Monthly Archives: January 2011

An Assemblage of Owls

Inspired by news and a great photograph of a big barred owl that has recently taken up residence in south Salem, I assembled a little group of owls on my bedroom mantle.  Several of these guys come from the two connected shops on Front Street in Salem,  Roost and the Beehive, which I stop by with increasing regularity.  I love printed and figural representations of birds and animals and am rather enthusiastic about displaying them in our home:  elephants are always around —to the point of near-tackiness and maybe beyond—and I’ve gone through bear, deer, swan, snail, and rabbit phases with little restraint.  I’m thinking about foxes for the future.  I had a brief bout with owls this fall and thought I was done, but apparently not.  A passing glance at that great owl on McKinley Road drove me to retrieve my “owl box” in the basement and to my favorite medieval bestiary, the “Salisbury” Bestiary from circa 1250, for the images below.  To illustrate the increasingly realistic (and scientific) perception of the owl, I’ve also included images from Konrad Gessner’s Histories of the Animals (1551-58), one of my favorite teaching texts because of its beautiful woodcut illustrations and its nascent empiricism, and John Gould’s more recent Birds of New Guinea and the Adjacent Papua Islands (1875).

Envisioning Essex Street

Essex Street has been Salem’s main street since its foundation.  The architectural diversity of the streetscape in its residential sections is amazing, and in its heyday (before the building of the Northshore Shopping Center in 1958) its commercial blocks drew people from all over the region.  I think there must have been several Essex Streets for some time, but this partition was formalized with the creation of the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall in the 1970s–barring cars from the city center.   The attitude of Salem’s residents towards the mall strikes me as rather intense; people either love it (or love the concept of  it but think it needs updating) or hate it, and that’s why I’m looking forward to tonight’s  “Essex Street Pedestrian Mall Visioning and Conceptual Design Meeting“.  This is the first of four scheduled public forums on the street’s rehabilitation and potential redesign sponsored by the City of Salem, the  Salem Partnership, and the Peabody Essex Museum. For some historical perspective on this envisioning process, here are some images of central Essex street, past and present.

First up are two stereoviews produced by George K. Proctor of Salem of Essex Street  from Washington Street or Town House Square and one of the East India Marine Hall further down the street.  These were published in the 1870s and 1880s and can be easily accessed at the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery.

The most popular perspective, from Washington Street across from the Daniel Low building, looking east along Essex Street from the 1880 Visitors’ Guide to Salem.

WIRES AND TRACKS:  a very connected Essex Street below, again viewed from Washington Street/Town House Square, in a photograph issued by the Detroit Publishing Company in the first decade of the twentieth century(Library of Congress Digital Collections).

BUSTLING BUSINESSES:  A series of postcards, all dating from the early and mid-twentieth century.  Salem had at least three movie theaters along several blocks of central Essex Street, all gone now, but fortunately we have the Cinema Salem on Church Street.  What I notice most about these postcards are big stores (Woolworth’s), signs (Chop Suey!), awnings, and crowds.

Two views of Essex Street in the present, from the perspective of the silly Samantha-from-Bewitched statue in Town House Square.  Note that the pedestrian mall is not closed to all cars.

Salem Items on Etsy


In the tradition of Daniel Low & Company, Salem continues to inspire artists, collectors  and craftspeople!  Here are some items that caught my eye during a recent Etsy browsing session:

Small Town Salem from Above   by Etsy seller lbarryphoto

Vintage Parker Brothers “Authors” Game   by Etsy seller sadieolive

Salem 1692 Cotton Pillow   by Etsy seller alexandrarosie (which I nabbed for myself but maybe she can make more) 

“Scarlet Letter” Hand Marbled Paper  by Etsy seller mymarbledpapers

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



Of Wicks and Wiring

Sandwich Glass Whale Oil Lamp, c. 1830-40, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Our house was built in 1827 and “improved” in several phases in the mid- and later nineteenth century, so I’ve chosen period-appropriate lighting throughout in the form of electrified whale-oil, camphrene, and kerosene lamps.  It is relatively easy to find both the antique lamps (so many were made!)  and the requisite wiring kits and do the wiring yourself—remembering to proceed in a “non-invasive” manner as the venerable lady from whom I bought my first lamp instructed me and which several YouTube videos illustrate.  I have both clear and colored-glass lamps,  as well as cut-to-clear and etched examples, but my most prized possessions are those made from pressed glass made at the Sandwich Glass Works (1825-1888) on Cape Cod.

Boston & Sandwich Glass Company Manufactory circa 1830, Sandwich Glass Museum

Some of my lamps are below, with a clear  “heart and moon” Sandwich glass lamp in front.  This is also the earliest lamp; the marble bases and brass columns of the others are indicative of the change from whale oil to kerosene after about 1850.  Kerosene, following the earlier introduction of the cylindrical wick and chimney by the Swiss inventor Ami Argand, really revolutionized the interior lighting industry because it was so much cheaper than whale oil and produced a much brighter light.

As revolutionary as kerosene was, the quest for a cleaner, safer, cheaper, brighter light continued, as illustrated by this 1860 advertisement from the Salem Gazette and ultimately leading to electric lighing.

Past and Future Plants

My Christmas tree is en route to its final destination, the annual bonfire at Dead Horse Beach at Salem Willows, and I am perusing garden catalogues, the focus of every gardener I know in January and February.  I love my White Flower Farm catalogue, which seems to arrive precisely on January 2 every year, as well as those from Perennial Pleasures in Vermont and Select Seeds in Connecticut, but even with its beautiful photographs and substantive descriptions of plant culture I have to admit that it cannot compare to its counterparts of a century earlier in terms of pure aesthetics.  Late Victorian and early twentieth-century seed catalogues are truly works of art, as illustrated by these covers from Boston and Marblehead nurseries, all from the Smithsonian Institution Library.

My Salem predecessors a century or more ago might have purchased their seeds and plants from these local purveyors, but THEIR predecessors had an extremely prestigious horticulturalist immediately in their midst:  Robert Manning, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle and one of  the founders of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.  Manning (1784-1842) maintained a large orchard and nursery in then-pastoral North Salem or North Fields adjacent to his homestead at 33 Dearborn Street (very recently featured on Historic Salem‘s 31st annual Christmas in Salem house tour) which was said to feature over 2000 varieties of fruit trees, half of which were pear cultivars.  He was THE pear and fruit-tree expert, a title that was solidified with the publication of his Book of Fruits:  Being a Descriptive Catalogue of the Most Valuable Varieties of the Pear, Apple, Peach, Plum and Cherry, for New-England Cultures in 1838, a standard work that was frequently reprinted in the mid-nineteenth century under the title The New England Book of Fruit.

Taking Stock

Probate inventories are among the most valuable sources that historians have, offering detailed and even intimate information about the material lives of people in the past.  The inventory of one of Salem’s earliest settlers, the merchant and shopkeeper Captain George Corwin, who was born in 1610, came to Salem in 1638, and died on this day in 1685, is available in a transcribed and accessible form through the Library of Congress‘s digital archive.  Corwin was the father of the more famous (or infamous) George Corwin II, who was the High Sheriff of Essex Country during the Witch Trials, issuing arrest and execution warrants for its victims.  As evidenced by the inventory addendum to his will, Corwin senior was a wealthy man, with considerable property and possessions and a shop and several warehouses  full of stuff (which we would probably classify as “housewares” and  “hardware”) assessed at 5964 pounds, 19 shillings and one penny by his executors.  Through the inventory, one can not only access and assess Corwin’s business life but also gaze into every room in his “dwelling house” and see what clothing, furnishings, and personal possessions were there.  Of particular interest to me is the “red chamber”, furnished with eight “red branched chairs with covers”, a red carpet, and an old “cuperd” covered with red cloth.  The exhibit of a chamber from a 1680 house in nearby Ipswich (where there are more “First Period” houses than anywhere)  in the Metropolitan Museum of Art employs the color and evokes the mood.

Oh Deer!

Why is it that the warm and festive decorations of Christmas look so wilted, glitzy and gaudy in the cold clear light of early January?  One really craves Scandinavian simplicity at this time of year.  I chose a reindeer theme for this year’s holiday decor and now I’ve got alot of deer to pack away, along with ornaments and other embellishments.  In addition to the reindeer head measuring cups from Anthropologie and the John Derian plates on our marble mantles, my favorite reindeer this year is the fabric wall hanging from Middleburg Folk Art Studio.

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