Severed from Salem

Reading through the Phillips Library catalog is an activity that is simultaneously enticing and frustrating: one can glean the scope of the collections but not access them, provenances are presented but not deeds of gift or deposit (which is standard). Given the missions of its two founding institutions, the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum, the Phillips’ collections are both regional and global in nature, but one cannot fail to notice the prominence of Salem materials, consequences of content and/or bequest. To supplement that perception, just browse through the century-old Essex Institute Bulletins digitized by the Internet Archive, where you can easily access long lists of donations and deposits from descendants of scores of old Salem families and every type of organization: public, civic, commercial, religious, fraternal and sororal (a word I had to look up!). As is always the case in the Witch City, there’s too much focus on witch trial records: the tragedy of the removal of the Phillips Library by the Peabody Essex Museum is the vast amount of personal and institutional history–a cumulative cultural memory– that will be severed from Salem. Let me offer up just one collection of papers as an illustration: the Almy, Butler, and Robson Family Papers, which encompass the activities and associations of three intertwined Salem families from 1804 to 1982. Through these records, we can (or could) examine the rise and fall of one of Salem’s most prominent department stores, Almy’s, Bigelow and Washburn (1858-1985), a particular phase in the history of the Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church (now the Wesley United Methodist Church on North Street, which donated its archives to the Phillips as well), an edited manuscript of Katherine Butler Hathaway’s famous memoir The Little Locksmith (!!!!!), and considerable correspondence and materials relative to her niece Elizabeth “Libby” Reardon Frothingham’s energetic advocacy for historic preservation both during and after Salem’s battle with urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. Personal perspectives on Salem’s history.

Almys PC

Salem-Wesley-ME-Churchx

Phillips PC Just two Salem institutions whose records are preserved in the Phillips Library, and the Essex Institute in its heyday.

The personal nature of historical materials works both ways: the people of Salem should be enabled to engage with their history in a personal way. When I read the detailed catalog entry and finding aid for the Almy, Butler, and Robson family papers, I think of the Almy’s clock that still stands on Essex Street, the first time I read The Little Locksmith, just a few years ago, and Elizabeth Reardon’s house histories for Historic Salem, Inc., which I used as a model for my own reports way back when I first moved to Salem and wanted to learn about my new city house by house. I’ve read about her exciting “discovery” of two Salem first-period houses hiding in (somewhat) plain sight, and just last year, I visited the ongoing restoration of her former house, and saw the cupboards where her records–memorials of decades of service to Salem– were stored. And now they’re off to Rowley?

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Gedney House

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Severed 4The Gedney House on High Street, soon after its discovery by Elizabeth Reardon and restoration by Historic New England, and an excerpt from Julie Arrison-Bishop’s article “A Witness to Four Centuries in Salem”, Historic New England Summer 2015; 1965 Boston Globe article on Elizabeth’s discovery of the Samuel Pickman House (hiding under a mansard roof), and the Pickman House today, with the Peabody Essex Museum in the background.


Snow & Inaccessibility

Dear readers: I had a lovely plan for the blog this December, including light, frothy and festive posts about fairies, puddings, and GIN. But then the Peabody Essex Museum was forced to admit that they have no intention of returning the historical collections of the Phillips Library to Salem at a Historic Commission meeting on December 7, a day that shall forever live in infamy in Salem’s history—maybe. So now I am seeing a different kind of red than the holiday kind, and am going to have to process this development for some time, here and elsewhere. I’ve never lived in a time or place when a community’s heritage was so brazenly and cruelly threatened, and it’s pretty much all I can think about. Fair warning. I do feel a bit guilty about this, however, so I am going to intersperse my PEM post today, which addresses the issue of inaccessibility, with photographs of our first snow of the season. This will make for a rather incongruous presentation, but it’s the best I can offer at the moment.

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A few little scenes from Satuday’s public protest against the relocation of the Phillips Library’s collection– essentially Salem’s archives–to a large conservation facility in Rowley.

There are so many issues to address regarding this relocation/removal, primarily because the Museum (and by “Museum”, I am always referring to the Museum leadership; many curators and staff are part of the Salem community while the leadership and vast majority of of trustees live elsewhere, consequently there is a deafness and a disconnect on the part of the latter) is very slippery, and changes its rationales according to necessity–or audience. At the December 7th meeting, Facilities Director Bob Monk seemed to stress the importance of office space, and because that meeting made news, Executive Director Dan Monroe was pressed to come out with a statement, at long last, on the following day, in which he emphasized the inability of the existing Phillips Buildings, Plummer Hall and the Daland House, to accommodate the collection under proper conditions. This inability has presented the museum with a “great” opportunity, according to Mr. Monroe: to unify the Museum’s renowned art and culture collection with the Phillips Library collection at new 112,000-square-foot Collections Center located in Rowley. This new center, which keeps the Library collection accessible in Essex County, will become operational by mid-2018 and will feature highly secure, climate-controlled space for storage for the collections and extremely handsome and functional spaces for a Library reading room, staff offices, conservation, and other operations. The Library will continue to welcome researchers from around the world and PEM’s skilled librarians will continue to assist patrons during the reading room’s public hours. Mr. Monroe addresses accessibility several other times in his statement, and Mr. Monk also referenced accessibility on the 7th: “Our goal here is, really, to make the collections actually more accessible, not less”. Increasing accessibility is probably the one constant claim that the Museum has been making, since it shut down the Phillips Library in 2011 with promises to return in a few years. But they have not, and odds are that they will not.

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A little snow intermission! Now back to work. 

There are three types of accessibility relevant to this discussion: physical, demographic, and digital. Obviously Rowley (which is a lovely town by the way; I have nothing against it, I just don’t want Salem’s history to be located there) is distant from Salem and the PEM’s large warehouse will not be accessible by train or by foot, only by car. Nearly every single major independent research and/or museum library in the United States is located in an urban area reachable by mass transportation: the Phillips will be the first to be transferred in its entirety to a suburban satellite facility. Given its storied history which is so based on place, we can reasonably ask if the Phillips Library will simply cease to exist.

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As to demographic accessibility, who are they going to let into their warehouse, their gated community? Monroe’s statement says “researchers”, which could include anyone and everyone: I guess we’ll find out at the public forum which was also announced in his statement on January 11 @ 6:00 at Morse Auditorium in the museum. The last issue I want to address is digital accessibility, because I think there are many misperceptions about this based on several articles dating from the time of the Phillips’ closure in 2011. Very little of the Phillips Collection has been digitized, surprisingly little for an institution which raised $650 million in its recent Advancement Campaign:  less than 100 of their 2 million manuscript items are accessible online, with an emphasis on the trivial (ocean liner ephemera and vintage valentines). What has been digitized is much of their catalog: we know what treasures are contained in the collection, we just can’t access them.

NEXT UP: DONORS.


Shameless Stewards

On Wednesday night the Peabody Essex Museum finally came before the Salem Historic Commission and admitted that the “bulk” of collections in their Phillips Library, consisting of archives which generations of Salem families, businesses, and organizations have donated to this Salem institution, would not return to Salem after a prolonged period in which these records were housed in a temporary facility during which the library was supposedly being “renovated”.  We know now that the renovation consisted of transforming the historic library into offices: only when permissions for exterior changes were required did the Museum have to come before the Historic Commission, and everything was revealed. In an article by Dustin Luca in The Salem News, PEM facilities director Bob Monk admitted that this meeting “didn’t go quite as planned. Our intent on it was to be about architecture, and we got word just prior to the meeting that there was a lot of social media activity surrounding the collections.” Gee, maybe the citizens of Salem were upset that their material heritage was being stolen from them, without even the courtesy of a press release!

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All is lost PhillipsPhotographs of the James Duncan Phillips Library from less than a decade ago, after a substantial renovation by Rizvi  Architects, which included “the addition of climate-controlled archives, galleries, reading rooms, and a new compact storage space for the library’s extensive collection”. It was closed only a few years after this rehabilitation.

The writing has been on the wall for quite some time, but I kept waiting, hoping, praying for the Phillips to be returned to us–or at the very least some sort of announcement as to its fate. I guess we didn’t deserve one. Much more context is in my “Losing our History” post back in August, when the Library simply announced it would close down completely so that its collections could be moved from the temporary facility to what now will be their permanent home–a large conservation facility in Rowley. If you go to that post, (which you should, because it’s quite good if I do say so myself and I’m too upset to write anything that coherent right now) you will see a comment from John D. Childs, the newly-appointed Ann C. Pingree Director of the Phillips Library in which he states if you had reached out to PEM prior to writing this post, we might have been able to allay some of your concerns. Let me assure you that further information answering many of your questions will be forthcoming in the coming weeks. Well, my concerns are not allayed, obviously,  and we heard nothing from the PEM until they needed something from a city board—but I really must contact the family of Ann C. Pingree, as well as every overseer and trustee whose address I can lay my hands on.

All is Lost new plans

The Museum’s current architects, Schwartz/Silver, are transforming the Plummer and Daland buildings, which have housed the Phillips Library for over a century, into a glass-conjoined office building.

Before this big reveal, I happened to come across an article written by Dan L. Monroe, the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO of the PEM and Robert N. Shapiro, President of its Board of Trustees, in which the two men chide the trustees of the Berkshire Museum for “violating the public trust” for planning to sell 40 works in its collection. In the opinions of Mr. Monroe and Mr. Shapiro, Trustees of a nonprofit museum are fiduciaries who are responsible for representing and acting in prudent ways to assure that museum collections, facilities and funds are used as intended to benefit the public…..these works of art were given to the Berkshire Museum by individuals who intended that they be presented and shared with the public on a permanent basis. The Board of the Berkshire Museum was entrusted with the responsibility to fulfill these donor intentions and to serve as responsible stewards of the art given to the museum to be forever accessible to the people of Pittsfield, the citizens of the Commonwealth and the American public at large. This from two men who have been planning and plotting to sever Salem from its material and historical heritage for quite some time: and what about the “donor intentions” of all those Salem residents, who left their cherished possessions and papers to an institution which promised to act as a “responsible steward”? History is as much a public commodity as art, I would argue even more so, but that is a truth that the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum has never embraced, much less acknowledged.


Three Golden Balls

In Salem, December 5 has been celebrated as krampusnacht more often than St. Nicholas’s Eve over the past few years, but I’m following up on a post about the latter today. I want to connect the forerunner of Santa Klaus to pawnbrokers, through the symbolism of three golden balls. This is not an original association, but a reader referenced it several years ago, and I always wanted to connect the dots, so this day seems like a perfect time to do it! I think that the traditional pawnbrokers’ sign of three golden balls attached to a (straight or curved) bar is recognized universally in the west, or at least in Europe: here’s a John Crowther watercolor of Aldersgate Street in London in 1886 with both a traditional symbolic trade sign and a sign of the trade sign, and a photograph from Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York of an old pawnbroker’s sign that is apparently about to vanish—it might be already gone.

Three Golden Balls John Crowther

Pawnbroker sign NYC John Crowther, Aldersgate Street, London, 1886, Guildhall Library; the trade signs of the defunct S&G Gross Pawnbrokers in New York City from Vanishing New York.

Nearly everyone traces the origins of the three balls back to the Medici family for several reasons: the Medici crest features balls (palle) prominently, their financial roles in Renaissance Europe, which can somehow (not at all clear to me) serve as a predecessor for pawnbroking, and the fact that they were Italian, like the Lombards who became the first Christian moneylenders in medieval Europe, when usury (charging interest for a loan of money) was expressly against canon law. There is also an old yarn about a monster, Charlemagne, and the balls representing defensive dings in a shield, adopted by the Medici as proof of their valor, but I don’t think I need to delve too deeply into that tale. The Medici had as many as twelve balls on their crests before the fifteenth century, when they finally settled on six. Not three.

Three Golden Balls Medici MS 15th CThe Medici Crest with its distinctive six palle on the leaf of a 15th Century MS of Propertius, Elegies, Oxford University Bodleian Library MS Canon. Class. Lat 31.

Raymond de Roover, a prominent mid-century medieval economic historian, wrote a short article just after World War II in which he asserted a general connection between the heraldry of all of the moneylending families of late medieval Europe, each and every one featuring spheres on their crest to symbolize coins, and modern pawnbrokers’ signs. He discounts a distinct Medici connection, but also the St. Nicholas one that I favor, with the argument that such a marginal occupation as moneylending (and by association, pawnbroking) could not possibly be associated with as esteemed a saint as St. Nicholas of Bari (or more correctly, Myra), who was known, even beyond the expectations of your average saint, for his charity. But I believe that Professor de Roover is incorrect: perceptions of St. Nicholas clearly focus on the ball symbolism later associated with pawnbrokers, and one of the key links between these two disparate entities is the dowry, an absolute requirement for every Renaissance bride. The most famous example of St. Nicholas’s generosity, depicted time and time again by nearly every Renaissance artist, is the aid he gave to an impoverished family of three daughters of marriageable age: under cover of darkness he threw three purses (increasingly depicted as golden balls) through the window so that the girls would have dowries and avoid destitution or even worse, prostitution. From the mid-fourteenth century through the sixteenth, this scene is played out again and again on canvas: the paintings below represent the beginning and the end of this era–during which St. Nicholas was always pictured with his identifying attribute: the three golden balls.

Three Golden Balls SCALA_ARCHIVES_10310197649 1340s

Three Golden Balls ANGLIG_10313766773

Three Golden Balls AGETTYIG_10313913291Crivelli 1469

Three Golden Balls ANGAIG_10313967631 Paolo Veneziano, The Charity of St. Nicholas, 1430-45, Galleria degli Uffizi; Girolamo Macchietti, The Charity of St. Nicholas of Bari, c. 1555-1560; National Gallery of Art, London; Taddeo Crivelli, St. Nicholas, 1469, J. Paul Getty Museum; Sebald Beham, Saint Nicholas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

This same period is also one in which public institutional charitable funds emerged, first the famous Monte delle doti, which enabled Florentine fathers to invest in the city’s public-funded debt and ensure a sufficient dowry when their daughters were of marriageable age, and later in the fifteenth century the Monte di pietà, a form of public-administered pawnbroking designed to provide an alternative to avaricious private moneylending. The Florentine state, and other states as well, were quite willing to engage in official lending, especially if it could finance its public debt and alleviate a pressing social concern at the same time. With its system of collateralized lending and low interest rates, the Monte di pietà, in particular, represented a beneficial Christian form of lending in contrast to the old Lombard system, inspired and reflected by all those images of the three-ball-bearing St. Nicholas, who eventually became the patron saint of pawnbrokers.

Three Golden Balls HGP 342650 (1) Canterbury

Three Golden Balls Boston Leslie JonesCoat of St. Nicholas on the Christ Church gate of Canterbury Cathedral, @Neil Holmes; Leslie Jones photograph of Boston pawn shop signs in the 1920s, Boston Public Library.


In Praise of Townhouses (and Small City Living)

This weekend will bring the (38th) annual Christmas in Salem house tour, centered on the “City Sidewalks” of downtown Salem, with decorated homes on Central, Crombie and Chestnut Streets open, along with a house on Hamilton Street. I love this tour: for me it highlights Salem at its best, showcasing the creative continuity of the city rather than exploiting one dark time, in stark contrast to that other big Salem event (yes, I’m referencing Haunted Happening, which I still can’t get out of my system). I’m not exactly sure what the “City Sidewalks” theme means, but for me it conjures up a streetscape of diverse buildings—large and small, residential, commercial and institutional–closely aligned together so to form a community characterized by the integration of all the activities of daily life: a city, and to be more precise, a small historic city like Salem. Maintaining the balance between all of these diverse structures is challenging: the materials, scale, and infrastructure of modern construction can be a constant threat. Consequently preservation and planning advocacy is absolutely paramount, and the proceeds from the annual Christmas in Salem tour go towards these efforts on the part of Historic Salem, Incorporated.

Townhouses Central

Townhouses Crombie

Townhouses Chestnut2Central, Crombie & Chestnut Streets, Salem

I am certain that the tour committee also wanted to emphasize the diversity of residential structures in downtown Salem, as everything from an above-the-shop flat (in a Bulfinch building no less) to a sea captain’s mansion (designed by McIntire of course) will be on view. They are all townhouses in the general sense of the word, but the more specific designation—a multi-level, semi-detached structure–will be represented on the tour as well. The two 1906 covers of The House Beautiful below illustrate my vision of winter/Christmas in an urban village of townhouses–and the one on the right features the Chestnut Street mansion of Pickering Dodge, who commenced the construction of one of the tour’s featured townhouses–just next door– for his daughter and son-in-law in 1828. Since I acquired my own townhouse, which was built just the year before on the same street, I’ve bookmarked images of townhouses—semi-detached and freestanding, exteriors and interiors—that have enhanced my appreciation of their functionality and design: first and foremost the two “party” paintings of Boston artist Henry Sargent in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts. The Dinner Party (1821) and The Tea Party (1824). It might not be Christmastime, but it feels like it in these festive parlors. Another great townhouse interior painting is Robert Scott Tait’s A Chelsea Interior (1857-58) featuring the author Thomas Carlyle, along with his wife and dog in the parlor of their London townhouse:  again, likely not Christmastime, but the “shotgun” perspective is classic townhouse. The taller townhouses of the 1850s are featured in the wintry Street in Winter: Evening by an anonymous artist, who casts light on the city sidewalks from a shop window: in the next century all of those windows will be lit up, especially at Christmas time.

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Townhouse Dinner Party Sargent

Townhouse Tea Party Sargent

Townhouse Chelsea

Townhouses New England Street

Townhouse paperHenry Sargent, The Dinner Party & The Tea Party, 1820s, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Robert Scott Tait, A Chelsea Interior, collections of the National Trust; A Street in Winter: Evening, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; I am very enamored of this townhouse wallpaper from the new Hearth & Hand/Magnolia collection at Target.

Christmas in Salem “City Sidewalks” Tour, December 1,2 & 3, 2017—more information and additional events here: http://salem.org/event/37th-annual-christmas-salem-house-tour-2/2017-12-02/.


Small Business Saturday in Salem

There were lots of shoppers out and about in Salem yesterday for Small Business Saturday, a warm and sunny day which encouraged the pedestrian procurement that the city offers. Front Street is clearly the hub of Salem shopping, even though (or because) Essex Street is a pedestrian mall, but there were quite a few people at Pickering Wharf and in several other spots around the city as well. I try to buy all of my Christmas presents in Salem, which is getting easier with every year, as new shops like Mark Your Spot on Lafayette and Oak + Moss on the corner of Washington and Front (the very latest venture of the power duo who brought Roost to Salem years ago) open up. There’s been an interesting movement of Etsy and Instagram shops like Witch City Wicks and Hauswitch into brick-and-mortar buildings in Salem, and I find the two “institutional” shops, Waite & Pierce at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Peabody Essex Museum’s shop to be extremely reliable sources of gift-giving. And as Salem is a foodie town, with more restaurants than I can count at present and more coming, it makes sense that it’s also a great place to buy food and drink gifts: at the Cheese Shop of Salem, the venerable Pamplemousse and even more venerable Harbor Sweets, among other purveyors.

Just a few Salem shops and wares: the newly-opened Oak + Moss which is full of gorgeous housewares, Salem “maps” at Hauswitch, pigs at Roost (+ a Thank You sign), ornaments at Curtsy, Mark Your Spot on lower Lafayette, packed with an eclectic variety of vintage merchandise, books at the Marble Faun, which has moved to Pickering Wharf from Essex Street, a PEM window and silhouettes, mead at Pamplemousse, absinthe set-ups at Emporium 32 on Central Street, candles and cards at Witch City Wicks, and a very local pillow at Grace & Diggs on Artists Row.

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Thanksgiving Menus

If there is one genre of history that has benefitted particularly and immensely from digitization, it is culinary history: cookbooks from all ages are readily available and I easily mined two collections of restaurant menus to come up with a portfolio of Thanksgiving feasts past, from 1883 to the 1950s. The New York Public Library’s Buttolph Collection includes nearly 19,000 menus, and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas’s Digital Collections include a range of menus under the heading “The Art of Dining”. There are many more places to find menus online: a great list is here. I’m not really a foodie, so I was more interested in the evolving cover art than the food, but I have included several bills of fare below: you can find more by going to the sources. These are primarily menus from large hotel restaurants which seem to be concerned with offering their guests multiple choices and courses: turkey is always featured prominently but not exclusively! Last year’s little investigation of the holiday drink “Tom and Jerry” made me very excited to see frozen Tom and Jerry on the 1899 menu of Boston’s Quincy House, and it seems very clear that English plum pudding was a staple on fancy feasts for this most American of holidays until at least World War I.

Thanksgiving 1883 Briggs_House_menu_page_1

Thanksgiving Picture1

Thanksgiving 1898 nypl.digitalcollections.510d47db-3321-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.q

Thanksgiving nypl.digitalcollections.510d47db-3325-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.q 1899

Thanksgiving collage

Thanksgiving 1905 nypl.digitalcollections.510d47db-765f-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.q

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Thanksgiving 1955 nypl.digitalcollections.a6dbdb16-2467-df3a-e040-e00a18064c6f.001.w

Thanksgiving The_Sands_menu_pages_23 (1) 1957

Thanksgiving 1958 Sands_Hotel_and_Casino_menu_page_1Thanksgiving menus from all over the country and 1883 to 1958 (1883, 1898, 1898, 1999, 1905, 1905, 1906, 1914, 1929, 1955, 1957, 1958), from the Buttolph Collection of the New York Public Library and UNLV’s “Art of Dining” Collection.


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