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