Sarah Symonds of Salem

When I was a perpetual antiques hunter and picker some time ago, I would run into cast iron doorstops and plaster wall plaques with chipped paint depicting houses and gates and various interior details everywhere: they did not appeal to me and I passed them right by, but I remember seeing them often, in Maine, New Hampshire and western Massachusetts. When I moved to Salem I realized they were Sarah Symonds pieces, crafted right here by a very entrepreneurial artist. To be honest, I remained rather immune to their charms, even in my intense Salem collecting phase, and I still don’t really appreciate them, but I see that many other people do as their prices have certainly increased dramatically. I do have deep appreciation for Sarah the businesswomen, though, and the artistic ambassador of “old Salem,” along with her contemporaries Mary Harrod Northend and Caroline Emmerton.

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Screenshot_20200203-095432_ChromeSarah Symonds pieces from the archive of sold lots at Worthpoint; if I was going to purchase one it would definitely be the Gardner Pingree House.

Sarah (1870-1965) was a ninth-generation Salem resident, descended from the John Symonds (c. 1595-1671) who emigrated from East Anglia in the 1640s. He was an experienced joiner who trained his sons James and Samuel in the cabinet-making trade. The Symonds shop excelled and flourished, and its products are among the most valued pieces of early American furniture today: a small valuables cabinet made by James was purchased by the Peabody Essex Museum for nearly two and half million dollars in 2000. Successive generations of the Symonds family turned to other occupations, but they remained in Salem, and a street named after them testifies to their long residence. Sarah seems to have spent her whole life in Salem: she graduated from Emerson College in Boston (to which I assume she took the train) and later vacationed in a summer cottage in Marblehead but other than these forays she seems very bound to Salem, and to her work. I’m not sure exactly when she first started making bas-relief sculptures and plaques—most likely in the 1890s, and perhaps influenced by the careers of the Salem sculptors Louise Lander and John Rogers—but she received several mentions for her Hawthorne pieces in the press coverage of the centennial commemoration of his birth in 1904. And then she was launched, making and selling pieces in the recently-moved John Ward House on the campus of the Essex Institute, at the Snug Harbor Shop adjacent to the House of the Seven Gables, for a gift “shoppe” at the Hawthorne Hotel, and ultimately at the “Colonial Studio” in the Bray House on Brown Street. As you can see below, she also fulfilled orders by mail.

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There are several folders of Sarah’s business records in the Phillips Library and when I started going through their contents I became very fixated on the copyright registration certificates she filled out for each of her sculptures: in my real job I’m a sixteenth-century historian, so I’ve never used sources like these! They are so detailed, written in her own hand, and it occurred to me that seldom do we see artists describe their work so matter-of-factly. No doubt her applications were prompted by the passage of the 1909 copyright law, which extended protections to “works of art; models or designs for works of art”: her first certificates date from just after the passage of this landmark law (which replaced a law made in 1790!)

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I like to blame Daniel Low for the increasing prominence of the Salem witch, emblazoned on anything and everything, but to be fair, Sarah expanded her witch offerings over the first half of the twentieth century consistently: that category grows and only rivals “Salem’s Colonial Doorways” on her price lists. You can kind of feel some of her Colonial Revival contemporaries (especially Mary Harrod Northend) shirking away from the witch, but Sarah ran with it, producing round witches, tall witches, witches on brooms, witches with cauldrons, witch plaques and freestanding “statuettes,” witch medallions, and ink-well witches. Oh well, a lady has to make a living—and give her customers what they want.

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20200121_133608Sarah Symonds papers at the Phillips Library, Rowley:  MSS 0.202; The library also has some price lists. There’s an article about Sarah’s bas-reliefs by Barbara Morse White in the Antiques Journal (1976), and you can also read a short biography by Salem preservation architect John Goff here


8 responses to “Sarah Symonds of Salem

  • Nancy

    Oh, well now, Donna, I simply must have one of Ms. Symonds’ works! Thank you for a delightful article!

  • Mary Jane Kelley

    My mother received one of her pieces as a gift many many years ago. It was an interior scene, fireplace, etc…..so long ago I cannot recall the house.
    Wish I had it now.

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Surely Sarah Symonds deserves a place in your Saturday tribute to Salem women for her entrepreneurial spirit. She “did much to promote an attractive and positive view of colonial Salem to the world” according to John Goff, president of Salem Preservation.

    That top photo of Sarah in her youth is a stunner. Loved her handwriting too.

  • Lori

    Hello! I received a bas-relief cornerstone, or ‘block’ as a gift a few years back and can find no identifying marks on this piece ~ it is blackened, quite heavy and appears to be stone ~ I have googled Ms. Symonds’ work but don’t see this particular piece…do you have any reference as to where I can search for better identification? I can send you a photo. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  • Ralph Trigger

    Does the PEM have any of her physical works ?

    What a nice exhibit they would make !

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