Monthly Archives: March 2019

Historic Happenings in Salem

As always, I’m excited for the Salem Film Fest commencing this weekend and running through most of next week, but next weekend will see two big events inspired by Salem’s dynamic 18th-century history: the Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall on Saturday the 6th, and “Salt Cod for Silver: Yankees, Basques, and the North Shore’s Forgotten Trade”, a symposium focused on greater Salem’s trade with the Basque port of Bilbao on Sunday the 7th. I wish every weekend in Salem could be like next weekend, highlighting history in creative, comprehensive, and collaborative ways. The Resistance Ball is co-sponsored by Hamilton Hall and the Leslie’s Retreat Committee, dedicated to the ongoing interpretation and commemoration of the event of February 26, 1775 in which a large group of Salem citizens foiled the attempt of a British regiment to confiscate concealed cannon in particular and the spirit of resistance in general, while the “Salt Cod for Silver” symposium is co-sponsored by the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Salem State History Department, Historic Beverly, the Marblehead Museum, and the Bilboko Itsasdarra Itsas Museoa (Bilbao Maritime Museum).

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Historical Flyer

I am going to both events and you should too if you are in our area: tickets for the ball are still available here, and the symposium is a first-come, first-seated event (the capacity is 200 at the Visitor Center). This is the second run for the Resistance Ball, and we hope to make it a regular occasion. Do not be deterred by fear of period dress: there will be some 18th-century dress (both reproductions and costumes) in attendance but also formal and creative garb. I prefer to be inspired by the spirit of resistance rather then the actual eighteenth-century event myself. I made a list of my favorite female resistors, and at the very top was Joan of Arc, but I do think this is an American history-themed event so I am forgoing armor in favor a toile dress with quite a modern, short cut: I guess I’m just going as myself, the perpetual PEM resistor! There will be period dancing, but again: do not be fearful: the caller from the last ball, whom we have engaged again, was an amazing instructor and so it was really easy and fun to participate.

Salem Resistance Ball

Salem Resistance Ball2There WILL be fiddlers—and dancing! (Not really sure who took these pictures at the last ball two years ago, sorry)

I’m excited about the symposium for several reasons. In terms of interpretation, it seems like all Salem trade is China trade and even a cursory glance at the sources contradicts that perception. Yet I imagine that China is still part of the picture. Years of teaching European and World History in the early modern era has familiarized me with the concept of the Chinese “Silver Sink”: the west wanted so many things from China, but all it really had to offer (before Indian opium) was American silver, the first truly global commodity, and consequently much of it ended up there. So North Shore merchants are trading are trading fish for silver, which I presume they are using to purchase Asian wares and commodities? A variation on the same theme, or did more silver stay in Salem rather than just flowing eastward? We shall see. Any research on this trade has got to be based on the rich sources in the Phillips Library, so it will be wonderful to hear about what has been mined in these treasures, particularly the papers of the Orne and Pickman families. (The Essex Institute used to publish such information: see the wonderful text by its librarian Harriet Tapley published in 1934, Early Coastwise and Foreign Shipping of Salem; a Record of the Entrances and Clearances of the Port of Salem, 1750-1769). And of course I’m also eager to discover the stance of Great Britain regarding this trade, particularly before the Revolution.

The Ornes

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Salem merchant Timothy Orne, flanked by his daughters Rebecca and Lois, in paintings he commissioned from Joseph Badger in 1757. The portraits of the girls (I have always loved Rebecca and her squirrel, so I took this opportunity to showcase her again, and Lois is the mother of the woman who lived in my house for its first few decades) are from the Worcester Art Museum, and the Orne’s portrait belongs to the Newport Restoration Foundation.  The Orne House at 266 Essex Street (here in a Frank Cousins photograph from the “Urban Landscape” collection at Duke University Library) is still standing, though much changed. Orne is a very good representative of Salem’s “codfish aristocracy”, with more than fifty ships in operation over his commercial career, sailing to the West Indies and Europe and carrying fish, spirits, molasses, cloth and other commodities, as well as slaves, in addition to a fleet of fishing ships.

Below: As I don’t think the technology of drying cod has changed over the centuries, I thought I’d add this photograph of a shop in Lisbon two weeks ago.

Cod in Lisbon


Mrs. Crowninshield goes to Washington

A colorful, albeit a bit light, source for women’s history is the collection of letters written home by Mary Boardman Crowninshield (1778-1840), the wife of Benjamin Crowninshield, a congressman and Secretary of the Navy under Presidents Madison and Monroe. On the surface, Mary’s and Benjamin’s marriage looks like a typical Salem mercantile merger, but not so typical was her decision (or maybe it was their decision) to accompany her husband to Washington in the fall of 1815. The letters describing their trip, by carriage and steamship, and residence in Washington over the next few months were published by Mrs. Crowninshield’s great-grandson, Francis Boardman Crowninshield, in 1905, and they yield some interesting insights into the Washington social scene in the immediate aftermath of the British occupation of the city and burning of the White House in general, and what everyone was wearing (most prominently First Lady Dolley Madison) in particular.

Mary Crowninshield

Mrs. Crowninshield was clearly an observant and detail-oriented woman, but her lengthy descriptions of the dress of the women whom she encountered really stand out in comparison with her briefer assessments of events or her surroundings. Almost as soon as she arrives in Washington, she calls on Mrs. Madison in the Octagon House, where she takes note of the blue damask curtains and finds the First Lady dressed in a white cambric gown, buttoned all the way up in front, a little strip of work along the button-holes, but ruffled around the bottom. A peach-bloom-colored silk scarf with a rich border over her shoulders by her sleeves. She had on a spencer of satin in the same color, and likewise a turban of velour gauze, all of peach bloom. She looked very well indeed. You can’t expect Mrs. Crowninshield to get excited about the architecture: she hailed from Samuel McIntire’s Salem! But one would like to see some mention of the rebuilding of Washington, the slaves who lived in the Octagon House along with the Madisons, maybe a bit of politics: but no, it’s really all about who wore what where and when.

The Octagon Peter Waddell

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20190325_170000Historical artist Peter Waddell’s depiction of the Octagon House in Washington, Mary Boardman’s childhood home on Salem Common, and the Salem house of the Crowninshields, where they entertained President Monroe in 1817, now the Brookhouse Home for Aged Women.

Well, if that’s what she wants to write about let’s go with it; these are her letters after all! She seems to be almost as impressed with the dresses of Mrs. Monroe as Mrs. Madison: the former is “very elegant”, dressed in “very fine muslin lined with pink” on one occasion and  “sky-blue striped velvet” on another, both times with velvet turbans embellished with feathers. Mrs. Crowninshield clearly is intimidated/impressed by all these velvet turbans in Washington: she has insufficient velvet and no feathers at all, and as they are very dear she combs her braided hair as high up as possible and weaves in flowers and ornaments—including a golden butterfly which Mrs. Madison actually admires. There is great concern about trim: Mrs. Crowninshield orders some very nice dresses from a Washington mantua-maker but implores her mother to send some red velvet trim from Salem along with Judge Story—–a Supreme Court Justice—when he makes his way back to Washington! And he does. This seems like the most insightful detail of Mrs. Crowninshield’s letters: imagine a Supreme Court Justice as a clothing courier!

Boardman The-Splendid-Mrs-Madison White House Peter Waddell

7-CaptureOfCityWashington24Aug1814_fullPeter Waddell’s recreation of one of Dolley Madison’s “Wednesday Squeezes” with many turbans and feathers in evidence, White House Historical Association; the capture and burning of Washington in 1814, New York Historical Society. Mrs. Madison continued to be an active hostess in her temporary quarters, which Mrs. Crowninshield tells us all about, but she does not have much to say about the post-war state of Washington.

But back to Dolley Madison, of whom Mrs. Crowninshield has the most to say, as she attended several events over the holidays in December of 1815 and January of 1816 hosted by the First Lady. Mrs. Crowninshield admires everything about Dolley—her demeanor, her apparent kindness, her ability to converse with ease—but above all, her clothes. Either Dolley rescued her famous wardrobe from the burning White House along with George Washington’s portrait or she replenished it with purpose. At a New Year’s Day reception, Mrs. Madison was dressed in a yellow satin embroidered all over with sprigs of butterflies, not two alike in the dress; a narrow border in all colors; made high in the neck; a little cape, long sleeves, and a white bonnet with feathers. That’s quite a close observation. At a Wednesday night levee, Mrs. Madison was adorned in muslin dotted in silver over blue and a beautiful blue turban with feathers. Mrs. Crowninshield noted that I have never seen her look so well and was clearly very pleased that Dolley had remarked that they “thought alike”, as she was dressed in blue as well. The last description of Dolley’s dress refers to a more elaborate dinner party, in which she was dressed in black velvet trimmed with gold [and] a worked lace turban in gold with a lace and gold kind of thing over her shoulders and looked “brilliant” in Mrs. Crowninshield’s worshipful estimation. Not long after this event, Mary Crowninshield returned to Salem, where the Reverend Bentley seems to have visited her immediately, in search of all the Washington gossip as well as her opinions of both the President and the First Lady. In her last letter, to her husband who remained in the capitol, she admits that I think I never shall want to go from home again.

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Dolley Dress 1934

Dolley Madison’s yellow silk “butterfly gown (s)” ? at the Smithsonian: the First Ladies Hall and a 1934 Curt Teich postcard.


Salem Women Build

I have a list of topics that I would research if I was ever going to pursue another Masters or Ph.D., which I am not. The list started long ago but these past seven years of blogging have definitely added to it, and consequently it includes a few Salem topics. This particular topic, however, predates the blog. Shortly after I moved to Salem, while I was still in graduate school, I started plaque research for Historic Salem, Inc. in order to learn more about my new city. This type of deed and local history research was very different from my dissertation research and so I thought it would give me a break, which it did, but it also raised some larger questions and problems which I did not have time to answer or even address at the time. One thing I noticed was the central role that women often played in the commission, financing, and disposition of property, particularly in the later half of the nineteenth century. As this is Women’s History Month everywhere and Women’s History Day here in Salem, I thought I would focus on some houses built specifically for women, whether widows or “singlewomen”, “gentlewomen” or freedwomen.

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This is by no means an exhaustive survey; basically it’s just the result of a few walks. But my impression today is the same as it was several decades ago: there were a lot of houses built in Salem for women. A more comprehensive and comparative study would be very revealing, I think. No doubt these plaques represent an underestimate, though I did notice Historic Salem’s more recent policy (certainly not in place when I was doing this research) to represent both husbands and wives on plaques, as well as other domestic arrangements. This raises the question of under-representation in historic preservation, which would make a great session for this year’s Massachusetts Preservation Conference.

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Above: shopowner Annie Sweetser’s house on Forrester Street, Cynthia Lovell’s on Williams, the house built for the Tilton sisters on Pickman, Lydia King’s house on Lemon Street, Mary Lindall’s house on Essex, Mary Derby’s house on Beckford, and Maria Ropes’ house on Chestnut. At least part of  the conjoined houses on Essex and Broad were built for women: Susannah Ingersoll & Hannah Smith. Below: putting woman on the plaque on two Daniels Street houses! (Love these more detailed HSI plaques).

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The economic and social spectrum of women builders is also very interesting. There are several educator builders, and a few independent “property owners”.  The wealthy philanthropist Caroline Emmerton, who restored (created?) the House of the Seven Gables, also commissioned a copy of the Richard Derby House for the last lot on Chestnut Street from architect William Rantoul, and hired Arthur Little to transform her Federal Mansion on Essex Street into a Colonial Revival exemplar. I was reminded just last week by my colleague Beth Bower of one of my very first plaque research projects, years ago: in which I found that a Lemon Street house was built for Mahala Lemons Goodhue, her husband Joseph, a mariner,  and their son Joseph Jr., a laborer. The present owners seem to have made their own sign featuring Mahala, which is fine, as I looked up the original report and I’m embarrassed to admit that I seem to have completely omitted the fact that the Goodhues were African-American! My dissertation must have dominated during that time, or I may have been more preoccupied with the history of the land rather than the people who built the house (which was my tendency)—-will definitely revise the record.

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Caroline Emmerton’s commissions on Chestnut and Essex, and the Lemons-Goodhue house on Lemon.


Historic Shops of Lisbon

My first and last purchases in Lisbon were books titled Historic Shops of Lisbon and Historical Shops in Lisbon and in between I tried to visit as many of the shops featured in these two books as possible: and then some. It was very clear to me that both the books and the shops referenced in their pages are part of movement focused on the preservation and promotion of Lisbon’s unique commercial culture. It wasn’t very difficult to surmise this as it was very clearly stated in Historical Shops, which was published under the auspices of the rculo das Lojas de Carácter e Tradição de Lisboa [Circle of Characterful and Traditional Shops of Lisbon], which is dedicated to supporting and encouraging “its member shops to ensure their own preservation and their present and future viability, by promoting their excellence and sustainability…..with the ultimate aim of preserving the rich cultural heritage and identity of the city of Lisbon.” Likewise, Historic Shops features a foreword by Lisbon Mayor Fernando Medina explaining the origins and rationale for the Historic Shops Programme initiative, launched in 2015 to preserve and promote local commerce for both its economic and cultural benefits.

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Historical Shops features sketches by artists associated with Urban Sketchers, who have their own mission! Top illustration by Inês Ferreira, bottom by José Leal.

And so I went to a hat shop, a glove shop, a candle shop established in 1789, shops selling sewing notions and yarn, linen shops, jewelry stores, several wonderful flower shops including one selling seeds in both packets and striped open bags, book stores and pharmacies (Lisbon’s pharmacies seem like a culture unto themselves, and there is also a pharmaceutical museum), and shops selling coffee, tea, and all manner of tinned fish. Lots of pottery and fabric fish were in evidence too. These shops had different levels of “accessibility”: several did not allow photographs of their wares, a very unusual policy in this Instagram age.

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The pride of Portuguese craftsmanship extends to newer establishments as well, particularly A Vida Portuguesa and the beautiful collections of shops (+restaurant) in the Embaixada, an over-the-top 19th-century palace transformed into a shopping gallery. I think my perfect Lisbon shopping day would start in its neighborhood, the Principe Reale, where I would also visit Solar, an amazing museum-shop of antique Portuguese azulejos and pottery (no photographs there). Then I would descend down into the Chiado, where so many of the historic shops are located, then down to the water. That’s pretty much what I did on my last day in Lisbon, ending up, appropriately, at the Praça do Comércio (hitting the lovely Benamôr shop, which has been manufacturing beauty creams since 1925 almost along the way). By the end of the trip, I only had room for a few slim notebooks and tubes in my suitcase, but I’ll be better prepared in terms of both shopping and space the next time I’m in Lisbon.

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Shopping

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Solar, The Embaixada, A Vida Portuguesa, and Benamôr (+ a few shops whose names I don’t remember—shopping daze).


Portuguese Pavement

Like everyone else in the world, I admire Portuguese sidewalks, paved in mosaic patterns of polished white and black limestone, hand-cut and hand-laid: calçada Portuguesa is definitely an important part of Lisbon’s municipal identity, with a bronze installation of two pavers (calceteiros) at work situated in one of its central squares. We had great weather last week, but I’ve been on these sidewalks in the rain before, and I know that they are definitely slippery when wet. Consequently they have their critics, but I think the more serious threat to their continuing existence comes from the production side, as low wages, arduous work, and long hours have diminished the number of calceteiros working in Lisbon in recent decades. One article asserts that there are a mere ten pavers in Lisbon today, compared with 400 in the eighteenth century. I saw several pavers working while I was there, and they looked just like this bronze pair below: craftsmanship from time immemorial, still very evident along the streets of Lisbon.

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Even the beautiful store Vista Alegre was inspired enough by Portuguese sidewalks to design and produce an entire line of dinnerware with some traditional motifs: just stunning. It was hard to resist these plates but I was worried about breakage: and now I see I can buy them here!

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City of Seven Hills

I’m just back from a wonderful vacation to Lisbon during which I took hundreds of photographs, so advance warning to those who are more interested in local history and culture: this is definitely going to be a “streets of Lisbon” week! I’ve been to Portugal several times before, but my last visit was quite a while ago, and I never spent more than a few days in the capital so there were many discoveries: plus Lisbon is incredibly photogenic as it is so full of texture and color. I walked everywhere so I could capture every little detail, only popping on a yellow tram near the end of a long day when I was looking up at yet another hill (there are seven, just like Rome) which had something I had to see at its top. We had wonderful weather, and Lisbon appeared very bright and shiny, with its multichromatic buildings, both tiled and color-washed, contrasting with its black and white sidewalks and squares. Yellow popped out particularly, not just on the trams but also on private and public buildings and even the cranes which hovered over sections of the city. Like so many other cities, Lisbon appears to be having a building boom, encompassing both the construction of new structures and the “renewal” of others. It’s a city that has always embraced the new and cherished the old in a particularly effective way, certainly since the devastating earthquake of 1755 and no doubt well before, as it is an ancient settlement. I’ve got my favorite photos from the trip today, and my next posts will focus on the sidewalks and shops of Lisbon, then I’ll get back to some Salem stuff (though I think I have enough photos to feature Lisbon for some time).

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Yellow Lisbon Black Horse Square

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Yellow Lisbon 2The arch of the Praça do Comércio, the Square of Commerce, is the proper entry to Lisbon, from the sea, but it’s a nineteenth-century construction after the rebuilding of the square following the earthquake of 1755. A great mural in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga shows the pre-1755 square. The Church of The Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, the ruins of the Cormo Convent (another memorial to the losses of 1755), the interior of Lisbon Cathedral, just another beautiful church square, and a quote by the 18th century Jesuit father Antonio Vieira “Para nascer, Portugal. Para morrer, o mundo” testifying to the still-evident Portuguese pride in its global reach.

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Yellow Lisbon Castle

Yellow Lisbon Church

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Yellow City 3I’m trying to show the integration and proximity of new and old with these pictures, which include several streetscapes, views from the Castelo de S. Jorge, the Church of São Vicente of Fora, and a shot of the botanical garden, but they also present a lot of yellow, a very conspicuous color in Lisbon.

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Yellow Lisbon CarriageBelem: site of the iconic Manueline Jerónimos Monastery and Belem Tower + tarts and the maritime history and coach museums, and a very strident 20th-century monument to the discoveries. 

Yellow Lisbon Museum

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PharmacyMuseums:  so many! History museums and museums of every conceivable form of art: “ancient” (pre-1850), modern, decorative, TILES, marionettes. The famous Gulbenkian collection and several less well-known house museums: I was blown away by the CasaMuseu Medeiros e Almeida in particular. I have a new appreciation for Portuguese artists of the Renaissance (Gregório Lopes in particular: look at that Martyrdom of St. Sebastian). And I couldn’t leave without visiting the Museu da Farmácia, of course. 


The Snow Castle

We haven’t had many snowstorms this winter, but two nights ago about a foot of snow dropped onto the streets of Salem. My first thoughts when I woke up were: how much snow did we get (and) should I run down the street and take a picture of the snow house? Classes had been cancelled the night before, so that was no concern of mine. I saw that we had quite a bit of snow, so of course I thought of the Wheatland/Pickering/Phillips house, a Classical Revival confection that I always think of as the “snow house” or the “snow castle” as it looks so beautiful when its exuberant trim is frosted with snow. I adore this house in every season, but especially in the winter. It really is my first thought when I wake up on a snowy morning.

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It was quite warm yesterday morning, and so the snow had already started to melt by the time I made it down the street (as a snow day meant an extra cup of coffee) so here are some “freshly frosted” views from a few years back, when the blue sky afforded more contrast and shadow.

Snow Castle 2011

WHite Castle 2014

My Snow Castle, which I guess we should call the Wheatland-Phillips House after its original and present owners, was designed by Salem native John Prentiss Benson (1865-1947), a brother of the well-known American Impressionist Frank Benson who became an esteemed artist himself after his retirement from architecture. I don’t possess the architectural vocabulary to describe this house so I’ll use the words of Bryant Tolles from Architecture in Salem: “a spectacular, flamboyant example of the Colonial Revival style……[in which] the architect employed a variety of Colonial Revival idioms, including the ornate cornice (with dentils and pendants in relief), the wide fluted Corinthian pilasters (reminiscent of the work of McIntire, the flat window caps, the second-story Palladian window with miniature pilasters, the broad doorway with semi-elliptical fanlight, and the overly large flat-roofed porch with Corinthian columns” in a “innovative, almost whimsical manner”. Tolles concludes that “the house gives the impression of being an original late 18th century building” even though it is in fact one of the newest houses on Chestnut Street, constructed in 1896 for Ann Maria Wheatland, the widow of Stephen Wheatland, who served as the Mayor of Salem during the Civil War. I’m not sure why Mrs. Wheatland desired such a large house, but she lived in it until her death in 1927. Despite its mass, the house has always seemed whimsical to me, and also timeless, and its allure is no doubt enhanced by its stillness as I don’t think anyone has lived there during the whole time I’ve lived on Chestnut Street. I have to resist trespassing every time I walk by this house, in every season: in summer I see myself having a gin & tonic on its left-side (deck? seems to mundane a word) and I would love to see if there is a veranda out back. I do resist, so I don’t know.

Snow Castle 1940 HABSThe House in 1940; HABS, Library of Congress.

By many accounts, John Prentiss Benson wanted to be an artist from early on, but as that trail was blazed by his brother Frank, he settled for architecture. Nevertheless, he seems to have had a successful career, with a New York City practice and several partnerships. He lived for several years in Plainfield, New Jersey where there are several John P. Benson houses: there was a tour devoted to them in 1997 titled the “Mansions of May”. None of these houses—or that designed for his other brother Henry on Hamilton Street in Salem—seems to bear any resemblance to the Wheatland-Phillips House: it’s as if he just let loose with wild abandon. Perhaps Mrs. Wheatland gave him carte blanche, or very strict instructions. Or maybe he was influenced by memories of the Benson family home on Salem Common: an exuberant Second Empire structure that was situated on what is now the parking lot of the Hawthorne Hotel.

Snow Castle Jersey Houses

Snow Castle Portsmouth Benson Family Home

Snow House WillowbankOther Benson houses, including his own, top right; the Benson family home on Salem Common and Willowbank in Kittery Point, Portsmouth Athenaeum.

After his retirement from architecture in the 1920s, Benson moved to a waterside estate in Kittery Point, Maine named Willowbank and began painting full-time until his death in 1947: he was prolific, and consequently his identity is more that of a maritime artist than an architect at present. The Portsmouth Athenaeum has his papers, and has digitized many photographs of his life and work at Willowbank, which also happens to be the birthplace of the 6th Countess of Carnarvon, Ann Catherine Tredick Wendell, who became mistress of Highclere Castle in 1922. And thus we have a very distant and indirect connection, through John Prentiss Benson, between the Snow Castle and Downton Abbey!

Snow Castle Collage

Benson Galleon Vose Galleries

Galleon, 1923 by John Prentiss Benson @Vose Galleries: I love galleons, and I’m using this one to sign off for a while as I’m off to Portugal on spring break! I’ll be back with many pictures of azulejos, no doubt.


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