Monthly Archives: January 2012

Stag Party

In addition to my chair duties, I am teaching one course this semester, a survey of English history from the Roman era through the Tudors.  This is a long period, and in order to add more depth to a course that is more characterized by breadth I’m going to bring quite a few illuminated manuscripts (digitally) into the classroom for my students to view and analyze.  While I was reacquainting myself with some of my favorites this past weekend (via the extraordinary resource that is the British Library’s digital catalog of illuminated manuscripts), I seemed to be seeing lots of deer in the margins, and stags in particular:  stags alone, stags as prey, stags with satyrs, stags with serpents (which they can apparently drive out of the ground) and stags parading with other animals. Stags appear not only in medieval bestiaries (encyclopedias of animals) but also in herbals (encyclopedias of plants) because the hardened cartilage of their hearts–os de cor de cervi–was used in medical preparations.

A selection of stags from the British Library Department of Manuscripts:  Arundel, Egerton, and Royal Mss., circa 1280-1490.

The image of the stag persists into the modern era in visual and material culture more as a symbol of majesty and the (receding) forest than a feature of everyday life.  There is the statuesque, noble stag, the leaping stag, and of course, the stag head–a hunting motif that has gained a more general popularity in the last decade or so.  I prefer my deer with their bodies attached, so here are a few favorite images from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum:  leaping deer on a  Meissen plate from the late 18th century, and Foxton furnishing fabric and a Susie Cooper figurine, both from the 1930s.  Cooper (1902-1995), the dominant ceramics designer of the twentieth century, loved the leaping deer motif so much that she used it as her company logo and trademark.

I use a lot of deer for my Christmas decorating, and as I’ve had neither the time or the inclination to do my typical January purge, there’s still quite a few stags around the house.  And I’ve had my eye on the Nico Masemula stag at Anthropologie for the last couple of months, now fortunately (for my wallet) sold out.


Adapted Armories

I read an article yesterday in the current issues of Preservation magazine about adapted uses for armories that made me feel sad and regretful, sad because the Salem Armory was lost and regretful that I didn’t do more to save it. I wrote about the armory story in a previous post, along with other preservation losses in Salem, so I won’t bore you with the details now, but I was on the Redevelopment Authority during the early stages of the battle to save it and wish I could have done more.  The fire-ravaged armory was just such an eyesore, and the “demolition by neglect” policy of the Peabody Essex Museum, seemed to make its eventual demolition inevitable, a fait accompli.  But once a building of that stature is gone, the streetscape is never the same.

The Preservation article, by the wonderfully-named Margaret Shakespeare, focuses on two Portland armories on either ends of the country.  The Portland, Maine Armory has been turned into the  Portland Regency Hotel, while the Portland, Oregon armory has been transformed into a theater for the Portland Center Stage Company.  These building look amazing, but perhaps more importantly, their environment is lively:  so different from that part of Essex Street in Salem where our armory once stood.

The Portland (Maine) Regency Hotel in its first incarnation as the State of Maine Armory, and now.

The Portland, Oregon Armory exterior and interior mezzanine.

The Salem Armory was demolished  in 2000, leaving its rear drill shed reconstituted as a Visitor’s Center for the Salem Maritime National Historic site and an always-empty “Armory Park” in its wake.  In the intervening decade between then and now, both a new hotel (The Salem Waterfront) and a new theater company (The Salem Theatre Company) have come to town.



Singular Snowflakes

I woke up this morning to no snow (as usual, this particular winter), but also to a Google homepage “doodle” that told me that today is the 125th anniversary of the appearance (falling?) of the world’s largest snowflake!  During a ferocious winter storm in Montana in 1887, snowflakes were observed as large as “milkpans” and one in particular measured 15 inches in diameter. What a delightful anniversary!  Obviously I can’t let it go by without marking it in my own way, so I’m showcasing one of my favorite images for the second time:  a very early view of snowflakes viewed through a microscope from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665).

Like the images in my last post, this is not only aesthetically pleasing and representative of its historic time and place, but also a great teaching tool:  what better way to demonstrate the pure empiricism of the Scientific Revolution?  Snowflakes were great objects of study in the seventeenth century, beginning with Johannes Kepler’s 1611 essay On the Six-Cornered Snowflake.  Kepler pondered the very essence of the snowflake, which “comes down from heaven and looks like an angel” yet evaporates into nothing. 


Picturing History

I am one week into the spring semester, just catching my breath.  This is an unusual semester for me, as I am not teaching very much because I’m serving as interim chair while our regular chair is on sabbatical.  Being a professor is largely an independent existence; you interact with lots of people, obviously, but you are in charge of your work.  Being the chair of an academic department is completely different; you must be accountable, and accessible, to everyone:  students, faculty, administration. At least that’s my one-week impression.

This new position does afford me the opportunity to learn more about the scholarship and teaching methods of my colleagues in the History Department.  Too often it seems like we’re running on parallel tracks, but now I’m off the track, in the stands (or in a roofbox?  No, that’s the Dean.  Whatever, I have an overview).  For example, in order to get together a presentation representing our Department for an upcoming Admissions event, I asked all my colleagues to forward me their favorite historical images, those which represented their period or topic particularly well, those that were very useful for teaching purposes, or those that they simply loved.  Here are some of my favorites, starting with my own, and then proceeding in chronological order.

Elizabeth Receiving the Dutch Ambassadors, circa 1585.  Anonymous artist of the German School, Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel

I love this painting  for many reasons:  Elizabeth, her material surroundings, the casual poses of her courtiers.  I always thought that is was by an anonymous English artist rather than a German one, and used it in class to demonstrate the relative cultural backwardness of England in the late Renaissance, when Italian artists were moving on to Mannerism.  Still, I find its relative primitiveness charming, even intimate.  The texture and material details are great (the carpet that looks like Pottery Barn jute; the ladies-in-waiting reclining in the corner), and I’ll spare you all the political and religious history that I can link to this image.

Portrait of Elizabeth Freake and Daughter Mary, circa 1670.  Attributed to the “Boston Limner”, Worcester Art Museum.

The Freake portrait is the offering of one of our colonial historians, Tad Baker.  Elizabeth was the wife of a wealthy Boston merchant and she is demonstrating her wealth with the richness of her apparel; she is a serious Puritan lady but not a dowdy one!  So interesting to see her hemline, raised to reveal the embroidered underskirt beneath.  Her very stiff daughter was apparently once a fan, according to the x-rays, so she did choose to emphasize family over embellishment in the long run.  New England Puritans are so stereotyped; you need personal details, stories, and images to bring them to life in the classroom.  Elizabeth was soon to be a widow; Tad tells me that shortly after this painting was made her husband John’s ship blew up in Boston Harbor.

Jumping forward into glaring modernity…………..

Joseph Stella, Battle of Lights, Coney Island, 1913.  Yale University Art Gallery.

This is the first of three works offered up by three of the department’s 20th century historians.  Brad Austin uses the Stella painting, one of the earliest American “Futurist” works, to illustrate the experience of industrialization and urbanization.  Bright lights, big city; exhilarating and confusing. Its setting, Coney Island, can also represent the contemporary commercialization of leisure and recreation, an important twentieth-century trend.  It took me a while to make out the roller coasters!


Jacob Lawrence, The Migration of the Negro, Panel no. 1, 1940-41.  The Phillips Collection.

From Jamie Wilson, who specializes in twentieth-century African-American history, a very historical work:  the first panel in a series of 60 representing the “Great Migration” of southern African-Americans to the North in search of  better opportunities and lives (apparently this trend is reversing now).  It’s immediately accessible and historical in both public and personal ways.  Lawrence’s family had experienced this migration, and he wanted to remember and document it: “It was… so much a part of my life. I became conscious of these things when I was eight or nine years old, and this consciousness remained, and this is what you see in the Migrations.”

Havana Mural, 1995

Finally (actually, I could go on, but I think I should do a part two at another time), a photograph from our Latin American historian, Avi Chomsky, taken by her while in Havana in 1995, a rather anxious time after the fall of the Soviet Bloc which Cubans refer to as the “Special Period”.  The mural is a popular expression of the economic anxiety of this time and place, and Avi has used it not only as a teaching image but also as the cover of her most recent book, A History of the Cuban Revolution (2010).



The Gerry-Mander

This month marks the bicentennial anniversary of the first appearance of a monster that is still with us today:  the Gerry-Mander, first published in a Salem broadside in January of 1812. Very Scary.

                                       Library of Congress

The background for the appearance of the Gerry-Mander (a play on salamander) is the Massachusetts State Senate Election of 1812.  The two political parties at the time, the Jeffersonian Republicans and Federalists, were deeply divided:  politically, culturally, socially.  Here in Salem, members of the opposing parties didn’t even talk to each other, and they had erected separate assembly houses in the previous decade so they certainly didn’t dance with each other either.  The Jeffersonian Republicans pushed through the Massachusetts Legislature a bill creating electoral districts which gave them a distinct advantage in the upcoming election and Governor Gerry (somewhat reluctantly) signed the bill into law.  In protest, the Federalists hired engraver Elkanah Tisdale to create a caricature of the new Essex district, and thus the “Gerry-Mander” was born.  He (or she?) appeared in several Massachusetts newspapers (including the Boston Gazette) over the next few months, and reappeared regularly across the US–in different incarnations– over the next 200 years.  Governor Gerry went on to become James Madison’s Vice-President.

A cropped version, and one with the carved-out Essex County towns filled in.


Salem’s “Japanese House”

Ample evidence exists to demonstrate the varied connections between Salem and Japan, both in the past and the present.  Just last week, my next-door neighbor was hosting a group of Japanese filmmakers, here in town to shoot the childhood home and environment of Salem native and Japanese cultural minister Ernest Fenollosa (1858-1907).  The Peabody Essex Museum has wonderful Japanese collections and a beautiful Japanese garden, no doubt due, in large part, to the advocacy of its long-term director, Edward Sylvester Morse (1838-1925).  Morse was also responsible, in a way, for another tangible symbol of the Salem-Japan connection:  the so-called “Japanese House”  on Laurel Street.

This house was designed by the prominent and prolific Boston architectural firm Andrews, Jacques and Rantoul for a young man named Bunkio Matsuki (1867-1940), who arrived in Salem as a teenager, accompanied by a friend and armed with his acquaintance with Morse, whom he had met during one of the latter’s earlier trips to Japan.  Matsuki knocked on the front door of Morse’s house (which is located right next door to the Japanese house; I’ll write about it in a future post once I figure out a bit more about its equally distinctive architectural style) and began a new life in Salem:  graduating from Salem High School, setting up an import business, marrying his landlord’s daughter, and ultimately building his distinct house in 1893.  Below is a photograph from the 1903 publication Prominent Americans interested in Japan and Prominent Japanese in America, and an advertisement for Matsuki’s shop in Boston from the same year.

I imagine that the architects at Andrews, Jacques and Rantoul must have relied on Morse’s 1888 book Japanese Homes and their Surroundings for their design of the Matsuki house, as it is full of plans and detailed drawings.  I know that a Japanese carpenter was employed for its construction; even though he trained to be a Buddhist monk back in Japan, Matsuki was apparently from a family of craftsmen, whose contacts would serve him well over his long career.  His roles as a cross-cultural ambassador, entrepreneur and preservationist of sorts is highlighted in this 1903 auction notice from the New York Times, describing objects which belong to Mr. Bunkio Matsuki, a descendant of the Tategawa family of artist-artisans and builders of temples, who has had the advantage of being a Japanese and a lover of curios.  He has been able to collect objects from dismantled temples and those which were reorganized when an attempt was made from governmental sources to change the religion of Japan.  The Boxer troubles in China have also thrown things his way, and the result is a very curious and interesting lot of things.

The house yesterday, during our first serious snow.


Collecting Salem on Etsy

Time for another Etsy post, motivated by finding one of my very favorite Salem books on the site:  Salem Interiors by Samuel Chamberlain (1895-1975).  Chamberlain was a Marblehead-based photographer, artist and author, whose books of New England photographs are now classics–and very collectible.  The 1950 edition on Etsy looks like it is in great condition and is very reasonably priced.  Just click on the image (and those following) and you’ll get to the Etsy listing.

I’m not one to promote Salem witch items, but there is an amazing collectible plate on Etsy right now:  an early (circa 1900) souvenir plate rimmed with 18 little witches made by the Petersyn Company of Passaic, New Jersey.  For a witch plate, this one is quite charming, relatively rare, and well-priced. This is one of the earliest porcelain expressions of “Witch City”.

There are some lovely Hawthorne editions on Etsy now, including several that are very collectible, like a 1930s edition of Tanglewood Tales with illustrations by the short-lived artist Virginia Francis Sterrett, whose flying dragon seems like a good companion for the Salem witches.

Lots of carte-de-visite and cabinet cards from Salem’s many turn-of-the-century photographers:  a “young dark-eyed woman in a walking suit” taken by the Cook Photograph Studio in the 1890s, a “beautiful Victorian woman in a romantic, angelic pose” from the 1880s, and a “lambchop whiskered” man (love these Etsy descriptive titles!) photographed by the Bonsley and Moulton Studio. I tend to like the typography as much (or more) as the photography.

Vintage Game collectors can always find Parker Brothers products on Etsy.  I have never seen or heard of this “reading” game called Peter Coddle’s Trip to New York but it looks interesting, and I’m intrigued by all these scraps of ephemeral paper; it’s a miracle they survived this long.

And finally, some amazing pieces of advertising ephemera:  three advertising fans, in French, for the Peabody’s Dry and Fancy Goods Bazaar in downtown Salem.  Salem had a large and growing French-Canadian population in the first half of the nineteenth century, and I suppose this was the target audience for the fans, which feature a stag, a pony, and (of course), a kitten.



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