Monthly Archives: May 2012

A Charitable Correspondence

Upon the occasion of  Walt Whitman’s birthday, an exchange of letters between the poet, then tending the Civil War wounded in a Washington military hospital (where he first went to search for his missing brother, then remained) and Lucia Russell Briggs of Salem, the wife of George Briggs, the pastor of the First Church.

Letter from Lucia Jane Russell Briggs to Walt Whitman, 21 April 1864

I have been very much interested in your hospital work, of which I have heard through my brother, Dr. Russell of Boston. I inclose seventy–five dollars, which I have collected among a few friends in Salem, and which I hope may be of some little service to our brave boys, who surely should not suffer while we have the power to help them. You have our warmest sympathy in your generous work, and though sad to witness so much suffering, it is indeed a privilege to be able to do something to alleviate it.

I hope to be able to send you an addition to this contribution, and thought of waiting for a larger sum, but I see that you are having numbers of sick sent in to Washington daily, so you will be in immediate want of money.

Very Gratefully Your Friend,

Mrs. George W. Briggs, April 21. Salem, Mass.

To which Whitman replied a mere few days later (as if he didn’t have enough to do!):

Letter from Walt Whitman to Lucia Jane Russell Briggs, 26 April 1864

Your generous remittance of $75 for the wounded & sick was duly received by letter of 21st & is most acceptable. So much good may be done with it. A little I find may go a great ways. It is perhaps like having a store of medicines—the difficulty is not so much in getting the medicines, it is not so important about having a great store, as it is important to apply them by rare perception, honest personal investigation, true love, & if possible the inspiration & tact we in other fields call genius.

The hospitals here are again full, as nearly all last week trains were arriving off & on from front with sick. Very many of these however will be transferred north as soon as practicable.

Unfortunately large numbers are irreparably injured in these jolting railroad & ambulance journeys, numbers dying on the road.—Of these come in lately, diarrhea, rheumatism & the old camp fevers are most prevalent. The wrecks in these forms of so many hundreds of dear young American men come in lately, are terrible, & make one’s heart ache.

Numerically the sick are the last four or five weeks becoming alarmingly greater, & in quality the cases grow more intense. I have noticed a steady deepening of this intensity of the cases of sickness, the year & a half I have been with the soldiers. Hospital accommodations here are being extensively added to. Large tents are being put up, & others got ready.

My friend, you must accept the men’s thanks, through me. I shall remain here among the soldiers in hospital through the summer, with short excursions down in field, & what help you can send me for the wounded & sick I need hardly say how gladly I shall receive it & apply it personally to them.

Walt Whitman

Source: Francis B. Dedmond, “‘Here Among Soldiers in Hospital’: An Unpublished Letter from Walt Whitman to Lucia Jane Russell Briggs” New England Quarterly 59 (December 1986): 547–48, via The Walt Whitman Archive.

3rd Edition of Leaves of Grass

 Walt Whitman, 31 May 1819-26 March 1892

Slippers and Slipware

It’s perhaps a bit early–though not too early considering our warm spring– but the lady’s slippers have arrived in my garden.  Late last week I took a walk through the woods and encountered the pink variety (sorry, no camera!) and this weekend out popped my yellow variety ( Cypripedium parviflorum or Cypripedium calceolus, there seems to be an ongoing debate about classification):  they always take my breath away the first time I turn the corner and see them.

I must say I do prefer the yellow variety; the pink ones look a little fleshy close up, with the flower resembling a lung more than a slipper!  Thanks to the journal function of writing a blog, I checked in on my lady’s slippers last year to find that I had seven slippers, while this year I have eleven, including one stem that has two flowers on it!  Words fail to contain my excitement.  Here is a shot from early this morning, after last night’s thunderstorm (during which I had to restrain myself from going outside to put an umbrella over them):  they survived, but are looking a bit put upon.

I was looking around to see how artists have been inspired by the Lady’s Slipper in the past and the present and found that ceramics seem to be the preferred medium for depicting this particular flower, which was once so common, and now relatively rare. My favorite discoveries were a beautiful piece of Staffordshire creamware from the late eighteenth century in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, a Whately jug from the mid-nineteenth century, and a lovely little vase by Michael Stanley Pottery.

Remembering the 54th Regiment

Last year on Memorial Day, I wrote about Civil War remembrance in general; this year I’m following up with a specific focus on the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, of Glory fame, and several Salem connections.  Thanks to the film, the story of the 54th is pretty well-known:  formed by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew after the Emancipation Proclamation in December of 1862, it was the first military unit consisting of black soldiers to be raised in the North during the Civil War. Governor Andrew chose Robert Gould Shaw, from a distinguished Boston family, to lead the Regiment, which formed a heroic storming column in an effort to take the Confederate stronghold at Fort Wagner in South Carolina, losing nearly half its soldiers in the process, including Colonel Shaw. Shaw and the 54th Regiment were immortalized long before Glory, most prominently on the bronze bas-relief monument of Augustus Saint-Gaudens (completed in 1897), located across from the State House on Boston Common.

Recruitment broadside for the 54th, Massachusetts Historical Society; the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and a plaster casting at the National Gallery of Art.

Less well-known, in varying degrees, is the involvement of three Salem men with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment: Willard Peele Phillips, a prominent Salem businessman (who happened to live in my house at the time, or I live in his now) served on Governor Andrew’s recruiting committee for the regiment, Luis Fenollosa Emilio was a young captain in the Regiment, and later served as acting commander after he became the only officer to survive Fort Wagner, and Francis H. Fletcher, a clerk in a Salem printing office, enlisted in the Regiment and fought until the end of the war. Those are the bare facts, but the involvement of these three men runs deeper.  Phillips raised money, not only men, for the Regiment, Emilio later became the historian of the Regiment with the 1891 publication of The Brave Black Regiment.  The History of the 54th Massachusetts, 1863-65, and Fletcher protested the army’s unequal (or nonexistent!) pay system while still in service.

Transcription: You take a far more liberal view of things than you could in my situation. Just one year ago to day our regt was received in Boston with almost an ovation, and at 5 P. M. it will be one year since we were safely on board transport clear of Battery Wharf and bound to this Department: in that one year no man of our regiment has received a cent of monthly pay all through the glaring perfidy of the U.S. Gov’t.

Capts. Tomlinson and Emilio (center) with Lt. Speer, all of Company C of the Massachusetts 54th, May 1863, Library of Congress, Letter of Francis H. Fletcher to Jacob C. Safford, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

The heavy losses sustained by the 54th at Fort Wagner in July of 1863 (272 men were killed, wounded or captured, out of the 600 men who participated in the assault), along with young Colonel Shaw’s heroic death, captured some “glory” for the depleted regiment even in its own time. Harpers Weekly and Currier & Ives prints were disseminated to a national audience, engaged in this terrible war to a degree that doesn’t seem possible today.

Casualty List for the Mass. 54th after Fort Wagner, National Archives & Records Administration, Harpers and Currier & Ives lithographs of the Regiment, Library of Congress, tattered remains of the 54th Regiment’s flags displayed c. 1894, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Memorial Day Weekend

This is a post filled with very random images of rather random places–connected only through time:  my travels on both the south and north shores of Boston over the past few days of this Memorial Day Weekend, 2012. Though this weekend is traditionally recognized as the traditional start of summer here in New England, it’s been warm for a while so it doesn’t quite feel that way.  I’m always a little conflicted by this “holiday”:  it should be a time of commemoration rather than celebration, but in a way it is both. On Friday I found myself down in Quincy, south of Boston, at the “Old House” at Peacefield, the home of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and part of the Adams National Historic Park.  There was some exterior work being done on the Old House (built in 1713) but its gardens were in peak, perfect condition.

The Old House in 1849, NPS

Yesterday, which was very warm, we drove up the coast north of Salem in a very meandering way. We had a purpose, but we were all too ready for diversions, as you can see.  Then it was back to Salem to get my flags out.

On Cape Ann: the beach at Manchester-by-the-Sea, heads in Magnolia, Rocky Neck views (including a car that reflects our hotly-contested senate race; if we didn’t have two cars this is what our car would look like), and Ipswich marshes.

Back in Salem, Harmony Grove Cemetery.

Preservation Précis

We’re well into “Preservation Month” and I’ve yet to post on this topic, so it is definitely time. In my experience, the preservation process is seldom a smooth one, because it is ultimately a political process, tied more to property rights or urban planning than any aesthetic or cultural initiative. About a month ago, I was driving home from Maine and I decided to stop in Newburyport, a beautiful old port city north of Salem with an amazing collection of historic houses from many periods (they had their big fire in 1811, whereas we had our much larger fire in 1914).  I will take any and every opportunity to drive down High Street just to see the succession of stately homes, all perfectly preserved.  On this particular occasion, however, nearly every house had a sign in front of it:  either for the expansion of  the Local Historic District, or against. It clearly wasn’t a preservation issue–no matter what the sign said in front, the house was perfect–it was a property rights issue.  I stopped to talk to one man, with a “NO” sign on the fence in front of his beautiful Federal house, and he indicated that the appointed, not elected historic commission charged with enforcing regulations within the district were the problem–they had no accountability. His neighbor had another opinion.

For and against the Local Historic District in Newburyport.

Here in Salem a preservation controversy has been festering for months, even years.  Following the closure of St. Joseph’s Church by the Archdiocese of Boston in 2004, its development arm, The Planning Office for Urban Affairs, put forward a plan to demolish the 1949 “International Style” church and build an affordable housing complex on the site.  After a complete review process, and despite a lawsuit, the plan has been gradually moving forward, even gaining tacit approval from the Massachusetts Historical Commission (charged with enforcing the Section 106 review triggered by all redevelopment projects that are slated to receive federal funds) which ruled that the demolition of the church was unavoidable. The voices of opposition to the project–or specifically to the demolition of the church–were Salem residents who had grown up in the “Point” neighborhood surrounding the church when it was largely French Canadian (now no longer the case), who clearly saw the church as the sole physical reminder of their historic community, and Historic Salem, Incorporated (HSI), the venerable preservation organization in Salem.  HSI’s continued appeals, based on the positions that due diligence was not done and that the church could be saved and incorporated into the housing project, have divided not only the community, but also its membership and Board of Directors.  For me, one of the most interesting aspects of this process/struggle has been the continuing question of what is historic?  As you can see from the pictures below, St. Joseph’s is not a traditional “historic” structure, but a mid-century modern one. I think it has been hard for a lot of people in Salem (myself included!) to see this structure as historic, given our stock of much older (and frankly, more aesthetically pleasing) buildings.  The present building replaced the Romanesque Revival church that was destroyed in the Great Salem Fire of 1914, only a years after it was built.  If that church was slated for demolition, how would the process–and the debate–have been different?

St. Joseph’s Church before and after the Great Salem Fire of 1914, and yesterday.

Often preservation efforts result in a compromise, as is the case with the former First Baptist Church on Federal Street, saved (in large part due to HSI’s advocacy) as the historic anchor of the new Ruane Courthouse complex, but surrounded by imposing and intimidating  Soviet-style buildings.

There have been several smaller preservation projects in Salem over the past few months; no controversies here, just some nice restorations.  I wrote a post just a couple of months ago about a dilapidated and condemned Victorian house in North Salem that was almost gone; today it seems to be experiencing a near-miraculous revival. Along Derby Street, a long-declining little Georgian house has experienced a similar rebirth in the last few months, and the little Brown Street house of Daniel Bray, mariner, built in 1776, is looking better every day.

Preservation projects in North Salem, Derby Street (“before” picture courtesy of Jerome Curley/Salem Patch), and downtown.

Ever Eglantine

I’ve got roses on the brain, but not just any rose, eglantine roses, a wild, shrubby variety (otherwise known as sweetbriar or Rosa rubiginosa or eglanteria) at once very common but surprisingly elusive now.  I’ve been thinking about these roses for several reasons.  It is late May, and my roses are about to bloom, and I’ve come to the realization that I just don’t like several of them:  hyper-hybridized varieties that let me down every summer. Too pumped up and showy.  I want to go back to basics, and the eglantine rose is a very old rose, pared down and rambling, with a lovely scent. Chaucer wrote about this rose, as did Shakespeare, and Elizabeth I adopted it as her favorite symbol.

A beautiful sweetbriar rose in the Cloisters Garden.

So I have personal reasons for thinking about the eglantine rose, but also scholarly ones.  Summer classes start this week, and after an administrative semester, I’m back to teaching (gratefully): a course on “Shakespeare’s England” and one on Renaissance art, science and technology.  Content from both will probably appear in future posts, and the eglantine rose definitely ties in to the first, because “Shakespeare’s England” was largely Elizabethan England, and Elizabeth loved eglantine roses. The last Tudor had her family emblem, the Tudor Rose, and she used it often, but she adopted the more natural eglantine, symbolizing royalty and chastity, as a personal device, particularly after she had forsaken marriage in favor of “marrying England”.  The “Phoenix Jewel”, from about 1574, show Elizabeth surrounded by intertwined Tudor and eglantine roses (as the Virgin Queen, she preferred white), though in the more public “Phoenix portrait”, from about the same period, she is holding the Tudor Rose. Almost two decades later, William Rogers’ print “Rosa Electa” shows her with the Tudor Rose on one side (left) and the eglantine on another:  at this last phase in her long reign, she was widely associated with eglantine roses, even sometimes referred to as the Eglantine.

The Tudor Rose in BL MS Royal 11 E xi, ff. 2v-3 (a canon for Henry VIII); The “Phoenix Jewel”, circa 1574, British Museum; The “Phoenix Portrait”, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1575, National Portrait Gallery, London (on loan to the Tate Museum since 1965).

More visual evidence of the first Elizabeth’s association with eglantine roses is her court painter Nicholas Hilliard’s miniature, Young Man among Roses (1585-95), in which a young courtier (often identified as Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex) pays tribute to her simply by standing among eglantine roses (with his hand on his heart).  And then there is George Peele’s exhortation to his fellow Englishmen and -women to wear eglantine, and wreaths of roses red and white put on in honor of that day, for her Accession Day, November 17.

Nicholas Hilliard, Young Man among Roses (1585-95), Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

After Elizabeth, the eglantine rose continues to be admired, though perhaps not with the symbolism it had before. It’s a simple, country rose, contrasted with more extravagant varieties:  natural, wild.  Like all roses, it acquires all sorts of romantic associations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, only to be turned into a tobacco brand in the twentieth!

“Rosa Eglanteria Zabeth” (Queen Elizabeth’s Eglantine Rose), Pierre-Joseph Redoutélater 18th century;  The “Wild Rose”, W.L. Ormsby lithograph, NYPL; a lithograph by Jane Elizabeth Giraud from “The Flowers of Milton”, 1846, NYPL; Tobacco Card, Duke University Emergence of Advertising Digital Collection.

The prettiest paper eglantine roses seem to be on paper:  William Morris chose the rose and its vine for one of his earliest, and most popular designs, “Trellis” (1864), and there is a lovely, simple pattern reproduced by Carter & Company Historic Wallpapers based on paper found in a house in Georgia that dates from the 1840s.  I love this company’s slogan:  History repeating itself….

“Trellis” wallpaper by William Morris, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; “Marietta Eglantine” wallpaper by Carter & Company Historic Wallpapers, LLC.

Long Hill

Just to the north of Salem, over the Danvers River, is the city of Beverly, of similar size demographically but much larger geographically.  Beverly has a vibrant downtown, which is surrounded by lots of neighborhoods which are quite distinct: Ryal Side on the river, the historic Cove, the affluent coastal communities of Beverly Farms and Pride’s Crossing, inland Montserrat and Centerville, and North Beverly.  This is not an exhaustive list; neighborhood identities are well-established in Beverly. There are amazing Gilded Age mansions in the Farms and Pride’s Crossing, and the entire North Shore coast achieved an even more gilded reputation after President William Howard Taft made Beverly the site of his “Summer White House” in 1909, first renting the Stetson Cottage at Woodbury Point in the Cove and then “Parramatta”, a house in Montserrat.

President Taft’s first Summer White House in Beverly; after 2 summers here, his landlady, Mrs. Maria Evans, informed the President that she was replacing the house with an Italian garden (still there, in the now-public Lynch Park)!  The house was cut into halves, put on barges, and floated across the water to Peaches Point in Marblehead.  You can see all the pictures at the digital exhibition of the Beverly Historical Society.  Paramatta, the second Taft Summer White House, is below.

By way of introducing I am digressing!  Suffice it to say that Beverly had a well-established reputation as the site of a wealthy and politically-connected summer society before and after the coming of President Taft, and the architecture to prove it.  I’m going to take on a few of the greater North Shore’s more famous (and interesting) summer “cottages” myself this summer,but in the meantime you can satisfy any curiosity you may have with the wonderful book by Pamela W. Fox, North Shore Boston: Country Houses of Essex County, 1865-1930, or Joseph Garland’s Bostons Gold Coast: The North Shore, 18901929.

One theme that emerges from both books is the difference between the simple wooden structures built by the Boston Brahmins before Taft’s time and the more elaborate mansions built by non-Bostonians after.  That trend does not quite apply to the house that I am writing about today, Long Hill, built by Atlantic Monthly editor-owner Ellery Sedgwick and his wife Mabel in then-rural Centerville, away from the maddening crowd on the coast.  Sedgwick’s Massachusetts (western Massachusetts) roots go way back, but he did not choose to build a restrained Yankee cottage; instead he and Mrs. Sedgwick copied (and mined) a dilapidated Southern house:  the Isaac Ball House (1802) in Charleston, South Carolina. I tried and tried to find a photograph of the original Charleston house in situ, to no avail (only turning up images of the Ball family’s several plantations, all in sad states, and a few references to the “town house”) but Long Hill, completed around 1921, is supposed to be a close copy.

When I visited Long Hill the other day, I ran into some architect friends of mine, who pointed out details that I would have not seen on my own:  the perfect proportions (sadly missing in modern “Georgian” Mcmansions), the old, weathered, mellowed brick, certainly not circa 1920 brick, the very delicate columns, the classical details.  It is a charming house, well-situated, but it still looks a bit out-of-place to me.  I’m more impressed with the gardens, and all the surrounding woodland.  I never really understood why the Sedgwicks wanted to be so far away from coastal “society” (and breezes), because I never really knew about Mrs. Sedgwick’s horticultural interests—and achievements.  The author of The Garden Month by Month (1907, lots of illustrations and a pull-out flower color chart) wanted land, not ocean views, and she and her husband acquired 114 acres in Centerville on which to build not only their house but their very cultivated garden, even more impressive because of the contrast between it and the woodlands beyond.  Mabel Cabot Sedgwick died in 1937, but her husband remarried another horticulturalist, Marjorie Russell Sedgwick, who continued to improve the gardens at Long Hill.  The property was transferred to the Trustees of Reservations in 1979, and remains a peaceful, pastoral retreat.

The gardens at Long Hill:  woodlands surround the manicured lawns and garden “rooms” adjacent to the house:  blooming Solomon’s Seal, wisteria & peonies.


Green has long been my favorite color, but more recently I have come to realize that chartreuse is my favorite shade of green. A bit unusual, but true:  my spirit lifts when I see it or wear it (and I just counted 7 chartreuse cardigans in the closet, so apparently I wear it often).  How can you beat a color named for a liqueur, the “elixir of life” made by French Carthusian monks from the early eighteenth century?  Spring is the time for yellowy greens, and there’s quite a bit of chartreuse in the garden, even though the lady’s mantle has yet to bloom. Even the boring yews, hardly my favorite plants, have a chartreuse gloss at this time of year.

Chartreuse in my garden:  yews, creeping jenny (also known as Lysimachia nummularia or moneywort), heuchera, and an artfully-placed bottle.

I’ve been a bit more restrained about using chartreuse in the house; in fact, there is no chartreuse in the house (except for the bottle, when I bring it back inside).  But it might sneak in there; I have assembled an entire folder of chartreuse-colored housewares, as well as some tear sheets of interior chartreuse accents.  It’s a strong color, obviously you have to be careful with it, but at the same time it seems to be somewhat neutral:  is that possible?

Silver Chartreuse “bottle ticket”, early 19th century, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Ranunculus Swirl Shade in chartreuse, Anthropologie; “Chartreuse” by Mary Heilman, 1988 and chartreuse chandelier by Dale Chihuly,1993, both photographed by Larry Qualls; Milanese melanine plates from House Beautiful ; a chartreuse wall and door from Canadian House and Home.

The use of color in fashion requires its own post, one I’m not quite up to, I think.  Given its proximity to gold it must be a color of power, and one that is worn when you want to be in the spotlight:  think of Nicole Kidman’s Oscar dress from more than a decade ago and the First Lady’s outfit from the last inauguration.  Because it’s the absolute perfect shade of chartreuse (in my opinion), I did want to include this Charles James bodice of an evening gown, from 1951.

Charles James chartreuse velvet bodice, 1951 (Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The Doctrine of Signatures

This week’s blooming plant is the lungwort, or pulmonaria officinalis, a low-lying shade plant with speckled leaves that has always been the best example of the pre-modern theory of the Doctrine of Signatures for me.  An ancient theory that was embraced and expanded by several influential Renaissance writers, the doctrine held that the appearance of plants was an indication of their potential curative powers, or “virtues”.  Just as God created disease, he also gave man cures, hidden in nature, but marked by clues, or divine signatures.  I use the doctrine in class as one example of how closely tied medieval and early modern people were to nature, as clever a manifestation of God’s creation as themselves.  Lungwort, with its speckled lung-shaped leaves, was widely believed to contain virtues which could cure diseases of the lung, hence the name.

Lungwort in my garden yesterday, in British Library MS Egerton 747 (Nicolaus of Salerno, Tractatus de herbis , c.1280-1310), and as drawn Elizabeth Blackwell for her Curious Herbal, 1739 and Magdalena Bouchard  for Giorgio Bonelli’s, Hortus romanus, vol. 2, Rome, 1774, tab. 27  (Wellcome Library).

Paracelsus, in most ways a Renaissance medical revolutionary, nevertheless embraced the ancient doctrine in his “great” surgery book (Die grosse Wundartznei), published in 1537:  “I have oft-times declared, how by outward shapes and qualities of things we may know their inward virtues, which God has put in them for the good of man.  So in St. John’s Wort, we may take notice of the form of the leaves and flowers, the porosity of the leaves, the veins [which] signify to us that this herb helps both inward and outward holes or cuts in the skin.  The flowers of St. John’s Wort, when they are purified are like blood; which teaches us, that this herb is good for wounds.”  St. John’s Wort doesn’t seem as conspicuously “signed” as lungwort to me, but this passages shows you how far Renaissance doctors were prepared to go. Paracelsus does not mention the plant’s medieval virtue (illustrated below):  that of demon repellent!

BL MS. Sloane 4016:  St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) repelling a demon, Northern Italy, c. 1440.

Later in the sixteenth century, another Renaissance “scientist” (you have to put that word in quotations before Sir Isaac Newton, at the very least) elaborated upon the doctrine in words and images.  Giambattista della Porta, who was also a relatively well-known playwright, was very interested in outward appearances, not only of plants but also of animals and humans, and how appearance affected behavior. His Phytognomonica (1588) contains wonderful, literal images of the doctrine, like the one below, of “ocular” plants like the aptly-named eyebright, which was said to improve sight.

Giambattista della Porta, Phytognomonica (1588), and a 1923 updated image from the Wellcome Library, London.

You can go on and on with the doctrine of signatures, so I’m going to end with one last image of a plant in my garden:  a maidenhair fern, which was (of course), perceived to be a plausible cure for that most common of ailments:  baldness.

Mrs. Parker and the Colonial Revival in Salem

A recent article about a beautiful garden in Litchfield, Connecticut in Traditional Home referred to that northwestern Connecticut town as the “birthplace” of the Colonial Revival movement in America, which struck me as a pretty bold claim.  It is a pretty little town that seemed to deliberately tie itself to a fixed point in time about a century ago, but certainly lots of places could claim to be the birthplace of such a widespread cultural movement.  We certainly had our share of Colonial Revivalists here in Salem in the guise of architects, photographers, artists and authors, many of whom I’ve already written about here, but one who I have not yet mentioned:  Mary Saltonstall Parker (1856-1920), author and artist, but above all, someone who captured the myriad details of the past and the present.

For the last part of her life, Mrs. Parker lived across the street from our house on Chestnut Street in the beautiful brick Federal house you see below, the only house on the street whose facade does not face the sidewalk. Her Salem and Chestnut Street roots go way back:  she was, in the words of her near-contemporary Mary Harrod Northend, “a descendant of Colonial dames”.  She grew up at the other end (and other side) of the street, in a house built by her great-grandfather, Captain Thomas Saunders, for her grandmother and grandfather, Mary Elizabeth Saunders and Leverett Saltonstall, later the first Mayor of Salem and a member of Congress. This same house, 41 Chestnut, later became the home of her parents, Lucy (Saltonstall) Tuckerman and Dr. John Francis Tuckerman , and consequently her childhood home.  She left upon her marriage to William Phineas Parker, a cousin of the Parker Brothers of game-fame, but she didn’t go far.

So Mary Saltonstall Parker grew up surrounded by the comfort of friends and family on a street lined with mansions which were filled with all the beautiful things that mercantile money could buy.  She seems to have taken none of this for granted, and starting in the 1890s she started documenting her world–first the past, then the past and the present.  Her first means of artistic documentation and expression was verse; her second, embroidery, a traditional colonial craft.  There is a flurry of little books in that last decade of the nineteenth century:  At the Squire’s in Old Salem, Salem Scrap Book, Rules for Salad, in Rhyme, A Baker’s Dozen of Charades, A Metrical Melody for the Months, and, my favorite, Small Things Antique.  This last book is a charming discourse (in verse, of course) on all the little things she finds around the house, most of which no longer have any purpose but decoration: badges (the precursors of buttons, I suppose) from the 1840 and 1850 elections, warming pans (In old New England homes their use is ended, They hang with ribbon from the wall suspended. They stood for so much comfort in the days, When all our heating came from a log fire’s blaze), toasting forks, patch boxes, knee buckles, the pink lustre china on her shelves, the old jewelry in her top drawer.

The last item she observes in Small Things Antique is a sampler, and that schoolgirl craft would be her major form of expression for the last part of her life.  With her needlecraft, however, I think you can see the difference between Colonial and Colonial Revival:  Mary Saltonstall Tuckerman Parker’s samplers might have been produced with traditional techniques, but their themes were contemporary:  war and uncertainty in the first decades of the twentieth century.  The two samplers below, from the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, show a mother’s anxiety before and during World War One.  There are biblical passages combined with very contemporary references and images above, and below, an amazing mixture of past and present:  her own family warriors (her father, John Francis Tuckerman, a naval surgeon, and her two sons, Francis and William, presently in the service) along with an image from the Bayeaux Tapestry!  A long–very long–tradition of wartime embroidery.  The sampler has even more currency because of her “notation” that it was completed just after the November Armistice, the “Dawn of Peace”.

Mary Saltonstall Parker Samplers, from the Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum.  These images were scanned from Painted with Thread:  the Art of American Embroidery by Paula Bradstreet Richter, the Curator of Textiles and Costumes at the PEM.  Painted with Thread is the companion catalog to the 2001 exhibition of the same name.

Mrs. Parker’s samplers gained national recognition during World War One, and one was commissioned for the cover of House Beautiful in 1916:  a more traditional example, in both technique and imagery.

The last sampler completed by Mrs. Parker before her death in 1920 has an outwardly traditional appearance as well, with its house and garden and quotes (the Prior one at the top is particularly poignant) but it also reveals personal sentiments, for better or worse:  the words Armistice and Victory put us in the time, and the nearly snuffed-out candles bracketing her name tell us that her time is nearing an end.

Mary Saltonstall Parker (1856-1920), Sampler, 1920, from Paula Bradstreet Richter, Painted with Thread, The Art of American Embroidery (Peabody Essex Museum, 2001).


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