Monthly Archives: March 2012

The World of Work Boxes

I was researching a post on painted “fancy chairs” from the Federal era and after when I got distracted by a great book and its subject matter: Betsy Krieg Salm’s Women’s Painted Furniture, 1790-1830 (University Press of New England, 2010) caught my eye in the library for numerous reasons (it’s a beautiful book, I love painted furniture, the era coincides with Salem’s golden age, so I knew I’d find some good stuff in it), but once I opened it I could not put it down. The result of three decades of research by the author (who is an ornamental artist herself), the book is art history, social history, education history, cultural history, world history all at the same time.

The subtitle, American Schoolgirl Art, is particularly appropriate as this book is about training, expectations, and influences as well as the motifs which decorate the furniture. I had never really considered the distinct genre of “schoolgirl art” and now I’m curious about its place in other eras and cultures. Lots of painted pieces are examined in Salm’s book, but my favorite by far are the work boxes produced by young women from relatively wealthy families, like Salem’s own Mary Derby Prince, the daughter of a Salem ship captain, with connections by blood and marriage to two of Salem’s most commercially aristocratic families, the Derbys and the Ropes. Another Salem box from the same era (and milieu) is that of Hannah Crowninshield, from the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum. Have I ever seen this before?  I don’t think so, but I could have walked right by it. I am familiar with samplers, of course, and the various types of wooden, decorated boxes produced for documents and other materials, but somehow I have never put the two together in the form of a work box, produced by young women as both an example of their work and for their work. Here are some of my favorites from the book:

Work Box by Ann Trask, Rowson Academy, Boston, circa 1810-20. Collection of Old Sturbridge Village.

Lid of Work Box by Hannah Bland, Massachusetts, circa 1810-30. Private Collection.

Detail of Lobstermen from Work Box of Fanny Barber, Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1821. Private Collection.

These boxes are so charming and so reflective of the environments in which these girls lived and worked, as well as the more general cultural influences to which they were exposed.  A little bit more context, for both American schoolgirl art and (transatlantic) work boxes in the first half of the nineteenth century:  a concise yet substantive article about the curriculum and culture at the Misses’ Martin’s School in Portland, Maine, and a few images of professionally-made work boxes from the British Empire. The first box is a particularly expensive example, with leather covering, silk lining, brass fittings, and custom-made sewing and needlework accessories, from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Work Box, England, circa 1815. Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

These last two “cottage” work boxes are both examples of Tunbridge ware, even though they were made in places thousands of miles apart:  southeast England and India. Tunbridge ware is the very intricate type of inlaid woodwork that emerged in the vicinity of Tunbridge Wells, Kent in the eighteenth century, characterized by the creation of mosaic patterns with different colored woods, and sometimes other materials. Tunbridge ware designs influenced American decoration and obviously Asian as well, as the second work box, made of wood veneered with ivory, was made in India around 1790-1800.

Tunbridge ware painted sewing box, early 19th century, Bleasdales Ltd.

Ivory-veneered Work Box, Vishakhapatnam, India, circa 1790-1800. Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Of Mummies and Mums

I discovered an amazing woman last week, a woman who was creative (and versatile) enough to have written a very early science fiction book about a time-traveling mummy as well as a series of popular garden books, which she also illustrated. Jane Webb Loudon (1807-1858) was born into a wealthy industrial family and later married to a gentleman, but both father and husband left her virtually penniless and to her own devices. She made her own way, in her own fashion.

When she was only 20, Jane published (anonymously) The Mummy!:  Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, featuring an Egyptian mummy named Cheops who is “reanimated” in 2126 in a very connected, technological, and female-dominated world which is nevertheless plagued by political discord and moral decay. No doubt she was influenced by the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a decade earlier, as well as the fascination with all things Egyptian, initiated by Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798, and the publication of his entourage’s 24-volume Description of Egypt. The Mummy! (love the exclamation point) apparently sold well and relieved Miss Webb of some of the financial stress she must have felt after the death of her father.

Jane connected her world to that of the future through steam:  still a dynamic force, it powered the movement of people, houses and plows. The reference to a steam-powered plow caught the attention of her future husband, John Claudius Loudon, an increasingly-eminent horticultural writer and landscape architect nearly twenty years her senior.  They met, married, had a daughter, and forged a professional relationship in addition to their personal one, working together on a series of agricultural encyclopedias and guides to garden design.  As a novice gardener herself, Jane must have realized that her husband’s technical publications would not satisfy the demand for more accessible gardening advice, and so she began authoring a series of illustrated books catering to the ladies: Young Ladies Book of Botany (1838), Gardening for Ladies (1840), Botany for Ladies (1842) and the multi-volume Ladies Companion to the Flower Garden, published just after her husband’s death in 1843.

Before his death, Mr. Loudon became involved in an arboretum plan that left Jane saddled with debt (shades of her father’s “legacy”), so she ramped up her publishing, catering to the demand that she virtually created with more popular gardening books for ladies, illustrated with the colorful groupings of flowers that would be the standard in horticultural illustration for years to come. Chromolithography probably broadened the appeal of the multiple editions of The Ladies’ Flower Garden and British Wild Flowers as well, and consequently the self-taught Mrs. Loudon seems to have emerged as a more recognizable authority on Victorian gardening than her scholarly husband.

Plates from The Ladies’ Flower Garden of Ornamental Annuals (1842) and British Wild Flowers (1846), Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

I’d like to know a lot more about Jane Webb Loudon so I’m chasing down a few sources. Sheffield Hallam University reportedly has one her scrapbooks in its archives which I’d love to see and the National Trust has published a modern version of Mr. Loudon’s travel diaries titled In Search of English Gardens:  The Travels of John Claudius Loudon and His Wife Jane (ed. Patricia Boniface, National Trust Classics, 1987).

The Boston Massacre in Black, White & Color

Today, or rather tonight, marks the anniversary of the Boston Massacre of 1770, the most dramatic manifestation of the rising tensions in Boston accompanying the occupation of the city by British troops sent from London to enforce the Townshend Acts and make the colonists pay for their Seven Years’/French and Indian War. Well, there you are: the conflicted sentiments of an English historian who is also a native New Englander are readily apparent!  What became known as the Boston Massacre affords an excellent opportunity to examine the shadings of perspective in history, and we have the perfect image to work with:  Paul Revere’s iconic Bloody Massacre perpetuated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt., published less than three weeks after the event.

Revere was such a clever entrepreneur and propagandist; it’s too bad his midnight ride obscures his other talents and contributions. The engraving that produced these viral prints was very closely based on that of Henry Pelham, whose own massacre image “The Fruits of Arbitrary Power”, did not go on the market until several weeks after Revere had essentially flooded the market and sparked a revolution. The most “inspirational” detail of the print, in terms of igniting revolutionary fervor up and down the eastern seaboard, was no doubt the portrayal of the British troops in a firing squad format, shooting on the unarmed, passive, victimized colonists, but one other detail, or missing detail, is equally important: all of the victims of Revere’s massacre are white; the fledgling revolution’s first victim, a man of mixed race named Crispus Attucks, is not present.  The colorists of Revere’s engraving added to its appeal (and inspiration) by adding a lot of bright red blood to the print, illustrating and emphasizing his original title:  Bloody Massacre.

A print from a little later in 1770, and accounts of the five victims of March 5 from the Boston Gazette, and Country Journal, March 12, 1770, all from the Library of Congress.

Only a year later, when the first event of the massacre was commemorated, it was already being referred to as the Boston Massacre, largely due to the efforts of another brilliant propagandist, Samuel Adams. All narrative (as opposed to visual) accounts depict more of a confused melee, in which British soldiers fired into a threatening crowd under cover of darkness. But that was beside the point for the entire nineteenth century–and well after. The active abolitionist movement in New England will resurrect Crispus Attucks as an active participant, victim, and martyr of the Boston Massacre in the 1850s,but the Redcoats retain a relatively rigid line.

Putting Crispus Attucks in the picture:  the frontspiece of William Cooper Nell’s Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855), chromolithograph by John H. Bufford based on a drawing by William L. Champney (1856), and Howard Pyle’s illustration for Harper’s Magazine (1883).

Despite Attucks’ prominent placement in the prints above, he goes missing again in several popular prints from the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. The Alonzo Chappel image below, produced for Heppenheimer and Maurer’s popular Centennial Album in 1873, appears to be loosely based on the Bufford chromolithograph above, but a white man has replaced Attucks in the central position.  The 1901 image by Francis Luis Mora beneath it, published in Harper’s Magazine, retains Revere’s menacing Redcoats (made more menacing by the perspective) and even the dog which he placed in the middle of the event.

Prints by Chappel and Mora, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

A half-century later, Crispus Attucks returns in two modern depictions of the Massacre:  a mural at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, DC by Herschel Levit, and William H. Johnson’s Crispus Attucks. The events of March 5, 1770 fade into the background, or are substantively altered, as Attucks assumes center stage. Another figure who is associated with the Boston Massacre, John Adams, has become the central focus of the event in recent years, following the publication of David McCullough’s popular and Pulitzer Prize-winning John Adams in 2001 and the ensuing HBO miniseries based on the book. As Adams served as defense counsel for the accused British soldiers, this seems to have shifted the historical perspective a bit, from event to aftermath, while at the same time revealing a little bit of British sentiment.

Herschel Levit, Crispus Attucks (1943) and Philip H. Johnson, Crispus Attucks (1945), Smithsonian Archives of American Art; Alonzo Chappel, John Adams, Library of Congress.

Botts Court

I think it’s time for a simple, literal streets of Salem post, so today we have some photographs of a small “street” that runs between Chestnut and Essex Streets in the McIntire Historic District:  Botts Court.  This charming little way is named after the Bott family, who settled here in Salem in the eighteenth century, but the possessive is never used:  all streets lose the possessive over time.  As you can see, it’s quite narrow, so it is one-way and that’s the way I’ll present it. On the corner of Chestnut and Botts Court is one of my very favorite Salem houses (there are so many):  the Bott-Fabens House, built before 1800 and before Chestnut Street:  the entrance that you see here was moved from the west (Court) side to the south side in the 1880s by the Faben family, presumably after Chestnut Street became the street on which to live. The bay window over the entrance was added at that time as well, when there must have been a bay window-building boom in Salem (and elsewhere, I’m sure).  I think the entrance’s window tracery is beautiful, and there is a very patriotic eagle as well.  This is one of several houses in Salem associated with Nathaniel Hawthorne; he lived here for a time while he was working (unhappily) at the Custom House.

Turning the corner, we’re on Botts Court, which was clearly laid out from Essex Street (Salem’s main street, dating from the seventeenth century) rather than Chestnut (developed as a very early example of “tract housing” by Salem’s merchant princes after 1805). This is very evident because of the presence of the three Georgian houses on the right-hand side of the street: great houses which still look like they’re in their 18th century milieu because of their protected Court location. On the other side of the street there are great houses too, but they were built much later. The owners of the houses on the next street over (Hamilton) must have sold parcels of property in the later nineteenth century, and Botts Court experienced a flurry of building that must have changed its character rather dramatically. I first came to Salem about 20 years ago when I was in graduate school studying English history, and as I really wanted to learn about the history of my new city, I started doing plaque research for Historic Salem, Inc.  Several Botts Court houses were my first assignments, so some (not all) of my speculation about the development of the court can be confirmed by this research.

Georgian houses on one side of Botts Court.

The best example of the late nineteenth-century development of Botts Court is the charming Tudor Revival building below:  an “automobile house” (that’s what it said on the building permit) built by the owner (then the Mayor of Salem) of the large colonial revival house on Hamilton Street, behind it. In the next century, it was conveyed to the owners of the adjacent Botts Court house, along with a particularly charming garden.

The “automobile house” of changing ownership.

I’m losing my sun, and we’re at the end of the very short but very charming Botts Court.  As you will notice, there are front porches on both eighteenth- and nineteenth-century houses on the court; a rarity in downtown Salem but not on this little protected path.  The last (early) Georgian house below, located on the corner of Botts and Essex Street (right next to the Salem Athenaeum and its expansive garden) used to be painted a bubblegum pink, marking the transition from the serious main street to the more whimsical Botts Court.

Salem Film Fest 2012

The Salem Film Fest began yesterday, marking its fifth year.  It’s an all-documentary festival with screenings at three downtown venues (Cinema Salem, the Peabody Essex Museum, and Salem Maritime’s Visitor Center) spread out over a week.  This is a nice Salem event: well-organized, well-timed, and increasingly well-attended. I’m very pressed for time this week as somehow I find myself putting together an exhibit of the literary and historical sources of steampunk culture at the Salem Athenaeum (more later–am I qualified to do this? no) among other more academic obligations, so I’m probably going to be able to see only one film.  Therefore I must choose well.  Last year, I saw some ok films but missed the big hit of the festival (and the year):  Bill Cunningham New York.  I saw it later on television but Mr. Cunningham was so charming I would have liked to have seen him on the big screen.

So what do I have to choose from?  Films which examine:  a matchmaking mayor in Slovakia, trying to reinvigorate his demographically-challenged town, the architecture of the Cuban Revolution, Native American ironworkers, the making of a Santa Claus, the artistic process of Gerhard Richter, Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs in New Orleans (which I really would like to see, as I do like the HBO series Treme but can never figure out where the Indian Chief is coming from), the transformation of a western feminist into a devoted Muslim in Yemen, and the world of romance novels, just to name a few of the diverse offerings.  The Festival’s theme is see the world, and these are certainly very different worlds.

All (well, most) of the films on the schedule sound interesting, but the two that I am particularly drawn to are Battle for Brooklyn, about one man’s battle against the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, and In Heaven, Underground, about the 130-year-old Weissensee Cemetery, one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe, located in one of the northeastern suburbs of Berlin.  The former film appeals to me because I’ve seen my share of downtown development battles (albeit on a much smaller scale) here in Salem, and I love films that look at a big issue from a very personal perspective.  Also, my brother lives in Brooklyn and I think it’s amazing.  In order to make my decision, I looked up some reviews of the film (all of which were very good) and found myself on the Develop don’t Destroy. Brooklyn site, which has a header quote by Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner that made me really want to see the film:  “Why should people get to see plans?  This isn’t a public project”.

But as compelling as Battle for Brooklyn sounds, I think I’m going to have to go for In Heaven, Underground.  I’ve got to find out how this amazing cemetery, framed by art nouveau mausoleums, survived the Nazi Regime.  Apparently more grave sites were lost to incidental allied bombings!  The Weissensee Cemetery survived more than the Nazi Regime however; it also survived 40+ years of neglect under the German Democratic Republic, because (of course) there were no German Jews left to safeguard it.

Tough choice; maybe I can make both, or more.

Still photograph from In Heaven, Underground; Albert Eisenstadt, A Girl in the Jewish Cemetery, Weissensee, East Berlin, 1979.  International Center of Photography’s eMuseum.

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