We have certainly come a long way from the despair of Christmas 2017, when we were reeling from the announcement that the vast collections of the Phillips Library, constituting Salem’s primary historical archive, were to be moved permanently to an industrial Collection Center forty minutes away. So much for “historic” Salem! But this Christmas, we have a new Peabody Essex Museum, with a new Director, a new Head Librarian for the Phillips, a new wing, and a new attitude. The local is not necessarily the parochial under this new regime, and we’re starting to see the return of Salem items to the place of their original “deposit”, commencing with the anchor restored to the front of East India Hall. I don’t know what is going to happen to the Phillips Library in terms of its location: I still hope feverishly for its return, as I think that will be best for both the Library itself and for Salem, but its original buildings are still under renovation and sufficient storage space for its extensive collections has yet to be located nearby. In the meantime, I want it to flourish as an institution, and I think one of key ways for that to happen is the resumption of the publishing program of its predecessors, which broadcast the strength of their collections and disseminated local and maritime history to generations of scholars and buffs in the forms of the long-running Historical Collections of the Essex Institute (1859-1993) and the American Neptune of the Peabody Museum of Salem (1941-2002).
Both the Historical Collections and the American Neptune are available at the Internet Archive thankfully, as they are treasure troves!
I’m grateful for these two periodicals, but I think their time is over: we have sufficient ways to disseminate scholarship now, but sources are a different matter. That’s why I think the Phillips Library should publish annotated versions of its more notable historical sources, and I would commence these publications with one of the more accessible and personal genres—diaries—of which the Phillips has an impressive collection. One of the most important sources for Salem’s history “got away”: the multi-volume, highly-detailed, excessively readable journal of the Reverend William Bentley of the East Church from 1784 to 1819 was left to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester along with half of the volumes in his impressive library and other papers. The gentlemen of Salem were blindsided (I’m not sure why as apparently Bentley had always planned on leaving his diary and library to Harvard but they didn’t grant him his promised honorary degree until too late) and very quickly established the Essex Historical Society (one of the foundations of the Essex Institute) with a “cabinet” restricted to Salem. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was the Essex Institute which took the initiative to publish the Bentley Diary, and Salem historians have benefited from that decision ever since. It’s an invaluable source and a rabbit hole at the same time, encompassing political, social, and weather events, births, deaths, and marriages, long walks with attendant observations, philosophy and theology, shipping news, and a fair amount of gossip.
A page from the original Bentley Diary at the American Antiquarian Society, @AAS.
Thomas G. Knoles, the former Librarian and Curator of Manuscripts at the AAS, is working on an updated and expanded version of the Bentley Diary, in collaboration with the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. This promises to be an even more invaluable resource, and it struck me that the Phillips Library could publish new editions of some key Salem diaries, with additional materials culled from current scholarship and its own collections: The Diary of William Pynchon, a prominent Loyalist stuck in Salem during the Revolutionary War, immediately comes to mind, as does The Diaries of Benjamin Lynde and Benjamin Lynde Jr. which were also published in the later nineteenth century. The Phillips also has diaries which have never seen the light of print and could be offered up in lovely annotated editions which I have no doubt would find a large readership: travel diaries, war diaries, “Sunday diaries” (primarily religious and not likely to be as popular as the previous two examples), work diaries, and those that simply chart daily life. I’d love to see the diary of Salem barber Benjamin Blanchard (DIA 22), maintained over the first two decades of the nineteenth century, referred to by contemporaries as the “famous record” in which Blanchard’s patrons made entries while awaiting their time in his chair”. William Wetmore’s diary (DIA 232) covers the period just before: string them together and you essentially have a variant Bentley. I’d like to read the Civil War diary of William P. Shreve (DIA 171), who served with Company H, 2nd Regiment, U.S. Sharpshooters, as well as the 3rd, 10th, and 25th Army Corps from 1861-64 or the Charles W. Brooks’ account (DIA 26) of his experiences with the 23rd Regiment. There are several illustrated artist’s diaries among the Phillips collections, including that of Harriet Francis Osborne (DIA 290), featuring her Salem etchings. There are also several diaries dealing with China: written by men and women, from the perspectives of trade, missionary work, or simply travel: I think Mary Elizabeth Andrews’ experience of the Boxer Rebellion (DIA 6) would be particularly resonant in an annotated edition—-or perhaps as just one western view in a composite volume. I find myself torn between other possible projects (which of course are being worked out only in my head!): an updated version of the Essex Institute’s Holyoke Diaries, introduced and annotated by George Francis Dow in 1911, seems overwhelming but a brand new volume of women’s private and public lives over the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries comprised from a series of individual diaries by Salem and Essex County women looks manageable. And nothing illustrates change better than personal experience.
The “current” editions of the Pynchon (1890) and Lynde (1880) Diaries; William Price Shreve (photo courtesy Brian White); Chestnut Street etching by Harriet Francis Osborne; Dr. Holyoke’s house on Essex Street from The Holyoke Diaries (1911)—-demolished in 1895 for the construction of the Naumkeag Block.