Monthly Archives: April 2012

A Bicycle Tour of the North Shore

Now that it is Spring, I’m looking forward to getting back on my bicycle more often, and taking longer trips rather than just darting from here to there on a mission.  A couple of weeks ago, I purchased a lovely little book written and illustrated by Edmund H. Garrett, a prominent and prolific Boston-based commercial artist of the later nineteenth century:  Romance and Reality of the Puritan Coast (1897).  The whole premise of the book is a tour of Boston’s North Shore, “from the seat of a bicycle”, one of my own long-term goals.  Garrett’s route from Nahant to Gloucester was certainly a lot more bucolic than mine would be today, but routes 127 and 133 are still pretty bike-worthy, so I’m going to follow his path sometime this summer.

Even though Garrett deliberately avoided any sites associated with the “witchcraft hysteria” in Salem, his publisher had no problem selling the witch image in the above publicity poster.

Garrett bikes, stops, and tells little historical stories which are illustrated by his sketches.  He is clearly more interested in the romance of the North Shore than its present-day reality, and both the “puritan” past and the rocky coastline seem equally romantic to him. He blows through Lynn and Swampscott pretty quickly, is clearly enhanced with old town Marblehead, and once he gets to Salem he is primarily focused on Nathaniel Hawthorne and his haunts:  where the great author lived, worked and walked.

Past Salem, towards Gloucester, on what was then beginning to be called the “Gold Coast” because of the gilded-age mansions that were lining its shores, Garrett is more entranced by shady little lanes off the beaten track and old crooked houses–and the sea, about which he waxes poetically on nearly every page. After he reaches the end of his tour, the quaint village of Annisquam, Garrett pedals back to Gloucester–slowly, so he can enjoy the view—for dinner, with mention of what would naturally be a more laborious trip back to Boston.

Easter Weekend Witches

Given my city’s reputation, I think it is appropriate for a Salem-based blog to pay tribute to the Scandinavian tradition of påskkärringar: Easter witches.  According to this custom, most likely dating from a folklore “revival” in the nineteenth-century, Swedish children dress up as witches armed with broomsticks and copper kettles and go trick-or-treating on Maundy Thursday, the very day that their distant ancestors supposedly believed that “real” witches left on their journey to the faraway Blåkulla (Blue Mountain) to pay tribute to the Devil in a hedonistic sabbath.  These same witches returned from the mountain for Easter Sunday services (during which they would say their prayers backwards), if they could fit through the chimneys after several days of partying, or avoid the fires that were lit to keep them away.  Glad Påsk (Happy Easter) postcards from the first half of the century appear to feature the påskkärringar far more than they do eggs and chicks (or Jesus) and the tradition seems to be alive and well today.

It’s always interesting to trace modern customs and “traditions” as far back as you can go.  When you examine all the various details that make up the celebration of Easter in Sweden– flying witches, a far-off mountain, branches and bonfires, feasts–there definitely seem to be some pre-Christian elements, combined with pre-modern Christianity and modern commercialism.  At the very least, Blåkulla goes way back.  It is referenced in the key early modern source for Northern history and culture, the Historia de Gentibus Septentionalibus (History of the Northern Peoples) of Bishop Olaus Magnus, first published in 1555.  Magnus makes Blåkulla a bit more tangible by identifying it with a real island in the South Baltic, Blå Jungfrunwhich retains its mystical reputation.  He also describes, with a bit of skepticism that is later lost, the activities of witches and devils and other magical beliefs and entities.

The island of Blå Jungfrun, now a Swedish national park; devils and “weather witches” from Olaus Magnus’s Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, Book Three.

Magnus was writing (and living) right on the precipice:  the period of 1560-1660 was one of intense religious conflict and witch-hunting in Europe.  Sweden managed to escape the former but not the latter, though it was a little delayed: the most intense series of witch trials in the north were the Mora and Torsåker Trials (1668-76), which resulted in the death of 85 people.  The testimony in these trials is characterized by 2 distinct themes:  references to Blåkulla, and the accusations of children, who claimed to have been abducted by witches to demonic sabbaths which took place there.  The reliance on child witnesses, who were allowed considerable time together to get their stories straight, is indeed remarkably similar to Salem.

Title page of Joseph Glanville’s popular Saducismus Triumphus:  or Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions(1682), which includes the Appendix: A True Account of What Happen’d in the Kingdom of Sweden in the Years 1669,1670, and Upwards.

Given the central role played by Swedish children in these late-seventeenth-century trials, it’s a big jarring to see them on Glad Påsk postcards from several centuries later, but this is only one more example of how something very serious (and scary) in the pre-modern past becomes benign in the near-present.  The Easter witches of the past century are so weighed down by kettles and cats, and the occasional chicken and egg, that they have no room for children on their trip to Blåkulla.

Glad Påsk postcards from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s:  by the last decade, Easter Witches were taking planes to Blåkulla!

Alternate Histories

I don’t really like to engage in “what if” history with my students or read alternative histories, but I like the visual images associated with the genre, ostensibly very current but actually quite historical itself.  Renaissance artists inserted anachronistic imagery in their works all the time, partly because they were so immersed in the classical era and could not help drawing comparisons to that time and their own. For example, the northern Renaissance painting The Martyrdom of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins depicts contemporary Turkish soldiers slaying the virgins rather than the legendary Huns.  The Turks had conquered Constantinople in 1453 and were now poised to expand into Europe, whereas the Huns occupied a similar position a millennium before.

The Martyrdom of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, Master of the St. Ursula Legend, Cologne c. 1492. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Invasion seems to be the most popular premise for alternate histories:  the Turks in the Early Modern Era, Napoleon in the nineteenth century, Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler in the twentieth.  Widely acknowledged to be the first book in an emerging genre of alternate history, Louis Geoffroy’s Histoire de la Monarchie universelle: Napoleon et la conquête du Monde (1836) envisioned a world pacified and modernized under the benevolent dictator Napoleon.  Between the reimagined Napoleonic worlds of the nineteenth century and the reimagined Germanic worlds of the twentieth century is a peculiar little story by Salem’s own Nathaniel Hawthorne, “P’s Correspondence” from Mosses from an Old Manse Volume II, in which the author’s deranged friend P recounts his encounters with Romantic poets of an earlier era in 1845 London.  Hawthorne’s version of Midnight in Paris!  Somehow Napoleon appears here too, completely feeble but still under guard, along with an even more incapacitated Sir Walter Scott.

A beautiful first edition of Geoffroy’s Histoire, a Currier & Ives print of the iconic Napoleon Crossing the Alps by JacquesLouis David (Library of Congress) , and a modern mash-up on a tee-shirt.

The twentieth century, with its succession of invasions and conquests and technology, created a natural environment for alternative histories, increasingly recognized as a genre with a special name:  uchronia (which seems to accommodate both “what if” speculations and constructed worlds).  The classic example is J.C. Squire’s If it Had Happened Otherwise:  Lapses into Imaginary History (1931; also published under a variant title:  If:  Or History Rewritten).  The quality of Squire’s contributors (including Winston Churchill) must have gone some way towards legitimizing the relatively new genre.

The late twentieth-century invention of photoshop brought about a whole new realm of visual alternative histories, and the most charming examples I could find were, of course, on Etsy, in the alternatehistories shop. So here, in sort-of chronological order, are slightly altered images of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Chicago during the Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the Green Monster in Boston, just in time for opening day at Fenway next week.

Clockwork and Cocktails

We had our big fundraiser for the Salem Athenaeum this weekend:  Clockwork and Cocktails:  A Steampunk Affair.  The event was the result of several months of planning and preparations and a last-minute frenzy of decorating.  And then it was over and it all came down, in about an hour: so much energy and effort, so ephemeral.  I have no pictures of the actual party because for the hour or so that I was there I was in a fog caused by a combination of cold medicine and gin, having come down with a bad cold the day before, but I trust that my friends and fellow committee members will send me some. Everyone was snapping away, as it was a very visual party.  I do remember:  quite a large crowd of 150 people, give or take 10 or 20, a broad spectrum of ages, 20s through 70s, almost all dressed in some steampunk fashion (which I did not expect; everyone seemed to take our theme very seriously), great musicians, a magnificent living statue who never blinked, and giant pink octopus tentacles descending upon the third-floor trustees’ room.  Salem has quite an active steampunk scene, and we were fortunate to find (actually they found us) MHS Hysteria, a merry band of actors/crafters who really made the party.

Fortunately I took pictures of our decorating session the day before the party so all the embellishments are documented:  they can live on in the digital world!  We had a great committee comprised of the most creative women in Salem, and their individual and collective efforts created a magical environment.  All the key steampunk details were there– clocks, gears, keys, hot-air balloons, Victoriana—elegantly executed and assembled.


Adam from MHS Hysteria had the genius idea of transforming the Athenaeum’s demilune windows into Hugo-esque clocks, an amazing illustration of our theme as well as the Athenaeum’s architecture.  More clocks, just a few of many, including several sourced by Jane and a beautiful assemblage under glass by Suzie:


Part of the event included an exhibition of the literary sources of steampunk, which featured a lot of Jules Verne and other late nineteenth-century ballooning tales, so we wanted to carry that motif over into the party.  Katy made little balloon baskets (as well as mustaches- and goggles-on-sticks) and a late-afternoon balloon brigade put them all together.


There were quite a few keys in the exhibition, which featured industrial ephemera as well as early science fiction.  Salem’s own Locke Regulator Company was one of the largest manufacturers of steam fittings in the country at the turn of the last century, so we had to include some of their materials, and where there is a lock there must be a key!  This motif was carried over into the party rooms, and even into the bathroom by Carol.  After I took the above picture, a pop-up Sherlock Holmes (complete with magnifying glass) somehow made his way in here; apparently he was the talk of the party.

Goggles, goggles everywhere:

There were goggles everywhere, both made and acquired.  Nathaniel Hawthorne wore his goggles-by-Carolyn (who also made the giant pink Octopus tentacles which I somehow failed to get a picture of) very well, I thought, as did this very dignified bust.

Miscellaneous objects of interest and beauty:

A very eclectic tableau on top of the card catalog (yes, the Athenaeum still has one), an automaton-esque old dress form (on which even the duct-tape shoulders look beautiful to me), and jewelry-insects under glass, just a sampling of the amazing decorative displays on view, and the energy and creativity of the event committee.  In addition to the aforementioned ladies, I’d also like to thank the rest of the committee:  my co-chair Sarah, master of logistics and the budget, Julie, Mary, Kristine, Penny, Stacia & Patti.  Cheers to you all!

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