Emulating Salem

I’ve been trying for quite some time, in several posts, to place Salem squarely in the center of the Colonial Revival design movement of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries–and not just the artistic and academic movement, but also its more popular expressions. This is a continuing exploration, and as I am trained not as an art historian, or even an American historian, but a plain old English historian, I’m not sure that I’m searching in the right places or looking at the right sources. Right now I’m particularly interested in the broader impact of the period rooms installed in several major American museums after George Sheldon (at Deerfield in the 1880s) and George Francis Dow (at Salem’s Essex Institute in 1907) created the first period-room displays. By the 1920s and 1930s period rooms seem to have been assembled in most of the major American art museums, among them distinct Salem rooms such as that established by architectural historian Fiske Kimball at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1923 and the South Bedroom/later “McIntire Room” at Winterthur.

Salem Room Philadelphia MA

Salem Room Winterthur McIntire Room

The Salem and McIntire Rooms at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Winterthur Museum.

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that you see advertisements for reproductions and adaptations of “Salem” furniture from this very same era, though the inspiration could be traced to many sources. Several major American furniture manufacturers, including Karpen Furniture and the Erskine-Danforth Corporation, produced entire lines of “Early American” reproductions. The latter’s Danersk line, advertised with accompanying Salem ships, seems like the very epitome of the popular Colonial Revival.

Salem Room

Salem Room 1928

The “Salem Room”: 1928 vignette by Edgar W. Jenney, who specialized in the depiction and reproduction of historical interiors and worked to preserved them–most notably on Nantucket.

Salem Room 1926p

Salem bed with border

1926 advertisements for Danersk Early American furniture, Erskine-Danforth Corporation.

It’s not really Salem-specific, but I can’t resist referencing the great 1948 Cary Grant/Myrna Loy film Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House here, because it both exemplifies and mocks the longstanding influence of the Colonial Revival in America. After an interior decorator (named Bunny Funkhouser!) sketches an over-the-top “Colonial” living-room redesign for the Blandings’ NYC apartment featuring a cobbler’s bench, pie safe, and spinning wheel, they decide to decamp for the real thing in Connecticut. When their authentic colonial is deemed unsound, they level it and build a neo-Colonial, a bit more refined than Funkhouser’s sketch certainly, but most definitely Colonial in inspiration and design. I can’t find a still of the Funkhouser room, but you’ve got to see it to believe it.


14 responses to “Emulating Salem

  • markd60

    I always love the old pictures. Especially the advertising.

  • jane

    This is about material culture – things. Not art, particularly. It has to do with economics ( panics, depressions, war, immigration, technology) and how each generation perceives the past –
    I am on several deadlines or I would write more. I will think about sources.
    Consider why people even wanted to preserve and recreate period rooms. What made them worth looking at? Why were people nostalgic? How did they perceive the just past Victorian era?

    • daseger

      You’re right, Jane–the are big questions for cultural historians.I’m juggling several books right now that are giving me some insights–including a really interesting book about the (creation of the) demand for antiques called Out of the Attic–but I’ve got several deadlines as well!

  • jane

    First deadline met!
    Although I know that architectural style is inseparable from technology and culture, I will just write here about style.
    Americans have a love/hate relationship with European style – feeling we aren’t up to snuff and copying (2nd French Empire) and then forging ahead ( Stick and Shingle styles) with our own. And we build of wood when Europe is building with stone and brick, so even when we copy it becomes our own, not just vernacular. About 1876, the Centennial, we realize that we have a real past! 100 years worth! We begin to add ‘colonial’ motifs (no differentiation between 1680 and 1810 – all ‘colonial’) to Queen Anne houses. Especially after the ‘panic’ from 1896-1904 (a depression) we in New England invent Colonial Revival and Neo-Classical (ie: European) styles. While the rest of the country west of the Appalachians is doing Prairie, Mission, Arts and Crafts, we cling to our history. We are the Pilgrims, the Colonies. But what we emulate, what we put in our museums are not the simple, pre- Revolutionary houses in Ipswich or Danvers but the grand, post 1785 houses of successful merchants in Salem.
    SPNEA – Historic New England’s history, including the individuals involved, and Wallace Nutting’s trajectory might be good references.
    so back go the deadlines!

  • jane

    Realizing that Monday is Martin Luther KIng Day, I am adding this now in his honor.
    After the War of 1812 and the Embargoes all the port cities in New England suffered – Salem too – serious economic decline. By the Civil War we had new mills and industry and an overwhelming influx of immigrants.
    Xenophobia appears. By the end of the century the original settlers are wary.
    Brunswick,ME’s historical society admitted (when I visited c.1990) that it was founded c.1890 to protect the town’s white, Anglo -Saxon, Protestant heritage under the onslaught of ‘others’ with different language, churches, foods, customs. This sense of privilege, privacy, power? discrimination? was wide spread. It was still present in the 1970’s when I, still using my maiden name (Griswold – one with long ties to New England!), thought I would like to be part of my town’s historical society. I was told I did not have the right antecedents. I have heard similar stories about other towns.
    Yes, the Salem Room and the McIntyre Rooms are beautiful and worth saving, worth studying. But they were presented as our history, when they are only part of it. They discriminated, just as did Williamsburg without slave quarters, Plymouth Plantation without the Wapanoag, the Spencer-Pierce-Little House in Newbury,MA, without the Stekionis famly.

    enough –
    I connect with these houses viscerally. They please me endlessly

  • Brian Bixby

    The trajectory of interest in Shaker furniture follows a similar path to what you and Jane have outlined. They don’t become fashionable until after the Centennial Exhibition, where in fact they were exhibited. Haven’t run into any collectors prior to about 1905 (away from home, so date approx.), and it’s the work of people such as Nutting, and the photographer Charles Sheeler and collector Edward Deming Andrews in the 1930s that revive interest in Shaker furniture in a big way.

    • daseger

      We’ve yet to meet to speak Shaker, Brian! Another thing in common between the Shakers and the various Colonial Revival advocates is their entrepreneurialism, I think.

      • Brian Bixby

        Maybe I’ll get up to Salem during the semester. 🙂

        It’s interesting that there were controversies both over how entrepreneurial Shakers should be (especially in the 1835-70 period), and how entrepreneurial promoters of Shaker culture were in the 1900-1970 period. There’s a running tension over spiritual purity and material goods, no surprise that, I’m sure.

      • daseger

        It’s fascinating! I wonder if they rationalized it like the Calvinists did……

  • Sean

    Great book on the subject,
    There are also period rooms in the Phillips Library, which are very early.

  • Victoria Caldwell (@vbcaldwell)

    The St. Louis Museum of Art also has a Salem Room with a mantel attributed to McIntire and French wallpaper with scenes from Captain Cook’s travels on the walls. You can see photos of it in Cousins’ Colonial Architecture of Salem. The mantel came from Frye’s Tavern at 94 Boston Street, still standing today in somewhat diminished glory — it is now a convenience store and tattoo parlor.

    • daseger

      Thank you so much for your comment, Victoria: I knew about the Frye rooms in St. Louis but completely forgot to reference them in the post. You are indeed correct–that building is “diminished”–I’ll have to do a whole post in the near future.

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