Monthly Archives: January 2012

Robinson Crusoe Style

I love little plates.  I have stacks and stacks of old and new desert plates, salad plates, appetizer plates, saucers, and plates which seem to have absolutely no purpose beyond decoration.  I hang them on the wall, I display them on mantels and bookcases, and then they go back into the stacks when I realize that there are just too many plates around. One of the few categories–or actually sub-categories–of plates that remain constantly on view are my Staffordshire “Robinson Crusoe” children’s plates, dating from the mid-nineteenth century.  Somehow they just manage to keep looking good to me, or maybe it’s because I don’t go into the third-floor bedroom in which they are displayed very often.

Children’s plates were produced in large numbers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and are consequently a relatively easy thing to collect (Best Books:  Noel Riley’s 2-volume Gifts for Good Children. A History of Children’s China, 1790-1890). I have some which feature Benjamin Franklin maxims, domestic scenes, free trade slogans, animals, and the alphabet,but the Robinson Crusoe plates are my favorite even though they are in far from perfect condition:  they are octagonal, transfer-printed (rather sloppily), and then “painted” with rather abstract strokes, as if the children themselves “colored” them, and most of them have a hairline fracture or two.

Daniel Defoe mined several true tales, most prominently that of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who was marooned on a remote island off Chile (now called Robinson Crusoe Island) from 1704 to 1709  to come up with his elemental castaway story, Robinson Crusoe, in 1719, and the flood of texts, prints, plates and plays thereafter testify to its continuing popularity well into the twentieth century.  According to the digital exhibition at the Lilly Library of Indiana University, the book has never been out of print.  The title page from the Lilly collection is below, with my favorite edition, published in 1900 with illustrations by Louis and Frederick Rhead.

Editions of Robinson Crusoe published specifically for children seem to have the best illustrations.  To make the story more accessible, sometimes Crusoe is transformed into a boy, and there was even a “little Miss Robinson Crusoe” in the 1920s.  From the vast collection of historical children’s literature at the University of Florida, here’s a few of my favorite images:  a rather ominous empty Robinson Crusoe suit from the title page of an 1845 English edition, the cover of an 1896 American edition illustrated by Walter Paget, and several pages from a Willy Pogany 1914 edition.

Robinson Crusoe shows up not only in books but also on all sorts of prints:  he’s an early cartoon-strip character, an advertising device, and the subject of all sorts of dramatic presentations.  He even shows up on wallpaper, back in the nineteenth century, and more recently on a Christopher Moore design for Lee Jofa.

1809 print by B. Tabart & Company and 1894 program for Robinson Crusoe play at the Drury Lane Theater, London, Victoria & Albert Museum; Advertisement for Fancy Dress Costumes, including the “Miss Robinson Crusoe”, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Robinson Crusoe wallpapers from the Victoria & Albert Museum (circa 1875) and Christopher Moore/Lee Jofa.

And for the final touch (and also from the Victoria & Albert), a pair of “Robinson Crusoe” sunglasses manufactured by Oliver Goldsmith Eyewear in 1962, and apparently quite popular for a time.  So there you are; certainly very few characters can make the leap from plates to sunglasses.

McIntire for Sale

On this day in 1757 Samuel McIntire, the architect and woodcarver who laid and built upon the foundation of Federal Salem in its golden age, was born–or at least baptized.  Upon this anniversary last year, I featured some of McIntire’s commissions in and around my neighborhood, the McIntire Historic District.  This year, I want to focus on an orphaned McIntire mansion on the other side of town (and the tracks, really) in the emerging Bridge Street Neck Historic District.  The Thomas March Woodbridge House is the most remote of all the McIntire houses in Salem, built around 1809 or 1810 on the main northern thoroughfare leading in and out of the city, Bridge Street. The house served as a single-family residence for more than a century, and in 1939 it came under the stewardship of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England), primarily to protect the impressive interior woodwork of McIntire, which remains intact even after the long institutional occupancy of the venerable Salem charity, the Children’s Friend and Family Services, from 1955 until about 5 years ago.  The Woodbridge House went on the market at that time, and it is still for sale today.

Woodbridge House exteriors from yesterday and a century ago; the Frank Cousins photograph is from the Peabody Essex Museum’s microsite, Samuel McIntire:  Carving an American Style.

Despite its obvious magnificence (and really low price), the house is a difficult sell for a couple of reasons, first of which is location, location, location.  Bridge Street is a tough street, and probably a tough sell.  As a principal entrance corridor for several centuries it developed commercially rather than residentially, creating a streetscape of lots of ugly buildings (but there are some great houses located on the side streets that form the adjacent neighborhoods).  With the construction of the new Beverly bridge and bypass road in the past decade, plans and possibilities for a more aesthetic environment have been explored, but it’s going to take a while.  The house is large and institutional, and those developers that have been interested in condominium conversion have been put off by the preservation easement overseen by Historic New England.  This house needs a really special buyer, one that is primarily motivated by the interior McIntire woodwork.

The “incomparable interior woodwork” of McIntire is certainly recognized by this 1919 advertisement for silk upholstery and drapery fabric.  Here the very spirit of this Salem “super-carpenter”seems to be for sale.

Little Folks and Black Cats

A little window into the publishing world of turn-of-the-century Salem and Boston today.  I found it difficult to reconcile the very divergent titles of the prolific Salem publisher Samuel Edson Cassino until I uncovered the family history behind the family business.  The S.E. Cassino Company is best known for producing children’s literature, both periodicals like the long-running Little Folks.  The Children’s Magazine (1897-1923) and charmingly-illustrated texts like Edith Francis Foster’s Mary’s Little Lamb:  a Picture Guessing Story for Little Children (1903).

These publications contrast sharply with the other Cassino titles, issued in Boston rather than Salem, primarily scientific compendiums like the annual Naturalists’ Universal Directory.  It turns out that Samuel Edson Cassino, a trained naturalist who married into a prominent North Shore family and turned to publishing, focused on his own interests down in Boston and left the newer (and I suspect more profitable) branch of his business to his daughter Margherita Cassino Osborne, an 1899 graduate of Radcliffe College.  Margherita not only edited Little Folks and several other serial publications (and later put out her own children’s books) but seems to have managed all of the Salem publishing operations, along with her second husband Frank Wellman Osborne.  The Cassino catalogue acquired another–even more diverse–serial title in 1912:  the very interesting early science fiction Black Cat magazine, founded by Herman D. Umbstaetter in Boston in 1895.  The operation of Black Cat were moved from Boston to Salem (which must have seemed appropriate to everyone, as this was just when Salem was beginning to transform itself into “Witch City”), and was managed by Mr. Osborne until its demise in 1920.

The family business was certainly profitable but there’s a (relatively, materially) tragic chapter in the Cassino story as well:  their stately mansion on Lafayette Street, pictured below in 1910, was completely destroyed by the Great Salem Fire of 1914.

Steam Power

I’ve been doing some research on Salem manufacturers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for an upcoming fundraising event at the Salem Athenaeum with a steampunk theme (lots more on this later) and am a bit overwhelmed:  there were so many.  America was certainly a country of makers a century ago; now it seems like we’re mostly sellers. Anyway, since I’m taking the steam in steampunk literally I have found myself focusing on all sort of machinery makers in general and the Locke Regulator Company of Salem in particular.  This company, founded by two New Hampshire brothers, Nathaniel and Alpheus Locke, who came down to Salem to make their fortune, grew from a back-of-the-barn operation in the 1870s and 80s to big business after its incorporation in 1902.  The large Locke factory, pictured on the first piece of “industrial ephemera” below (from 1910), was located on the banks of the North River in Salem, now the site of a junkyard and a car wash.  According to the claims of the last advertisement below, by 1913 the Company was the largest Manufacturers of Steam Vehicle Parts & Fittings in America.

The Company experimented with automobile manufacture in the first decade of the twentieth century (that’s another dynamic industry at this time; it seems like every town or city of a certain size had several small automobile makers within its midst), building a little “runabout” called the Puritan, but I think they must have soon realized that their future was in parts.

a 1902 Puritan steamer from the Early American Automobiles website; Locke shears from the same year.

The Locke Regulator Company appears to have been a family business, both before and after its incorporation and period of dynamic growth.  Alpheus retired from the business  in the 1890s, but Nathaniel continued on, with his brother-in-law, son, and son-in-law all working for the company at one time or anotherTheir factory was in North Salem, as were their residences, primarily on or in the vicinity of Dearborn Street, very close to the threatened homestead of another prominent family that I wrote about in my previous post.  The Ropes family and the various Lockes were neighbors, and perhaps friends.  At the turn of the last century, Nathaniel and his wife Sophronia were living on one side of Dearborn Street, in a “new” house built for them in 1874, while their son Albert was living almost just across the street, in an even newer (and bigger) house built for his family in 1896.

Dearborn Street just before World War One; the Albert N. Locke House yesterday.

The other Ropes House

In my last post I showed pictures of the barren and brown (white this morning!) garden of the perfectly-preserved and well-protected Ropes Mansion in downtown Salem, but yesterday also brought sad news of another Ropes Mansion in Salem, presently in imminent danger of demolition.  This is the Ropes house in North Salem, which has belonged to another branch of that eminent Salem family (original seventeenth-century land grantees) since its construction in the later nineteenth century.

Here is the house and its outbuildings yesterday afternoon, before the dusting of snow that arrived last night.  The cupola-topped carriage house–also threatened–is particularly charming, so I took another photograph from the vantage point of a neighbor’s well-manicured lawn.

As many of the older houses in North Salem (Northfields) once were, the Ropes house is situated on a large lot with mature trees, including the magnificent copper beech you see above.  The wrap-around porch on the house evokes the earlier era of the “garden estate”, when prosperous Salem families established “rural” residences (both year-round and seasonal) across the North River from the busy city center.  The 1820 map below, drawn by Jonathan Saunders based on late eighteenth-century census materials, illustrates the relationship between North Salem and Salem proper in the nineteenth century–I placed a big star on the present location of the Ropes house.

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

For as long as I’ve lived in Salem, everyone has had their eye on this house, coveting its graceful presence and large lot.  It remained in the Ropes family until this past fall, when it suddenly appeared on the market and sold relatively quickly despite the fact that the city of Salem had revoked an occupancy permit a while ago.  Now the present owners have put forward plans to demolish the buildings and build three houses on the lot, but perhaps save some of the trees.  These plans are now before the Historic Commission, so we’ll see what happens.


In Winter Gardens

Winters are great for assessing the “bones” of a garden, especially when you have no snow.  That’s certainly the case this year for New England:  lots of bones, no winter wonderland.  When I compare the glistening photographs from last year with those below, there’s obviously a stark difference, but there is also a certain kind of beauty in the stark brown landscape.

My garden looks pretty dreary except for a few bright spots captured on a 60-degree January day and the boxwood “balls” and germander border, which looks like it’s still alive (but is certainly not).  The brightest spot by far is the scarlet cardinal who spends a lot time back there, but I’ve given up trying to capture him on film.  The minute I pick up my camera, he flies away.

The Ropes Garden looks very bare, but if you’re not distracted by the flowers and colors you notice other things, like this amazing tree close to the house. I included a postcard from 1910 taken from the same vantage point, so you see the dramatic change, as well as a close-up of the texture of the tree.

A few more images of January gardens around Salem: on Warren, Beckford and Pickering Streets, in my general neighborhood, and across town at the historic herb garden behind the Derby House on Derby Street, on the grounds of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

Vincent van Gogh found beauty not only in sunflowers and blooming gardens but also in barren ones, as illustrated by his drawing from March, 1884:  Winter Garden (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), one of several pen (black iron gall ink, now decayed–and decaying–into a sepia tone) drawings of the bleak landscape of Nuenen he made at that time.

For beautiful photographs of winter gardens–and gardens all year long and in many places–visit one of my favorite landscape (and travel!) blogs from across the Atlantic:  terrain.

Bonfire at the Beach

Last night my Christmas tree and those of many other Salem residents were engulfed in flames at the annual bonfire at Dead Horse Beach.  This is a relatively recent, increasingly-popular tradition; I have friends from towns all around Salem who want to bring their Christmas trees over for our bonfire, to which I say, make your own!  I had a dinner engagement last night during the bonfire, so I went over earlier in the day to take some pictures of the beach and the trees (and shells).  These are from the morning; I assume the pile of trees got bigger during the day.

Dead Horse Beach is one of the beaches at Salem Willows.  It is a relatively sheltered beach facing north, towards Beverly and its harbor.  I had always heard the (apparent) urban legend that it became a graveyard for the many horses that died during the Great Salem Fire (of 1914), accounting for its name, but Salem native and local historian Jerome Curley explains that it was known as “Horse Beach” well before the fire.

As I wasn’t able to make it for the conflagration last night, here’s a picture of a previous bonfire from the Salem News (credit to photographer Mark Teiwes).

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