Today is the birthday of the man who literally made Golden Age Salem, expanding his woodcarving skills into architecture and interior decoration exemplifying the Federal style: Samuel McIntire (1757-1811). Frankly, I’m not sure Salem is McIntire-esque anymore but my corner of it is still McIntire world, and for that I am very, very grateful. My house is in the McIntire Historic District and every morning I look out my bedroom window at two McIntire structures: Hamilton Hall and the (recently sold) Captain Jonathan Hodges House at 12 Chestnut Street. Just around the corner on Cambridge Street is one of my favorite McIntire houses, the Thomas Butman House at #14. The microsite for the Samuel McIntire: Carving an American Style (2007-2008) exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum is still up, so you can check out “his” Salem for yourself, but I am featuring another introduction on this day: a children’s book titled A Shilling for Samuel (1957) written and illustrated by Virginia Grilley.
Grilley seems to have been a well-known children’s book author in the 1950s and 1960s, and she also wrote and illustrated several books about the Salem of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the great “scribe” and “romancer”. She liked to conjure up historical places, in both words and pictures. A Shilling for Samuel is very much in the tradition of another example of mid-century Salem juvenile fiction, Carry on, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham, which was published just the year before. In both books, Salem boys are inspired by the bustling, cosmopolitan environment all around them as well as their innate interests and talents to develop their specialized skills and make their way in the American way. In Grilley’s story, Samuel grows up along the water (in a house on Mill Street–could it be this one? I’m just not sure) and learns about carpentry and carving from his father, but his family wants a different life for him: go to sea, young man, that’s where fortunes are made. Nevertheless he loves to carve and look at the “strangely-shaped roofs” of his native town and seeks to replicate everything he sees around him in wood. The first shilling he receives for a carving, combined with the pattern books he spots in Mr. Shillaber’s bookshop, propel him on his life’s path. The rest is history–outside my window.
Pages from Virginia Grilley’s A Shilling for Samuel; a mahogany McIntire window bench coming up in a Christie’s auction next week–certain to fetch many, many shillings!