Salem as America’s Attic

I might be pushing it a bit with my title, but since I’ve returned from Winterthur earlier this Spring, I’ve been obsessed with exploring “Salem as source” for antiques and collectibles in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, when the passion for antiquing emerged. This is another avenue into Salem’s influence on the burgeoning Colonial Revival; I think its architectural influence has been established, by a succession of architects coming to town to sketch starting as early as the 1870s. It was during that Centennial decade that a group of Salem ladies put together a collection of regional “relics” for display both at the Essex Institute and the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, a visual representation and projection of “Old Salem” that was also published for a national readership in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (for January 22, 1876) .I just don’t see how items such as the baby-clothes worn by Judge Curwen who tried the Salem Witches, chalice made of the woodwork of a house still standing, which was built by Roger Williams in 1635 and is known at the Witch House, wine glass used by General Washington while in Salem, and an Elizabethan wainscot cupboard which has been stored away for the past fifty years in a barn could have failed to capture the American imagination!

Antiques Frank_Leslie's_Illustrated_Newspaper_1876-01-22_12

I pursued a variety of texts to support my thesis of Salem’s central role as antiques destination/influencer, including secondary texts such as Elizabeth Stillinger’s The Antiquers (1980) and Brian G. Greenfield’s Out of the Attic (2010) and texts from the first era of antiquing such as the Shackletons’ Quest of the Colonial (1907) and Walter Dyer’s Lure of the Antique (1910). I was not disappointed by either the historical or the contemporary view, and I love the older texts. Robert and Elizabeth Shackleton remark that Salem is “dear to memory, not only from its treasures of the past but from being the place where, Westerners that we at that time were, we first saw a grandfather’s clock ticking away, in a private house, in the very corner in which it had ticked through the Revolution,” and Walter Dyer’s book is filled with Salem treasures, captured by the camera of Salem’s very own Mary Harrod Northend.

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20190602_151257_20190602152523730A Treasure Trove of Silver in an old Salem house, from Walter Dyer’s Lure of the Antique (1910).

All of these texts, and others, point to several key factors which made Salem a collector’s paradise: the famous collections of individuals like Henry Fitzgilbert and George Rea Curwen and the Essex Institute, with its period rooms assembled by George Francis Dow, the photographs and texts of Frank Cousins and Miss Northend, and the perception of the sheer antiquity of the city, whether shaped by Nathaniel Hawthorne or the witch entrepreneurs, or both. In assembling his influential period rooms (largely drawn from Curwen’s bequest, and which have become historic “objects” themselves—I believe they are going to be reassembled in Plummer Hall by the PEM), Dow followed the lead of the Centennial ladies and focused on the humanity or “everyday life” of colonial dwellers, in order to enhance their accessibility. Dow clearly felt that he was in competition with more entrepreneurial purveyors of “old Salem” when he remarked in 1916 that Salem used to be viewed and “visited as a monument, a shrine—-something to be studied. Now the visitor lightly pauses, here are there, butterfly-like, or is whirled through the streets in an automobile, while on the running board a small boy “guide” delivers an extraordinary distortion of fact plentifully soused with fiction.” (Essex Institute Annual Report 1916: OMG what would he think NOW!!!). But, more visitors to Salem meant more visitors to Dow’s period rooms and historic houses at the Essex Institute, and eventually to his Pioneer Village, and to Caroline Emmerton’s House of the Seven Gables, and to Salem’s growing number of antique shops: tourism, then as now, is a double-edged sword. Periodical and ephemeral evidence points to a healthy number of antique shops in Salem in the first half of the twentieth century, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s.

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Boston_Herald_1918-01-27_27Amazing photo of a lady (perhaps Mary Harrod Northend?) at the original location of the Hooper-Hathaway House (now on the House of the Seven Gables campus) inspecting some Old Salem wares in Dyer’s Lure of the Antique. The caption reads: “Don’t expect to buy these old treasures for a song. You are lucky to get them at all.” Once the Ward House was relocated and opened, it became the workshop of Sarah Symonds, who “perpetuated antiques” in the form of plaster-cast doorstops and mementos of famous Salem structures (Boston Herald, January 17, 1918). I think the days of buying antiques from guileless Salem homeowners were gone even by 1910, and in the next few decades the number of shops advertising in periodicals exploded.

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Antiques 1930s HNESalem Antique advertisement from the 1922 volume of the magazine Antiques, and from the collections of Historic New England.

There is one antique dealer from this era who really stands out, at least to me, but I think also in general: Miss A. Grace Atkinson, who kept a “shabby” shop at the “Old Witch House” on Essex Street right up until its conversion into the Witch House of today. Not only is Dyer’s book filled with items from the “Atkinson Collection”, but according to the long correspondence between her and Henry Francis du Pont, she was also a source for Winterthur. I think Miss Atkinson might have been the sister of James Almy’s second wife Emma, because of her residence at 395 Lafayette Street, the Colonial Revival mansion built by Mrs. Almy after the dearth of her prominent storeowner husband, but I can’t confirm that. She was by all accounts a shrewd collector and dealer, however, and did not hesitate use the witch connection to advance her business.

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Antiques Witch House 1918 Cambridge Historical Society

wp-1559507355444.jpgAtkinson’s Advertising, and her shop on the left-hand side of the Witch House, in photographs from the New Bedford and Cambridge Historical Societies, via Digital Commonwealth; Some items from the “Atkinson Collection” in Dyer: she was particularly known for her selection of Lowestoft.


5 responses to “Salem as America’s Attic

  • Nelson Dionne

    I have few items within the archive to check out. The Remembrance Shop postcard. Run by Ted Rushford. He had a collection of early lighting.
    The early Marblehead antique dealer ( Saxx ? ) who had a shop on Front St. who dealt in colonial antiques back in the 30’s – 50’s.
    .Arthur Jannell, the dealer who owned the Salem antique auto
    museum . It burnt in 1970′, arson was thought to be the cause. He bought the stained glass from the South Church in Peabody when it was torn down circa 1960. The Tiffany windows ended up in the UK. It was thought that unreported “donations” to church members occured .
    Perhaps the real reason for the loss of much local of Salem’s
    history was the owners did not value it. It was the background clutter that they grew up with. The trash can got more than anyone would care to admit. I had an uncle who was a worker on the city trash trucks in the 60’s. He actually picked up a huge amount of colonial silver in the trash from a home. The people cleaning out the home just wanted it gone !

    That sort of thinking is still common today.

    Like

  • LARRY POSNER

    This is a link to the Ezekiel Hersey Derby House Room site filled with Salem artifacts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art purchased by that museum in the 1920’s

    https://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/41641.html

    Like

  • tfhoskinson

    That’s an interesting look at the Salem antique trade and the Witch House, and witches in bas relief too. I’ve added a new phrase to my lexicon, “witch entrepreneurs”.

    Like

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