Witch City, part one


This is a topic which I will probably return to again and again—hence the “part one” in the post title.  The Witch City to which I refer is not the city of Salem, but rather the image of Salem, which is a different topic altogether, and an important one, I think.  My academic specialty is early modern Europe, an era in which tens of thousands of people were executed for witchcraft, but not one of the cities or towns in which trials occurred have transformed themselves into “Witch City”.  Yet Salem has clearly done so.  Has this been a deliberate development?  I’m not sure, but it is certainly one that intensified over the twentieth century.











Did it all start with a spoon?  There are many factors which contributed to the making of “Witch City”:  the loss of Salem’s commercial hegemony following the Embargo Act of 1807 and the progressive silting up of  its harbor,  Nathaniel Hawthorne’s popularity and personal connection to the Witch Trials, the publication of the first interpretive history of the trials by Charles Wentworth Upham in 1867, the increasing popularity of Halloween, and the parallel marketing efforts of Salem’s civic and business leaders.  The aggressive marketing of what may be America’s first souvenir spoon, the “Witch Spoon”  produced by Daniel Low & Company from 1890, has been the focus of those who have studied this topic and I can see why.  Daniel Low, Jewelers and Silversmiths , operated an impressive retail establishment in the former First Church building in Townhouse Square for over a century (1867-1995), but maintained a national presence through the publication of their annual mail-order trade catalogues which prominently featured their witch wares, not only the spoons but also assorted “witch novelties”.

I don’t want to give the impression that it was all about witchcraft merchandise for Daniel Low & Company; they operated a big business and their production both tapped into and reflected national trends and interests.  Below is their trade catalogue from 1927, illustrating the Colonial Revival interest in all aspects of pre-revolutionary material culture, as well as a 1902 advertisement for a William McKinley spoon, issued in the immediate aftermath of the president’s assassination in 1901.

Historic New England, Collections Access Database




One way to ascertain Salem’s changing  public attitude towards its witch-trial past is to examine guide books and brochures, issued by both private and public entities in increasing numbers from the later nineteenth century.  When comparing the Visitors’ Guide to Salem of 1880 to 1915’s What to Do in Salem the trend is clear:  the former has a few sentences devoted to the “witchcraft delusion” while the latter sets forth a prioritized list of reasons why Salem possesses such historical importance.   At the top is the city’s claim to the title of oldest city in Massachusetts, followed by 2) the “terrible witchcraft craze”, 3) its port and commercial prosperity in the eighteenth century, 4) its “exceptionally active part in the Revolution and War of 1812, 5) Hawthorne, and 6) its colonial architecture.  Clearly the success of the Witch Spoon had influenced both the city’s perception and projection of itself.

Library of Congress



One response to “Witch City, part one

  • Aimee

    They have a BUNCH of those spoons at that antique store in Museum Place mall (and you know, I go there at least once a week and still haven’t figured out what it is called). I never knew the history of those spoons. Very cool!

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