Ladies of Salem

Looking down upon the streets of Salem this summer are 12 “Ladies of Salem”, nautical figureheads created by local artists to commemorate Salem’s maritime past and highlight its present role as a “port of culture”.  The Lady of Salem festival, spearheaded by the city’s Beautification Committee, is the most recent of a succession of positive public arts initiatives designed to draw the attention of both residents and visitors away from the tacky exploitation of Salem’s witch-trial past, or at the very least to put the events of 1692 (and their “interpretation”) in context.  These ladies, affixed to lampposts on downtown streets adjacent to their sponsoring businesses, peer down at passers-by with their characteristic open gazes.  Here’s a sampling:  as the organizers of the festival are encouraging the public to vote for their favorites, I’m starting with mine, and then proceeding in no particular order.

Figurehead by Jeanne Pare, sponsored by Treasures over Time, Washington Street.

Figureheads by Mary Ellen Halliwell for the Salem Beautification Committee, Amberlynn Narvie for Beverly Cooperative Bank, and John Devine for the Palmer’s Cove Yacht Club on Essex Street.

Two more Essex Street ladies:  figureheads by Jade Mason for Body & Soul Massage/Collins Cove Appraisors and Sheila Billings for Cabot Money Management, Inc.

Figureheads were a prominent feature of ships built from the seventeenth century to the age of steam and were often, but not exclusively, female. The general consensus seems to hold that for very superstitious seamen, real women on board were bad luck, so this was the only way to have a feminine presence on seagoing vessels, which were, of course, also characterized as feminine.  At the same time, figureheads represented the “spirit” of their ships and offered protection on long, arduous voyages. The Peabody Essex Museum has a lovely collection of figureheads, many of which are very majestically displayed in East India Marine Hall, but the largest collection of figureheads from merchant ships can be found at the newly-restored Cutty Sark in Britain, part of Royal Museums Greenwich. I love this picture of them all together.

Figureheads in the East India Marine Hall of the Peabody Essex Museum, and one attributed to Samuel McIntire in the PEM’s collection; the Cutty Sark figureheads, collection of the Royal Museums Greenwich.

She’s not from Salem, but as most of us rarely have the vantage point of viewing a figurehead from above, I wanted to include this interesting photograph by Alan Villiers of the bow of the Herzogin Cecilie from 1928–the very last days of figureheads.


7 responses to “Ladies of Salem

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