a maritime memorial. Standing on Derby Street looking out onto Salem Harbor, we can consider both Salem’s maritime history as well as the historical and ongoing effort to preserve and showcase Salem’s maritime history, especially as the Custom House is closed for restoration. With its streetside shop on one side of the Derby House and garden out back, it is also a good place to consider Salem’s Colonial Revival influences and impact.

And on to Salem Common: where we could tell the entire history of Salem, from rope walks to food trucks! I think it would be interesting to end the trail with a consideration of what is “public” and what is not as it pertains to the Common and the myriad events that have happened there over the centuries. So many events: military musters and drills, neighborhood playground competitions, baseball games, concerts and films, speeches and protests, carnivals and circuses, commemorations. Just this past weekend, I was walking around the Common while a large food truck festival which apparently had no local vendors was happening, on “common” land.

What I left out. Many places! The ten-stop limit really challenged me. And of course, there will be no “suffering mannequins” on my tour. I left out both the Peabody Essex Museum and the House of the Seven Gables because these institutions are independent draws which also feature their own audio tours: both are obviously central to Salem’s urban and identity development. The PEM’s new Salem Witch Trials Walk looks like a good introduction to the Trials and there are also “PEM Walks” audio “postcards” for each of the Museum’s historic houses. Both Salem Maritime and the House of the Seven Gables also offer excellent audio tour options. So there’s really no need to follow that yellow line; indeed, no need for any paint on the sidewalks of Salem.


Recovering Salem’s Hispanic Heritage: a Revolutionary View

September 15 commenced Hispanic Heritage Month here in Salem; as I walked by the flag-raising in Riley Square the other day I wondered, what now? How are we going to recognize Hispanic Heritage Month? And given that Salem has an increasing population of Latino Americans, how are we going to expand “Salem history” to include their stories going forward? If I could offer a suggestion (which I am prone to do), why don’t we take advantage of two dynamic historiographical trends connecting Salem and the Iberian world in the eighteenth-century: the renewed focus on the codfish trade which generated so much wealth (and so many connections) on the North Shore in the eighteenth century and new perspectives on Spain’s role in the American Revolution? The importance of the codfish trade between New England and southern Europe has been emphasized by academics for quite some time (this particular study has been very influential) but I don’t think it has trickled down (or out) to a more general audience. My department co-sponsored an afternoon symposium along with the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Marblehead Museum, and Historic Beverly in 2019 entitled Salt Cod for Silver: Yankees, Basques, and the North Shore’s Forgotten Trade organized by the independent scholar Donald Carlton, but I think the trade remains relatively “forgotten,” and overshadowed by the China Trade which flourished after the Revolution. Actually I think the codfish trade is paradoxically both forgotten and taken for granted: the symbolism of the cod is everywhere in late eighteenth century Massachusetts and if not for this lucrative and expansive trade how else could both Salem and Marblehead appear on the list of the ten most populous American towns in the first census of 1790? To its credit, Salem Maritime has been stressing the importance of the pre-revolutionary fish trade almost since its founding, and in myriad ways: the map below is from its Spring 1940 Regional Review (I know it’s a bit hard to read, but Bilbao is definitely in the center of the world) and the “flying fish” from the site’s 2017 virtual reality “exhibition” (experience?) The Augmented Landscape

But neither fish or trade are particularly “sexy” or accessible topics of historical interpretation, especially historic interpretation for a general audience. Believe me, I know, I’ve been teaching pre-modern world history, which is very much about cross-cultural trade, for years: I’ve seen my students’ eyes glaze over many, many times even as I’ve tried all sorts of tricks to keep their attention. You need people, particularly individual stories, and you need a war (or some sort of conflict). So that’s why I’d like to see an interpretive focus on the relationships that were fostered by and through this long and lucrative trade and their eventful revolutionary impact. Material manifestations are helpful too: these are a major hook of the China Trade are they not? I’m not sure that the Iberian Peninsula can compete in this realm, but there was certainly a range of goods with the label “Bilboa” (the 18th century spelling) attached to them which were in demand in the later eighteenth century: most importantly Bilbao handkerchiefs, Bilbao yarn and caps, and Bilbao mirrors, which might or might not have been manufactured on the Iberian Peninsula.

A very typical 1770s shipping report in the Essex Gazette; of course the destinations listed point to the intersection of the fish and slave trades in the Atlantic system; Advertisements from the Salem Gazette, and a “Bilbao Mirror” from Bonhams Skinner. I should say that the only references that I found for “Bilbao caps” in the pre-revolutionary newspapers were in runaway slave advertisements.

The stories of the Salem men (sorry, they were all men when it comes to the maritime trade; manufacturing, processing and retail by-products I just don’t know) who dominated this trade can all be found in the papers of the Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library in Rowley: Samuel Browne early in the eighteenth century, the Derbys, the Ornes, the Cabots, and others later (and there are very helpful appendices to the finding aids for these papers along with a recently-digitized collection of logbooks). These later men, like their counterparts in nearby Marblehead, Beverly, Gloucester, and other New England ports, dealt with Diego de Gardoqui Y Arribuibar, the head of an eminent family merchant house in Bilbao, Joseph Gardoqui & Sons. The Gardoqui firm had been importing salted codfish from the British American colonies since 1763, and because of stiff competition with other Iberian ports, its increasing focus in commercial relations was on the merchants of the North Shore of Boston. Diego de Gardoqui developed relationships with the Marblehead merchants Jeremiah Lee and Eldridge Gerry, and also with members of the Cabot family based in Beverly and Salem and the Derbys of Salem. When the Revolution began, these connections resulted in the Gardoqui firm suppling the Americans with arms, gunpowder and other supplies even before Spain entered the war on the side of America and France in 1779; the first foreign rifles supplied to the colonists were sent from Bilbao to Massachusetts in 1775. Gardoqui committed to the Colonies personally and then officially, assuming the role of a Spanish government official tasked with overseeing military aid during the Revolution and Spain’s first Ambassador to the United States afterwards. He was present at the inauguration of George Washington in 1789. Diego de Gardoqui appears like an Iberian Lafayette to me, and I am not the only one: recent historiography and initiatives (like these sponsored by global utility company Iberdrola, which actually built our new power plant in Salem and recently emerged victorious from a major lawsuit brought by its owner/developer) seek to re-center Spain in the history of the American Revolution, right alongside France. Salem and its region are part of that re-centering story, and could look eastward for inspiration as it approaches the anniversaries of both its founding and the Revolution in 2026. In an interview explaining the Iberdrola project and its mission, the historian José Manual Guerrero Acosta asserted that “I believe that millions of Hispanic people living today in the US are entitled to recognition of the fact that the Hispanic world and its forebears, which made up part of the Spanish crown territories in America, were present in a significant way at the birth of their country.”

Two recent titles, including a stirring study of the namesake of Galveston, Texas, Bernardo de Gálvez; Diego de Gardoqui, Ca 1785. Courtesy Family Cano Gardoqui.

Bilbao was a bit of a free port in the eighteenth century, owing to its customary fueros granting exemption from Spanish taxes and its role as a haven for privateers, including those from Salem. Just offshore in June of 1780, Captain Jonathan Haraden, the “bravest of the brave” and “Salem Salamander,” fought his most spectacular engagement with the British privateer Achilles, ostensibly to cheering crowds in port. The Gardoqui firm reported Haraden’s exploits to Benjamin Franklin, then Minister Plenipotentiary, and Franklin replied on July 4: “Captain Haraden–whose bravery in taking and retaking the Privateer gave me great pleasure.” Haraden is such a hero in nineteenth-century naval histories and twentieth-century boys’ magazines, and currently in Eric Jay Dolan’s Rebels at Sea. Privateering in the American Revolution, but in Salem both he and his profession seem truly forgotten. Cape Cod pirates, some real, some not, rule while Salem’s very real privateers languish in the dusty recesses of Salem’s ever-dimming historical consciousness. We seldom hear of them, despite the facts that 158 privateering vessels originated from Salem during the Revolution, capturing 458 prizes, the largest prize tonnage of any single American port. Perhaps a revolutionary re-focus, inspired by the need to expand our city’s history to include as many of our residents as possible, might also forge a reaquaintenance (and/or re-evaluation) with some previously-aclaimed dead white men too! There’s a lot of ground–or should I say ocean—for exploration, inspiration, and revelation.

Top: Nowland Van Powell’s depiction of Captain Haraden’s engagement with the Achilles, which had stolen his prize, the Golden Eagle, off Bilbao, Eldred’s Auctions.

APPENDIX: Those of you who are familiar with my blog know that I’m not exactly a fan of Salem’s “heritage management,” so I can’t resist this comparison of two Bilbao-connected plaques: one featuring Diego de Gardoqui prominently placed in front of the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in Marblehead and another marking Jonathan Haraden’s very public victory over the Achilles, which is located inside a Korean barbeque restaurant on Essex Street in Salem. Seriously! BonChon, the restaurant in question, was one of my major pandemic take-out spots (it still is actually, as I adore their fried rice) so I became quite familiar with Haraden’s plaque during that time. The plaque was installed by the Sons of the American Revolution in 1909 on a house where Haraden once lived which was later demolished. I seem to recall that its replacement structure had the plaque on the exterior, but when that building was demolished and another built in its place a few years ago it ended up inside—not exactly sure why, but very Salem.


Open House in Essex County

It occurred to me the other day that during the long life of this blog I have never spotlighted Trails and Sails, a calendar of dedicated events and openings throughout Essex County in September organized by the Essex National Heritage Area. I feel remiss; I have friends and former students who work for Essex Heritage, and I myself am a commissioner! These folks know what heritage is and are able to discern it from tourism, and so they connect and cast light on institutions and areas which represent this region’s cultural and material legacy in meaningful ways. Trails and Sails is a 10-day extravaganza of free events throughout our region, beginning next weekend. I’ve picked my events, and my participation will pretty much revolve around visiting old buildings, but don’t let my game plan (mis-) inform yours: there are plenty of events that involve much more outside action like walking, paddling, biking, apple-picking, cider-making, birding, and even “forest bathing” (whatever that is) right here in Salem. So go to the website, or download the digital guide, and chart your course. Note that many (but not all) events and openings are recurring and some require reservations.

Saturday, September 17I’ve got to get into the glorious Grand Army of the Republic Hall in Lynn, so that will be my first stop. I’ve wanted to see this hall for about five years. From Lynn, I’ll drive over to Danvers to tour the 1670 Judge Samuel Holten House, another building which I’ve long admired and never been inside. Same with the Platts-Bradstreet House in Rowley, so that’s next, then back to Salem for a walking tour of Charlotte’s (Forten) Salem by History Alive, Inc.

Lynn’s GAR Hall, two seventeenth-century houses, and Charlotte Forten about to lead us around Salem!

Sunday, September 18: I know that I will have to do some lecture and presentation prep on this day but I am still going to the Open House at the Rocks Village Handtub Building and Toll House Museum on the Merrimack as I love that building and (again) have never been inside. I might as well go to the Brocklebank Museum on Georgetown as it’s on the way home.

Rocks Village,Georgetown, and the Jackman-Willet House in Newbury.

The following week, unfortunately, is super busy and I have my own presentation on Saturday the 24th, so that leaves Sunday the 25th, when I’ll go up to Newbury and see the seventeenth-century Jackman-Willet House and anything else that is happening in that part of the county. I feel like I’m missing out on some great events, particularly Fletcher Steele and Frederick Law Olmsted tours and a view of Gloucester from its grandiose city hall. But there’s always next year: Trails and Sails is an established tradition. As I was looking at the schedule, thinking about where I would like to go, and reflecting upon my past summer, it was just houses, houses, houses! I love visiting old open houses, but I think I must be an outlier among heritage tourists today. I’ve been talking to a few museum professionals over the summer, and they all tell me that house museums just aren’t as popular as they used to be. This might explain why so many in Salem are closed, including all of the Peabody Essex Museum’s houses save the Ropes Mansion and Salem Maritime’s Derby House (well, save the ell). But everywhere I have gone this summer—in New York, and all the New England states—there have been good-sized parties touring houses with me so it makes me feel like there are still some old-house afficionados out there! An anecdotal view, I know, but a hopeful one. Perhaps I should finally admit, however, that my essential childhood bedside book, Samuel Chamberlain’s Open House in New England, might have been a bit odd.


Dickinson Domicile

I drove “out west” to the recently-reopened Emily Dickinson Museum last week thinking it would just be a pleasant last road trip of the summer during which I would learn a bit more about the poet, take some photographs of her house and the surrounding Pioneer Valley, and then return home to dash off a quick post and then turn to my syllabus prep as the new semester starts TOMORROW. But that’s not how it worked out: I couldn’t dismiss Emily or the rest of the Dickinsons that quickly or easily. The “Homestead” was striking and the tour substantive, but I left with fewer pictures and more questions than I intended to have. Emily remains enigmatic, but I found myself more interested in her living conditions than her work: the physical space of the house and its surrounding land, which was much larger and more pastoral in her time, her dashing brother Austin and very close sister-in-law Susan next door, the constant companionship of her younger sister Lavinia, and what can only be called the LOOMING presence of her brother’s pushy mistress and the first editor of her work, Mabel Loomis Todd. Emily managed never to meet Mabel (which I find particularly impressive) but nevertheless she was there. It was just all too much for me, so I wondered how Emily persevered/flourished in such a space! So when I got home, I couldn’t possibly post before I read three books about Emily and her family, all when I should have been working on my syllabi! This beast was the best: I could not put it down for two days, an amazing work of scholarship.

The Dickinson “Homestead,” members of the family, the library and conservatory. The Museum places pinecones on period seating which it does not want you to sit on, but also provides period seating in green!

So much LOVE and DEATH! Emily’s parents die–her mother after a long incapacitation in the bedroom next to Emily’s, and then her beloved young nephew. His father, her brother Austin, begins his passionate and long affair with Mabel, wife of a young Amherst College astronomer, and Emily has to pussyfoot around her own house, the Homestead, to get to her conservatory off the library while they are having liasons! Next door at the Evergreens, the social center of Amherst it seems, her very best friend and “sister over the hedge,” Sue Dickinson, is in distress over her husband’s open adultery. Emily herself commences a passionate-yet-platonic (I think?) relationship with an old friend of her father’s, Judge Otis Phillips Lord from SALEM. She refers to him as “My Lovely Salem” in her letters and he visited her often before his death in 1884. Emily died two years later and then Mabel the Mistress takes over, with the approval, at first, of Lavinia. The Poet is established, but conflict between all of the surviving insiders ensues, resulting in many Dickinson possessions and Emily’s papers going to Harvard. The recently-restored Homestead contains period copies of everything and so you really feel the Dickinson presence (or at least I did) but Harvard’s Houghton Library is the major Dickinson repository.

The amazingly colorful double parlor: somewhat subdued walls and brightly-patterned floors seems to be the theme. The lovely runner and second-floor landing floorcover by Thistle Hill Weavers; Emily’s bedroom and stand-in “desk”—a Federal work table. The real desk in the Dickinson Room at the Houghton Library.

But displaced possessions don’t matter, believe me, the house is THE HOUSE, and it is so colorful and full of texture, it feels alive! I loved it: the curation of the interiors seemed to echo the “meticulous care” Emily took with her own life. There are period pieces, both authentic and reproduction papers and textiles, and also some donations from the recently-concluded Dickinson series. The Homestead is a palimpest house: built in 1813 in a more austere Federal style, it was expanded and embellished by Emily’s father, and interpreted as her family house. I think I responded to it so much because it reminded me of my own house, built in 1827 and “italianaticized” in the 1850s, but my double parlor is nowhere near as colorful as Emily’s! You’ve got to go; you’ll have your own response, believe me.

A fragment of period wallpaper in Emily’s room, and an utilitarian white dress representative of what she preferred; her mother’s room next door, furnished with a bed from Dickinson the television series; the only surviving tree from the Dickinson era: an oak which survived the Hurricane of 1938. The Evergreens, Austin’s and Sue’s house, which is closed now but apparently still perfectly Italianate inside.


The Wentworth-Gardner House

We were in York Harbor all last week with family and friends, several of whom had never been to this region of New England before. So I was a bit of a tour guide, in my fashion. On a morning tour of Portsmouth, we passed by my favorite house in town, the Tobias Lear House, as well as its more famous neighbor, the Wentworth-Gardner House, one of the most famous Georgian structures in the country. I’m very familiar with this house, but for some reason I’ve never been inside, and the door was open with a flag out front, so in I went, forgetting all about my companions. They followed me, but I really gave them no choice in the matter! We had a lovely tour with a very knowledgeable guide, and the house was ever more stunning than I imagined. I’m kind of glad that I had never been in before, as this house is probably the best example of the entrepreneurial antiquarian Wallace Nutting’s material and cultural impact in New England and I’ve come to appreciate him only recently. Nutting purchased the house in 1915 and added it to his collection of “Colonial Pictorial Houses” after his restoration, and thus it became one of the more influential representatives of the “olden time” in his time and the Colonial Revival in ours. Images of Nutting’s wispy colonial ladies in its midst are scattered throughout and a room is devoted entirely to his work.

The Wentworth-Gardner House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire: present and before Wallace Nutting’s purchase in 1915; the amazing center hall with a stairway re-installed by Nutting, and one of his colonial ladies descending (from a large collection of Nutting images at Historic New England).

The houses was built by Mark Hunking and Elizabeth Rindge Wentworth in 1760 as a wedding gift for their son Thomas, who lived in it until his death in 1768. It was owned and occupied by Major William Gardner from 1793 to 1833, and thereafter by his widow. In the later nineteenth century the grand mansion became a rooming house as its South End neighborhood declined, and then Nutting came to its rescue! As you can see, his most extensive restoration was to its exterior, but the reinstallation of the stairway was a major undertaking as well. I know that the pineapple was a customary colonial symbol of hospitality, but I can’t help but wonder if Nutting was inspired by Salem’s “Pineapple House.”

Nutting’s restored doorway (Historic New England) and Salem doorheads from the 1895 Visitors’ Guide.

Nutting sold the house to the Metropolitan Museum of Art just after the close of World War I, initiating the threat of removal to New York City that was itself removed by the onset of the Depression. After a brief stint of stewardship by the Preservation of New England Antiquities, the Wentworth-Gardner (and adjoining Lear house) House was acquired by a group of local preservationists who eventually became known as the Wentworth-Gardner Historic House Associates in 1940. It’s just a great place to visit: so many wonderful structural and decorative details, including the wonderfully carved mantel in the front left parlor (another one of Nutting’s reinstallations), the newly-installed reproduction eighteenth-century flocked wallpaper, the very Colonial Revival kitchen with its steep steps leading to upstairs, several great bedchambers (I couldn’t call them simply bedrooms), the Wallace Nutting room, and a very nice exhibition on historic preservation in Portsmouth. I remain so impressed by this small city with all of its historic houses, in wonderful condition and all open to the public. It’s a great example of community commitment to material heritage and the importance of having several institutional stewards thereof, rather than just one or two.

Georgian and Colonial Revival styles/worlds merge in the Wentworth-Gardner House, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.


Massachusetts Route 57

I have taken a lot of road trips this summer: west, south, north. On my way to any place in the first two directions, I’ve tried to explore a territory I call “middle Massachusetts” between the greater Boston area (which I tend to extend to Worcester) and the Berkshires. The latter has a very strong identiy as you can see from the map I found in a shop in Great Barrington, below, as does greater Boston, the North and South Shores, and Cape Cod. But I’m just not sure about the middle: part of it could be called the Connecticut and/or Pioneer valley, but other parts seem not exactly mysterious to me, but rather amorphous. My attempts to discover and characterize Middle Massachusetts has taken me down some small old roads, and so far my favorite route has been Massachusetts Route 57, which extends from just south of Springfield almost to Great Barrington, just north of the Connecticut border. This route is perfect: not one chain store, lots of old houses, general stores, taverns, rolling hills, rivers, state forests, and a lake or two. I’m not sure why it’s not referenced on maps of nineteenth-century Massachusetts turnpikes, as it was clearly a major route from Springfield to the Berkshires from quite early on judging by the structures that line its path.

From the Berkshire perspective above, Route 57 includes several western Massachusetts towns, but I don’t know, Sandisfield doesn’t feel very Berkshirey to me although it is formally in that county My favorite town on Route 57, Granville, is definitely not a Berkshire town, nor is neighboring Tolland, and then you drive through the New Boston village of Sandisfield, Sandisfield proper, New Marlborough, Monterey, and then finally Great Barrington. Route 57 merges with Route 23, another nice old route but not quite as pristine and rural. Great houses line the road, some a little shabby, some very shiny. Soon I was in New York State, and I returned home on a series of other lesser-known east-west routes, in northern “Middle Massachusetts.” It’s just too easy to take the Mass Pike.

Structures in Granville, West Granville (for some reason I didn’t snap a picture of the very much open Granville General Store—which has great cheese—but I did capture the very closed West Granville Store) New Boston, Sandisfield and New Marlborough along Route 57.


Hooked on Kinderhook

I made a very quick trip out to the Hudson River Valley at the beginning of last week to visit my brother and brother-in-law, and despite its brevity I still made some discoveries, including the delightful Columbia County town of Kinderhook. I always try to find new places when I’m out there, so on the way home I headed north from Rhinebeck, where they live, before turning east towards Massachusetts. It was supposed to be an hour-long diversion to see the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site before I headed home, but there was so much to see in Kinderhook I lingered, and did not get to Salem until well after dark. The President’s house did not disappoint, but downtown Kinderhook blew me away: beautiful houses and gardens, so much history, a stunning art gallery. The picture-perfect historytown: well worth a weekend trip if you’re within driving distance (or a longer one if you’re not). For some reason, I expected Lindenwald, which Martin Van Buren purchased after his presidential term was over, to be a bit dull and dowdy but it was on my list: when I got there I found it neither. I’ve been on a Gothic Revival kick all summer long, but this house is more than that: it’s a late Georgian mansion house transformed into a Gothic Revival mansion with an Italianate tower! Quite a melange: and Zuber & Cie wallpaper inside. The house was built by Judge Peter Van Ness in 1797, and inherited by his son William, who was Aaron Burr’s second in the 1804 duel which fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton. After Van Buren was defeated (on a Whig ticket) in the 1840 presidential election he retreated to Lindenwald, but following another defeat in the election of 1848 (on the Free Soil Party ticket) he was ensconced there for the remainder of his life. In 1849 he hired architect Richard Upjohn (who must have been THE Gothic Revival architect as he designed my two favorite houses in that style: the Rotch House in New Bedford and Kingscote in Newport) to expand and transform it.

Exterior and interior views of Lindenwald, including the tower stairwell and first-floor parlors. The entire center of the house is one big dining hall with the restored Zuber paper: for some reason it was difficult for me to photograph so refer to the site’s website! Not sure what this little house was for but it is cute.

This was the last day of a week-long heat wave so I really wanted to stay in my car, but once I got into downtown Kinderhook I had to get out of it. There were so many beautifuly houses, I would just stop, run out and take a photograph, and run right back into the air conditioning. But this was happening so often and the houses were in such close proximity to one another that it was getting a bit comical, so I finally stopped and took a walk. There was a strong presence of history: I had the image in my mind of the Continental Army marching down the main street victoriously after the (Second) Battle of Saratoga in the fall of 1777, especially as I passed the house where the captive General Burgoyne was entertained which was very close to the house where the wounded Benedict Arnold was taken. Earlier in the war, General Henry Knox passed through Kinderhook on his heroic quest to deliver cannon from Ticonderoga to General Washington in Boston. There are all these beautiful brick houses—both Dutch and English. There were details on the wooden houses I had never seen before. I was a puddle after my walk through Kinderhook but it was worth it!

The Luykas Van Alen House, 1747, which is owned and operated by the Columbia County Historical Society, as is the James Vanderpoel “House of History,” built in 1810. (The Van Alen house had several front porches with these built-in benches you see on Dutch Colonial houses built in the 20th century). Some houses which caught my eye in Kinderhook Village–I could have included many more. House where General Burgoyne was entertained and Major General (Turncoat) Arnold was attended to.

It was so hot in the Van Buren house that our guide passed out these cool fans! Perfect keepsake and advertisement for all this region has to offer. New York State takes its history very seriously: there are markers everywhere (maybe even TOO many–a big statement from marker afficionado me), every town has an official historian, and no opportunity goes unutilized to showcase it.


Are Hollyhocks Colonial or Colonial Revival?

And now for a really important question, but about all I can take on during these dog days of summer: are hollyhocks Colonial or Colonial Revival? The hollyhocks were simply beautiful and characteristically statuesque at the Saint Gaudens National Historic Site when we stopped by on the way back from Vermont a few weeks ago and I started thinking about them. Hollyhocks don’t look like a particularly useful plant but they are on the cover of so many books on “Colonial” gardens published at the beginning of the twentieth centuy: they seem to be the very symbol of the Colonial Revival garden (along with the sundial and the arbor). So what’s the story, Colonial or Colonial Revival?

Hollyhocks in Cornish, NH and on the cover of early 20th centuy gardening books: Shelton (1906); Ely (1903); Bennett (1919); McCauley (1911); “Colonial” woman and hollyhocks in font of the John Ward House, Salem in a c. 1911 photo by Mary Harrod Northend; layout for a Colonial Garden from Colonial gardens; the landscape architecture of George Washington’s time (1932).

So as you can see, hollyhocks were a mainstay in the “old-fashioned” gardens of the Colonial Revival era, but were they actually revived? Were they also present in gardens from centuries prior? I think that the answer is a qualified yes: hollyhocks were both Colonial and Colonial Revival, but the hollyhocks of the earlier era were a bit different than that of the latter. When horticultural authors in the early modern England referenced hollyhocks (which they spelled in many different ways, believe me), they meant Althea officinalis or what we call Marsh Mallow today. Marsh Mallow is a great old plant that I used to have in my garden but it disappeared last year. All mallows were utilized for their soothing effects, and John Winthrop included them in his order for “garden seeds” dispatched to London in 1631. The hollyhock in particular seems to have been an Asian variety brought west in the wake of the Crusades, and while it is often said that the naturalist William Turner fashioned the name hollyhock (or holyoke) in his 1551 Newe Herball, it dates from the fourteenth century at the very least. Turner’s Herball contained woodcut illustrations copied directly from the lovely colored engravings of Leonhard Fuch’s De Historia Stirpium (1543), and he also followed Fuchs in giving hollyhocks the scientific name Malva hortensis. The Fuchs illustration is below: as you can see, it is definitely a familiar hollyhock, but noticeably smaller than our modern variety. And that’s what happened to the Hollyhock: it was improved through hybridization in the nineteenth century. Malva hortensis became Althea Rosea and ultimately Alcea Rosea. The Boston nurseryman John Breck, author of the influential The Flower Garden or Breck’s Flowers (1851), disdained the popular dahlia and promoted the humble hollyhock, as a great improvement has been made in this old-fashioned, ordinary flower, within a few years, that has brought it before the public under a new phase; and it now bids fair to become as popular as many other flowers have been when taken in hand by the florist. Breck was referring to the cross-breeding success of his colleague across the Atlantic, Saffron Walden nurseryman William Chater, who had produced double hollyhocks with large flowers, “of better form, more substance in the petal, and more decided in colour.” And thus the hollyhook took off, its success limited only by the onset of a rusty disease that is still with us, unfortunately.

Sixteenth- and nineteenth-century hollyhocks: Wellcome Images; George Baxter’s print of Valentine Bartholomew’s Hollyhocks (1857), Victoria & Albert Museum.

Another major factor in the increasing popularity of the hollyhock must have been the many artistic depictions appearing on both side of the Atlantic from the 1870s: painters of all artistic schools, from impressionism to realism, painted stunning and soaring hollyhocks, often in the company of women. I could include hundreds of such paintings in this post, but I’ve limited myself to just a few of my favorite works. I’ve started out with Ross Sterling Turner’s Hollyhocks from 1876 because he is a Salem artist, but it’s not as representative as a painting fom the very same year by another New England artist, Eastman Johnson. Girls and hollyhocks just go together! It’s no wonder that the garden writers of the next decades, among them so many women, favored them. Hollyhocks were also a framing device, as Childe Hassam demonstrated in his many depictions of his friend Celia Thaxter’s garden on the Isle of Shoals in the 1890s (reproduced in An Island Garden in 1894): they could define an entrance, a view, or even the gardener herself. My favorite depiction of hollyhocks is in Abbot Fuller Graves’ painting Portsmouth Doorway (1910) at the Peabody Essex Museum, but everybody else’s impressionist over-the-top hollyhocks with a woman-in-white work seems to be Frederick Carl Friesek’s Hollyhocks from the following year.

Ross Sterling Turner, Hollyhocks (1876), LA County Museum of Art; Eastman Johnson, Hollyhocks (1876), New Britain Museum of American Art; Childe Hassam, In the Garden (Celia Thaxter in her Garden) (1892); Smithsonian Museum of American Art; Abbot Fuller Graves, Portsmouth Doorway (1910), Peabody Essex Museum; Frederick Carl Frieseke, Hollyhocks (1911), National Academy of Design.


A July Afternoon, Old Lyme

One hot morning last week I was looking at some paintings by the American Impressionist artist Matilda Browne (1869-1947) when I realized I wanted to see more. It was apparent that the best place to do that was the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, so I hopped in the car and drove down there, arriving in the early afternoon. I was supposed to be doing lots of other things but I ran (drove) away instead: I’m a firm believer in doing that from time to time and have always been grateful that I have the ways and means to do so. Old Lyme is a beautiful town: I’ve been there quite a few times but never to the Griswold Museum, and it was a real feast for the senses, especially at this time of the year, when the Colonial Revival garden in back of Miss Griswold’s mansion was at midsummer peak. There is the 1817 mansion, embellished with the art of Miss Griswold’s artist-boarders who established the Old Lyme Art Colony at the beginning of the twentieth century, the garden and grounds with trails along the Lieutenant River, the modern gallery with cafe and gift shop, and several studio-outbuildings which give the impression of an artistic community past and present. It was a perfect place to spend an afternoon in July, as everything was bathed in that golden midsummer glow, much like the painting by once-resident Edward Simmons of the same title. And I saw lots of Matilda Brown’s paintings too.

Edward Simmons’ July Afternoon, Old Lyme (1906) and the house, garden and grounds of the Florence Griswold Museum.

Florence Griswold’s life (1850-1937) was in some ways common, in other ways not. She was born into a wealthy family, exemplified by the grand 1817 mansion on Old Lyme’s main street, whose money was increasingly diminished to just the house and grounds with no means to keep both. After the death of her father in the 1870s, the house was transformed into a school for genteel ladies, and after the death of her mother in the 1890s, into a boarding house by Florence and her sister. The artist Henry Ward Ranger came to stay in 1899, and convinced other artists to follow suit in the years to come, and the house evolved into an artistic community with Miss Griswold very much in its center and her house the foundation of an emerging art colony in Old Lyme. Apparently extending patronage (in the form of credit) to artists became a higher priority than holding on to the family home, and she lost it before her death in 1937, but over the next decade the Florence Griswold Association was able to purchase it and establish the museum. The first floor of the house is maintained much as it was in her time, while the second floor has galleries devoted to the work produced there, including paintings of the house itself, illustrating her role as “the keeper of the artists.” Resident artists, including Matilda Browne, also painted the house itself, most prominently its door and mantle panels, leaving their mark in more ways than one. While the Old Lyme Art Colony is associated most prominent with American Impressionism because of the residency of Childe Hassam and others, you can also see works representative of the less well-known (at least to me!) school of Tonalism associated with Ranger. And there are also some very impressive cows.

ABOVE: Matilda Brown, Miss Florence’s; Charles P. Gruppe, The Griswold House at Old Lyme; Woodhull Adams, Miss Florence’s Parlor (1912); painted panels in the Griswold dining room. BELOW: Front hall and parlor of the Griswold House, Miss Griswold’s bedroom and a guest bedroom.

It was quite a shift to move from the mellow tones and painterly animals ensconced in the old Griswold House to the museum’s modern galleries, which are currently showcasing a retrospective of artist Dana Sherwood’s more whimsical work, including an installed Bedroom Bestiary (2021) below. Very charming images, but I wanted to stay in the past, as usual, and in the garden, which was lush, lush, lush. So back to Miss Griswold’s environment I went: to the realm of her boarders and borders. It was Matilda Browne who lured me to coastal Connecticut after all.

Works by Dana Sherwood in the 2002 Krieble Gallery; Matilda Browne’s Clark Voorhees House (1905) and Saltbox by Moonlight; William Henry Howe’s Repose, September Days in Normandy (1888-89); back in the garden—somehow I never thought of using sage as a border plant like this.