Monthly Archives: September 2011

Cat Scratch-free Couch

Like everyone who has cats in their house, particularly cats who stay indoors, I face the constant threat of shredded upholstery.  I’ve learned to live with it, knowing that I brought my cats into my house and they do have to scratch something, and it is generally a manageable issue, with the strategic placement of scratching posts and double-sided tape.  But there is one couch that my two cats would just not leave alone:  an 1840s Empire sofa, covered in a fine cotton fabric that both they and I love.  I tried all sorts of defensive mechanisms, to no avail; they could always find a patch of fabric to dig their claws into.  So finally I called it a day and called the upholsterer.

The culprits, greeting me at the door.

Their prey.

Since it was only the sides and back of the couch that were clawed, my upholsterer and I came up with a good solution (so far) to this particular problem.  I purchased a very tightly-woven thicker cotton coordinating fabric, and Steve upholstered half of the couch.  I think it looks really cool, and except for a few attempts, the cats have been paws-off.

Keeping their distance.

Sniffing, but not clawing.

Close-up of the two fabrics.

Close, but no clawing.

Safe and sound, for now.

Cape Contrasts

We were on the outer Cape this past glorious weekend for fishing, biking, and looking around.  In Provincetown, I was immediately impressed by the renovation of the new Public Library (the former Center Methodist Church), which is nearing completion.  It looks really beautiful, and provides a striking contrast to another Provincetown building, hopefully just beginning its restoration (there’s an architect’s sign out front).

Some more weekend shots:  a Provincetown pilgrim, piping plover tracks in the sand (looks like a secret code to me!), and the amazing sunset from Race Point on Saturday night.


For this day of remembrance, a poignant painting by a relatively unknown painter memorializing an author who was a celebrity in his day but is not quite so celebrated now.

Stevenson Memorial, Abbott Handerson Thayer. Smithsonian American Art Museum

This painting is a memorial to Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by the New England painter Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921). Like many of Thayer’s paintings after a certain time in his life, a time in which he lost 2 young children and his wife in succession, it is a testament to both a public loss and a personal one. About the only reference to Stevenson here are the letters VAEA, which spell out the place on Samoa where he is buried, while the angel (and her face) appear in several of Thayer’s paintings over his career. The natural death of one author over a century ago and the sudden, collective loss of a decade ago have little in common, but it is this mixture of public and personal grief that I associate with the commemoration of the events of September 11, 2011.

An Abandoned House

I find old abandoned houses captivating, and there is one in Salem that is particularly so.  The 1807 house off Federal Street has so much going for it:  its size, scale, and elegant transitional stature, its generous lot, its location, on a shady traffic-free court bordered by the Ropes Mansion Garden, and its overall sense of (faded) grandeur.  But it is abandoned—or is it?  This summer, the garden was cropped for the first time I can recall, and a building permit appeared in a dusty downstairs window.  Signs of hope for this old house.

I don’t know much about the history of this house, but almost from the moment I came to Salem I heard an interesting anecdote about it.  In the late 1970s, while the Merchant-Ivory film The Europeans was being filmed in the adjacent garden over which the house overlooks, its owner placed anachronistic twentieth-century electronic items in each window in a rather overt protest against the disturbances of filming the mid-nineteenth century period piece.  This story has become an urban legend and it is just that.  Last night, Turner Classic Movies aired The Europeans and I saw it for the first time, including the radio-free and television-free windows of our abandoned house, behind Lee Remick in the garden.

Gently Used

Besides back to school, September is also renewal-through-shopping time. I’m very much a material girl, but this fall’s clothes aren’t really calling out to me, so I’m focused on the house. There are a number of BIG exterior projects that we need to take on soon (chimneys!) but this doesn’t stop me from looking around for interesting interior items. Fortunately, I’m a big believer in consignment/resale shops, and we have some really good ones on the North Shore of Boston.  I love fine antiques, but that’s not what I’m writing about here; I’m referring to furniture that’s anywhere from a hundred to twenty years old (and generally far better made than anything in new furniture stores today) and decorative and household items of a similar vintage. The twentieth century produced tons of stuff, and we can all save money and the planet at the same time by buying it.

In order of vintage, the three shops that I check in on every month or so are: the Stock Exchange in Manchester-by-the Sea, Once & Again here in Salem, and Grace Sales in Marblehead.  New (or old) things come into all three stores on a regular basis, and they all have different strengths in their inventory.  The Stock Exchange (3 Beach Street, Manchester-by-the-Sea) has been around for decades and is always worth the trip. You can find furniture and decorative accessories as well as clothes, and there’s always a pile of perfectly worn oriental rugs in the corner.

And here is my very favorite purchase from the Stock Exchange:  a not-very-old chair made of mahogany according to my upholsterer, purchased for $100, and re-upholstered in a beautiful silk fabric that cost a lot more.

Once & Again (45 Bridge Street, Salem) opened in Danvers five years ago and then moved to Bridge Street last year; unfortunately the street has been under construction ever since!  Nevertheless, it’s a great place to stop by occasionally if you are in the market for mid-century tabletop items, linens, lighting, and odd pieces of furniture; we bought a dry sink there last year for use as our outside bar. There is always good kitchen stuff there, as well as ironstone serving ware, and fireplace accessories, not antique but without that shiny lacquered brass look that new items have.

Grace Sales Company (185 Pleasant Street, Marblehead), a consignment shop for furniture and decorative accessories, opened just last year. There are serious bargains to be found here on some very serious furniture; the beautiful Henredon couch below was for sale for just $550 last week. The owner likes to make artful displays throughout the shop (actually all of these owners do, as you can hopefully see from the pictures), and was particularly proud of her juxtaposition of  fish and scales atop a really nice little dresser, as well as that of Pucci-designed Rosenthal china from the 1960s.

An addendum about gently-used clothingModern Millie Vintage & Consignment, Salem’s (and Newburyport’s) great vintage shop, has just moved from its Washington street location into a much bigger space at 3 Central Street.  This is another store that is well worth regular visits.

Back to School

It’s back to school week for me, as it has been every single week after Labor Day for my entire life; I went straight from high school to college, undergraduate to graduate, doctorate to full-time professorship.  I’ve been really lucky.  There is a natural rhythm to my year; I do teach a course or two in the summer, but come September, it’s back full-time.  Since it’s time to get a bit more academic, I thought would recommend a few of my favorite  books for my ongoing blog and my upcoming semester.  First some Salem texts.

As I have stated continuously (and perhaps a bit defensively), I am a historian, but I’m not a Salem historian.  I’m not even an American historian; I was trained in early modern European history.  So in order to write with some authority about Salem’s history I have to rely on quite a few sources, primary and secondary.  Here are my favorites:

First and foremost, Salem:  Place, Myth and Memory, edited by Dane Anthony Morrison and Nancy Lusignan Schultz.  This compilation of essays on many aspects of Salem’s history and culture, edited by my colleagues at Salem State, Dane Morrison and Nancy Schultz, is absolutely invaluable.  It includes essays on Salem’s colonial, maritime, and industrial pasts, as well as its architecture, educational legacy, and “witch city” present.  If you’re interested in Salem, in either the past or the present, it’s a must-read, must-have book.

One of the contributors to Salem:  Place, Myth and Memory, Robert Booth, has very recently published a book on Salem’s commercial peak and decline, Death of an Empire.  The Rise and Murderous Fall of  Salem, America’s Richest City.  I have to admit that I haven’t actually read this book yet (it’s in my bedside stack of must reads, pretty close to the top), but I am recommending it because Salem’s nineteenth-century history (and all of its non-witch trial-related history) simply must be better covered and understood.  It’s one of the reasons I started this blog.  The subject of the witch trials is definitely in the background of  many of the essays in Salem:  Place, Myth and Memory, but it is not the primary focus; that ground has been covered too often before.  The historiography of the witch trials is vast, and includes such classics and Paul Boyer’s and Steven Nissenbaum’s Salem Possessed:  the Social Origins of Witchcraft and John Demos’s Entertaining Satan and more recent works like Mary Beth North’s In the Devil’s Snare:  The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692.  For my part, I like Salem Story:  Reading the Witch Trials of 1692 by Bernard Rosenthal, but I think all of the Salem witchcraft texts could benefit from a wider, more comparative focus.  This semester I am teaching one of my most popular (and difficult) courses, “Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe”, about witchcraft beliefs and trials in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the text that I use, Brian Levack’s The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe should also be required reading for anyone seeking to understand what went on in Salem.


I have cited Bryant Tolles’ Architecture in Salem:  an Illustrated Guide often when discussing house histories and styles; it’s got a few flaws but is nonetheless absolutely essential for architectural history.

My final recommended Salem book is The Peabody Sisters of Salem by Louise Hall Thorp.  There is an updated narrative of the lives of the three Peabody girls (Elizabeth Peabody, Boston bookstore-owner and founder of the American kindergarten movement, Mary Peabody Mann, who married the great educator Horace Mann and shared his work), and Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne) by Megan Marshall entitled The Peabody Sisters:  Three Women who Ignited American Romanticism, but I prefer Thorpe’s older book, which is wonderful at evoking the mid-nineteenth-century world of the sisters.  I first read it in high school, and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to move to Salem later on.

And now for something completely different. This semester, I’m teaching three courses at Salem State University:  World History, our core course for freshmen, the Magic & Witchcraft course, and a graduate course  in early modern English history which covers the long period from the Tudors to the American Revolution.  My reading list for these courses is long and varied, but here are some of my tried-and-true favorites.

The world history course is very difficult for both myself and the students; after all, it’s the history of the world–a lot of material (we have two world history requirements, the first covers the period to about 1500, the second the later period).  One book that I’ve used successfully in this course for several years is Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, which helps students grasp early globalization in a very accessible way.

For the Witchcraft course, which covers both the medieval background and the early modern era, in which thousands of people were put on trial for witchcraft and at least 50,000 people executed across Europe (compared to 19 in Salem, one reason why comparative perspective is important), we read and discuss the actual trial records in an ongoing effort to ascertain what was going on.  But this is a difficult task, so I also give my students an occasional break by assigned secondary-source “micro-histories” that do the analysis for them:  Malcolm Gaskill’s Witchfinders, about the exploits of English “witchfinder-general” Matthew Hopkins in the 1640s, has been a particularly popular book for this purpose, along with James Sharpe’s  The Bewitching of Anne Gunter.  A Horrible and True Story of Deception, Witchcraft, Murder, and the King of England.

And finally, two of my favorite books from the long list on my Early Modern England syllabus:  Carole Levin’s gender history of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, The Heart and Stomach of a King. Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power, and Linda Colley’s cultural history of the construction of  a distinct British collective identity, Britons.  Forging the Nation, 1707-1837.  Both are perfect examples of accessible and academic history.


Women in White Dresses

Labor Day, a federal holiday since 1894, used to represent lots of things:  first and foremost, it was a day to celebrate labor, and consequently parades were held in cities large and small.  I don’t see this kind of commemoration occurring anymore, but maybe it still does, somewhere in America.  With Memorial Day, Labor Day created a nice bookmark to frame/end summer, and this is still a role it plays today.  It also came to symbolize back to school, back to regular schedules, back to structure, which is also a role that it has retained.  And on a more frivolous note, Labor Day meant the end of white:  women (and men) were supposed to put away their summer whites and bring out their darker, more serious clothes.  I don’t think that this is still a fashion rule (hence winter whites), but the Labor Day holiday provides an opportunity to look back at the wearing of white.

Women in their white dresses, circa 1795-1970:

James Northcote, Lady Wearing a White Dress, 1795.Victoria & Albert Museum

Photograph by Thomas Eakins of a “Woman in White laced-bodice Dress” in his studio, 1880s.  Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Two images from the Smithsonian Art Inventories:  William Merritt Chase, Woman in White, 1886 (Munson-Williams-Proctor Museum of Art) and Cecilia Beaux, New England Woman (Mrs. Jedidiah H. Richards), 1895 (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art).

Turn-of-the-century women in white:  a photograph from the Bieber Studio in New York City, an advertisement from the Ladies’ Home Journal, poster by Charles Cox and magazine cover by Ruth Eastman, all New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Les Grandes Modeles, 1934

Two editions (1947 & 2010) of  The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, first published in 1860. 

Leon Levinstein, Beach Scene: Woman in White Dress Asleep in Sand, Coney Island, 1970s. Metropolitan Museum of Art

This photograph looks much earlier to me (look at the shoes) but portrays a nice end of summer image.  The party’s over!

Concrete Slide

Salem’s Forest River Park has lots of attractions:  dazzling views of Salem Harbor and Marblehead, a shady green expanse, bike paths, beaches, a playground, a swimming pool, a baseball field, Pioneer Village, America’s very first living history museum, and its most distinct feature: a slide made of concrete.  Concrete, children, and sliding seem incompatible to me, but there it is, and it has been there for some time.

A friend and former student of mine has shared a picture with me (and you) from the 1940s taken by her father: there is Priscilla sliding down the Forest River Concrete Slide fearlessly. It’s such a great picture.

concrete-slide with textAnd here is the slide today:  as Priscilla points out, cardboard was an absolutely necessary accessory for those who ventured onto the concrete slide, both for comfort and speed.  The pieces of cardboard strewn about the slide are not litter, but evidence that it is still used.

Despite the evidence of the cardboard, I have never witnessed any children on the slide, but maybe I haven’t hung around the park enough.  While I was there this afternoon, these three contemplated it, but ultimately opted out.

I don’t know of another concrete slide in New England but apparently they are big in Northern California. San Francisco, Berkeley, and Davis (that I know of)  all have public parks which feature such slides, restored, well-maintained, and evidently quite popular.  I suspect Salem’s slide might be an example of California culture come East, but I’m no expert on “playground architecture”.  Below are the rather more elaborate concrete slides in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and Berkeley.

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