Monthly Archives: February 2011

Playing Cards Present and Past

Look at these jokers! I virtually stumbled upon the playing cards of Utrecht art student Felix Blommestijn, and was immediately charmed and curious about this genre of ephemeral art.  Playing cards are very ancient, but it turns out that jokers are a fairly recent (later nineteenth century) American addition to the pack.  To me, these cards look both very modern and very old, my favorite aesthetic.

Another relatively recent addition to the standard card deck is the jack, which replaced the earlier knave. Knaves seem a little bit more intriguing to me, and there were all different kinds of them, depending on which country or “master” produced the cards.  Below are 15th and  early 16th century German knaves of the hares and acorns (Victoria & Albert Museum), followed by more familiar knaves of diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades from the early modern era:

Master of the PW, Cologne c. 1500

Early 17th Century Knave of Diamonds, Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum


Early 18th Century Knave of Hearts, Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum


A Knave of Clubs card from the era of the Scientific Revolution, Parsons Collection, NYPL Digital Gallery

Knave of Spades, c. 1827, Victoria & Albert Museum

 Once we get into the mid-nineteenth century, chromolithography, industrialization, and consumer demand combined to create infinite varieties of playing cards, many of which were marketed in series of collectible cigarette cards like the “beauties” below.  


Another development from the mid-nineteenth century were “dedicated deck” card games, and Salem’s own W. and S.B. Ives Company issued the first popular proprietary game in 1843,  Dr. Busby.  The Ives Brothers had a successful (multi-generational) printing, publishing, and stationary business in Salem and developed games as a sideline, but I think the sideline became the most profitable part of their business.  In addition to Dr. Busby, they also issued the first American board game in 1843, The Mansion of Happiness, and less than a decade later they came out with the very collectible tie-in card game to the recently-published abolitionist novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which is no surprise, as Mrs. William Ives was the President of the very active Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society at the time).  In 1887 the Ives Company was sold to Parker Brother of Salem, and its games began reaching an even larger market.

Dr. Busby 1843 game box and Dr. Busby card; Uncle Tom’s Cabin cards from the University of Virginia’s Multimedia Archive:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture.

Even with industrialization, playing cards continued to be hand-produced as an art form rather than merely merchandise, just as they are today.  One of the most charming examples of vernacular production is the “Nursery Rhymes” suite, produced around 1880 by an unknown maker.  The Jack of Hearts is pictured below, just after he stole the tarts.



Roof Windows and Skylights

Our house is a north-facing double house so light is always in short supply.  The previous owners of the house–several of them–responded by adding what they called “roof windows” and we call skylights.  Roof windows go way back in American architecture, to the eighteenth century, when they were of course made of wood. Thomas Jefferson incorporated thirteen of them into the design of Monticello as he wanted his house to be flooded with natural light as often as possible.  There’s also a great roof window at Hamilton House in South Berwick, Maine, one of  Historic New England’s properties (an amazing house near my hometown of York; check out this great post by The Down East Dilettante for more information and photographs).

We have three roof windows:  one on each of the house’s three floors.  The first- and third-floor windows are in the back part of the house which was added on in intervals after 1860, so they are not that special.  However, the second-floor opening, which is in the original part of the (1827) house, is really interesting.  It cuts through the middle of the house and there is a ceiling window and a 12-foot beadboard light well that opens up to a second window in the roof.  Both windows are attached to and can be opened by a metal rod and a rope (though they seldom are as birds inevitably fly in and around the house).

  Two views of the roof window on the first floor, in the kitchen pantry.

  Three views of the roof window from our second floor.

.  Roof window in the third-floor back hall; more of a conventional skylight. The transom windows on this floor are another way to let in the light.

Hunting around for some images of roof windows similar to my own, I didn’t find much, or actually any.  But I can’t resist showcasing this amazing house in Newburgh, New York which was very well-documented, inside and out, by the Historic American Building Survey.  The William  C. Hasbrouck House , also known as the “Tuscan Villa” was built in 1838 and is (it seems to be still standing on Google maps, though I can only see it from above; it looks like something is happening to the roof!) very impressive, so much so that the HABS photographer Jack E. Boucher takes us all through the house, including up into the attic where we can see how a quite ordinary roof window was turned into a spectacular interior skylight.

Demon-made Rum in Salem


It is no coincidence that in the 1830s and 1840s Massachusetts was both a leading producer of rum and an early center of the Temperance movement.  A third-generation Salem distiller named John Stone built our house in 1827, and 8 years later he found himself at the center of a storm whipped up by a pro-Temperance pastor named George Barrell Cheever, a classmate of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s at Bowdoin College who had recently taken up the pulpit at the Howard Street Congregationalist Church.  Cheever was a passionate Northern reformer, equally zealous about banning alcohol and slavery.  For both theological and moral reasons, he was also quite opposed to the Unitarian Church, which was very well established in Salem.  So John Stone was a perfect target:  not only was he Salem’s largest and wealthiest distiller, but he was Deacon John Stone of the Unitarian First Church in Salem.  An attack on him would be like killing two birds with one stone!

Reverend Cheever in the 1850s, NYPL Digital Gallery

a mid-nineteenth-century Tree of Temperance, producing all good things

In 1835 Cheever published an article in the religious newspaper The Salem Landmark entitled “Inquire at Amos Giles’ Distillery”  about an allegorical dream featuring a deacon/distiller, “a man who loved money, and was never troubled with tenderness of conscience”, whose employees were devils who manufactured not only rum (or “liquid damnation”) but also diseases, murder, insanity and all the evils of the world.  All hell broke out with the publication of this article:  Deacon Stone immediately recognized himself as Deacon Giles (Cheever had inserted many obvious clues in his “dream” story), his foreman attacked Cheever in the street, and a mob descended on the offices of the Salem Landmark.  Cheever was sued for libel, found guilty, and ordered to spend a month in jail (where Nathaniel Hawthorne apparently visited him) and pay a $1000 fine.  There was no sympathy in Salem for Cheever, who was referred to as the “Lord’s Annoited” by The Salem Gazette, but he moved on to bigger and better things: a new post in New York City and a national stage for his pro-temperance, anti-slavery advocacy.  His little story fled Salem as well, and was reprinted as a broadside and pamphlet in New York and elsewhere under variant titles of Deacon Giles’ Distillery.  


Scenes from “Deacon Giles”:  demons in the distillery & dispensing damnation, from Building the Nation:  Events in the History of the United States  from the Revolution to the Beginning of the War between the States, by Charles Carleton Coffin (1882)

And what role does our house play in this story?  Not much of one, except for the fact that we have lots and lots of storage compartments in the basement, including a “secret” one that actually extends under part of the street (or at least the sidewalk; I’ve never ventured into it–too scary).  All of this storage space could have been used for supplies and stores, as Deacon John Stone operated our house as a rooming house while he lived across the street, or just maybe it housed all that rum.

Washington through British Eyes

This weekend I searched through various databases of eighteenth-century British periodicals for critical and comical images of George Washington and didn’t come up with many:  he is clearly not the American nemesis.  The British popular press blamed their own leaders for the humiliating failure of the “American War” (as well as the rest of Europe, allied with the Colonies against Britain) rather than focusing on American strengths.  For cartoon and cariacature representations, the press clung to older images of America, chiefly a young (very scantily dressed) woman and/or a native (always with feathers) American, although as the war progressed the American rattlesnake was increasingly visible.  Here are several very popular cartoons from the beginning, middle, and end of the Revolution from the British cartoon collection at the Library of Congress, with Washington nowhere in attendance:

 The Able Doctor, or American Swallowing the Bitter Draught, 1774:  British Prime Minister Lord North  forces the Intolerable Acts down a bare-breasted America’s throat while the lecherous Lord Sandwich looks up her skirt.

News from America, or the Patriots in the Dumps, 1776:  Lord North again, and a dejected (and again bare-breasted) America.

 The British Lion engaging Four Powers, 1779:  Britain facing the coalition force of a Spanish spaniel, and French cock hen, an American rattlesnake, and a Dutch pug dog.

 The Horse America throwing its Master, 1779:  King George III unseated.

 The Reconciliation between Britannia and her daughter America, 1782.

George Washington appears in only two cartoons that I could find, and only one represents him as a figure of mockery, wearing a dress and referred to as MRS George Washington while lashing  Britain (now herself a submissive woman!).  The  more common depiction of  Washington during the American War is as the dignified Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.  Prints published from 1776 on, and especially from 1780, indicate that Washington had earned the respect of both the British public as well as that of their American “cousins”.

 The Curious Zebra. alive from America! Walk in Gem’men and ladies, walk in, 1778:  Washington holding the tail of the curious zebra, whose stripes represent the 13 colonies.

 Mrs. George Washington.  Bestowing thirteen stripes on Brittania, 1783.





The images below are not strictly British; the first is a profile portrait that was painted by James Sharples in 1796 and copied by his wife Ellen in the following year and the second is the 1908 stamp based on this profile.  The Sharples were English painters who emigrated to America in 1794 and began a family business in which James would paint the initial portrait and Ellen would take and fulfill orders for copies.  This image, copies of which are in the collections of the National Portrait Galleries of both London and Washington, seems to have been quite popular a century ago, but we seldom see it now. Profiles are no longer popular.


Selling Salem: the Rorschach Test

Salem’s new official logo and slogan were unveiled this week at the annual meeting of Destination Salem, the city’s Office of Tourism and Cultural Affairs.  For some time–at least decades and probably a century–there has been an ongoing debate and dialogue among Salem officials, business owners and residents over the marketing of the city, with the central contentious issue being how much emphasis should be placed on the witch trials relative to Salem’s other history.  It seems to me that the advocates for a witchcraft-focused civic identity won the debate long ago (after all, Salem is “Witch City”; we have witches on our police cars and our high-school sports teams are called witches), yet it continues and the designers of the new logo were apparently trying to craft a bilateral, flexible image.  I see only a witch hat, but the (completely unscientific) survey I conducted with my students yielded mixed results:  about two-thirds saw the hat, and a third a sail(boat).  Quite a few students made the interesting comment that people outside of our region would only see a witch’s hat, because that is the image that they expect to see associated with Salem.


Is it a witch’s hat or a sailboat?


  Is it a bat or a butterfly?


Salem’s Orientalist

Orientalist is an anachronistic term these days, but a century and more ago it was an occupational identity and inclination which was much in vogue.  Today is the birthday of one of America’s most respected Orientalists, Salem native Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), scholar, educator, curator, collector and passionate advocate of East Asian art and literature.  After completing his education in Salem and at Harvard, Fenollosa arrived in Japan in 1878 to teach western philosophy at Tokyo Imperial University and quickly became immersed in what became his life’s work:  the preservation and dissemination of eastern culture.

The world in which Fenollosa lived was one shaped by western imperialism but also by cross-cultural interaction.  Most of Fenollosa’s biographers (of which there is a long list; I liked Christopher Benfey’s The Great Wave:  Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan for general context) emphasize his own “diverse” family (Spanish musician father, old Salem shipping family mother) and the fact that he grew up in a city shaped by the profits and products of the China trade.  His personal story seems to represent two post-1870 trends very well:  an increasing American fascination with all things Asian in general and Japanese in particular following the Philadelphia  Centennial Exposition of 1876 and the influx of  “foreign advisors”  into Japan as part of the Meiji government’s twin policies of westernization and modernization.  Fenollosa attended the Centennial Exposition and was apparently impressed with the Japanese exhibits, which showcased traditional craftsmanship in glaring contrast to American industrial production.  He and his new wife, Lizzie Goodhue Millett (descended from two old Salem families) Fenollosa, left for Japan 18 months later.

Japan was in the midst of dynamic change when the Fenollosas arrived.  The long reign of the Meiji (“enlightened”) Emperor Mitsuhito (pictured with his family, below, dressed in a mix of western and traditional clothing) was characterized by rapid industrialization and the material culture on display in Philadelphia appeared to be in danger of disappearing.  It was full speed ahead into the twentieth century.  More than anyone, the prolific printmaker Kobayashi Kiyochika captured the contrast of traditional and modern Japan in the Meiji era; below is a print of a Tokyo journalist covering a regional rebellion in 1877.



Fenollosa fulfilled his teaching responsibilities but put most of his energy into travelling around Japan (with his colleague and translator Okakura Tenshin, to which the Tenshin Memorial Museum of Art is entirely devoted) visiting ancient shrines and temples in Nara and Kyoto and “discovering”, cataloguing and collecting traditional art.  His avocation became official with his appointment to the Ministry of Education and his efforts ultimately led to the foundation of the Tokyo Fine Arts School in 1887.  Two other life-changing  events occurred during this time:  Fenollosa converted to Buddhism and sold his large personal collection of Japanese  art to the Boston physician Charles Goddard Weld, with the condition attached that he donate it to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  Weld did so, and in 1890 Fenollosa and his family returned to Massachusetts upon his appointment as the Museum’s first curator of Oriental art.

The “Boston Orientalists”: Okakura and Fenollosa (left, right in the center) with Edward Morse (left) and William Sturgis Bigelow, 1882

The MFA Boston in Copley Square, 1890s

Fenollosa remained at the Museum of Fine Arts for six years, after which he left for personal and professional reasons.  There was a somewhat scandalous divorce and quick remarriage to southern author Mary McNeill Scott (with whom he worked at the museum), but he was also clearly interested in a more wide-ranging and public scholarly life:  he lectured frequently and began writing on such diverse topics as art education and Japanese theater and poetry.  The turn-of-the-century Orientalist was a geographical specialist, but apparently not a disciplinary one.

Fenollosa was revered in his lifetime, and after.  His  most visible legacy is the large collection of traditional Japanese paintings in the Museum of Fine Art’s “Fenollosa-Weld Collection”, as well as smaller collections in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Brenda Fenollosa, born in Japan, married into the prominent Philadelphia Biddle Family and donated her paintings to the Museum in her father’s memory), and the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian.  Probably he is best seen as a cross-cultural translator and educator; indeed this is the role that was recognized by the Meiji Emperor himself when he inducted Fenollosa into the imperial Order of the Sacred Treasure on the eve of his departure for Boston with the directive (paraphrased by his widow in her preface to Fenollosa’s posthumously-published Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art:  an Outline of East Asiatic Design): “You have taught my people to know their own art; in going back to your own great country, I charge you, teach them also.”  Here in Salem, the most recent, and public, tribute to Fenollosa comes in the form of the custom house plaque commissioned by the present owners of his childhood house.

Photography credits and copyrights:  Ernest Fenollosa circa 1890 (Tenshin Memorial Museum of Art); Images of the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition 1876 (Library of Congress Digital Collections); The Imperial Family (Library of Congress Digital Collections); Kobayashi Kiyochika print, 1877 (British Museum Collections); the “Boston Orientalists”, 1882 (Kevin Nute, “Frank Lloyd Wright and Japanese Art: Fenollosa: the Missing Link”, Architectural History 34 (1991)); The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, circa 1895 (Library of Congress Digital Collections).

Save Sherlock’s House

Actually it’s the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose country house is endangered. Undershaw House, built by Doyle in the Surrey countryside south of London in 1897 for his  invalid wife and family, is threatened by partition and “redevelopment” and an energetic preservation effort has emerged to secure its protection: the Save Undershaw Preservation Trust.  Photographs of the house in 1900 and today are from the Trust’s website and the BBC, along with one showing the Doyle family in residence at the height of a Surrey summer from the New York Public Library. 

Historic Preservation must be a local effort, but often a national, or even global, focus can really help.  Salem has certainly confronted its preservation challenges in the past, from the threatened “Witch House” (which I still prefer to call the Jonathan Corwin House) in the 1940s to urban renewal 20 years later.  Local preservationists were on the front line in both cases, but a timely article by famed architectural writer Ada Louise Huxtable in the New York Times (“Urban Renewal Plan Threatens Historic Sites in Salem, Mass.”, October 13, 1965) certainly helped to prevent the total levelling of downtown.  More recently, Walmart abandoned its plans to build a store on the Wilderness Battlefield in Virginia under pressure from a coalition of local and national preservation organizations, including the Civil War Trust.  I imagine there are voices in Britain saying we have so many old, Edwardian, authors’, country, etc….houses, we can’t save them all  but it looks like a pretty special house to me.

Arthur Conan Doyle sold Undershaw after the successive deaths of his wife and son, but in the two decades that the family was in residence he published several Sherlock stories and novels, including the Hound of the Baskervilles, serialized in the Strand Magazine from 1901-4.  A Strand cover is pictured below, along with one of Sidney Paget’s illustrations from Baskervilles, a sketch of Arthur Conan Doyle at the height of his fame, and–just to establish our Salem interest and connection–the box for Parker Brothers’ Sherlock Holmes Game from 1904.

Vinegar Valentines

Valentines are great examples of the creation of demand, and their first appearance coincides with the emergence and development of the greeting cards industry in the mid-nineteenth century.  Pre-modern romantic expressions were personal and handmade, but from about 1840 on, an increasingly dizzying array of stock sentiments appeared on the market.  Like all ephemera, they reflect lots of things about the time in which they were produced:  print technology, fashions, aesthetics, language.  Valentines of the past expressed social values, but also occasionally social criticism, as in the case of so-called “vinegar valentines” which were sent (I presume anonymously or with a strange sense of humor) to those for whom you did not have warm feelings.

The second half of the nineteenth century was a golden era for commercially-produced Valentine’s Day cards on both sides of the Atlantic, after Mt. Holyoke student Esther Howland received a British valentine and was inspired to start her own card business around 1847, eventually transforming her native Worcester, Massachusetts into “Valentine City”.  My Valentine album starts off with some Howland-inspired creations, but then turns decidedly mean:  targeting spurned lovers, vain women, greedy old maids, cold hearts, and suffragettes.

Valentine Images from Indiana University’s online exhibition “A Flowering of Affection:  Victorian Valentine Cards at the Lilly Library” and the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

The Life of Lincoln

As this weekend marks Abraham Lincoln’s actual birthday, February 12 (as opposed to the consolidated “Presidents’ Day” which seems to be a holiday of convenience rather than commemoration) I sought out some images of his life in the vast collections of the Library of Congress.  In assembling these images, I  focused on his life as opposed to his death, as my initial impression is that many Lincolniana collections are rather macabrely-focused on the latter, constituting a “cult of remembrance” for the martyred President.  I’m more interested in the man than his death, but I did include a photograph of a late nineteenth-century Smithsonian exhibit featuring only Lincoln’s suit and hat.  The photograph of the President, Allan Pinkerton and General McClellan on the battlefield at Antietam in October of 1862 has been reproduced many times and is widely available, but I could not resist including it as it is such a striking image:  the iconic figure of Lincoln with other people.  He is so often alone.

My collection of images is organized chronologically, beginning with the first photograph of Lincoln as a newly elected congressman in 1846-47, through his presidency.  The two crowd photographs are from his first and second inaugurals in 1861 and 1865, and the last two images (oddly clothing-related) are from the later nineteenth century.

Photography credits:  all images but the last two from the Library of Congress Digital Collections; the remainder from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Animal Love

In advance of Valentine’s Day, some cards which caught my eye while browsing around the web (and one special commission).  I wasn’t on a mission, but they all seem to feature animals–the usual suspects, and one strange beast.  Since the Victorian era, Valentine’s Day cards have developed as a special genre of ephemera all to themselves, and I will have some vintage Valentines coming up later, but for now, cards you can catch.

Big EyesBe Mine Card, Ewe Stole My Heart Card, Valentine Foxes Card, Letterpress Valentine Cow (No. 3),  Crazy Squirrel Love Card, Happy Couple Letterpress Card, Punk Fish in Love Cards, Octo Love Card, “Secrets and Promises” Pencil Sketch by SALEM artist Penelope Neal!

%d bloggers like this: