Monthly Archives: June 2011

After the Fire: Fairfield Street

Another street in Salem that was completely rebuilt almost immediately after the Great Fire of 1914, and which reflects both the architectural styles that were then popular and fire safety concerns, is Fairfield Street, just off Lafayette Street.  With its landscaped front lawns and designated driveways, Fairfield looks like a suburban enclave in more urban central Salem, and its stately architecture reinforces that impression.  With the exception of the  charming Dutch Colonial cottage which leads off below (with its substantive slate roof–I can only imagine what a boon the Fire must  have been the slate roofing industry, and of course fire-retardant asphalt shingles were just taking off too), most of the houses on Fairfield Street are Colonial Revival or Arts and Crafts Foursquare Houses built of brick, concrete or stucco: they are fortresses against future fires.

The doorway of the newly-built house above, from Frank Cousins’ Colonial Architecture  of Salem (1919).  Cousins singles out Fairfield Street as an example of the ongoing popularity of Colonial architecture, and particularly praises those architects who include details from Salems old houses in their plans.

Cousins particularly liked these last two brick houses, which he found evocative of Chestnut Street’s Federal mansions in  terms of both details and composition, more so the former, I think; it was all in the details for him.

After the Fire: Orne Square

At the southern edge of the McIntire Historic District lies a mini-neighborhood of semi-detached English cottages, built of concrete in the early twentieth century rather than Cotswold limestone in the seventeenth.  This is Orne Square, laid out just after the great fire of 1914 under the auspices of the Salem Rebuilding Commission, with financing from the Salem Rebuilding and Phillips Trusts, and with inspiration from the dynamic Arts and Crafts and English  “Garden City” movements so popular at the time.

Each of the eight houses features two separate three-story townhouses with separate entrances and side and back gardens; there are common parking, lawn and garden areas as well.   The elbow-shaped Orne Square is a Salem public street, not a gated community, but  I don’t think there is a lot of cut-through traffic.  It’s a great little neighborhood.

Just around the corner from Orne Square is another English Arts and Crafts double cottage, a perfect example of the type of “reform housing” that the Boston architectural firm Kilham and Hopkins was proposing for other fire-ravaged areas of Salem.  This firm was waging a war on triple-deckers all over eastern Massachusetts, and their consultations and advocacy resulted in strict guidelines for the rebuilding of Salem and a strong preference for side-by-side double houses rather than multi-story buildings.  I’m not sure if Kilham and Hopkins are responsible for the Orne Square houses, but they did design and build a neighborhood of  “low rent brick cottages”   in North Salem, as well as the Woodbourne section of Jamaica Plain in Boston.

Architectural Forum 28 (1918)

Plans for Woodbourne

I’m reaching here for a bit more geographical and architectural context, but Orne Square seems like a smaller, less commercial version of the Hydrostone neighborhood of Halifax, Nova Scotia, constructed after the devastating 1917 explosion and fire following the collision of a French munitions ship and a Norwegian supply ship in the harbor during World War One.  I’m visiting there later in the summer, so I’ll see if the comparison stands.

Postcards from the Fire

On June 25, 1914 an industrial fire broke out in the northwest corner of Salem, in a neighborhood of tanneries called “Blubber Hollow”, and marched aggressively and incessantly towards the Harbor, consuming more than 1300 buildings along the way.  This was the great Salem Fire of 1914, which turned 253 acres of the city into an apocalyptic wasteland.

The fire received national attention, obviously, and there is a very good visual and documentary record of it, to which I can’t add too much of value.  I am struck, however, by how many postcards of the fire and its aftermath I come across.  So many survive, there must have been hundred of thousands produced.  At first I thought this was oddly sensationalistic:  can you image buying a postcard of the recent devastation from tornadoes in the Midwest and western Massachusetts?  Or of people standing knee-deep in water in a post-Katrina New Orleans?  Then I realized that in this pre-TV news era postcards must have functioned as much as news as greetings.

Particularly poignant, I think, are the before and after images of  the St. Joseph’s complex, the recently-completed church that was at the heart of the French Canadian neighborhood (now The Point) which was so devastated by the Fire.  Images of an unrecognizable Derby Street are also pretty powerful, especially the one below, with the eighteenth-century Miles Ward house standing alone.

Lots of the extant postcards feature the aftermath of the fire with somewhat dazed Salem residents and various military officials standing guard over the ruins.

I wish I had a better image of Lafayette Street, Salem’s grand nineteenth-century boulevard, half of which was destroyed by the fire.  Here’s a few “before” images, but I only have one “after”.

A Frank Cousins stereoview of Lafayette Street, circa 1900, NYPL Digital Gallery

Lafayette Street, 1910

Leach and Lafayette Streets after the Fire

If you walk down Lafayette Street today, you can see what was taken and what survived.  A century ago, people wanted to rebuild very quickly after a disaster, and they managed to do so, largely with private financing and insurance payments rather than government programs.  Given the timing of the disaster, 1914, a Colonial Revival Salem emerged in the wake of the fire, complementing the colonial and federal buildings in the parts of the city that were somehow (miraculously) spared.

Paper Plates

When looking into the life of a Revolutionary War-era Salemite named Ezra Northey I came across of bookplate of his and in typical fashion, went off on a tangent, chasing ex libris plates through the centuries.  Book plates are interesting because they exist at the intersection of art history and book history, reflecting changing style motifs like any other art form. I am no expert, but the vast majority of them (before 1800) seem to have heraldic formats, with coats of arms and mottos.  After all, these are personal statements:  ex libris (from the library of …..insert name).  These heraldic bookplates seem rather formulaic to me; I prefer the simple and pictorial styles of the early nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The bookplate is by no means a modern invention, however; it actually predates the book but really takes off in the sixteenth century when Renaissance engravers like Albrecht Durer crafted very individual images for their patrons.

The bookplates below begin with a Durer example and then jump forward to Northey’s 1795 plate.  Except for where noted, they are all from digitized collections from two Delaware libraries: the Winterthur Library and the William Augustus Brewer Bookplate Collection at the University of Delaware.

Albrecht Durer's 1524 bookplate for Willibald Pirckheimer, Victoria & Albert Museum.

I included the armorial bookplate below, from Winterthur, just because I like the motto, which loosely translates to:  neither overjoyed nor overanxious.  A nice outlook on life!  Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831) was also an important Revolutionary War-era publisher and founder of the American Antiquarian Society.

The late nineteenth-century bookplate of another prominent Massachusetts man, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:

After 1900, the pictorial style really dominates in bookplates, and all the early twentieth-century aesthetic styles appear:  Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts, Art Deco and expressionism.  Below are examples from 1900-1932, all from Winterthur except the last:

Neil Wilkie’s 1912 bookplate by Edith Blake Brown.

The striking bookplate of children’s book illustrator Milo Winter, 1925.

N. Hutchinson's bookplate by George David Perrottet, 1932. Australian Library of Art, State Library of Queensland.

For far more expert information and some great images of bookplates, see Salem bookseller Thomas Boss’s website:  Thomas G. Boss Fine Books.

Weekend Redcoats

There was a brief British occupation in Salem this past weekend as a joint collaboration between the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and Minute Man National Historic Park brought Redcoat reenactors to Derby Wharf.   On Saturday, General Thomas Gage and his troops arrived and made camp, in commemoration of then-Governor Gage’s short-lived attempt to move the capital of the Massachusetts colony to Salem (away from very agitated Boston) in the summer of 1774.  This plan was unsuccessful, and the resistance to it set in motion the events of the following year.  Gage wasn’t in Salem for very long.  The 2011 Redcoats departed on Sunday afternoon.

Tents for the troops.



On guard.

Rachel and the Redcoats.  SSU history major Rachel Kaye and British officers in front of General Gage’s tent.

  General Gage at rest.

Trendy Tobacco

The Peabody Essex Museum‘s exhibit Golden: Dutch and Flemish Masterworks from the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection closes this weekend after a spectacular run.  I think that Dutch “Golden Age” paintings are so popular because of the combination of technical precision and enhanced intimacy; both the familiar and the exotic are rendered with such artistry that one is drawn into the painting in a very absorbing way. I went to the Museum several times this past week to find crowds of people sneaking in their last peaks and individuals studying every little detail of the paintings so intently (with supplied magnifying glasses) that they appeared to be almost falling into the frames.

Everybody’s (including Mr. van Otterloo’s, apparently) favorite painting from the exhibition seems to be a small portrait of a white sleeping dog, with its hair and form so precisely and warmly rendered that you really did want to reach out (in) and touch him.  Because I like things, my favorite paintings were the still-lifes, and one still-life in particular, Willem Claesz. Heda, Still Life with Glasses and Tobacco, 1633.

Willem Claesz. Heda, Still Life with Glasses and Tobacco, 1633. Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection. Image courtsey Peabody Essex Museum

Tobacco (and its accessories) was such a popular subject matter in the mid-seventeenth-century Low Countries that a subgenre of still lifes, toebakje, was entirely devoted to it.  Indeed, tobacco can be seen in all sorts of  Golden Age paintings, in the background, in the foreground, as a primary or ancillary activity.

Pieter Claesz, Tobacco Pipes and a Brazier, 1636. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Adriaen Brower, The Smokers, 1636. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tobacco was the most popular “American” plant in early modern Europe not only because of its addictive qualities but also because of its perceived medicinal virtues.  The esteemed Spanish physician Nicolas Monardes, whose work was published in England under the title Joyfull Newes out of the New Found World in the 1570s, wrote enthusiastically about the virtues of tobacco,”an herb of great estimation”, that can “reduce wounds to perfect health” and cure “griefs” of the head, breast, joints, stomach, teeth, and women.  Due to the influence of Monardes and other “medical” writers, as well as that of Sir Walter Raleigh who returned from America a fierce (addicted) advocate of tobacco, smoking became particularly popular in England.  Instead of lovely oil paintings, illustrations from popular pamphlets illustrate the general English acceptance of what Ben Jonson called that tawny weed.

Illustrations from Anthony Chute’s Tabaco (1595), Richard Braithwaite’s The Smoking Age (1617), George Glover’s Fowre Complexions (1630), and The Sucklington Faction or (Sucklings) Roaring Boyes (1641)

Another indication of the popularity of tobacco in England was the protestation of King James I (r. 1603-25) against it.  In his Counterblast to Tobacco, first published in 1604, the King condemned smoking as “a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain,dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.”  The King had his anti-tobacco admirers, but his prescient words didn’t really catch on for another 350 years.

Salem Farmers’ Market

The Salem Farmer’s Market opened its 2011 season yesterday in Derby Square; it will run through October every Thursday from 3-7 pm.  The mood was definitely festive, as the weather was beautiful, and people were clearly happy to see the return of the Market, which gets bigger and better every year.  There were so many vendors, dispensing fruits and vegetables, plants, baked goods and crafts, that they spilled over into the Salem Marketplace alley across Front Street.


Everyone in Salem loves the Farmers’ Market, though I have heard some people say that its location should move around a bit, perhaps to the Common or Essex Street.  I disagree; Derby Square has always been Salem’s marketplace, to which several of the photographs below attest.  So here’s the Square about a century ago (with Old Town Hall functioning as the “Market House”), a month ago with a storm coming in, and yesterday.

Lady’s Mantle, Roses and Rue

My garden is more plant-based than design-oriented, and I generally choose plants for their interesting historical associations rather than their appearance.  This doesn’t mean that if a plant is really ugly I won’t yank it out–despite its historical relevance (take that, horehound); I have some aesthetic sensibilities.  Three attractive plants that are in full flower now and have been used in all sorts of interesting ways in the past are Lady’s Mantle, roses, and rue.

Lady’s Mantle (alchemilla mollis or vulgaris) is a really common, self-seeding plant which some gardeners perceive as a weed, but I love everything about it:  its large and soft gray-green leaves and chartreuse flowers, its neat habit, and its history.  It forms a nice border in the shade garden pretty quickly, and blends in nicely with lots of other plants.  Here are some views of one of my shade borders, comprised of lots of Lady’s Mantle, sweet cicely,white baneberry, astilbe, and daylillies.

Like most herbs, Lady’s Mantle had lots of medicinal uses in the pre-modern past, but its Latin name, alchemilla, represents the role it played in alchemy, which moved out of the secretive laboratory and into the garden in the sixteenth century.  The water preserved on its velvety leaves was used for alchemical distillations, which amplified the healing powers of plants.  The common name denotes a multi-layered feminine association:  the “Lady” refers to the Virgin Mary (not just any lady!), the “mantle” to an women’s cloak, and (in the words of Nicholas Culpeper, a seventeenth-century physician and author of The Complete Herbal), “Venus claims the herb as her own”, meaning that it had long been perceived as a cure-all for the full range of “women’s problems”.

The Alchemical Garden. Theseaurus of Alchemy, 1734, Wellcome Library, London

Lady's Mantle illustration from Otto Brunfels' Herbarium, c. 1530

In addition to its aesthetic virtues, the rose was also used in both medicinal and cosmetic (as well as culinary) preparations in the medieval and early modern eras.  I can’t tell you how many rosewater recipes I’ve come across from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  For some reason, I’ve never been able to find the rose variety that was prized the most for its medicinal properties in this era, the Rosa Gallica Officinalis (also called the “Apothecary’s Rose”).  Instead, I just have really pretty, dependable David Austin roses.  Though I generally refrain from showy plants in the garden, this orange rose bush (whose name I can’t remember), blooms all summer long.

Symphorien Champier, Rosa Gallica, Paris 1514. Wellcome Library, London

Rue (Ruta Graveolens or “Herb of Grace”) was perceived as an extremely important plant before 1800 largely because of its role as a “counter poison” against the plague.  To quote Nicholas Culpeper again, rue “causes all venomous things to become harmless”; it was pretty powerful stuff.  It’s neat to have in a plague cure in your garden, but I love rue because it’s so beautiful, with the same soft colors as Lady’s Mantle:  silvery gray leaves, yellow-chartreuse flowers.  It’s a willowy shrub, that can work in lots of (sunny) places.  Here’s rue, along with lots of other herbs (skullcap, avens, dill, flax, calamint) at the front of my sunny perennial border, and in a fourteenth-century herbal.  The attendant snake is meant to accentuate the plant’s anti-venomous virtues.

British Library MS Egerton 747

I wanted to sneak one more shot of the shade border here from the other perspective, but somehow how an orange kayak snuck in here!

The Medieval World

The medieval world was ROUND, smaller than in actuality, and largely comprised of a contiguous land mass.  It was not FLAT.  Please excuse my pedantic capital letters, but this week my graduate seminar is examining Columbus historiography, which raises the ongoing issue (not topic) of the so-called “Flat Earth Myth”, the continuing false belief that the majority educated opinion in the medieval “Dark Ages”  was that the world was flat.  Historians have been writing about the Flat Earth Myth for quite some time (see Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth:  Columbus and Modern Historians), but despite their assertions it is still with us:  every year I poll the incoming freshmen in my World History class about what they were taught in primary and secondary school and every year more than half of them raise their hands in support of the medieval flat earth.

The novelist and Columbus biographer Washington Irving is generally given credit for inventing the flat earth, to use Russell’s title term. Irving’s multi-volume Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus accentuated the New World heroism of Columbus by emphasizing the “darkness”  of the Old World from whence he came.  First published in 1828, it remained the definitive text on Columbus until the publication of Samuel Eliot Morison’s Admiral of the Ocean Sea more than a century later, influencing and infusing several generations of American history textbooks and students.  Given this text’s popularity, it is easy for me to understand why a student entering college as late as 1950 might have believed in the flat earth myth, but not 2011.

An 1873 likeness of Washington Irving from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, his famous house “Sunnyside” in Tarrytown, New York (HABS, Library of Congress), and an illustration from an 1897 edition of The Life and Works of Christopher Columbus.

Many medieval sources, literary and graphic, exist that demonstrate the prevailing belief in the spherical earth, and these sources have been analyzed and discussed at length. Probably the greatest of medieval philosophers, Thomas Aquinas, asserted that “the world is round” in the same way that we might say “the sky is blue”.  It should be common knowledge, but apparently it is not, so here are a few images to reinforce the round medieval world.  I’m beginning, appropriately, with scenes of instruction from the early fifteenth century and then proceeding chronologically.

A geography master from  a fifteenth-century version of the De proprietatibus rerum (a medieval encyclopedia of sorts) of Bartholomeus Anglicus (British Library MS Royal 17 E III):

God holding a very round world, from an Aristotelian manuscript (BL MS Harley 3487, mid 13th century):

Angels turning the (again, round) world on its axis, from Matfres Eymengau de Beziers, Breviari d’amor (BL MS Harley4940, early 14th century):

God creating the Heavens and Earth, and land and sea, from the Bible Historiale of John the Good, circa 1350 (BL MS Royal 19 D II).  This strikes me as a lot of water for a medieval world map, and of course the medievals have no problem illustrating a not-quite transcendent God!

Some images from a fifteenth-century manuscript of thirteenth-century theologian Gautier de Metz’s popular Image du Monde (BL MS Harley 334), with (again) a very human-like God creating a very round earth:

Finally, a great image of the elemental round earth from John Gower’s Vox Clamantis, circa 1400.  The manuscript is from the University of Glasgow Library (MS Hunter 59) and the image is from the Library’s web exhibition Chaucer and his World.  Obviously medieval intellectuals possessed lots of incorrect and strange (to our eyes and minds) geographical ideas, including a complete lack of knowledge about the soon-to-be-discovered western hemisphere, but the flat earth was not one of them.

The Bodleys visit Salem

I picked up a nineteenth-century children’s book at a flea market a couple of weeks ago entitled The Bodleys on Wheels by Horace E. Scudder.  It had a neat cover, and as some of my previous posts have indicated, I like Victorian illustrations.  Actually, the cover of this book looks much more modern, but it was in fact published in 1879.  Between the covers the pictures were pretty standard, but the story was charming, and as there was a chapter on Salem I snatched it up.

Apparently there is a whole series of Bodley books, published in the 1870s and 188os, narrating the travels of the Bodley family of Boston:  Mr. and Mrs. Bodley and their three children, Nathan, Philippa and Lucy. Sometimes college-age Cousin Ned comes along.  The Bodleys on Wheels traces the family’s travels through the old towns of Essex County, north of Boston, including Salem.

The book opens with the family’s traditional New Year’s Eve custom, a collective recitation of Paul Revere’s Ride, and this sets the tone for the rest of the story. The Bodley children know the real and poetical stories of Paul Revere well.  As spring approaches, Mr. and Mrs. Bodley inform the children that the destination for this year’s road trip will be the North Shore, and much excitement and preparation ensues:  studying, drawing and coloring maps, preparing itineraries.  Phillipa occasionally rides around the Boston brownstone  on a broom in imitation of a Salem witch, but by the time they get to the old port the children are really only interested in seeing the birthplaces of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the famous historian William H. Prescott!  No tacky witch museums for them ( fortunately there weren’t any tacky witch museums yet, but one get the impression that even if there were, the Bodley family would have abstained).  Of course, being children, they are interested in obtaining some of Salem’s famous candy, Gibralters and black-jacks.

While in Salem, the Bodleys stay with the family of Mr. Bodley’s college classmate, Mr. Bruce, whose house is full of “antiquities”.  He also provides many telling quotes about Salem and its perceived history and culture at the time.  He observes that “here in Salem we’re all as old as we can be when we were born” (???), that Hawthorne “connects the old and new for us”, and that while the port is “sleepy” now, Salem’s trade to the East was so active back in the day that the eastern “heathen” thought SALEM was a country rather than a city.  You can read the entire quotation above; it’s a sentiment that I’ve heard time and time again (minus the heathen characterization), even in the Salem of today.

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