A large part of the frustration many in Salem felt at the removal of Salem’s archival heritage contained in the collections of the Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library in 2017 was due to the fact that so little of these materials had been digitized: a tiny fraction, with no guarantees of more to come. I do think it was surprising to many just how far behind comparable institutions the PEM was in the process of increasing access to its collections, and this vulnerability certainly made it easy for nattering nabobs like me to criticize their complete, non-compensated removal. But a few months ago we began to hear of some major digitization initiatives, and yesterday was a truly joyous day, as the PEM uploaded its newly-digitized collection of glass plate negatives by the Salem photographer Frank Cousins (1851-1925) to the Digital Commonwealth site, enabling access to thousands of historic images of streets, houses, objects and people in Salem and other towns and cities from c. 1890-1920, just like that. I’ve been waiting for these images for a decade, browsing the printed catalog of negatives regularly, knowing exactly what was there, and what I could not see, what we all could not see. And then suddenly we could.
The Frank Cousins “Team”/ Employees’ carriage in the Columbus Day parade in Salem, 1892, Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum: Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives via Digital Commonwealth.
It was a little overwhelming going through these images, which include several cities (lots of Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and quite a few New England towns—Cousins was a publisher of both books and photographs with his own art company as well as his retail store, the Bee-Hive, on Essex Street, and he was also an early preservation consultant), but of course I was only interested in the Salem images. Oddly, I became a bit……anxious, even tearful, going through them, both because it was so amazing to see structures and streets I had only imagined, and then I realized what we had lost: both to the Great Salem Fire of 1914 (on this very day!) and later “redevelopment”. My friend, former student, and fellow blogger Jen Ratliff, a fierce archivist who is just as invested in all of this as I am, was a bit overwhelmed as well, so we decided to conduct a little cross-blogging experiment so that we could focus: we each chose our top ten Cousins images and are linking to each other’s posts: so you (and I!) can see her picks at History by the Sea. I’m very curious to see if we have some common choices–or completely divergent ones! [update: they are totally different]
So here are my top ten Frank Cousins images from the Phillips Library Collection of his glass plate negatives, accessed through Digital Commonwealth (I’m not counting the Cousins Team above, that’s a freebie):
One. Lost houses and a lost street, named after a lost creek, with a lost church (the South Church on Chestnut Street, which burned down in 1903) in the background: Creek Street, c. 1890.
Two. Norman Street, a street which has been obliterated by redevelopment and traffic—what is left of it is still being obliterated by the latter now. This is an astonishing image if you are familiar with the present-day Norman Street.
Three. The amazing Doyle House at 33 Summer Street, right next to Samuel McIntire’s house, both destroyed for the horrible Holyoke Mutual Building that was built in the 1930s and still stands on the block that extends from Norman to Gedney along Summer Streets. Look at how many additions this house had! Love the plank walks and garden layout too.
Four. The Pease and Price Bakery at 13 High Street, which was destroyed by fire on June 25, 1914, along with over 1300 other structures. This marks an important fire boundary—all the structures on the other side of High Street were saved: it’s very apparent when you walk down this street today.
Five. Photographs of lower Federal Street are hard to find: love these houses at 13-15, long gone. Their site is a parking lot now, of course.
Six. A storefront window of Cousins’ own shop, the Bee-Hive, on Essex Street. I zoomed in a bit (this is another freebie, not #7!) so you could see what was for sale: shirtwaists and more, the Great Sale of Ladies Cotton! The Essex House, also long-gone, was right next door.
Seven. A Jacobean Monk table and chair. (plus unidentified man). Cousins photographed the collections of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum as well: for the former, furniture was dragged out to the street where I presume there was better light. I love all of these “posing furniture” shots.
Eight. 51 Boston Street, “The Senate”. The people, the signs, the cobblestone streets……another lost building, this time to the Fire, as it was situated just about at the center of its outbreak.
Nine. The Clifford Crowninshield House on lower Essex Street (on the left)–my only survivor among these images! This house has been a favorite of mine for quite some time, and it’s a bit run-down, so it’s nice to see it in better condition. I knew there must have been a window in that center entrance gable!
Ten. Laying the cornerstone for St. James Church on Federal Street, August 31, 1892. Just a great shot: Cousins was more of a documentarian than an artistic photographer but this image has both qualities.
It was very tough to limit my choices to ten, but I’m sure more photographs from this amazing and now-accessible collection will work their way into my blog in the future: now go over to Jen’s blog for her picks!
Update: Now we also have the top ten Cousins picks of another friend, former student, and fellow Salem blogger, Alyssa Conary.
June 25th, 2019 at 8:06 am
In a way, seeing these long-ag0 images seems to bring them back to life. Thank you.
June 25th, 2019 at 8:52 am
Thank you for your curation of this collection. Amazing view into the past.
June 25th, 2019 at 8:54 am
Thank you for your curation of this amazing collection which gives us maybe the only view into these long gone streets and buildings.
June 25th, 2019 at 3:40 pm
Fantastic! Thanks for sharing and so glad to see this happening. You probably know that St James Church will be on the HSI House Tour this December. Is there a way to get permission to share the laying of the cornerstone picture? It would be interesting to share with guests on the tour….
June 25th, 2019 at 5:46 pm
Bonnie, the PEM was very generous with me when I asked for images from the Remond papers for Hamilton Hall; I’m sure they would be the same for HSI. I would just call up there and say you saw the images on Digital Commonwealth and ask how you can get a reproduction and permissions. That is a GREAT photograph—there are several more like it!
June 25th, 2019 at 4:57 pm
Thank you for sharing, love reading the history you open to us….
June 25th, 2019 at 5:47 pm
You’re welcome, Albert. This was easy!
June 26th, 2019 at 6:32 am
How wonderful that the PEM has finally digitized those Frank Cousins glass plate negatives and uploaded them to the Digital Commonwealth site. As I have often noticed, you are an expert at archival retrieval from multiple sources, a skill that gives such life to your blogs.
I enjoyed viewing Jen Ratcliff’s selections from the collection too. She also lists other historical links for those of us interested in local history. Good job!
June 26th, 2019 at 6:48 am
Why thank you, Helen—I’m sure you’ll find some images for your research too. Yes, you can tell that Jen has a librarian’s perspective: she wants to show you the way!
June 28th, 2019 at 8:20 am
Congratulations for all your perseverance and to PEM for their efforts.
Wow, just amazing. So happy for you!