Monthly Archives: December 2011

Years of Protest

The last days of the year are always a time for reflection and assessment, perhaps personally but certainly by the media.  So far, all of the pieces that I have seen on television and in print characterize 2011 as a “year of protest”, following Time magazine’s “Protester” Person of the Year.  Like all historians, I find agitation attractive because it signals a time of (exciting) change rather than (boring) continuity, but I’m not certain that this is the case with 2011 yet.  Everyone seems so distracted by their various electronic devices, and protesting (and change) takes real engagement.  Perhaps this is too American a view, but 2011 doesn’t look quite like 1968, or 1789, or the 177os, or the 1640s, or the 1520s, or the very rebellious period of 1378-1381.

This last (or first) era of rebellion, culminating in the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, did not really result in change but was exiting nonetheless for its novelty:  the 99 percent seldom rebelled against the 1 percent in the Middle Ages.  But the fourteenth century changed everything, bringing forth famine, plague, war and schism in intense degrees and leaving its survivors with nothing left to lose and everything to gain.  Abandoned by their Church and very conscious of their bargaining power in a world that had lost over 30% of its laborers to the Black Death, the peasants of England marched on London to seek an audience with King Richard II after the imposition of what they perceived as unfair taxes and wage restrictions.  With the charismatic Wat Tyler and John Ball leading them onwards, they got their audience with the young King (slaughtering the Archbishop of Canterbury along the way), but were defeated soon afterwards.

The preacher John Ball leading the peasants, the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and King Richard confronts the peasants, all from the Chronicles of Jean Froissart, British Library MS Royal 18 E I, circa 1483.

In retrospect, the English Peasants Revolt illustrated, rather than caused, change, but its message, articulated best by a speech attributed to Ball in which he speaks of “liberty” and asks the rhetorical question when Adam delved and Eve span who was then the Gentleman survived and was revived in the modern era, when it reflected even more change.

Edward Burne-Jones illustration for William Morris’s Dream of John Ball, 1888.

Numerical New Years

I’ve collected a sequence of New Year’s Day cards (+ one poster) from a century ago, when separate New Year’s Day greeting cards were issued by the thousands, both in America and Europe.  The collective “Season’s Greetings”/ “Happy Holidays” cards began to dominate the message after World War II, with the consequence that New Year’s now seems to be a mere afterthought of the Christmas celebration.  New Year’s Day cards are interesting because they feature an assortment of trans-Atlantic traditions and tropes which are supposed to bring good luck in the next year:  pigs are very popular, as are the traditional horseshoes and clovers. There are babies, of course, and the occasional champagne glass or bottle. For some reason, mushrooms appear on a lot of cards, particularly European ones, sometimes with gnomes, sometimes not.  I thought I’d feature “year” cards–in chronological order–from the first decade and a-half of the twentieth century, from my own collection and that of the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.  First off, cards from Germany and Switzerland, followed by my very favorite card (1904):  a lady on a pig against a background of four-leaf clovers, holding a glass of champagne. And mushrooms!  How lucky can you get?

“Smoking New Year’s”, evoking the two-faced Janus, by artist and illustrator Frank Graham Cootes (1879-1960).

Bits of Holly History

It occurred to me that holly–the traditional symbol of Christmas and Winter–is often paired with something and seldom presented on its own.  The “holly and the ivy” is the best example, but there are many others, like this stylized little image of holly and a lyre on the cover of a Christmas concert program from 1898.  I found the program in a dusty box of sheet music at a yard sale a couple of years ago, and opened it just the other day.

That same day I also checked in with the blog of the Met’s Cloisters Museum, The Medieval Garden Enclosed, to find the “holly girls” decorating the museum’s arches with holly.  So beautiful!  I have both interior and exterior arched doorways and several flourishing holly bushes–I wonder if I could do this next year?  Probably not, but at least I can think about it.

Holly is often pictured in the margins of medieval manuscripts (usually with ivy, its companion plant) and seems to have had many associations and virtues, all positive.  With its bright red berries blooming in December, it represents light, warmth and hope, joy and goodwill.  It has always been a protective plant:  against poisons and demons, even lightning.  With the coming of Christianity, it came to be associated both with the Virgin Mary and the blood (berries) of Christ.  In the early modern era, the holly tree was prominently linked with the ars nova of printing, notably on the title age of Leonhart Fuchs’ De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (“New Herbal”, 1542-43).  The title-page device of Basel printer Michael Isengrin features a holly tree with a printing-house platen amongst its branches,representing its increasing secular symbolism.

And here are two more holly herbal images from Elizabeth Blackwell’s Curious Herbal  (1739) and Francois Andre Michaux’s North American Sylva (1819).  Blackwell illustrated her own book, while Michaux called upon one of the most famous botanical illustrators of his day, Pierre Redoute.

In the nineteenth century, the holly becomes the stereotypical holiday plant through advances in lithography and the emergence of the dynamic greeting-card industry, which produced millions of holly-embellished holiday cards.  But there were other images of the plant out there too:  elaborate theatrical costumes, ceramics, cigarette cards.  The collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum encompasses a large collection of costumes from the London theater, including these two creations by “Wilhelm” (William Charles Pitcher) for productions in the 1890s:  Holly personified, with Mistletoe and alone.  From the same era and collection is the Minton “Four Season” tile, with holly representing winter.

And then there were so many cards: cigarette cards for advertising, Christmas and New Year’s cards for “greeting”.  The first card below, issued by the Duke’s cigarette company in the 1890s, is part of a “Language of Flowers” series, which associated holly with “foresight”.  The second and third are British and from the 1920s, illustrating the uses of the (hard) holly wood (chess sets and teapot handles, apparently) and the boy scout “holly patrol” badge.  How the holly has “evolved”:  from the blood of Christ to the boy scouts!

And finally two greeting cards, both from the vast collection at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery like the cigarette cards above:  a simple New Year’s Day card from the turn of the last century and a birthday card of similar vintage on which holly is paired with something I’ve never seen before:  turquoise?

After Christmas

Happy Boxing Day, St. Stephen’s Day, Day after Christmas, everyone.  We had lots of family for the holiday, and I’ve been elbow-deep in dishes all day long because the garbage disposal had the audacity to become jammed right in the midst of my Christmas feast preparations, taking the kitchen sink and dishwasher out of service.  Just to clear out the kitchen, I put dirty dishes in the bathtubs, the mudroom, the cellar…and after everyone left this morning I started working my way through them, primarily in the powder room sink!  No plumber to be found yet….

The calm before the storm:  all the clean dishes on the table before the Christmas Eve Feast of Seven Fishes, cooked almost entirely by my husband.  I went a bit more formal for the next day’s feast, despite my lack of dishwasher, and I paid the price today.

I’ll spare you too many pictures of after:  I’m sure everyone has faced their fair share of dirty dishes, trash bags full of wrapping paper, and too many empty boxes and wine bottles.

But I’m not complaining; I’m happy to clean up after this holiday weekend, full of family, friends, food, drink, and very thoughtful and creative gift-giving!  Snowshoes from my husband, which I can’t wait to try out but will probably have to given our complete lack of snow (just a few flakes on Christmas Day).  Beautiful Christopher Moore linen tea towels with prints from the late seventeenth-century series of etchings by Nicolas de Larmessin and Gerard Valck entitled Les Costumes Grotesques et les Metiers (Fantastic Costumes of the Trades)  from my brother and brother-in-law, including the Parfumeur, the Vigneron (see below), the Paticier, and the Jardinier.  A pretty Anthropologie apron from my stepmother that I wore all day yesterday to cook in, and much of today to wash my dishes.

Here’s an after image:  another present from my stepmother, which I haven’t opened yet because I can’t believe she took the time to search out wrapping paper that looks exactly like the upholstery on my couch, a wilted evergreen arrangement which held out until today, the day after Christmas, and a truly grotesque sheep (the bright orange “ball” you see are his lips), a family “heirloom” which we wound up with in the Christmas Eve Yankee swap.

Trimmings and Tidings

The streets of Salem at Christmas time, 2011:  a walk around the decorated city.  I was attracted to simplicity and creativity, two things that I’m going to strive for in the New Year.

Skates and a sweater on black doors, on and around Federal Street.

River Street always goes all out, for every season.

These two houses on Federal Street always look great.

It doesn’t really “pop” in my picture, but the juxtaposition of the tiny vintage Christmas figurines in the window of this Broad Street house with the rusty old piece of machinery was really neat.

Minimal decoration, but I love these carriage houses.  The top one belongs to the Pickering House on Broad Street; the bottom one, just off the Common, has been recently restored.

Adorable window at the Mighty Aphrodite, a maternity consignment shop on Essex Street.  Green and red maternity dresses and a snowy, sparkly baby.

Glad Tidings to everyone this holiday season.


I don’t have a drop of Scandinavian blood in my veins, but I really love the northern European custom of Juleneg, in which a wheat sheaf is attached to a roof gable or adjacent pole or tree at Christmas time.  Elves or fairies are often pictured affixing these “Christmas bundles”– holiday feasts for the birds.  The wheat sheaf is so symbolic; for us it tends to symbolize the harvest, but it can also represent sustenance through the winter and hope fulfilled:  what better Christmas message?  I think we should adopt the Juleneg custom, especially here in Salem, where wheat sheaves have the additional connection to Samuel McIntire, the architect of our beautiful Federal city.

Wheat Sheaves for Christmas:  a Juleneg card from 1911, a McIntire mantle and pin from the PEM shop, the cover of a Federal-era snuffbox, and proofs for chromolithographic Christmas cards from Prang of Boston, 1880s (New York Public Library Digital Gallery).

Green (Room) Christmas

Apparently it was “Silent Cal” Coolidge who initiated the customs of both the national Christmas Tree (in 1923) and the presidential Christmas Card (in 1927).  The former began as a subtle promotion for Coolidge’s state of Vermont, which sent along the tree, while the latter custom seems to have emerged from Mr. and Mrs. Coolidge’s sincere appreciation for the large number of condolence and Christmas cards they received after the sudden death of their youngest son from blood poisoning in 1924.  The Christmas Cards from the Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt and Truman administrations are pretty sedate, which makes sense considering they were issued in an era dominated by the Depression and World War, but things begin to liven up with the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras:  could White House Christmas cards be signs of the times?

I was going to showcase chronological Christmas cards by administration, but frankly the pre-1960 ones were pretty boring.  A completely representative example is this 1941 card below,  but its simplicity and sedateness is understandable–this was only a few weeks after Pearl Harbor.

The first National Christmas Tree, 1923; Library of Congress; the Roosevelt 1941 Christmas Card, White House Historical Association.

Looking at all these cards, I became fixated on those showing White House interiors in general, a tradition that began with the Kennedy Administration, and the Green Room in particular:  I’m a big Red Room fan too, but the Green Room Christmas cards really capture the essence of the season for me.  So here they are:  Green Room Christmas cards from the Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton administrations.  The first one, by illustrator Edward Lehman, is obviously the most poignant (and valuable), as it was issued only a few weeks after President Kennedy’s assassination to only a select few–primarily White House staff.  Twenty years after the Lehman image, interior designer Mark Hampton reproduced the newly-redecorated Green Room in watercolor for the Reagan’s 1983 Christmas Card.  And finally, the Clinton’s 1996 Christmas card by artist Thomas McKnight.

The Green Room decorated for the Holidays this season, with wreaths and trees made of recycled newspapers and magazines, illustrating the theme “Reflect, Rejoice, and Renew”.

The Christmas Dance at Hamilton Hall

Hamilton Hall was built as an assembly house in 1805 by Samuel McIntire and it retains this essential function over 200 years later.  It has been the setting for festive fetes for important people (the Marquis de Lafayette, Nathaniel Bowditch, Andrew Jackson), debutante assemblies, lectures, forums and exhibitions, and the annual Christmas Dance.  I believe that the Christmas Dance began just after World War II, along with another annual event, the Hamilton Hall Lecture Series, but it retains traditions that herald back to earlier assemblies:  patronesses, ushers, curtseys, a lethal bourbon punch, and a “Grand March” at the end of the evening.  I never miss it.

Mary Harrod Northend (1850-1926), author, photographer, and descendant of several old Massachusetts families, recounts many Hamilton Hall traditions in her book Memories of Old Salem (1917) and Colonial Homes and their Furnishings (1912).  Like her contemporaries Wallace Nutting and Alice Morse Earle, Northend had a rather sentimental view of  the “ye olde” colonial past, Salem’s past, and her past, but her books and photographs are still charming.

I went over and took some pictures of the empty Hamilton Hall, well before the caterers and dancers arrived.  There’s something about an empty “party” hall, especially this particular one with its interesting acoustics and spring dance floor, that is compelling, even romantic.  As you can see, the Hall has an elegant but somewhat spare interior, which was disdained by the Victorian ladies of Northend’s Memories, who were always embellishing it with flowers and oak leaf garlands and swags. The gilt mirrors, which are always referred to as the Russian mirrors, were an addition of that time, along with the lighting.

The second-floor ballroom.

The Lafayette Room, with the Marquis over the mantle.

More mirrors in the Supper Room on the third floor.

Hours later, the food and attendees were assembled in the Hall, the latter not quite as orderly as in one of Northend’s photographs, despite their participation in the Grand March.

Tea Party Tempest

One of the most interesting jobs of the historian is figuring out when and why an occurrence becomes an EVENT.  Lots of things that happen never rise to the level of “history”, but those things that do often get embellished over time.  A great example is the Boston Tea Party.  As the anniversary of this big event occurs this week (December 16), I thought I’d take a break from the holidays and get back to history.

As I’m not an American historian I asked my question when did the Boston Tea Party become the Boston Tea Party to a number of experts, both in person and on the web.  There seems to be a general consensus that the event was almost immediately recognized as extraordinarily significant but that the actual term doesn’t appear until decades after the Revolution, when its last participants (particularly George Hewes ) began recording their memoirs.  Apparently the first historians of the American Revolution did not want to herald an event involving the destruction of property, but in 1826 newspaper reminiscences started to use the term “Tea Party” or “Tea-Party”, and it was consequently adopted by historians. (Apparently the first use of the term referred to the participants rather than the event).  There are comprehensive discussions and comments about every aspect of the Tea Party, and all the other pre-Revolutionary agitation in Boston, at the great blog Boston 1775.

Across the Atlantic, the historical significance of the Tea Party was realized relatively early.  Just several years into the Revolution, the German engraver Carl Gottlieb Guttenberg published The Tea-Tax Tempest, or the Anglo-American Revolution (1778), an adaptation of an earlier political print by John Dixon which was itself adapted by the British caricaturist William Humphreys as The Tea-Tax-Tempest, or Old Time with his Magick-Lantern (1783).  In both we have allegorical figures representing the world and Europe looking on at an exploding teapot and agitated Americans.

Tea Tax Tempest caricatures at the online exhibition “America in Caricature, 1765-1865”, Lilly Library at Indiana University.

With the close connections between France and America during the American Revolution, it was only natural that Europeans emphasized the American rebellion of the 1770s when the French Revolution broke out in 1789.  The Tea Party becomes a precedent, or a first act, in what may be a universal revolution.

The History of North America, E. Newberry, London, 1789.  Library of Congress.

So the occurrence of 1773 is clearly recognized as an important event well before the turn of the nineteenth century, a realization that is reinforced by the success of the American Revolution and the beginning (and drama) of the French.  But the tempest doesn’t become the “party” until James Hawkes’ Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party with a Memoir by George R.T. Hewes (1834), and it takes off from there, in both print and image. The rest is history.

Covers of James Hawkes’ Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party (1834) and H.W. McVickar’s children’s book The Boston Tea Party (1884), both Library of Congress.

Christmas Shopping in Salem

I wrapped up most of my Christmas shopping this past weekend, right here in Salem.  I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish that a few years ago; the retail situation has improved considerably.  About the only type of person for whom you couldn’t find a gift in Salem shops is an outdoorsy man, and I have two of those on my list so I might have to break my self-imposed rule of shopping local.  I really would love to be the sort of crafty person who makes lovely gifts for family and friends, but I know that’s never going to happen; I’m a college professor, this time of year means finals and papers as well as shopping and entertaining, so I have no time (and little skill, really, unless endless amounts of time are available) to make gifts.  The best I can do is search out creative upcycled gifts and shop local.

Shopping local is no hardship:  you walk along festive streets to nicely-decorated and -edited shops, browse and purchase, perhaps pop in for a drink or coffee, and then shop some more.  No traffic, no crowds, no malls, no generic gifts.  Walk, shop, drink.

Here are some of the shops and their wares I visited on Sunday, and some trends I spotted, which might transcend my local focus.

Urban Elements , 83 Washington Street, just a few buildings down from Salem City Hall

Urban Elements is a large store full of great furniture and large things, but small things too.  There are several walls of decorative items for the home, including kitchenware, bookends, ceramics, interesting little metal statues (bicycles and gears—very steampunk), pillows and throws, and signs.

Scrubs, Roost, & the Beehive, 230 Essex Street and 38-40 Front Street

Scrubs, Roost, and the Beehive are a family of shops offering all things for the bath (Scrubs), home furnishings and gifts (Roost), and cards, games and novelty items (the Beehive).  The Beehive is the store for Secret Santa and Yankee Swap gifts, trust me.  There is a strong focus on local products in all three shops, and particularly in Roost, I always see things that I never see anywhere else.  Below, Santa bathing in the window of Scrubs, sock monkeys at the Beehive and gifts for the home (bicycle motifs:  a strong trend) at Roost.

Sidewalks and storefronts along the way: Witch City Consignment & Thrift, Mud Puddle Toys, the award-winning window at Paxton, and planters, pails and buoys at Olde Naumkeag Antiques.

The Peabody Essex Museum ShopYou can find things for practically anyone at the large PEM Shop on Essex Street (except, of course, for the outdoorsy man), including jewelry, all sorts of things for the home, throws and scarves, books, and art.  I particularly liked “Marthablox”, the little photographic box prints produced by local photographer Martha Everson.

Pamplemousse, 185 Essex Street

Part gift shop and part gourmet food and wine shop, Pamplemousse also carries a lot of local items, including a large selection of the great candles from Witch City Wicks that I featured in an earlier post.  There are lots of kitchen items here, both practical and decorative, and German winter wines that you can heat up for the coldest days–and mead.  As you can see below, Pamplemousse always carries seasonal items as well.


Sophia‘s, 105 Essex Street

Further down (or up) Essex Street, across from the Hawthorne Hotel, is Sophia’s (pronounced SophEYEa’s, after Mrs. Nathaniel Hawthorne), a gem-like boutique with an emphasis on the romantic and the whimsical.  Here there are Sid Dickens’ “memory blocks”, Diptyque candles, perfumes and paper, jewelry, and hand-created hats, among lots of other indulgent items.  Below, silhouettes and a silver tureen full of watch parts, the makings of steampunk (a strong aesthetic in Salem) jewelry.

J Mode, 17 Front Street & Treasures over Time, 139 Washington Street

Back to Front Street, the center of Salem shopping, to go clothes shopping at J Mode.  This is a beautiful store with some of my favorite brands:  Tracy Reese dresses, tops by Three Dots and Velvet. Not inexpensive, but the emphasis is on quality and service.  The same can be said for Treasures over Time, a very interesting shop around the corner on Washington Street.  The shop represents the joint interests and expertise of a married gemologist and numismatician (coin dealer–I looked it up), so there is beautiful jewelry here, as well as collectible coins, minerals, and geological items.  A great shop for boys and women, and probably the best bet for those pesky outdoorsy men on my list as well.

A rack of Three Dots at J Mode, one of several jewelry cases at Treasures over Time

Addendum:  I forgot to mention that on this coming Friday evening, December 16, there will be a special shopping Open House Night, in which over 50 Salem shops downtown will be participating.