The Reverend William Bentley’s Diary is justly famous as a detailed source of much of Federal-era Salem’s history, but I think that three memoirs written by Salem women deserve a bit more storied reputation as sources: Marianne C.D. Silsbee’s Half Century in Salem (1886), Eleanor Putnam’s (the pseudonym of Harriet Bates) Old Salem (1886), and Caroline Howard King’s When I Lived in Salem 1822-1866 (1937). Of these three reminiscences, I find myself returning to Silsbee’s Half Century again and again, so I thought I would feature her on my third Salem Suffrage Saturday post. She is of the next generation, and in a much more enviable position, than the Hawthorne sisters of last week’s post: I think she was also a working woman (like all women!), but by choice rather than necessity.
A Half Century in Salem, and two photographs of Marianne Cabot Devereux Silsbee from her 1861 photographic album at the Phillips Library in Rowley (PHA 58): the first dated 1851 and the second 1861.
Marianne Cabot Devereux was born in Salem in 1812 to Eliza Dodge Devereux and Humphrey Devereux: I believe that her father, who had been captured by the British during the War of 1812 and imprisoned on Bermuda, was not present at her birth. Upon his release and return, Humphrey eventually moved his family into a Chestnut Street mansion, but Marianne’s early life was spent elsewhere: I’m not sure exactly where her childhood residence was, but she remembered spending a lot of time at her maternal grandmother’s house on Front Street. Around the time that the Devereux family moved to Chestnut Street, Humphrey commissioned a pair of portraits of himself and his wife by Gilbert Stuart: I was thrilled to discover the latter in the collection of the Rehoboth Antiquarian Society, but I could only find a heliotype copy of Mr. Devereux’s portrait in the The Pickering Genealogy.
Mrs. Devereux looks rosy-cheeked in her Stuart portrait, which apparently pleased her very much (her dress apparently was not as pleasing, so the artist Chester Harding later repainted the ruff and drapery) but she was in fact an invalid, and died eleven years after this portrait, when Marianne was sixteen. I’m on the precipice on the dreaded psycho-history here, but I think that Marianne’s reverence for older women, so apparent in A Half Century as well as other works, might stem from her mother’s illness and death. I’m on stronger ground stating that the early years covered in A Half Century were based on her mother’s letters to Marianne, rather than her own reminiscences. So you kind of get a double feminine focus in this text, which dwells on food, shops, schools, entertainments, dress, homes—the life of women, or should I say relatively wealthy women—as well as “external” events: Lafayette’s visit in 1824, when the first steamship line commenced trips to Boston. The book is much more focused on personalities than events however, and women really pop out: the honorable Elizabeth Sanders (who will definitely be the subject of a later post), the charming Mrs. Remond, who catered all the meals at her beloved Hamilton Hall.
Marianne Cabot Devereux Silsbee expressed herself a bit more publicly, but she was a traditional woman of her time, focused on her family and friends. She married Nathaniel Silsbee Jr., son of a U.S. Senator and later two-term Mayor of Salem in 1829 and moved into the Silsbee mansion on the Common (now undergoing a major renovation and expansion). They had five children, two of whom, George and her namesake Marianne, died in childhood. The Silsbees left Salem for Boston in 1862 when he became Treasurer of Harvard, and there was another move to Milton following his retirement. Throughout this time she wrote poems and reminiscences, some published, some not. Her first publication, Memory and Hope, a compilation of mourning poems edited and introduced by her, was issued anonymously in 1851 (one can understand her interest in this topic given the early deaths of two children), and thereafter there are published children’s rhymes, a handwritten journal of poetry entitled My Grandmother’s Mirror, A New England Idyll (a reference to her maternal Dodge grandmother, who was a Pickering), a book about the Boston Ladies Club, and finally A Half Century in Salem.
The Silsbee Mansion on Salem Common in 1884, George H. Walker; Memory and Hope (1851); Title page of My Grandmother’s Mirror (Essex County Collection, Phillips Library, E S585.3 1878).
Much of her writings dwell on home life, social life, all the little things that surround one’s daily existence: one poem in My Grandmother’s Mirror creates a scene in the old Pickering house, while another is written from the perspective of a woman who dwelt within the border, of the town of peace and order, Our pleasant little Salem, on the margins of the sea surrounded by her children and children’s children. Yet Mrs. Silsbee was also an active and engaged woman: a mayor’s wife who carried on a long personal correspondence with abolitionist Lydia Maria Child and whose personal photograph album compiled in 1861 contains as many photographs of soldiers and politicians as it does her own children and grandchildren. Most of the men in uniform are her own family, including her older brother, George H. Devereux, former adjutant general of Massachusetts, and his soon-to be heroic sons, Arthur F. Devereux, commander of the Salem Light Infantry and later the Massachusetts 19th at Gettysburg, and John F., a Captain in the 11th Massachusetts Infantry, as it was perhaps impossible to separate the private and public spheres at this particular time. Several photographs of President Lincoln are included, but also an image of what I can only presume to be the family cat! When it was over, once can hardly blame Marianne Silsbee for desiring to look back to a dimmer, and thus more pleasant past.
The private and the public: Mrs. Silsbee’s poetry and President Lincoln in her photograph album: Phillips Library E S585.3 (1878) and PHA 58 (1861).
January 25th, 2020 at 1:47 pm
Hi Donna, thanks for continuing your Saturday study about interesting women in Salem.
I must say I had to chuckle at Mrs. Devereux’s “rosy cheeked” Stuart portrait to which Chester Harding later added the ruff, a la Rembrandt. There must have been a story around that alteration, eh?
January 25th, 2020 at 10:28 pm
I love that little book! Silbee’s marginal notes are both helpful and sometimes amusing. Of great interest to me was her description of Cleopatra’s Barge which was wrecked in Hanalei Bay on Kauai where I lived for 20 years. After Hurricane Iniki in 1991 the wreck was found. I was managing a kayak shop at the time in Hanalei and the archaeologists would stop by and talk story about it. One day they were exceptionally excited because they found a chair. Somewhere in the book Silbee writes about sleigh ride parties on cold winter evenings where dozens of them would go from house to house looking for merriment. They would end up at a hotel which the name escapes me right now for imbibing and dancing. I found that to be so romantic and wished that I too could go on a sleigh riding party on a cold winter’s night!
Does your book have the top edge gilt? I’ve dusted mine off and am excited to read it again, thanks for bringing it back into my consciousness. My copy originally belonged to Walter Merriam Pratt (born July 13, 1880) as noted by the beautifully engraved nameplate on the inside cover of the book which indicated that he belonged to the Society of Mayflower Descendants, The National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution Massachusetts Society, and the Society of Colonial Wars of Massachusetts. It also has a seal of Chelsea which states, Settled 1624 – A Town 1739 – A City 1857. In the middle of the plate is an engraving of a library that I assume was in his home, and at the top it reads “omnia possibilia volenti”. There’s more to this nameplate but I’ve probably bored you enough about it. While searching my home for this book I also found my copy of King’s, When I Lived in Salem, which I remember being so impressed with when I read it many years ago. Unfortunately my copy of Old Salem is MIA at the moment. Can’t quite recall what the cover looks like. That would really help if I could remember.
January 25th, 2020 at 11:56 pm
After hours going down the rabbit hole I finally found some info about the Walter Merriam Pratt bookplate I mentioned in my previous post. It was engraved by Arthur N. MacDonald in 1935 and the library it illustrates is indeed a corner of Pratt’s own library. Picture of the plate at the link.