Monthly Archives: October 2012

Parks and Preservation

Just north of Salem are two adjoining state parks, Bradley Palmer State Park and Willowdale State Forest, which spread over parts of the towns of Topsfield, Hamilton and Ipswich. I took advantage of a free afternoon and the return of the sun and headed up there yesterday, in search not only of woods and trails but also houses, of course. Nature is never enough for me!  These properties were named after their donor, Bradley Palmer (1866-1946), a prominent U.S. and corporate attorney who built a beautiful Arts and Crafts country house called Willow Dale in 1901 at which he entertained such splendid company as HRH King Edward VII and President William Howard Taft.  In 1937, Palmer began donating sections of his large estate to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and it was transformed into the parks.  All of the buildings on the Palmer estate, including Willow Dale and its outbuildings and the older Lamson and Dodge houses, have been leased by the state to long-term tenants who pay their “rent” in sweat equity through the Historic Curatorship Program, preserving these structures at minimal public cost.  The mansion has been transformed into the Willowdale Estate, a very elegant function facility, its coach house has just been completely renovated, and the older houses are in the process of being rehabilitated by their “resident curators”.

The Structures:  The Willowdale Estate  and its newly-restored coach house.

The Georgian Lamson House, considerably expanded by Bradley Palmer, and described as a “unique amalgam of Colonial and Colonial Revival styles” by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.  Images from 2008 –when its resident curators were chosen–and yesterday.

I have to admit that I couldn’t find the Dodge house, which was disappointing because I have been reading the great blog by its resident curators for the last several months.  If you’re interested in the Historic Curatorship Program (and Massachusetts has several other great properties it would like to lease) this record of the ongoing process is a must-read.  Lots of “restoration” blogs seem to be more about design and shopping, but not this one!  The Dodge house appears to date from the late eighteenth century, and Palmer made some “improvements” (including electricity) to this structure as well.

Dodge House exterior and wallpaper from residentcurator.com.

As you can see (read), the houses were the primary reason for my visit to the Palmer and Willowdale parks, but it was beautiful day, so I took a walk through the woods. Trails for people and horses (Palmer was an enthusiastic equestrian) are laid out through the Palmer park, and while it is possible to get off the beaten track, you’re never too far away from a steeplechase jump.  There is also a large meadow in the midst of the park, with the most luxurious moss edging I have ever seen. Willowdale is a bit less landscaped, but it also has laid-out trails:  this is Massachusetts, after all.


What Remains

On the last sparkling sunny day we had here (last Friday), I took some pictures on my way to and from work. The streets and gardens of Salem were displaying their last bursts of color, which could last a while, depending on the weather.  I’ve got lots of reblooming in my own garden, which I’m not showing due to presence of lots of ladders back there–we’ve been painting the house.  But out my front door, all looks well:  Chestnut Street (or at least half of it) has been repaved for the first time in 40 years by most recollections!

On the way to work: a bountiful garden and a colorful cottage, off Lafayette Street.

Back after classes—I made a beeline for the Ropes Mansion garden on Essex Street.  With its mixture of annuals and perennials–and lots of late-season perennials at that–this garden always holds its color.

Just outside of the gates of the Ropes Mansion, there is a huge butterfly bush that was literally FULL of butterflies–they were dancing all around it, actually.  They don’t show up in the pictures very well, but a few were ready for their close-ups.

Back home, where the light was dwindling both outdoors and in the house, much to the dismay of Mr. Darcy.


Columbus and the Guinea Pig

Christopher Columbus has been perceived as both a hero and a villain over the centuries, but the most historically objective way to glean his ongoing impact is through the prism of the “Columbian Exchange”, which focuses on the biological and environmental consequences of 1492.  The term was coined by Alfred Crosby, whose 1972 book of the same name influenced a succession of environmental, epidemiological, and commodity histories, including Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.  It is difficult to underestimate its impact, and it is one of the few academic historical theories that has trickled down to the general public.

A very simplified view of the Columbian Exchange; for a more comprehensive discussion, go to the source:  Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange:  Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492.

Crosby’s concept has become classic because it is so accessible; it’s about very basic things:  plants, animals, diseases–and their effect on people. Just a glance at my very basic annotated map reveals how momentous the merging of the eastern and western hemispheres was (and continues to be).  The most devastating consequences of the exchange were caused by the chain of events initiated by the introduction of Old World germs and smallpox into the New World:  the annihilation of the native population is linked to the trans-Atlantic slave trade through the introduction of cash crops like sugar and rice. On a much lighter note, it is difficult to imagine a world without American horses (and cowboys), Italian tomatoes, and potatoes everywhere.

For Europeans in the century after Columbus, America was an unexpected land of brightly-colored plants, exotic birds, and naked people, as exemplified by the popular print of Amerigo Vespucci (rather than Columbus) arriving in America–or rather waking up America.  Here we see another sensationalistic stereotype–cannibalism–illustrated by the leg-on-a-spit in the background.

Theodore Galle engraving, after Stradanus (Jan van der Straet), Discovery of America, from Nova reperta (New inventions and discoveries of modern times), c. 1599–1603.

Galle’s engraving was one of many images of New World flora and fauna produced for early modern audiences.  I’ve assembled a folder of favorites over the years, and thought I would share some on this Columbus Day, beginning with a very scary guinea pig, and an “Indian little Pig- Cony”  cut down to size from Edward Topsell’s History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents (1658), a popular English bestiary. Like most early modern “scientific” texts, Topsell included both real and mythological creatures in his compilation, so there is another American (or “Guinean”) animal, an armadillo, along with a very strange creature from the “new-found” world. I am wondering if these last two would have been equally credible.

Large “Guinea Pig” illustration by Balthasar Anton Dunker, from Livre de divers animaux pour dessus de portes par les meilleurs maitres (1769); Edward Topsell, The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents. London : E. Cotes for G. Sawbridge,1658

In addition to guinea pigs, armadillos, and the odd fantasy creature for sensation’s sake, turkeys get a lot of ink in the early modern era, as do parrots, which could often symbolize the New World all by themselves. Turning to the plant family, the most influential (and beautiful) printed herbal of the sixteenth century, De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, or “Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants,” (1542) by Leonhart Fuchs, introduced five plants from the New World, including maize, marigolds, pumpkins, kidney beans, and chili peppers. It would take a little while longer for news of the most consequential American plants, potatoes, tomatoes and tobacco, to catch on. Of these three, tobacco was certainly the most popular, celebrated for both its pleasure and health benefits:  it was thought to smoke out toxins in the body rather than deposit them.

A turkey from Konrad Gesner’s  Historiae animalium (1551-1587), from which Edward Topsell “borrowed” heavily, chili peppers in Leonhart Fuchs’ Historia Stirpium, tobacco in Nicolas Monardes’ Joyfull Newes out of the New-founde World (1577), and exotic tropical American plants by Arnoldus Montanus, 1671.

Well, I could go on and on and on…..this is a big topic!  But I’ve already posted on tobacco at greater length, and tomatoes, and potatoes certainly deserve their own post. So I think it’s time to return to guinea pigs. The evidence is mounting to support the view that these little (easily transportable) creatures were kept as pets in some illustrious sixteenth-century households, including that of Queen Elizabeth. By the seventeenth century, they are depicted among more familiar animals, apparently assimilated into the European–global– menagerie as one very small manifestation of the Columbian Exchange.

Guinea Pigs in the center of two seventeenth-century Dutch scenes:  in the midst of a barnyard in a drawing by Jan Fyt (British Museum) and among the animals entering Noah’s Ark, by Jan Breughel the Elder (in the immediate foreground, with the turtles, squirrel and porcupines; Getty Museum).


Big Pumpkins

In typical contrarian fashion, I left Salem on Thursday when everyone was coming in for the big parade that signals the beginning of our city’s Haunted Happenings festivities. I was going to try to get in the spirit this year, but I’m not sure if I can. It is certainly difficult to be dour all the time when there are so many fairy princesses running around Salem and I’m sure I annoy everyone around me with my constant critique, but it’s just difficult for me to jump on the “festival” bandwagon:  Salem’s transformation into Witch City, the Halloween destination, seems so solidly and cynically grounded in the 1692 witch trials and the tragic death and suffering of innocent people. I can’t forget that, so I went to the Topsfield Fair in search of big pumpkins.

The Topsfield Fair has been held every year since 1898 as the county fair for Essex County, a region that was urban/rural a century ago but is now quite suburban.  Essex County farmers are dwindling but Essex County gardeners are still going strong, so there were great fruits and vegetables on display but relatively few animals:  and far too few pigs!  Here are some prize-winning chickens (in the Court of Honor–love that), carrots, garlic, honey and a quilt that seems to summon up the spirit of the fair: a very random sampling.

But it was the pumpkins I came for, and one in particular:  the pumpkin grown by a Rhode Island man that set the world record at 2,009 pounds.  I found it encased in the middle of the plants and vegetables building, while the second, third, and fourth-place finishers were shunted off to an empty arena, alone and forgotten. I accidentally came upon them when I went to look for the Clydesdales. I was glad to see the white one (grown by one of Topsfield’s own) as I jumped on that bandwagon quite a while ago.

Appendix:  One idea for my own (smaller) pumpkin, back in Salem:


Great Debates

I became a little restless during last night’s debate and started thinking about other debates, past debates, great debates.  While last night was occasionally (and surprisingly) informative, in general I think we’ve turned our political debates into forums over the past few decades and wish we could return to the days of back-and-forth dialogues in which both sides elucidate rather than just score points. When we think of great debates, we think of Nixon and Kennedy, Lincoln and Douglas, and Williams Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Monkey Trial (or Frederic March and Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind), but I think I can dig deeper and go back further.

First, two interesting images of Richard Nixon, literally clashing with John Kennedy in the 1960 televised debate, and pointing at Nikita Krushchev in the “Kitchen Debate” of 1959.

Photography credits:  Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos; Elliott Erwitt/ARTstor Slide Gallery.

Both were apparently riveting debates, for different reasons.  The Kitchen Debate fascinates me:  a really big debate—communism versus capitalism–spontaneous, unmoderated, captured on film and and broadcast to the world!  And just a generation earlier, the very existence of capitalism, democracy and nearly every aspect of western culture was debated, as these WPA posters from the later 1930s illustrate. Perhaps the 1938 reenactment of the Lincoln-Douglas debates served as a reminder that this was not the only generation that was dealing with adversity.

WPA Posters from 1936-40, Library of Congress.

Think about all the amazing debates that happened in the decade or so before the Civil War:  over slavery and its extension, states’ rights, and the very survival of the United States.  Some erupted into violence; all were ultimately unsuccessful in bringing about a peaceful solution, despite all those Compromises.

An engraving of the Senate by Robert Whitechurch at the time of the Compromise of 1850:  Senator Henry Clay is addressing the senators, with Daniel Webster seated to the left of Clay and John C. Calhoun seated to the left of the Speaker’s Chair.  Library of Congress.  The Compromise did not hold: “Southern Chivalry” shows South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks caning Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate Chamber.

There were so many great debates held in the British Parliament over its long history it is difficult to choose just a few highlights:  debates over such seemingly insignificant issues as the adultery accusations leveled at Queen Caroline by George IV in 1820 and such major ones as the slave trade, suffrage, and many conflicts with the Crown. Of course there is a long history of debate outside the walls of Parliament as well, and while the arguments of the Radicals in the later eighteenth century are impressive, they were anticipated by those of the Levellers during the English Revolution. King Charles had been defeated by Parliament’s New Model Army, and there was an unprecedented opportunity for real political change, or at least the discussion of real political change. At the famous Putney Debates of 1647, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough of the New Model Army expressed a democratic argument that was way before its time: for really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think its clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under…”  Now this was the beginning of a truly great debate!

The House of Commons, 1793-94 by Karl Anton Hickel, National Portrait Gallery, London; woodcut illustration of the Putney Debates, 1647.


Etsy Harvest

I haven’t done an Etsy post for a while, and my basket is overflowing.  There’s too much creativity and diversity on display to restrict myself to Salem offerings (which tend to be dominated by kitschy witchy stuff and grotesque paintball helmets) so I have cast a wider net, although some Salem items landed in it. For some time, since I spotted some silver lustreware in Maine early last summer, I have been obsessed with silver-covered pottery, so I snapped up this “weeping” silver planter as soon as I saw it.  It was produced by the Swetye Pottery Company of SALEM, Ohio, which specialized in silver and gold glazed pieces–the gold looks a bit gaudy to me but I really like the silver.

And speaking of silver, there are several Daniel Low silver Witch Spoons on Etsy now, including the one below:  these little souvenir spoons almost singlehandedly transformed Salem into Witch City in the 1890s, and they remain very collectible.

More Salem stuff:  a Spode transferware jug, Greeff “China Trade” fabric yardage, and a May 1933 issue of Antiques with an article entitled “Salem Secretaries and their Makers”.

Decorating for Fall:  a few items that have the autumnal vibe that I’m craving right now:  a mixed media illustration (with real pressed leaves) entitled “The Hawthorne Sisters Endeavor to Grow their own Forest” by Fauna Finds Flora, a red squirrel watercolor by harebit, felted pumpkins by feltjar, a paper skull wreath by cardboard safari, and a red leather “green man” mask from MythicalDesigns. (Just click on the image to get to the listing).


October Century

To set the tone for October, always a month of highs (my birthday, beautiful weather and scenery, baseball) and lows (Salem’s transformation into full-blown Witch City, baseball) for me, I am starting off with some lovely images from Century Magazine, the popular successor to Scribner’s which was distinguished by the quality of its illustrations and its emphasis on popular history (lots of Civil War memoirs, and Napoleon) and serialized fiction by the most renown authors of the day. It was published from 1881 to 1930, an era which was clearly a golden age of graphic design. Collaborations between notable authors and artists distinguished Century prior to World War I; one of my favorites was that of Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel, and Harry Fenn on an article from 1884 entitled “The Salem of Hawthorne”. Fenn’s Custom House is below.

Another eminent Century author was Theodore Roosevelt, who penned several articles on the West in the later 1880s (with illustrations by Frederic Remington) and one on the heroism of the New York City Police Department after he had become its commissioner!

Most of Century covers are pretty sedate: more money, and emphasis, was invested in what was between the covers, and on advertising posters to sell each issue:  “coming attractions” for the literary world, a century ago.

Century cover and posters from the 1890s and 1910s, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.


%d bloggers like this: