Monthly Archives: January 2017

Salem Interiors, 1896

I came across a book I had never seen before the other day at the wonderful Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture (beware, serious rabbit-hole potential here) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison: Newton Elwell’s Colonial Furniture and Interiors, published in 1896. I was doing something rather tedious so of course I put that aside and dug in. The book is not great in terms of information, and there were some pretty serious flaws that even an mere buff such as myself could spot immediately (such as referring to Samuel McIntire as James) but it is a treasure trove of plates, including many photographs of Salem interiors I had never seen before. These photographs are fascinating to me because many of them feature rooms decorated in a mishmash style that preceded the pure period room. Look at the east parlor of the Peirce-Nichols house below, for example: looking quite cluttered and Victorian rather than serenely Federal, with the exception of that beautiful fireside chair. Elwell wants to focus on the period furniture, but his photographs can’t always hide all the contemporary details of its setting.

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The sheer (and quite casual) display of Salem furniture from the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is a little overwhelming: some of the pictures seem to be taking us into attics (or the storage area of the Essex Institute) where tables and sideboards are lined up in a random fashion. The chair that is featured in the second photograph above, of the mantel of the west parlor of the Peirce-Nichols house, is one from a set of eight crafted by McIntire, one of which sold at a Christie’s auction last week for $15,000 (which seems like a bargain to me, no?) But the 1890s was a key decade in the development of a Colonial Revival consciousness that was both very national and very local: a key decade for the identification of  “Olde Salem”. Consequently along with the eclectic vignettes which mix periods and styles, there are also some “typical colonial” Salem rooms in Elwell’s book, forerunners of the period rooms of the next decades.

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Plates from Newton Elwell’s Colonial Furniture and Interiors, 1896.


A Heightened Sense of Detail

It’s rather jarring to read the lines written by Salem’s chatty diarist, the Reverend William Bentley, about his encounter with the Salem artist George Ropes Jr. in 1804: “Paid G. Ropes’ Bill for head of Curwin, Salem, Minister, the painting by him. He is a dumb boy with Corné. Had receipt. $4.00”.  Bentley had commissioned a portrait copy of the Reverend Samuel Curwen from Ropes, who was then an apprentice of the Italian emigré artist Michel Felice Cornè. George Ropes, Jr. (1788-1819), the son of a Salem sea captain (how many times have I written than?) was indeed born deaf and was by all accounts speechless for all of his relatively short life, but Bentley’s notes upon his early death are more telling: Died of consumption, deaf and dumb, a painter, active, acute, circumspect, and esteemed.”  Ropes had to become the primary breadwinner for his family upon his father’s death at sea in 1807 and so he became a practical  painter of signs and such as well as an artist. While all art is evidence for the historian, I’ve always felt that Ropes’ works are more documentary in their detail, particularly two paintings in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Launching of the Ship Fame (1802) and Crowninshield’s Wharf (1806). I’ve shown it here several times, but I can’t post on Ropes without including his masterpiece, Salem Common on Training Day (1808), which is also in the collection of the PEM. Those poplars! I can never see this painting too many times.

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George Ropes, Jr.: The Launching of the Ship Fame, Crowninshield’s Wharf, and Salem Common on Training Day, all courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.

My favorite story about Ropes comes from the Pickering Genealogythe source of endless interesting anecdotes about Salem people. In another testimony to his skill and eye for detail, it is noted that on one occasion when the parlor in the house of Jarathmeel Peirce was being papered, it was found that there was not enough, and it being imported paper, more could not be obtained. He undertook to finish it by painting, which he did so accurately that it was impossible to tell where his work began or where it ended. A decorating crisis averted!  Ropes is probably best known for his marine paintings, including a lovely “portrait” of George Crowninshield’s famous luxury yacht Cleopatra’s Barge, and several paintings of the USS Constitution in battle during the War of 1812.The US Constitution Museum has a series of four paintings painted by Ropes (after Corné) depicting the famous engagement with the HMS Guerriere in August of 1812 which earned the victorious American ship the nickname of “Old Ironsides”, and at the end of next month, a Ropes painting of the victory of the Constitution over the HMS Java in December of 1812 will be auctioned off at Dan Morphy Auctions in Pennsylvania. Artistic reportage, and some pretty bold titles, from this silent “signmaker”.

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George Ropes, Jr., the last of the Constitution and Guerriere paintings, USS Constitution Museum Collection; Constitution vs. Java, Morphy Auctions.


Doorways to the Past

I remain absolutely enraptured with Frank Cousins (1851-1925), Salem’s great photographer-author-entrepreneur and pioneering preservationist, after countless posts on his life and work. Today I want to feature his debut publication, Colonial Architecture, Volume One: Fifty Salem Doorways (1912). The title indicates that there was going to be a Volume Two, but instead Cousins went on to publish The Woodcarver of Salem: Samuel McIntire, His Life and Work (with Phil Madison Riley, 1916) and The Colonial Architecture of Salem (1919) and through his art company, sell his prints to pretty much every architectural author of his era. Fifty Salem Doorways is a large quarto portfolio of Cousins’ photographs of doors representing all the historic neighborhoods of Salem: Chestnut, Essex and Federal, the Common, and Derby Street.There’s very little text, just doors. I’m not quite sure why I’m so fascinated with this volume, but I am: I pick it up and browse through it quite frequently, discovering some new little detail every time. Details of DOORS. Yesterday I was talking to a few of my students in the research seminar that I’m teaching this semester in an attempt to aid them in narrowing down and focusing their very broad topics (this is always a struggle), and I said you need to find a window–or a doorway–into this topic, a point of entry. I was talking about sources, but also perspectives. So maybe that’s why I like Cousins’ doors so much: they give me a point of entry into that Salem of a century ago. And of course it’s always nice to engage in some past-and-present comparisons, which is what I’ve done below.

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and one that got away: the entrance of the Francis Peabody Mansion formerly at 136 Essex Street (1820-1908).

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Go West, Young (Salem) Man

The California Gold Rush began on this day in 1848, when the foreman of workers constructing a sawmill on the American River near Coloma, California uncovered several large pieces of gold: when it was over, more than 300,000 people had gone west, including many from Salem. In the first two years after the strike, two joint-stock mining companies were organized by Salem men (of 124 from Massachusetts alone), and at least seven Salem ships departed for California, filled not only with potential prospectors but also lots of stuff to be sold there: this was an entrepreneurial opportunity in more ways than one! Here again you see Salem’s local history intersecting with a national event: the city’s trading economy had been on the decline for several decades so this would have been a very welcome opportunity as well, for both those who wanted to go west and those who were in a position to transport them there. The news of the strike spread like wildfire, and there seems to have been an immediate effort to retrofit ships as quickly as possible to carry eager passengers to San Francisco. The last of the great Salem ship captains, John Bertram, prepared his bark Eliza for the voyage,and she became the first gold-rush vessel from Massachusetts to sail for California, departing on December 2, 1848 with a cargo of “flour, pork, sugar, dried apples, bread, butter, cheese, rice, figs, raisins, pickles, boots, shoes, stoves, axes, picks, domestics, and a variety of small articles, lumber, a store, and materials for building a boat or scow, for dredging the rivers or on sand bars, together with a small steam engine, a lathe, and tools for repairs” along with passengers.

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Company certificate, California State Library; a caricature of the eastern “independent gold hunter”, 1849, American Antiquarian Society;  The Bark “Eliza” from a 1920 catalog of paintings in the Peabody Museum; model of the “LaGrange”, Peabody Essex Museum, New York and Boston “Witchcraft” clipper ships, c 1860, Library of Congress.

The Eliza reached San Francisco but never made it back; this seems to have been the fate of most of the Salem gold rush ships: they were sold, dismantled, and/or repurposed. The most dramatic example of a repurposing of a Salem ship was the LaGrange (see model from the Peabody Essex Museum above), which sailed on March 17, 1849 and ended up as a prison ship in Sacramento! We have insights into the financing of gold rush voyages from the diary of Salem forty-niner William Berry Cross, a member of the “Salem Mechanics Trading and Mining Association”, which purchased the ship Crescent for passage to California in 1850. Cross’s diary includes a complete roster of his fellow passengers, an inventory of the cargo, and the revelation that the enterprise was to be financed by the profitable sale of both the cargo and the vessel upon arrival in San Francisco.Over the next decade, celebrated clipper ships like the two Witchcrafts above would sail west and return to their eastern home ports, but these first Salem ships seem a lot more disposable.


Locals Lean In

It seems to me that there has always been a correlation between dissatisfaction with the Federal (or central) government, in general or focused on a particular branch, and action, manifested not only by large protest marches with lots of speeches but also by intensifying local engagement and activity: the latter does not loom as large on the radar screen as the former but is just as important, if not more so. It is these smaller, community initiatives that make me feel hopeful just now, although Salem has been a rather engaging and engaged place for as long as I’ve lived here. The city government is progressive and multi-layered, with the usual planning boards supplemented by committees made of citizens striving to make Salem beautiful, “no place for hate”, bicycle-friendly, and greener. There are venerable philanthropic organizations–mostly initiated and administered by women–that are still alive and well today in Salem, more than a century after their inception. Every cultural and/or historic organization has its dedicated band of volunteers. And then there are the newer, very focused initiatives, oriented for the most part on the livability of the city. Even though Salem is a small city, it’s still a city with visible urban problems, including most prominently litter, traffic, and crumbling hardscape. Even though I’d love to see its historic downtown cemeteries roped off altogether, I still applaud the efforts of the newly-formed Friends of Salem’s Historic Downtown Cemeteries whose mission is to advocate “for the protection and preservation of the Old Burying Point, Howard St and Broad St Cemeteries”. The city of Salem has a Cemetery Commission but it’s not enough; these well-trodden downtown cemeteries need more. Our other public spaces need advocates too, which is why I also applaud the Salem Public Space Project,  a “collective effort to engage residents in understanding and reimagining local public spaces”, and the Collins Society, which focuses on highlighting and preserving the work of Philadelphia landscape architect John F. Collins, who took over after urban renewal was abandoned in Salem in the early 1970s. The Society maintains a lovely website with some great images, and seeks to improve and preserve the urban streetscape (including fountains, plazas, planters and cobblestone paths) of downtown Salem, for “landscape architecture…should be preserved with the same dedicated passion as architecture”. Last but certainly not least, I really applaud the daily efforts of FireballsofSalem to cleanse the city of its constant supply of nip bottles and other annoying forms of litter. Valiant, hopeful initiatives all.

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The Old Burying Point on Charter Street and and Lafayette Park, a public space that needs some attention and will be getting it in 2017; The plazas and pathways of John F. Collins in central Salem: why are cars parking on those cobblestones on the left which are clearly not parking spaces? Fireballs are the preferred “fleur de Salem” of the Fireballs initiative but I’ve been finding more of these little green Dr. McGillicuddy bottles recently: I think they were specially priced for the holidays.


Presidents in Carriages & Cars

This week, with the Inauguration looming, I’ve been going to the Library of Congress’s site pretty regularly, as there is a nice compilation of images and documents relating to inaugurations past, with interesting little details noted for each and every president’s swearing-in ceremony (ies). It’s interesting to see the ritual evolve over time, and the establishment of traditions. I became fixated particularly on the more contentious inaugurations: my absolute favorite is James Monroe’s first inauguration in 1817, which was forced outdoors as a feud between the Senate and the House of Representatives over whose chairs would be used for the indoor ceremony threatened to disrupt the event! Several presidents (including both Adamses) refused to attend the swearings-in of their successors and rode off in a huff. Some of the inauguration addresses are interesting; some not very. At first I thought I would feature impromptu inaugurations–or rather swearing-in ceremonies–following the abrupt death of the previous president, but that seemed a little dark, and ultimately what drew me in more than anything were the images of presidents on their way to or from their inaugurations: more candid images of expectations, excitement and resolve, depending on the circumstances. Of course this privileges the presidents who were photographed, but such shots are so very revealing:  look, for example, at the two views of President Wilson: pretty joyful at his first inauguration in 1913, much more serious at his second in 1917.

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A century of Presidents in transit and transition: Franklin Pierce leaving the Willard Hotel for his Inauguration, 1853; Abraham Lincoln’s first Inaugural procession, 1861; Grover Cleveland and Adlai Stevenson in the Inaugural procession of 1883; Theodore Roosevelt in 1905; Mr. and Mrs. Taft in 1909; President Taft and President-Elect Wilson in 1913 and Mr. and Mrs. Wilson in 1917; President Hoover and President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933; President Eisenhower in 1957, all images from Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


Why are there no WPA Murals in Salem?

The various initiatives of the Works Progress Administration made their mark on Salem during the Depression: substantive work on Greenlawn Cemetery and the Salem Armory was completed, Olde Salem Greens was carved out of Highland Park, and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site was created along Derby Street. Many historic structures in Salem were measured and photographed under the aegis of the Historic American Building Survey, for which I am grateful nearly every day. I’m sure there were more infrastructural improvements implemented with federal funds in Salem in the 1930s, but I don’t have the time or the inclination to lose myself in the massive archives of the New Deal!  There is a conspicuous absence of federally-funded art in Salem however: no murals in the Post Office or City Hall illustrating the city’s dynamic and dramatic history. This absence is conspicuous because Massachusetts in general, and the North Shore in particular, is home to some notable New Deal murals, commissioned by various Federal cultural agencies to embellish public spaces with uplifting, patriotic, accessible American scenes while simultaneously providing unemployement for artists. There are amazing murals in Boston, Worcester and Springfield, and in Natick, Lexington, and Arlington, and here in Essex County, in Gloucester City Hall, Abbot Hall in Marblehead, the Topsfield Public Library, and the Ipswich Post Office. Moreover, there were several Salem artists who painted murals for the WPA elsewhere–but not in the city of their birth or residence. Why?

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Umberto Romano, “Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield”, Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Office Building, formerly the US Post Office, Springfield, Massachusetts, photograph by David Stansbury, and Hollis Holbrook,” John Eliot Speaks to the Natick Indians”, US Post Office, Natick, photograph by Thomas Cortue, both part of the joint Smithsonian National Postal Museum and National Museum of the American Indian exhibition, “Indians at the Post Office: New Deal-Era Murals”; Aiden Lassell Ripley, “Paul Revere’s Ride”, US Post Office, Lexington; and Charles Allen Winter’s “Protection of the Fisheries”,  and “Education” , two of 6 murals in Gloucester City Hall that have been recently restored.

I’ve been wondering about this for a while, but this weekend I was engaging in my semi-regular weekend fantasy-shopping-on-1stdibs session and I came across a study painting by Dunbar Beck for a mural entitled The Return of Timothy Pickering which eventually embellished the interior of the Danvers Post Office, where it remains to this day. And I thought to myself: why the hell was the mural commissioned for DANVERSWhy didn’t it come to Salem? Timothy Pickering is one of the most famous native sons of Salem, his house is here, and his mural should be here too. Danvers is the former Salem Village, and was long part of Salem, but still this mural clearly portrays Salem Town and harbor.

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Dunbar Beck, Study Painting for the Danvers Post Office mural “The Return of Timothy Pickering”, currently available from Renaissance Man Antiques on 1stdibs.

So, why no murals of Salem’s earliest settlements, famous vessels, lively port, sea captains’ mansions, or Witch Trials on the walls of public building downtown?  Well there would have had to be some visual reference to 1692, and that was hardly an uplifting American episode that could be used to raise spirits during the Depression. That’s the curse of 1692, which manifests itself time and time again. Or maybe there was no place for one in Salem’s relatively new Post Office or venerable City Hall. But I for one would like to see a simplistic scene of North America’s first elephant stepping on Salem soil somewhere around town.


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