Monthly Archives: June 2011

Pirate Colors

For various reasons (time spent on an island in the middle of the Atlantic, teaching a lot of maritime history this summer, popular culture, news) I’ve been thinking a lot about pirates lately.  Pirates were (and are) violent outlaws, so it is interesting to trace the increasing romanticization and trivialization of their image over the modern era.  The transformation of the pirate from thug to dashing, colorful rogue began in the nineteenth century, when a succession of Robin Hoodesque pirate representations were embraced by an apparently eager audience.  From Byron’s 1814 poem The Corsair, to the incredibly popular Pirates’ Own Book (1837) by George Elms and  Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance (first produced in 1879), a decidedly less menacing pirate emerged than that of the prior “Golden Age” of piracy (roughly 1650-1730).  This characterization continued in the twentieth century with books (including images) like Howard Pyle’s Pirates Book (1921) and Raphael Sabatini’s Captain Blood (1922).  And so the archetypal pirate emerged, along with his archetypal accessories, including the ” Jolly Roger” flag, with its intimidating  skull and crossbones against a black background.

In an article in the Design section of the New York Times last month (highlighting a new exhibition on Captain Kidd at the Museum of London Docklands), Alice Rawsthorn observes that the adoption of the skull and crossbones was “an astonishingly successful exercise in collective branding design”, but it took western pirates a while to get there, and it seems that there were quite a variety of pirate flags out there on the high seas even as the Jolly Roger took hold.  Before 1700 pirates flew plain black or red (“bloody”) flags, and in the eighteenth century there was an array of emblems out there, many including an hourglass to broadcast the message that your time is limited if you mess with us.  The beautiful 1929 book Scourge of the Indies.  Buccaneers, Corsairs, and Filibusters  by Maurice Besson includes two variant pirate flags among its many illustrations.


I believe that the first Jolly Roger flag appeared in the foundational history of piracy, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson (a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe or perhaps a man named Nathaniel Mist).  This book was first published in London in 1724 and seems to have been almost continually in print for the next century, so the image of the skull and crossbones (below in the background of the illustration of the “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet) became very recognizable.

Now-standard pirate flags in a host of images from the  nineteenth and early twentieth century in the Library of Congress:  a theater handbill from 1833 illustrating the actor Billy Campbell in his Blackbeard costume, the title page of an 1845 Boston pamphlet about the female pirate captain Fanny Campbell, a propaganda cartoon from World War One, in which German Admiral Alfred von Turpitz bears down on New York with his Jolly Roger, and a Depression-era playbill for a performance of the Pirates of Penzance.

Finally, some very colorful pirates, fictional and real but equally dramatic, from twentieth-century collectible cigarette cards in the collection of the New York Public Library.  The flag card dates from the last era of this popular genre of ephemera, the 1960s.


Streets of St. George

We just returned from a quick visit to Bermuda, where we spent most of our time at the eastern end of the archipelago in the town of St. George and its environs.  The English first settled this part of Bermuda in the early seventeenth century, after a shipwreck in 1609 established its potential as a way station en route to Virginia.  Paradoxically, both Bermuda’s strategic location and its relative remoteness seem to be central factors in its history.

St. George is named after Sir George Somers (1554-1610) and the archipelago was briefly referred to as the Somers Isles.  Somers had been an admiral in the ongoing Anglo-Spanish wars and was working for the Virginia Company in charge of a fleet sent to aid the struggling and starving Jamestown Colony when his ship the Sea Venture  foundered on the rocks of Discovery Bay.  Somers and his fellow castaways, about 150 people (and a dog), remained onshore for 10 months, during which they built two ships and several buildings which established the town of St. George and the colony of Bermuda.  After proceeding to the mainland to complete his mission and replenish Jamestown, Somers returned to Bermuda where he promptly died, apparently leaving instructions to bury his heart on his island and return his (pickled) body to England.  The Somers saga might have been one of the inspirations for Shakespeare’s contemporary play The Tempest, in which the hypothetical island setting is called the “Bermoothes”.  Below is Somers’ portrait, from about 1605 by an anonymous Dutch painter, which I have always admired not so much for its technique but for its projection; Somers seems like such a forthright man of the moment, a real maritime adventurer with no aristocratic airs.


And now for some of my views of St. George:  a storm coming into the harbor, steps along Somers Wharf, some street scenes and St. Peter’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in North America.

Some fauna and flora:  cats on a scooter, a chameleon-like lizard, a chartreuse plant whose name I do not know, and rosemary in the seventeenth-century garden of the Bermuda Perfumery:

And finally, the “Unfinished Church” at twilight, Fort St. Catherine and its beach, and a “Bermuda sloop” in an 1831 painting by John Lynn and off the fort on Sunday.


Lady Slippers

It is an exciting week in the garden as the Lady Slippers have made their appearance.  About a decade ago my friend Rebecca, who was helping me set up my garden and teaching me how to garden at the same time, purchased a single slipper (Cypripedium calceolus) at the annual plant auction at Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Massachusetts for the princely sum of $90.00, if I remember correctly (which was about a third of my garden budget for the whole summer).  Now I have SEVEN lady slippers!  With apologies for my lackluster plant photography, here they are, in context and close-up.

As a bonus here is an illustration of a Cypripedium from James Sowerby’s 36-volume English Botany (1790).  While wildly plentiful in Sowerby’s time, yellow lady slippers have been endangered in Britain until just recently.


Cats Modern and Medieval

Since the weather has turned so dramatically summer-like over the past week, I’ve spent a lot of time in the garden, generally accompanied by a cat or two.  My own cats, Darcy and Moneypenny, are primarily indoor cats, but our garden is pretty sheltered so I let them out in the summer and they hang out there.  They have lots of company, as cats like our garden for the following reasons:  1) I have used catnip very liberally as a border plant; 2) our garden serves as a cat “highway” to the park across the street, and; 3) we are one of the few households on the street which doesn’t have a dog.  So there is generally a cat or two back there, particularly on sunny days.  Below is my big tabby Darcy lying on the deck, Moneypenny lying on the bricks, and my neighbors’ cat (Lord of the Garden and King of the Street) surveying his domain.

When I compare these modern cats to their medieval predecessors, it occurs to me that this is an animal that has drastically improved its standard of living over the centuries.  Medieval cats were clearly not pets, and they did not just lie around in the sun; they had working lives.  Looking at the images in medieval bestiaries from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries in the manuscript collections of the British Library, the Bodliean Library, and the Getty and Morgan libraries, it is clear that while dogs served as companions (as well as hunters), cats existed solely to kill mice and rats.

A leashed companion and working cats, all from the British Library digital catalogue of illuminated manuscripts:

From the Northumberland Bestiary (mid-12th century) at the J. Paul Getty Museum:

A trio of cats from the Aberdeen Bestiary(c. 1200) at the University of Aberdeen is below, which is accompanied by this great caption:

The cat is called musio, mouse-catcher, because it is the enemy of mice. It is commonly called catus, cat, from captura, the act of catching. Others say it gets the name from capto, because it catches mice with its sharp eyes. For it has such piercing sight that it overcomes the dark of night with the gleam of light from its eyes. As a result, the Greek word catus means sharp, or cunning.

Only occasionally (generally in the marginalia of the manuscripts) are cats given a break from catching:  here we have two musical cats (one playing, one listening) and one (inexplicably) encased in a snail shell.


Gothic Salem

Salem is quite Gothic in several ways, but this post is specifically about Gothic buildings.  I spent my early childhood in the picturesque village of Strafford, Vermont, the site of the Senator Justin Morrill homestead, a perfect pink Gothic Revival houses that made quite an impression on me as a child.  Surely you can see why. (Sigh)

As an adult, I think I prefer the austerity of colonial and Federal houses, but Gothic buildings have a lot of charm, and Salem has quite a few nice examples.  Even though Salem was decidedly urban by the time that the Gothic Revival style became fashionable in the middle of the nineteenth century, there are still some structures that are clearly based on the “bible” of the style, Andrew Jackson Downing‘s Cottage residences, or, A series of designs for rural cottages and cottage villas, and their gardens and grounds (1842). Several of these urban Gothic Revival cottages are in the previously pastoral North Salem, including these houses on and around Buffum Street, a lovely street that runs parallel to North Street/Route 114, one of the main entrance corridors in and out of town.

  I’m not sure if this adorable cottage is Gothic Revival or a later “storybook” style from the early twentieth century.  The proportions seem a bit different than those of the verified Gothic buildings, but it’s such a great house I wanted to include it anyway.

The cottage near the entrance to Harmony Grove Cemetery, in the later nineteenth century and today. 

Closer to downtown, there are two Gothic Revival houses facing each other on Broad Street:  The Pickering House and the William Brown cottage.  Actually, the Pickering House is only masquerading as a Gothic Revival house; it is really a “First Period” structure, indeed Salem’s oldest house, built in 1651. Successive generations of the Pickering family have lived in the house until just recently, including Timothy Pickering, Secretary of War and of State in the 1790s, and in the 1840s it was updated or “gothicized”.  The very distinctive Gothic Revival fence was added at that time as well.

The Pickering House and fence today and in 1940 (HABS, Library of Congress), followed by the William Brown House, built in 1847.


The gold standard for Gothic Revival houses seems to be the  Timothy Brooks House on Lafayette Street, built in 1851.  It is certainly a stately mansion, not a cottage, and the architectural details are incredible, including the entryway, windows, and trim. It also looks to be quite closely modeled on Downing’s Design no. II:  A Cottage in the English or Rural Gothic Style.  I believe that it was a single-family house until the 1980s, and then it was converted into condominiums, with additional built units in what might have been a carriage house or other outbuildings.

HABS, Library of Congress, 1953

The Gothic Revival style was suitable for both residential and institutional architecture, and ecclesiastical and educational institutions really embraced it in the mid-nineteenth century. Think of the campuses of Princeton, Yale, and Boston College, to name  just a few.  Two of Salem’s most influential churches, the Unitarian First Church and Episcopal St. Peter’s, rebuilt their very old churches in a remarkably similar (Normanesque) Gothic style at the same time:  the 1830s.  Perhaps friendly competition for the newest, latest (most inspirational?) style?  It is certainly ironic that nearly thousand-year old motifs were considered “new”!

  A Frank Cousins’ photograph of the First Church in the 1890s from the NYPL Digital Gallery and the First Church today; St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

THE KEY DETAIL:  the quatrefoil.  Once you start looking for them, you see them everywhere…..

Quatrefoils from the First Church (above) and St. Peter’s Church (below), a quatrefoil bracket from the Brooks House, and the Pickering House quatrefoil fence.


%d bloggers like this: