I’m not bound to such designations, but as we’re almost running out of Women’s History Month and our mayor has declared March 29 Salem Women’s History Day I’ve decided to feature a notable Salem woman on this last weekend in March. After much deliberation–as there are many notable women in Salem’s history–I’ve settled on the author and entrepreneur Mary Harrod Northend (1850-1926). She has interested me for some time, and she’s popped up in several posts in the past, but she deserves her own. Northend was from old, old Massachusetts families on both sides, and this heritage is key to her life and work. Both parents were actually from northern Essex County, but moved south after their marriage: her father, William Dummer Northend, became a prominent attorney and a state senator for Salem. Mary was born at 17 Beckford Street, a side-to-street late Federal house, but the family moved over to Lynde Street, in the shadow of the Federal Street courthouses, in the later 1850s. Their grand Italianate double house, photographed for Mary’s books later, is now sadly chopped into 12 apartments by my count. The few biographical details I could gather refer to a childhood sickness; in fact by all accounts (or by no accounts) Mary led a quiet life in her childhood and adulthood, until she burst out in her 50s and started writing all about colonial Salem and colonial New England, necessitating regional travel, which she clearly embraced. Eleven books were published between 1904 and 1926, when she died in Salem from complications sustained from a car accident, and many, many articles for magazines such as Good Housekeeping, The Century and The House Beautiful: I haven’t had time to compile a proper bibliography. But she was an incredibly prolific woman: an acknowledged expert on New England architecture and antiquities, with a touch of Martha Stewart-esque domestic stature as well, forged by her publications on decorating and party-planning. Let us, she writes in a very Martha tone in The Art of Home Decoration: link the old and the new, working out entrancing combinations that are ideal, making our home joyous and bright through the right utilizing of great grandmother’s hoard.
Mary Harrod Northend’s birthplace at 17 Beckford Street, Salem; her father William Dummer Northend, newly-elected State Senator from Salem, 1862, State Library of Massachusetts.
Her books and articles reveal Mary to be a fierce advocate for “Old-time” New England; she is at the forefront of that (second?) generation of strident Colonial Revivalists, fearful that the (changing) world around them hasn’t developed proper appreciation for colonial architecture and material culture. She is evangelical in her love of clapboards, mantles, arches, doorways, garden ornaments, pewter and seamless glass. The phrase “detail-oriented” doesn’t even come close to capturing Mary’s appreciation of the things that were built and made in the colonial past: these things are her life and her world. And like any good educator–which she was–Mary wanted her (growing) audience to see her world and so she spared no expense when it came to photography, first taking her own photographs and then “directing” commercial photographers in the manner of a cinematographer, according to Mary N. Woods’ Beyond the Architect’s Eye: Photographs and the American Built Environment (2011). The end result was a vast collection of still images (there are 6000 glass plate negatives in the collection of Historic New England alone, though the entry in the biographical dictionary Who’s Who in New England for 1915 indicates that Mary has “20,000 negatives and prints of American homes”) which she used to illustrate her own books, sold to other architectural writers, and colorized in the style of Wallace Nutting to sell directly to the public.
Two of Northend’s most popular titles, Historic Homes of New England (1914) and Historic Doorways of Old Salem (1926); the Cook-Oliver House on Federal Street in Salem, featured in Historic Homes and sold as an individual colorized print, “The Half Open Door”.
It’s relatively easy to research the work of Mary Harrod Northend: her books are still readily available in both print and digital form and prints from her photographic collection are at Historic New England and the Winterthur Library. But I wish I knew more about her business, the business of publishing books and photographs, writing, lecturing, collecting. I’m also curious about money: there’s definitely a bit of voyeurism in Northend’s books and I can’t discern why she remained in the family home on busy Lynde Street rather than move to the McIntire District just a few blocks away. In one of her most personal, yet still fictionalized, books, Memories of Old Salem: Drawn from the Letters of a Great-Grandmother (1917), the great-grandmother in the title lives on Chestnut Street, but Mary never did. This might have been a family matter: her widowed mother and sister lived right next door in the Italianate double house, which was also an appropriate “stage” for some of her photographs. I also think it was quite likely that Miss Northend was seldom at her own home, as she was so busy documenting those of others!
A very random sampling of Mary Harrod Northend photographs, mostly from Historic Homes and Colonial Homes and their Furnishing (1912), all from the Winterthur Digital Collections:
Three very different Salem houses: doorway at the House of the Seven Gables, entrance of 10 Chestnut, side view of the Robinson House on Summer Street.
Salem mantles: a pewter display, McIntire mantle at the Waters House (LOVE this louvred fire screen), Whipple and Pickman mantles.
Details & decor I love: hallway of 29 Washington Square, Salem, Ropes Mansion windowseat, entry hall at Saltonstall House, Haverhill, Attic and twin canopy beds on the Cape (from Remodeled Farmhouses, 1915–but all of Miss Northend’s books feature canopied beds! I would place them headboard to headboard.)
Flagrant displays of Colonial Revivalism: Spinning wheel and fire buckets at the Kate Sanborn House, and Miss Northend’s own house on Lynde Street, all dressed up for Spring.