Salem Common

First off, it is Salem Common, not Salem Commons; the Common is not a suburban tract housing development. Those who refer to it as “Commons” are either not from Salem, or from New England (where commons are common), or are peddling something, such as the owners of the sausage stands and fried dough trucks who are allowed to set up residence on the Common during October.  I love commons (I’m using the plural here) and I think Salem has one of the prettiest in New England–but not in October.

Salem Common this October, and the same corner in an 1870s photograph by Salem photographers Peabody & Tilton (New York Public Library) and a turn-of-the-century postcard.

One of my favorite views of the Common is not a photograph, but a painting:  George Ropes’ Salem Common on Training Day (1808), which shows the local militia drilling on the green with townspeople looking on:  a window into the civic life of the new republic.  The Common has never been a pristine park but rather the center of varied activities: baseball, weddings, festivals, field days, concerts, ice-skating. A succession of playgrounds have been located on the Common, and now there’s a particularly nice one on the southeastern corner.  I think that most of the activities in the Common’s history, however, have benefited the public rather than private individuals. It is a common, after all.

George Ropes, Salem Common on Training Day (1808), Peabody Essex Museum; baseball on the Common in 1910, and the same perspective this past week.

I’ve seen other vehicles besides food trucks drive and park on the Common at this time of year, as if it were a parking lot. The sense of enclosed, protected, tranquil space in the midst of the city has been challenged for some time now, and not only in October, by the deteriorating condition of the circa 1850 cast iron fence.  The city is restoring the fence, in phases, but it’s an expensive undertaking. The Washington Arch is looking a little worse for wear too:  I’d like to think that the revenues from the food trucks are going towards these repairs in particular, and into a fund for the general maintenance of the Common in general.

Late nineteenth-century stereoviews show the Common with a more spare and formal look, no doubt, in part to the presence of Elm trees, always so striking in images from the past. Below are three images by the prolific Salem photographers Frank Cousins and G.K. Proctor (I’ve got an interesting post about the latter coming in the next few weeks) and an anonymous contemporary colleague.  The north side of the Common remains the most serene today; I imagine that this last photograph is also the last of our Fall color with this enormous storm bearing down on us.

Salem Common stereoviews by Frank Cousins, GK Proctor, and an anonymous photographer, New York Public Library Dennis Collection.

12 responses to “Salem Common

  • michellenmoon

    Love these images. I am a big fan of the Common (it’s my neighborhood!) and have always wanted to delve a bit deeper into it’s history. I’m particularly interested in the plan and would love to know the dimensions on each side, and also that of the layout of radiating paths and how they relate to one another. There is a striking geometry to the park, but it’s very hard to find interpretation of it.

    Agree that the Washington arch needs some love! Those rotting panels are a concern.

    Few public places are as well used and loved as Salem. I walk across it to work, and one day started to inventory the range of daily activities I’ve seen happen there – before I was even challenged to scour my brain the list was in the high 20s and still growing. The “Training Day” painting is one of my favorites at PEM, and one day while walking across I realized that the unusual perspective is not as fanciful as it seems, but something you can actually get a hint of as you cross the Common – the trees directly in front of you loom tall, while those on either side recede in your peripheral vision. Never saw the painting the same way after that!

    (Also I hate to be the pedant but especially when the topic is mistaking one word for another, thought you might want to know the word is “tract” housing:

  • Leslie Clements

    Lovely, even with food stands! Although I do hope that they’re generating some revenue for restoration (wishful thinking?).

  • quiltingpiecebypiece

    You know, I never thought about people saying “Commons” vs “Common.” Probably because when I first moved to the Boston area, I was told that the Common was “common grazing area” for city dwellers. I later found that wasn’t entirely the case, but that stuck with me.

  • jldk

    Muy interesante! What do “we” know about the trees in the “Training Day” painting? Are they really shown as evergreens? I, too, love it and didn’t realize it was our Common (w/o the ‘s’).

    • daseger

      I think Ropes is (rather fancifully) depicting the poplar trees that were planted when the Common was landscaped at the beginning of the 19th century–many were destroyed by a big storm in 1815 and replaced by elms.

  • Nancy Webster

    Is there a foundation dedicated to the preservation of the Salem Common? I would very much like to contribute to such an effort.

    • daseger

      Nancy, how thoughtful of you! I will have to do some research. I know that many of the initiatives regarding the Common have been private and quite specific–like Elias Hasket Derby’s leveling project in 1802 and the recent playground–and I do not think there is a general fund. The Salem Common Neighborhood Association is the major advocate for the park. The City is overseeing the fence project, but it’s going to take some time. If I learn of any other initiatives I will certainly showcase them here.

  • downeastdilettante

    Damn the automobile! Damn it to Hell! The early views, sans cars, cause extreme wistfulness.

    The condition of the Washington Arch startles one.

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