The Last Collector of the Custom House

The life of David Mason Little (1860-1923) began in Swampscott and ended in Boston, but most of it was led in Salem, and in the fullest way possible: he was an MIT-trained naval architect, an inventor, a photographer, a silversmith, a military officer, a historian, a bank director, a mayor, and the last Collector of the Salem Custom House. Born into the wealthy and accomplished Little family of Little’s Point, Swampscott fame, he had many, many advantages, but certainly made the most of them. He was a descendant of Revolutionary soldier and scientist Colonel David Mason, his siblings included the famous maritime artist Philip Little, who lived a few buildings down and across the way from his Chestnut Street mansion, the architect Arthur Little, and the biographer Grace Little Oliver, his wife was the granddaughter of Salem’s great philanthropist John Bertram, and his youngest son Bertram became an influential collector and the director of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), the forerunner of Historic New England. These bare biographical facts do not do justice to this man, who seems to have been that rare combination of civil servant and polymath.

Little Collage The Honorable David Mason Little, and a Boston Globe article dated July 17, 1904, shortly after his appointment as Salem’s last Collector of the Custom House.

Little’s service–as quartermaster of the Second Corps of Cadets and state ordinance officer during the Spanish-American War, as city councillor, school board member, and Mayor of Salem–is commendable of course, but his inventiveness and artistry are compelling, primarily because of his range of interests. Like his brothers, he traveled around Europe following his graduation and returned armed with a fascination for “instantaneous” photography (capturing movement) and new rapid dry-plate equipment designed to facilitate the technique. He tinkered with this for a bit, and designed a new camera shutter (patent # US 284645 A)) as well as a steam yacht “specially fitted for photographic work” which he took out into Salem and Marblehead harbors during regattas. The result was his pioneering portfolio of yacht photography, Instantaneous Marine Studies, published in 1883–with a cover designed by his brother Philip. Years later, after his term as Mayor of Salem was completed, Little turned to another craft: metalwork. Learning the art of silversmithing from Arts and Crafts smith George Gebelin (to whom he also became a patron), Little crafted housewares for the family home on Chestnut Street, as well as this beautiful teapot for his daughter Marguerite, two years before his death in 1923.

Little Collage2

Little One

Picture 094

Little ResidenceCover and plates from Little’s Instantaneous Marine Studies (1883), a Little silver teapot in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Little residence at 27 Chestnut Street Salem.


One response to “The Last Collector of the Custom House

  • helenbreen01

    Hi Donna,

    Thanks for this interesting account of David Mason Little’s life and accomplishments. ‘

    Those were big shoes to fill, following in the footsteps of Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Custom House. That’s my favorite place in Salem …

    Like

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