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.


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.










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).



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.



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

10 responses to “Salem Women Build

  • fbradking

    My gosh, Donna, who knew!!! This was a perfectly wonderful article and so were the pictures, all of which taught me yet another valuable gem of a lesson about Salem. I loved it! Thank you!

  • JoAnn B Shupe

    I have lived in New England all my life and enjoy “collecting” old houses; I have to say that you folks in Salem are exceptionally lucky to have such color on your historic homes – most of the rest of us are surrounded with bland white. What a joy the color must be, especially in the dead of winter.

  • Carol J. Perry

    Another really special piece. Thanks again, for sharing your information with us.

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    What an appropriate way to celebrate March with a catalogue of historic Salem homes built for women over many decades. That name “Emmerton” rings a bell. Didn’t you feature a lovely old home associated with her family in a past blog?

    Meant to say how much I enjoyed your Portugal blogs – brought back memories. I look forward to your spring flower pics in the not too distant future…

  • Mary Byrne

    Another terrific “SoS” sharing! This would be a great entrepreneurial idea for a young historically-prone woman to start a “Feminist Tour of Salem’s women leaders…”

  • Douglas Bowker

    I just came across your blog this morning while looking for some photos of the home that Capt. Joseph White had lived (and was killed) in. Of course I chuckled when I realized which house it was, as I’ve passed it a hundred times, and in fact have taken quite a few photos of it in the later afternoon sun. In any case I will for sure spend more time exploring your blogs various topic when time permits, but before I “left” I thought to type in the name of our street, Forrester, and was pleased to see our very house featured under this Salem Women Build topic!

    We have the full Historic Society writeup for Annie Sweetser’s house if you’d ever like to take a look, but even better, we actually have all her family photos! To keep the story semi-short, Ms Sweeter married not long after building her home (built to be two family, the 1st floor was rented as an apartment, with the owners occupying the 2nd and 3rd floors). Amazingly for the time, she had her first child at close to age 40, a healthy baby girl, Lilian. Lilian eventually grew up to receive a college education and became an elementary school teacher, but never married as she stayed home to take care of her aging parents until they died.

    Over the years various rooms were rented out to borders but Lilian still kept the house until her death around 1969. Only three other families lived in the house before we moved in (2007) and by some miracle a box of Sweetser family photos, most taken before 1920, had been left on a back of a shelf in one of the bedroom closets. I’m not sure if anyone else had ever even thought to do anything with them, but at one point I took some of the best, framed them and hung them in the front entrance hall as a historic tribute. I put some serious effort into tracking down potential living relatives in case they were interested, but nothing solid ever turned up…

    • daseger

      That’s so wonderful Doug! You might have noticed that I am focusing on Salem women on Saturdays during this centennial year of the passage of suffrage–I’d love to do a feature on Annie with your materials! It’s so easy to research well-known women, but much more difficult with more private women, so this would be exciting!

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