In my mission to ferret out lesser-known Salem women for my #salemsuffragesaturday posts I seem to be focusing on quite a few unmarried women, but they are not your typical “maiden aunts” known only to their families: some public activity has to have been documented or they would leave no mark other than personal memories. Today I am featuring the older sister of a very famous Salem family, described by none other than the New York Times as “eminent for genius and enterprise”: Sarah West Lander (1819-72). Sarah’s siblings included Civil War General Frederick W. Lander and sculptress Louisa Lander; they were the great-grandchildren of Elias Hasket Derby and the grandchildren of Elizabeth Derby and Captain Nathaniel West, whose spectacular divorce rocked Salem in 1806. I wanted to write about Sarah mostly because I’m envious of the amazing houses in which she lived throughout her life, no doubt in the midst of all that famous Derby furniture: a charming and long-gone Barton Square house, the famous McIntire creation Oak Hill in nearby Peabody (also long gone, but with interiors preserved at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and the brick townhouse that now houses the Salem Inn. But in her own time, I think she found considerable fame as the author of a series of juvenile travelogues titled Spectacles for Young Eyes: eight volumes were published in all during the 1860s, encompassing cities from Boston to New York to Berlin and St. Petersburg. It is through these spectacles that we come to see Sarah.
Five Barton Square, Sarah’s birthplace, in 1904 by Frank Cousins from his Colonial Architecture in Salem (1919); Oak Hill in the early twentieth century, Peabody Institute Library; Five Summer Street (left), Sarah’s home after 1850, in a 1890s photograph by Frank Cousins, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum via Digital Commonwealth.
Sarah didn’t begin writing her children’s books until the onset of the Civil War: the first one, originally titled Spectacles for Little Eyes and focused on nearby Boston, was published in 1862, the same year that her brother died from injuries sustained in battle and the onset of pneumonia. His Washington funeral was attended by President Lincoln and members of the Cabinet; crowds lined the streets of both the capital and Salem after his body was returned home for burial in the Broad Street Cemetery on March 8. It is impossible to know how Sarah processed all this: it is tempting to offer up escapism through travel writing but certainly that’s taking too many liberties!
New York Times, March 9, 1862; C. Mathias, “General Lander’s Funeral March”, Library of Congress
Seven more books followed Spectacle for Little Eyes, all issued in multiple illustrated editions with the revised series title Spectacles for Young Eyes. Contemporary trade journals refer to Miss Lander’s success at selling 50,000 plus copies per title: while the rest of the country was occupied with war and reconstruction, she was clearly focused on her writing, publishing poetry and translations from French and German as well as the Spectacles books. Obviously Sarah knew Boston, but I can’t find any evidence that she visited any of the other cities she wrote about, using the experiences of the wandering Hamilton family as her “spectacles”. Her younger sister Louisa was well-traveled, but Sarah was an armchair traveler, settled in a Salem which she describes as very pleasant, quiet, staid, [and] neat-looking—as if it were Sunday all the time. The spirit of the Puritans seems hanging over it still [very Hawthornesque!]. Hers was a quiet Salem, not a busy (though declining) port, a burgeoning industrial center or a cauldron of reformist activism.
Spectacles: Boston, St. Petersburg, Zurich, “Pekin”.
Indeed, in her 1872 obituary, the Salem Gazette is pretty much in the same position to view Miss Lander as I am: it belongs to those who were favored with her intimate acquaintance, to speak of the attractions and virtues of her private character. But we may be permitted to refer to those productions through which she has become known to the public, i.e. the Spectacles, much praised for their great research, their moral tone, beauty of style, and great fidelity of description.