Our Christmas was Covid-impacted like everyone else’s, but it ended up being just lovely, with most of our time spent with my brother and brother-in-law in Salem eating, drinking, playing bad board games and watching movies. We went up to York Harbor for Boxing Day with my parents, but we’re not going down to New Jersey to see my husband’s family, so this is a rare holiday season without long-distance travel for me (with the exception of last year, of course), and I’m enjoying lounging around. Because we knew we would be primarily stationary on Christmas weekend, we snuck in a quick trip down to Newport to see the decorated mansions (the Elms, Marble House, and the Breakers) as well as the streets and streets of colonial houses of every color. So all in all, a convivial, colorful, and (so-far) Covid-free holiday! I feel very fortunate.
Christmas at Home (with swans this year—and lots of cats, our Trinity & Tuck, and my brother’s Clementine).
Newport! I really prefer the smaller colonial houses, but when you’re in Newport you’ve got to see some mansions, especially at Christmas time. We had a lovely dinner at the White Horse tavern, and just walked by and through so many houses. Perfect little break. I think I have the many, many Christmas trees and mantles in order of their location—-first The Elms, then Marble House, then the Breakers—but there were just so MANY I might have mixed some up.
The Elms, 1901.
Marble House, 1888-1892.
The Breakers, 1895.
As glittering as they are at this time of year in particular, these mansions are a bit over the top, so I’m ending with the simple themed trees in the basement kitchen of the Breakers (hedgehogs & mushrooms! I’ve been wanting to do those Christmas themes myself) above and my very favorite Newport house and the First Parish Church in my hometown of York, below. Happiest of holidays to everyone.
Classes have just ended and after grading I will attack the big pile of books by my bedside: I’ve already dipped into one or two but I have a full month with very few obligations ahead of me to really indulge. As I’ve been consumed with writing my own book (out in February) over the past few years, along with teaching and everything else, I haven’t had much time to read generally and broadly, so I’m really looking forward to the next few weeks. My list below is about as general and broad as I get: when I don’t have to read history for scholarship or teaching I tend to read histories of periods and places which I do not write or teach about. I’d love to read more fiction over the next month, but nothing has caught my attention except for the sole work of historical fiction below—and only because it’s related tangentially to my next project.
So here we go, beginning with two books that fall into the category of personal history:
Mr. Atkinson’s Rum Contract is an amazing personal history of Richard Atkinson’s own family, including his namesake forebear, a British merchant with considerable interests in the West Indies in the late 18th century who acquired the lucrative contract to supply the British army in North America with rum and other essentials during the American Revolution. This is a “warts and all” family history, as the family fortune was based as much on slavery as it was on sugar and land, of course, and one told in a truly captivating manner. Lotharingia is the last of Simon Winder’s surveys of central European travelogue history, following Germania and Danubia. I liked both of these books: they are rather breezy but still engaging and it’s easy to skip over the occasional boring bits. Lotharingia is the “land in between” established by the terms of the Treaty of Verdun in 843, which divided Charlemagne’s empire between his three grandsons: younger brothers Louis the German and Charles the Bald received lands east of the Rhone River and West Francia, respectively, while the eldest brother Lothar received the imperial title and “Francia Media”, a long strip of territory encompassing the Low Countries, parts of modern Germany and France, Switzerland, and much of northern Italy. A place of shifting boundaries and perspectives, for sure.
Since we are back in the early middle ages, I must admit that I have to do some work over the break: I’m teaching our early world civilization survey for the first time in a decade or so, so I must delve into some global history: Silk Road scholar Valerie Hansen’s The Year 1000 will be very helpful, and I’m hoping that Gary Paul Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels and Caravans, written from a more personal and cultural perspective, will provide me with some great “spicy” anecdotes.
And speaking of spices, I also want to use this break between semesters to do some background reading on my next project: a history of saffron in medieval and early modern England. A storied spice, a wonder drug, used in medical and culinary recipes and as a dyestuff, saffron has many threads to follow—through economic, social, cultural and even political history. I’m going to start with its most obvious attribute, its color, and then expand into some textile history. I’m not sure whether or not Atlantic sericulture will have much bearing on my understanding of saffron cultivation, but I’ve met Ben Marsh so I want to read his magisterial book (and you might know him too, from his family’s viral pandemic rendition of “One Day More”—he’s a Renaissance Man!) And then there is A Net for Small Fishes, Lucy Rago’s fictional account of the “Overbury Affair” in which Mrs. Anne Turner, she of the conspicuous yellow ruff, was implicated in the murder by poisoning of courtier Thomas Overbury and executed in 1615. There’s even a fictional Salem connection, as Nathaniel Hawthorne includes Anne Turner in The Scarlet Letter as a friend of suspected witch Mistress Hibbins, even teaching her how to color her ruffs yellow. Anne Somerset’s Unnatural Murder is a more straightforward account of the murder of Overbury set against the backdrop of poisonous Jacobean court culture.
I think I always include books about gardening on my lists, and this one is no exception. I like whimsical, personal books about gardening as an activity, but also cultural histories of evolving landscapes and horticulture: The Morville Hours is a perfect example of the former, and The Acadian Friends of the latter. It would be nice if someone would buy me the forthcoming Architects of the American Landscape and Nature and its Symbols, a reference book from Lucia Impelluso and the Getty Museum.
Finally, two texts focused on the interpretation of history for the general public, a constant concern and interest of mine. The United States is in the midst of a real reckoning (as opposed to a pandering PEM-esque reckoning) about its history and understanding of slavery, and Clint Smith’s bestselling How the Word is Passed is the very next book I want to read about this important process. Here in Salem, there’s very little reckoning; just an increasing amount of ghosts! All summer long, I was hearing ghost stories on the streets of Salem and I feel like I’m surrounded by their professional proponents. This fall, I went to a talk by a very prominent head of interpretation at a very prominent New England heritage organization and in the Q and A I asked him about ghost stories as history and he replied that ghost stories are history. While I understand and agree with that statement to a point, I’ve gone beyond my comfort level and so want to read up a bit more on dark or “paranormal tourism”: Haunted Heritage is about the scene in York, known as Great Britain’s most “haunted” city, so it should be just the ticket.
I came across a delightful short memoir quite by accident yesterday; it was so well-written and charming that I couldn’t stop thinking about it so I decided to write about it today to get it out of my head! It’s not about any BIG thing or event; in fact, it’s about a very little thing, what we might call an accessory today, and something we might not have thought much about at all before the pandemic: handkerchiefs in general, and “bundle handkerchiefs” in particular. “The Bundle Handkerchief ” was published in The New England Magazine in 1896 by Elisabeth Merritt Gosse, a Salem native and emerging newspaperwoman, who would go on to have a very successful career writing principally for the Boston Herald. It must have proved popular as it was issued as an illustrated pamphlet a few years later: I would love to get my hands on this! It’s such a simple story of how people wrapped up their purchases or possessions in the nineteenth-century, in handkerchief bundles of all cloths: gingham and calico sold at Mrs. Batchelder’s or Miss Ann Bray’s shops, the ‘finest white India silk” for ladies’ hats, lawn, linen or muslin for more intimate garments, Madras for new gowns as they made their way home from the dressmakers’, and “pale pink and blue gingham plaids” for shirts and spencers. Yet it is also revealing: of what people are doing and buying and wearing in very specific detail. l learned about all sorts of shops and customs of which I was previously completely unaware in its jam-packed three pages.
The bundle handkerchief as art: Alfred Denghausen, 1936, National Gallery of Art.
Apparently one could not even enter this world properly (or be introduced to it) without a bundle handkerchief! Is this where the stork with the bundled baby comes from? According to Elisabeth, No Salem infant, even without the requisite number of great-grandfathers and grandmothers, could be considered to have been properly introduced to society until it had dangled in a bundle handkerchief from a pair of steelyards, while its weight was recorded in the family Bible at the end of the family pedigree. She also included her own childhood memory of accompanying the family servants, armed with “two great bundle handkerchiefs of coarse blue and white checked gingham” to Mr. Hathaway’s bakery on Sunday mornings after church to retrieve the baked beans and brown bread which had been placed in his cavernous oven the day before. Salem women packed their soldiers’ trunks with prayer books from Mr. Wilde and medicine chests from Mr. (not Mrs.?) Pinkham, as well a selection of fine new bundle handkerchiefs, and three of these, of dark red silk, with the name embroidered in one corner, came home in one soldier’s trunk, brought by a guard of honor; for Salem gave the first of the Essex County heroes who laid down their lives for their country in the war of the Rebellion, as she did in the war of the Revolution. I wonder if she is referring to her own father here, Lt. Colonel Henry Merritt, who was killed at the Battle of New Bern in March of 1862.
Not blue and white, but the best I could do: a recipe card from the 1950s; Mr. Hathaway’s Bakery or the “Old Bakery” (now the Hooper Hathaway House on the campus of the House of the Seven Gables) in its original location at 21 Washington Street, Historic New England; Elisabeth Merritt Gosse in 1905, upon the occasion of the dedication of a boulder commemorating her father’s regiment near Salem Common.
Elisabeth Merritt Gosse recounts her last memory of a bundle handkerchief on the streets of Salem, wrapped around a book and carried by Mr. John Andrews in and out of the Salem Athenaeum, and observes that her title topic is as vivid a bit of color in Salem’s history as is Alice Flint’s silk hood, the frigate Essex, the North Bridge or even the House of the Seven Gables; and to speak of it calls up a long line of Salem’s sires and dames who took pride and pleasure and comfort in its use. [Another Salem memoirist, Harriet Bates or “Eleanor Putnam,” went even further: “The bundle handkerchief is as essential a figure in Salem history as the witches themselves.”] The bundle handkerchief’s time had passed in 1896, however, replaced by paper and string, prosaic, rustling, tearable, and to be quickly thrown aside and thrown away. This is not a good development in Elisabeth Merritt Gosse’s estimation, but as she died at the venerable age of 86 in 1936, we can at least be glad that she didn’t live long enough to see plastic.
Elisabeth Merritt Gosse was referencing the OLD Salem Athenaeum, now one of the Peabody Essex Museum’s empty buildings further up on Essex Street, but as I happened to be walking by the present one today, I snapped this photograph.
Salem has a brand new cookbook out just in time for the holiday season: Salem’sCookin‘, the Official Chamber of Commerce Cookbook. I kind of wish it had more historical recipes, as Salem has quite a few culinary claims to fame, but I’m sure I’m the only person with this wish as it features a range of recipes for dishes served at the city’s most popular restaurants and offerings from other establishments and individuals which seem surprisingly doable. It’s a very practical cookbook as well a showcase of Salem’s culinary landscape. Still, I’d rather read about food than attempt to make it so I thought I would mark the occasion with a survey of Salem cookbooks, beginning with the serious and mysterious The American Matron; or Practical and Scientific Cookery published in 1851 by an anonymous “housekeeper” who lived in Salem. This housekeeper was quite the cook, quite the chemist really, and quite the writer, and I’ve been trying to find out who she was for quite some time, with no success.
As its title implies, The American Matron is a very practical cookbook as well, so practical that it often seems as concerned with preventing food spoilage and consequential poisoning as offering up recipes that are easy to make and pleasant to eat. The instructions for pickle storage below are very representative of its author’s tone throughout: warning her readers not to keep their pickles in pottery or metal containers due to arsenic and acid, she concludes that One may not be instantly poisoned after eating pickles prepared or kept in such vessels; but if constantly used, a deleterious influence must be operated on the health from this cause, even when lest suspected. This is a text which begins with the proper storage of water and reads more like a public health manual than a cookbook in places, but it also includes scores of recipes for both traditional New England dishes as well as more exotic concoctions featuring ingredients from around the globe, highlighting Salem’s continuous seaport status. There are a lot of interesting seafood recipes in particular, all stressing the necessity of using just-off-the-boat ingredients. It is also a manual for housekeeping, containing instructions for dyes, cleaning agents, and pest control that one might see in the more random printed recipe collections of the early modern era: my favorite is her very nineteenth-century prescription for how to remove the black Dye left on the skin from wearing mourning in hot weather. That’s a predicament I never considered before reading this book!
I can’t find any Salem cookbooks from the later nineteenth century, so I guess that brings us to a collection of historical recipes gathered together under the title What Salem Dames Cooked and published as a fundraiser for the Esther Mack Industrial School in 1910. Like many Salem creations of this particular time, this little volume expresses a Colonial Revival view of the past with its yeolde type and terms, and it was reissued about a decade ago in a glossy reprint so it is widely available. Moving forward another half century, the Hamilton Hall Cook Book was published by the Chestnut Street Associates as a fundraiser for Hamilton Hall just after World War II. Its recipes are quite minimalist, but as it contains both the iconic 1907 photo of Hall caterer EdwardCassell and a lovely illustration of the Hall’s RumfordRoaster I think it must be my favorite Salem cookbook. Old copies turn up on ebay rather regularly but I think Hamilton Hall should reprint it!
A Mary Harrod Northend photograph of the students at the Esther C. Mack School, Historic New England; Mr. Cassell making his deliveries in front of the Peirce-Nichols House.
I am sure there must be more later twentieth-century Salem cookbooks: perhaps issued by ladies’ committees of a church or the Hospital? But the only one I have in my possession is Served in Salem, published in 1981 by the Ladies Committee of the Essex Institute. Both the Hamilton Hall Cook Book and Served in Salem feature lots of recipes with ready-made, canned and frozen ingredients, in stark contrast to The American Matron: twentieth-century cooks didn’t have to worry about preservation and were apparently interested in as many shortcuts as possible. Served in Salem emphasizes entertaining: there are many “party” dishes and featured table settings which showcase the Essex Institute’s collections. Like its Chestnut Street predecessor, however, Served in Salem also features several nods to the past, including a letter from Sally Ropes Orne to her brother Nathaniel which reveals in great detail the Christmas dinner she served to her guests in the family mansion in 1848. It’s so great, and brings us back to the time of of The American Matron, though Sally writes from the perspective of a gracious hostess rather than a practical housekeeper. The dinner began with a toast with sherry, Maderia and hock (which she disdains as too expensive for the taste), then came in the oyster soup, followed by boiled chickens and a ham with caper sauce, mashed potatoes and squash. The next course featured a “noble turkey” accompanied by gravy and liver sauce and more mashed potatoes, this time “browned on top and marked off in diamonds,” which was followed by deserts: plum pudding with hard sauce, mince pies, and cream pudding. Everything was then removed, including the white tablecloth, and the meal was completed with Baldwin apples, grapes, nuts and raisins, along with more sherry. She concludes that “every article was charmingly cooked” and assures her brother that the day went off finely.
Christmas Dinner Service in the Ropes Mansion, from Served in Salem (1981).