Severed from Salem

Reading through the Phillips Library catalog is an activity that is simultaneously enticing and frustrating: one can glean the scope of the collections but not access them, provenances are presented but not deeds of gift or deposit (which is standard). Given the missions of its two founding institutions, the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum, the Phillips’ collections are both regional and global in nature, but one cannot fail to notice the prominence of Salem materials, consequences of content and/or bequest. To supplement that perception, just browse through the century-old Essex Institute Bulletins digitized by the Internet Archive, where you can easily access long lists of donations and deposits from descendants of scores of old Salem families and every type of organization: public, civic, commercial, religious, fraternal and sororal (a word I had to look up!). As is always the case in the Witch City, there’s too much focus on witch trial records: the tragedy of the removal of the Phillips Library by the Peabody Essex Museum is the vast amount of personal and institutional history–a cumulative cultural memory– that will be severed from Salem. Let me offer up just one collection of papers as an illustration: the Almy, Butler, and Robson Family Papers, which encompass the activities and associations of three intertwined Salem families from 1804 to 1982. Through these records, we can (or could) examine the rise and fall of one of Salem’s most prominent department stores, Almy’s, Bigelow and Washburn (1858-1985), a particular phase in the history of the Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church (now the Wesley United Methodist Church on North Street, which donated its archives to the Phillips as well), an edited manuscript of Katherine Butler Hathaway’s famous memoir The Little Locksmith (!!!!!), and considerable correspondence and materials relative to her niece Elizabeth “Libby” Reardon Frothingham’s energetic advocacy for historic preservation both during and after Salem’s battle with urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. Personal perspectives on Salem’s history.

Almys PC


Phillips PC Just two Salem institutions whose records are preserved in the Phillips Library, and the Essex Institute in its heyday.

The personal nature of historical materials works both ways: the people of Salem should be enabled to engage with their history in a personal way. When I read the detailed catalog entry and finding aid for the Almy, Butler, and Robson family papers, I think of the Almy’s clock that still stands on Essex Street, the first time I read The Little Locksmith, just a few years ago, and Elizabeth Reardon’s house histories for Historic Salem, Inc., which I used as a model for my own reports way back when I first moved to Salem and wanted to learn about my new city house by house. I’ve read about her exciting “discovery” of two Salem first-period houses hiding in (somewhat) plain sight, and just last year, I visited the ongoing restoration of her former house, and saw the cupboards where her records–memorials of decades of service to Salem– were stored. And now they’re off to Rowley?

Reardon 4

Gedney House

Severed 3

Severed 4The Gedney House on High Street, soon after its discovery by Elizabeth Reardon and restoration by Historic New England, and an excerpt from Julie Arrison-Bishop’s article “A Witness to Four Centuries in Salem”, Historic New England Summer 2015; 1965 Boston Globe article on Elizabeth’s discovery of the Samuel Pickman House (hiding under a mansard roof), and the Pickman House today, with the Peabody Essex Museum in the background.

17 responses to “Severed from Salem

  • Katherine L. Greenough

    Dear Donna, I can certainly understand why you are “seeing red, unrelated to the holidays” as you mentioned in an earlier post, over this situation with the Phillips Library. The lack of honesty, of transparency about the decision made by PEM is just as bad, if not worse, that the original decision. If PEM had been open and honest and told their members, local residents, academia and others about their actual plans in 2011 to move the collection to Rowley, the situation now would not be half as severe. PEM has damaged their most important asset, trust. They made a huge mistake by covering their plans and, in my view, can only begin to restore their reputation now by admitting their mistake and apologizing to all their audiences.

    • daseger

      Thanks Katherine–does you family have any papers in the Phillips?

      • Katherine Greenough

        Hello Donna, I believe there may well be papers deposited there by some family members, mostly likely the Coxes, and maybe some Brownes. However, I unfortunately have never had the time to go to the Phillips library, so I don’t know for sure. There is only one family member still alive who might know, but I’m not sure she would. She is 93, almost 94 and lives in Sheffield, Massachusetts. I will try to get in touch with her over the holidays.

  • Rob Wall

    Power conceded nothing unless a demand is made. Frederick Douglass. 1857. You have to sue on behalf of the public.
    Could the materials not be enshrined at the U Salem for example? Where is the University?

  • J.M. Curley

    Thanks for your thoughts and continuing exposition of the ramifications of this assault on Salem’s history. It’s obvious from the OpEd in the Salem News that PEM has little to no regard for centuries of work of the Essex Institute and should have been allowed to “merge”. So much for the promises made back then!
    At the very least PEM should not be allowed to transform the jewel that was the Phillips Library into office space. I hope the Historic Commission acts strongly here for the sake Salem’s true history!
    If we cannot have our collection back then the Phillips Library should be used as a reading room with access to the entire digital collection as well as home to rotating historical collections..surely the PEM can afford to do this if they want to attempt to be a good neighbor.

  • Nancy Lutts

    Hi. Thanks for your interest in this. How about Salem members of the PEM board of Trustees bringing the issue and becoming advocates for Salem’s interest in this. Nancy lutts

    Sent from my iPad


  • az1407t

    This reminds me of the 1970s when the Salem Redevelopment Authrority (SRA) was going to demolish a lot of downtown Salem in the name or “urban renewal”. It took the loss of a number of buildings such as the Paramount Theatre to rile up a lot of the citizenry to the point that many other demolitions were scaled back. The loss of availability to Salem’s historical documents, photographs, etc. should concern many residents to rise up to hopefully convince PEM to modify some of it’s decisions. Donna, I applaud your insightful articles on this subject and hope that a unified group is formed to bring this about. I haven’t been a Salem resident for decades (I live in Rowley) so I can only sit on the sidelines and hope that Salem can keep most of its historical items there.

    • daseger

      Yes and Elizabeth Reardon was at the forefront of that. I thank you for your continued support from Rowley (a great town by the way!). If it is at all convenient for you, could you snap a photo of the old (toy factory???) which PEM purchased and share it with us? If it’s a hassle, no worries, I’m going to make up there myself sometime!

  • az1407t

    Sure! I’d be happy to. It’s only a few minutes by car from my house. I’ll go there later today or tomorrow. BTW, the building is fairly new – my best guess is 12-15 years old.

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  • Jean B.

    A late but still-pertinent reply… My daughter and I get to Salem occasionally, and we inevitably walk by the Phillips Library. EVERY time, I have been disappointed to find it closed. I would have loved to explore its holdings. It is sad to think that it will never reopen.

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