Monthly Archives: December 2010

New Year’s Greetings

In its infancy and adolescence, the period from about 1840 through the 1880s, the greetings card industry in Britain and America clearly differentiated between the two holidays of the “holiday season” and produced distinct Christmas and New Year’s Day cards rather than the combined Seasons’ Greetings and Happy Holidays cards of today.  Below are examples of New Year’s Day cards from the 1870s and 1880s, from the manuscript collection s of the Lilly Library of Indiana University.   Most are British, with the exception of the first calendar card, which was published by Louis Prang & Company of Boston in 1883.

“Great Snows” of 1717 and 2010

Very snowy day in Salem, though hardly as dramatic as the “Great Snow of 1717” which buried New England under five feet of snow and drifts of 25 feet or more for several weeks.  This big event is recorded by many Massachusetts notables, including contemporaries Cotton Mather and Samuel Sewall and Salem’s own Nathaniel Hawthorne—over a century later.  Hawthorne had a complicated relationship with his native city, which is evident not only by the addition of the “w” in his name to differentiate himself from his witch trial judge ancestor John Hathorne, but also by many of his works.  Nevertheless, the city also furnished him with lots of material and he remains inextricably tied to it.  From my perspective as a historian, one of Hawthorne’s best Salem works is his short story Main Street, published in 1852 in a collection entitled The Snow Image and Other Twice-Told Tales.  This little story presents its readers with Salem’s colonial history from a very Hawthornian perspective:  the author takes on his witch-hunting and privateering ancestors and Cotton Mather as well.  He also gives us a nice description of snowy Salem in 1717, but not quite today: 

     The Main Street has vanished out of sight.  In its stead appears a wintry waste of snow, with the sun just peeping over it, cold and bright, and tingeing the white expanse with the faintest and most ethereal rose-color.  This is the Great Snow of 1717, famous for the mountain drifts in which is buried the whole country.  It would seem as if the street, the growth of which we have noted so attentively, following it from its first phase, as an Indian track, until it reached the dignity of sidewalks, were all at once obliterated, and resolved into a drearier pathlessness than when the forest covered it.  The gigantic swells and billows of the snow have swept over each man’s metes and bounds, and annihilated all the visible distinctions of human property.  So that now the traces of former times and hitherto accomplished deeds being done away, mankind should be at liberty to enter on new paths, and guide themselves by other laws then heretofore; if, indeed, the race be not extinct, and it be worth our while to go on with the march of life, over the cold and desolate expanse that lies before us.  It may be, however, that matters are not so desperate as they appear.  That vast icicle, glittering so cheerlessly in the sunshire, must be the spire of the meeting-house, incrusted with frozen sleet.  Those great heaps, too, which we mistook for drifts, are houses, buried up to their eaves, and with their peaked roofs rounded by the depth of snow upon them.  There, now, comes a gush of smoke from what I judge to be the chimney of the Ship Tavern; and another—another—and another—from the chimneys of the other dwellings, where fireside comfort, domestic peace, the sports of children, and the quietude of age are living yet, in spite of the frozen crust above them.

Pictures from my little corner of Salem today:  lower Chesnut Street and Samuel McIntire’s Hamilton Hall (1805).  Clearly, “all the visible distinctions of human property” survived the storm.

Boxing Day


While a blizzard bears down on New England, Old England and its former Commonwealth colonies are celebrating Boxing Day, the traditional day-after-Christmas holiday.  Its exact origins are somewhat obscure, but it seems to have evolved from the pre-Reformation St. Stephen’s Day to an alms- and festivities-commencing holiday in the early modern and Victorian eras.  Cheers!

Boxing Day in Australia, 1914


Christmas Candy

Last-minute Christmas shopping for candy, for which there are lots of choices in Salem.  Ye Olde Pepper Companie on Derby Street near the House of the Seven Gables and Harbor Sweets on Leavitt Street are very well-established.  The former has been in business since 1806 and lays claim to  America’s first commercially-sold candy, Salem Gibralters.  Harbor Sweets sells their chocolate candy (including my favorite Sweet Sloops, a white-chocolate-covered toffee in the shape of a sloop) at their shop and website as well as through lots of local vendors.


Two photographs, one from the present and one from the past, which illustrate the  orientation of our house on Chestnut Street.  The modern one depicts our front steps looking eastward to a spot that is shown on the older one, dated 1891:  the corner of Chestnut Street and Summer Street, or Route 114.  In the background of the nineteenth-century photograph (from The Library of Congress’s American Memory digital collection you can see Samuel McIntire’s majestic South Church, which was built in 1804 and destroyed by fire in 1903.

Looking toward the little girl to the right.......

Embargo Act and Witch City

President Jefferson being held up by King George and Napoleon, 1809: a contemporary critique of the Embargo Act

The US Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807 today, restricting American ships—-SALEM ships—-from engaging in foreign trade.  This act, in conjunction with the oddly-named “Nonintercourse Acts” and the War of 1812, was devestating to the port of Salem and its merchants.  Anyone who walks the streets of Salem can see the architectural legacy of the massive wealth accumulated in the Federal era, and the Embargo Act led Salem into a new era and identity:  from cosmopolitan port to “Witch City” .  I am not an American historian so it’s easy for me to be somewhat cavalier about this transition:  Salem lost its economic foundation and so created a somewhat superficial and tawdry new one based on the dark events of 1692. 

Today Salem seems to be embracing and emphasizing its comprehensive past and leaving “Witch City” somewhat behind, but it will never shed that label completely.  I am a fierce critic of witchcraft tourism and the pseudo-“museums” downtown, but even I was tempted to purchase an adorable, locally-made witch hat at Pamplemousse on Essex Street!


Chilly Scenes of Winter

In the seventeenth century extreme weather, like eclipses, was still an expression of “wonder” or God’s will.  The winter of 1683-84 was an especially wonderful one, with the occurence of the “Frost Fair” enabled by the rarely frozen Thames River.  Nearly 20 years earlier, the amazing Robert Hooke, natural philosopher, mathmetician, architect, and the Surveyor of the City of London after the Great Fire, published amazing images of wonderful snowflakes in his Micrographia.


And finally today.  The view from my bedroom window:  looking westward on Chestnut Street, Salem, Massachusetts on the shortest day of 2010.

Celestial Happenings

The last lunar eclipse to occur on the Winter Solstice was in 1638—just a few years later this pamphlet by William Lilly (from the British Library’s Images Online Collection) heralded another “starry messenger” during the English Civil War:

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