Monthly Archives: April 2011

Doorways (and wreaths) around Salem

For architectural photographers of the early and mid-twentieth century, the doorway shot was a stock image.  Frank Cousins issued many doorway postcards and compiled a portfolio of images in 1912.  A decade later, his fellow Salem photographer Mary Harrod Northend issued Historic Doorways of Old Salem and Samuel Chamberlain included many Salem doorways in his popular New England Doorways in 1939.  As a frame itself, the doorway is an easily framed image, and can serve as the epitome of the architectural style of the entire house.  In the forward to New England Doorways, Chamberlain identifies the doorway (and the fireplace) as “focal points of interest in the early houses, where the builder might forget stern necessity for a moment and indulge in his distinctive desire for ornament.”

Two of Chamberlain’s photographs are below:  the Phillips House doorway on Chestnut Street and the pedimented “shutter door” of the Clark-Morgan House on Essex Street (a great Georgian colonial house which is currently for sale).  The caption below the Phillips House reads:  “Salem is the supreme New England setting for doorways of this formal pattern, which seem to reflect the opulence of Salem’s 19th century clipper ship owners and merchants.”  So here the doorway is not just representing the entire house, but also its location and era.

Indeed, these classic collections of Salem doorways generally include the more opulent mansions of the city, along with older houses and those with literary connections.  My own “harvest of a good many doorway hunting expeditions” (to quote Chamberlain again) therefore includes images of the doorways of smaller, lesser-known, but equally beautiful houses around town.  I was also looking for color and contrast on my expeditions, which are provided by both paint and the springtime wreaths on many Salem doors.

First, two eighteenth-century doorways on either end of Essex Street, with an updated version of the Clark-Morgan house (above) sans its shutter door.

Next, a sampling of doorways (and wreaths) in the vicinity of the House of the Seven Gables and Derby Street.

From the other end of town, a rather random sampling of doorways in the McIntire Historic District. I’ve always been partial to the brick house in the middle photograph, and its entrance its particularly beautiful.  Lots of external embellishment today, including a traditional Massachusetts golden cod.

I can’t resist throwing in a few Chestnut Street doorways:  the dual threshold of a Greek Revival double house, and the elaborate entrance of one of many brick Federal mansions on the street.  I wanted to showcase another shutter door, because there are many in the city, serving as excellent examples of how our predecessors created environmental air conditioning.

Wedding Flowers

 Yes, flower bells rang right merry that day,        

When there was a marriage of flowers, they say

In honor of the royal wedding, I’m featuring a charming Art Nouveau picture book, Walter Crane’s A Flower Wedding.  Described by Two Wallflowers.  Originally published in 1905 by Cassell & Company in London, the book has recently been republished in a facsimile edition to mark the Victoria & Albert Museum‘s current exhibition The Cult of Beauty:  the Aesthetic Movement, 1860-1880 (and perhaps another big occasion?)  I snatched up a first edition years ago, long before I knew what I had.

Walter Crane (1845-1915) was a well-know children’s book illustrator as well as an Arts & Crafts designer of wallpaper, textiles and other decorative arts. I suppose that A Flower Wedding is a children’s book, but it is quite a sophisticated one.  There’s a simple plot line narrating the wedding of “Lad’s Love” (another name for Sweet William)  and “Miss Meadowsweet” in which all the participants and guests are flowers drawn in human form .  Here are the bride’s attendants and mother, along with a very prominent guest, “Good King Henry” (one of my favorite herbs).

And before all of London, they were wed.

Salem Chests

I’m finishing up my Tudor-Stuart course this week at Salem State, and while doing the course prep for a class on the reign of William and Mary (1689-94/1702) I became bored with the rather mundane political narrative (at least compared with the Tudors!) and turned to the style of the eraThen I became a lot more interested, particularly in following the transmission of material culture traditions and motifs from the Continent to England and ultimately to Salem. 

Like its maritime heritage and architecture, the furniture of colonial and Federal Salem serves as a powerful counterweight to its Witch City reputation.  There seems to be two periods of Salem furniture production that are particularly prized by collectors and scholars:  the late seventeenth-century William & Mary era as represented by the Symonds Shops in Salem (c. 1670-1700) and the Federal era, when Salem had some sixty cabinetmakers working to produce furniture for both the domestic and export markets.

The Symonds business was established by joiner John Symonds (c. 1595-1671) who emigrated to Massachusetts from Norfolk, England in the 1630s and carried on by his sons James and Samuel. A Salem street is named after the family.  Their chests have done very well at auction in the past decade or so, with the Pope  “valuables cabinet” selling for 2.42 million dollars in 2000 (and back to Salem it came, to the Peabody Essex Museum).  This chest is pictured below in a photograph from Christies, along with another Symonds cabinet from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The initials of the married couples who owned these chests (Joseph and Bathsheba Pope of Salem Village and Ephraim and Mary Herrick of Beverly), interwoven with the year (1679) of their creation, is carved on the front in the midst of the characteristic Symonds sunburst.

Another Salem Symonds chest, the “Putnam Family Cupboard”, was photographed by Salem’s famed photographer-entrepreneur Frank Cousins and sketched by Edwin Foley in a fanciful “colonial” environment a century ago.  Both images are below, along with one of a so-called “Witch Bureau”, from the Pageant of America series, with the accompanying caption “from the middle drawer of which one of the witches jumped out who was hung at Gallows Hill in Salem.”

The "Witch Bureau", NYPL Digital Gallery

I’m not quite sure about this piece–very square legs compared to the other examples of the era—(and what a provenance!) although somewhat similar to the most recent Symonds piece to be auctioned off, at Sotheby’s this past January, the 1690 “Trask Chest”.

As I finish up my course with Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts, I can’t help but dwell on the dramatic change in furniture style (again, because the narrative history is pretty boring, and all about the War of Spanish Succession):  from solid squares to graceful curves.  Edwin Foley, the author-illustrator of The Book of Decorative Furniture (1909-11), made his way right into the Queen’s bedroom so he could capture her colorful bedhangings and “Queen Anne” highboy and one of Frank Cousin’s interior photographs of the Peirce-Nichols house from the 1890s captured a similar chest.

Frank Cousins and the other advocates of Salem and its colonial architecture, furniture, and decorative arts created a brand that was almost as strong as “Witch City” in the early and mid-twentieth century.  As proof, I offer two advertisements for newer models of Salem chests.


Not Quite All About Eggs

The Library of Congress and White House Historical Association have archives of amazing photographs of the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, a tradition which everyone seems to think began with Dolley Madison (like every social tradition in DC) but is verified to have occurred every year since 1878 (with breaks during the First and Second World Wars) on the south lawn.  Apparently President Rutherford B. Hayes gave refuge to a bunch of Washington children who had been banished from playing their customary Easter games on the capitol lawn, and the tradition began.  The event grew bigger and bigger with each year, and by the 1890s it featured crowds (and consequential crowd control measures), music, and official press releases and photographs.  And so we have our documentary and visual record.  There are two groups of photographs below, one set from the later nineteenth century and another from the 1920s.  These were official photographs, taken by official White House photographers, and as you can see, they contain a message of inclusion and integration while at the same time giving us an intimate view of a familiar event a century ago, more and less.

First, one photograph from 1889 and two from 1898.  None of the children in the photographs below are identified; I can only image that the small Asian child whom everyone is beholding is the son of some visiting dignitary or diplomat.

Next, a group of photographs from the 1920s.  Apparently this is when the First Families started getting really involved in the event.  You can see Grace Coolidge below, with her dogs in 1925 and her pet racoon Rebecca two years later. Great hats all arround, both in 1890s and the 1920s.

Jump forward (and northward) to another neoclassical building with an Easter tradition.  The Salem Athenaeum, a private membership library with a collection that dates back to the eighteenth century, holds a traditional easter egg hunt for its littlest members on the day before Easter.  I was hoping to showcase lots of cute Easter-outfitted children hunting for eggs in the beautiful backyard garden of the Athenaeum, but as everyone in New England knows, this past Saturday was a cold, rainy day.  After a quick hunt by some hearty souls, most of the festivities were moved indoors, and I spent most of the time there perusing the current Mark Twain exhibition.

The "new" Salem Athenaeum in the 1920s

Easter Expressions

I find that I cannot avoid an offering of vintage Easter postcards even though I’m tempted to skip this particular greeting card occasion.  Easter is a fine, joyous (relatively non-commercial) holiday, and you know I love print culture in general and ephemera in particular, but you put it all together and you get too much spring saccharine sweetness:  too many cherubic children, too many chicks, too many eggs, too many flowers, too many bunnies.  The publishers of greeting cards in the “golden age” of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries obviously admired all of these things, but Easter gave them the occasion to showcase all of them together.  It’s just too much.  Easter cards, which were very popular at this time, are a bit like Christmas cards, in that they represent a religious holiday but cannot be too overtly religious and still appeal to a mass and diverse public.  Consequently the religious imagery increasingly fades to the background and cute, secular symbols are placed in the foreground, front and center:  Santa Claus and his reindeer, the Easter Bunny and lots of eggs, particularly BIG eggs.  Unlike cards for the other popular holidays of the time (and now), Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween, Easter cards cannot be funny, or satirical, as they signify such a serious religious holiday.  They can just be cute.

But because Easter cards were popular, and there are so many of them still around from the 1880-1930 period, I did want to showcase a few of the more interesting images.  The huge collection at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery has literally hundreds of cards of brightly dressed children popping out of huge eggs, which I have not included here.  Instead, I’m offering bunnies doing interesting things (generally dressed like humans) and some international examples:  very artistic bunnies from France, and some “Easter witches” from Scandinavia.  Around World War I there were some oddly-militaristic Easter cards issued both in Germany (which had a huge greeting and postcard industry) and America, and I’ve included a few examples of these as well.

Juggling, smoking, baseball-playing bunnies, and an Easter “brigade”,  from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery:

Two German Easter postcards (I assume for the Anglo-American market given the English wording) from the decade before World War One, featuring characters dressed in the distinctive Prussian military uniform.  The juxtaposition of Easter greetings and soldiers seems kind of incongruous to me (especially in the first card, where the soldier-chicks are quite menacing), but at least it’s interesting.

Next up are two vintage Swedish cards featuring the traditional Easter witches or hags (paskkarringar).  There are pre-Christian survivals mixed in the observance of most Christian holidays, and in Sweden (and parts of Finland, apparently) this cultural fusion is revealed most strikingly at Easter time.  On Maundy Thursday, broom-flying, copper kettle-carrying hags flew to Blakulla, the remote Blue Mountain, to pay homage to the Devil (or some pagan God), and then made a quick turnaround to be in Church on Easter Morning!  Swedish children traditionally dress up as paskkaringar two days before Easter, and visit their neighbors’ houses leaving “Easter letters” and requesting treats.  Obviously one impact of this tradition was the production of LOTS of Easter greeting cards.  You can see more here.

Finally, a couple of cards that I just like.  A good old American unembellished, unaccompanied Easter Rabbit, and a pair of nicely-drawn French bunnies with pussywillows.

Renaissance Rabbits

Yesterday I found myself thinking and teaching about the intersection of science and art in the Renaissance quite a bit.  At one point I was lecturing on this topic with the visual aid of an older powerpoint presentation in which I had inserted a slide of Albrecht Durer’s Young Hare as a perfect illustration of observational art.  And suddenly it seemed as if I was seeing this image for the first time, so struck was I by its perfect depiction of an everyday animal.

I keep forgetting; it always stops me in my tracks.  I hope this particular image isn’t becoming too commonplace; Ballard Designs produced a cheap canvas wallhanging last year that both horrified and attracted me.  Rabbits are interesting because they so very familiar and unthreatening, but at the same time useful for social commentary.  In the medieval period, for example, you occasionally see a reversal “hunting hares” vignette in manuscript marginalia, where rabbits are the hunters (of hounds and men) rather than the hunted:  a classic world-turned-upside-down scenario.  In the Renaissance, the rabbit adds a touch of realism and familiarity to paintings and serves as a useful subject for illustrators striving to prove their technical skills.

Below are four fifteenth-century images of rabbits demonstrating the transition from anthropomorphic actors to observed objects, all from the British Library Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts:  baking and jousting (with a snail! on a monkey’s back! And the snail’s monkey is on stilts) rabbits from marginalia, a rabbit illustrating a celestial chart, and a page from an Italian herbal.

British Library MS Lansdowne 451

British Library MS Harley 4379, Froissarts Chroniques

British Library MS Arundel 66, 1490

British Library MS Sloane 4010

After the sixteenth century turned, a succession of Renaissance bestiaries were issued with updated, “scientific” information about the beasts of the world (both ordinary and exotic) and detailed accompanying illustrations.  The most popular Renaissance bestiary by far was the Swiss naturalist (and alchemist) Conrad Gesner’s five-volume Historiae Animalium (1551-1558) which features a charming illustration of a rabbit, shown below, along with an English “cony” from Edward Topsell’s translation and abridgment of Gesner, The Historie of foure-footed beastes (1607).

All rabbits represented sexuality and fertility (then as now), but apparently white rabbits symbolized a special virginal type of fertility, hence its prominent placement in Titian’s Madonna of the Rabbit (1530; the Louvre), shown below. 

An even rarer breed of rabbit, perhaps the victim of some genetic disorder or the predecessor of the legendary jackalope, is the horned rabbit, or “Raurackl”, pictured in a print from the Flemish artist and illustrator Joris Hoefnagel’s Animalia Qvadrvpedia et Reptilia (1575-80).

Even with his more familiar companions, this rabbit presents a rather unsettling image; best to return to where I began, with realistic and reliable representation of the common hare.  This last image (Crouching Hare)  is from my favorite seventeenth-century observational etcher, Wenceslaus Hollar, whose works are accessible at the University of Toronto’s Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection.

Patriots’ Day 1775 and 2011

The Monday closest to April 19, the day of the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, is an official holiday in Massachusetts (and Maine, which was part of Massachusetts until 1820).  As a state employee, I always have this day off, and I commemorate the day by walking along the Battle Road, alone or with others, rain or shine.  It’s a beautiful walk, with woods, pasture, eighteenth-century structures, and the occasional militia man or Redcoat or two.  Like all federal parks (including our own Salem Maritime), the Minute Man National Historical Park is a great resource.

The best visual sources for the events of April 19, 1775 are Amos Doolittle’s engravings, which can be accessed at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.  Doolittle had come up from Connecticut a week or so after the action with his fellow artist Ralph Earle, and they interviewed the participants and sketched the battle sites, ultimately producing four copperplate engravings of which prints were made.  There are definitely inaccuracies and biases in these images, but they remain both intimate and essential records of the day on which the American Revolution began.  Below are Doolittle’s views of the the engagements at Lexington Green and Concord’s North Bridge.

And here are some images of my Patriots’ Day:  the decorated site of the grave of anonymous British soldiers, the marked site of Paul Revere’s capture after his fateful ride, a motley crew in front of the Captain William Smith House, one of the 10 “witness houses” in the park that stood witness to the events of April 19, 1775, the Hartwell Tavern exterior and interior, and the North Bridge.

A couple of days after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Salem printer Ezekiel Russell published The Bloody Butchery of the British Troops; or the Runaway Fight of the Regulars, alternatively known as the “coffin broadside”.  The broadside, which was updated and issued by Russell in at least six versions, presents a compelling image of the coffin-encased colonial victims or “martyrs” of April 19, and thus served (like Doolittle’s engravings) as an inspirational piece of visual propaganda in the early days of the Revolution.

Library of Congress


A New/Old Boston Print Shop

Just in time for Patriots Day here in Massachusetts, an eighteenth-century print shop has opened up in Boston:  the Printing Office of Edes & Gill, located in the Clough House adjacent to the Old North Church in Boston’s North End.  Named for the Revolutionary-era publishers of the Boston-Gazette and Country Journal, John Gill and Benjamin Edes, the print shop will be open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through mid-June and then every day for the summer.  Pictured below are images of printed matter past and present, including Paul Revere’s masthead logo of Britannia with liberty staff and cap, freeing a bird from its cage.

Diminutive Dwellings

Salem is primarily known for its grand Federal mansions, but there are lots of amazing smaller houses in the city as well.  I’m fortunate to live in quite a big house, but it has a small apartment attached to it, and at various times in my life when things were chaotic or complex or troubling I just wanted to shut the big house up and seek sanctuary in the tiny flat, where everything is small-scaled, compartmentalized, and manageable. There’s a whimsical, dollhouse-like, Alice-in-wonderland quality to the apartment, but of course I’ve never lived there, and as we have a very nice tenant I can’t just take up residence on a whim.

There are several small houses in Salem  that evoke similar feelings of simplicity through scale, and they have lots of charming (primarily Dutch) details to boot.  The first house below, built around the time of the American Revolution, is located just off Federal Street in the McIntire Historic District, and the other two nineteenth-century houses are located off Derby Street.

These are pretty tiny houses, with a very small footprint and perhaps one or two rooms on each floor (I cheated a bit with the last one, which has an addition).  In some future post I’ll showcase small old houses (which Salem has in abundance, particularly Georgian “urban cottages”), but these are really small old houses.  Lots of older cities in America and Europe have tiny, narrow rowhouses, often called “spite” houses, built to fill gaps in the existing streetscape, like these two Virginia houses:  the Spite House of Alexandria and the adorable little (again, Dutch) cottage built adjacent to the Old Stone House at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond.

But there’s just something about a tiny freestanding house, like the Salem houses above and Mark Twain’s boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri below, that is particularly appealing.  These houses are so self-contained and self-sufficient, but on such a small scale.  Of course the small house movement, and its even more environmentally correct tiny house movement, have been gathering steam for some time now.  An exemplar of the latter is below, from the Tumblewood Tiny House Company.

Mark Twain House in Hannibal, Missouri, 1933. HABS, Library of Congress

The Crowninshield Elephant

Western encounters with the eastern elephant commenced with the display of its military might in the ancient era and intensified after the Crusades.  Before the eighteenth century, Europeans had few opportunities to see an elephant, but they had been exposed to elephants in lore and legend and script and print for years.  They could read (or hear) about King Henry III’s elephant in the thirteenth century, Pope Leo X’s elephant in the sixteenth century, and the natural histories and travel narratives of the early modern era contained ample references and images to elephants, ever the symbol of the exotic east.  So by the time we get to the later eighteenth century, there was certainly enough curiosity and demand to justify the effort and expense of bringing elephants to urban areas on both sides of the Atlantic where they could be seen (in the flesh) and touched.

Henry III’s Elephant (a gift from the French king Louis IX),from the Chronica Majora of Matthew Paris, c. 1235-59. Parker Library, Corpus Christ College, Cambridge University

Pope Leo X’s Elephant (a gift from the Portuguese king Manuel I), c. 1515, from a drawing by Raphael

John Johnston, Historiae Naturalis, 1657

The man who brought the first elephant to America on April 13, 1796 (215 years ago today!) was Captain Jacob Crowninshield (1770-1805), future member of Congress and Secretary of the Navy appointee and a member of one of Salem’s most dynamic and upwardly mobile families.  Within a century of their arrival in the America at the end of the seventeenth century, the German Kronenschiedt family had transformed themselves into the thoroughly American Crowninshield shipping dynasty, and they were on the verge of transforming their economic power into political and cultural influence in the new nation.  Jacob was one of five Crowninshield brothers who maintained the family shipping business in the Federal era, bringing valuable international goods such as tea and pepper back to Salem.  A Crowninshield ship, the Minerva, was the first Salem vessel to circumnavigate the globe in 1802.  Though the Crowninshield Wharf no longer stands, three prominent Salem buildings still testify to the family’s wealth and influence in Salem’s golden era:  the family’s first Salem homestead, the  Crowninshield-Bentley House (1727-30) on Essex Street, the Crowninshield-Devereaux House (1806, designed by Samuel McIntire) on Salem Common, and the present day Brookhouse Home for Aged Women on Derby Street (1810-12).

View from Crowninshield Wharf, George Ropes Jr.  Peabody Essex Museum

View from Crowninshield Wharf, George Ropes Jr. Peabody Essex Museum

The Crowninshield-Devereaux House in 1941, HABS, Frank Branzetti, Photographer. Library of Congress

By all accounts, Jacob Crowninshield looked upon the elephant as an investment, and it was a good one.  After docking in New York City with the young (2 or 3 years depending on the source; she certainly grew considerably after her arrival in America) Indian elephant which had purportedly cost him $450, he sold her to a Philadelphia man named Owen for $10,000.  Owen and his partners put the nameless elephant on tour, and you can follow her progress up and down the eastern seaboard through the newspapers.  The first notice below is from a newspaper in Aurora, New York, while the illustrated broadside (from the Peabody Essex Museum, but available in digital form at Salem State’s Landmarks of American History website: Becoming American: Trade, Culture and Reform in Salem, Massachusetts, 1801-1861) indicates that the elephant was on display in Boston (and later Salem) in the late summer of 1797, 18 months after its arrival in America.  And after Crowninshield’s elephant, a succession of elephants (Old Bet, Little Bet, Columbus) went on tour until about 1820, after which the Asian elephant was viewed as decidedly less exotic.

Advertisement for the Elephant Columbus in the Boston Columbian Centinel, December 13, 1817

P.S.  If you want to hear another version of the story of Crowninshield’s elephant, you can download “Captain Crowninshield” from the Philadelphia band Cheers Elephant’s cd Man is Nature.


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