Monthly Archives: November 2023

A Scottish Photo Feast for St. Andrew’s Day

I’m just returned from a long trip to Scotland, during which I took hundreds of photographs, and today marks the feast of the Scottish patron Saint Andrew, so that’s the post! I promise more substantive essays in the future, but I have re-entered at the busiest time of the semester and my Salem’s Centuries manuscript is due in just over a month, so these photos will have to suffice for now. We spent most of our time in Edinburgh, but also covered a wide swath of south central Scotland, including Glasgow, Oban and Fort William in the west, and St. Andrews in the east. I spent my junior year abroad at that city’s university, and while I’ve been back several times since, it’s always great to go back. I really explored Edinburgh on this trip, both Old Town and New and some adjoining neighborhoods, so it was hard to pick my favorite photos of the capital, but I think I’ll favor the light. All the cities and towns we visited were aglow with Christmas trim, and every other day the sun bathed the land-and street-scapes for several intermittent hours: with moody mornings and darkness descending at 4pm, the light is very precious.

In Edinburgh:

Interior shots are of two National Trust properties: Gladstone’s Land in the Old Town and the Georgian House in the new. Of course the modern embellished building is the relatively new Scottish Parliament, about which I learned a lot. Christmas markets and fairs in every available green space!

 

Glasgow:

Glasgow Cathedral and Council Chambers are quite something, as are the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery at Glasgow University. Charles Rennie McIntosh immersion is possible.

 

Western Coast from Oban to Fort William and through the Highlands:

 

 

Fife villages on the East Coast, and St. Andrews:

So, lots more to write about, including whiskey, GIN, Jacobites, McIntosh, Princes Street, old and new architecture, the power of Outlander, closes, courts and corridors, and hedgehogs, but this postcard post will have to do for now: Happy Feast of St. Andrew day!


Before, During and After the Revolution

I have been thinking about Salem during the American Revolution quite a bit over the past few months. It’s yet another era in Salem’s history which is tragically under-represented, and we’re going to try to correct that with our forthcoming book. We have one whole chapter on the Revolution, and a shorter piece on privateers, but Salem really deserves an entire book on its revolutionary role. And why our city has a “real pirates” of Cape Cod museum and no exhibition on privateers when Salem supplied more sailors and ships than any other American port remains inexplicable to me. In any case, our chapter on the Revolution, written by Hans Schwartz, is really interesting: his thesis is that the Revolution was revolutionary for Salem, which sounds simplistic but is not. He examines the social changes in Salem during and after the Revolution, using houses and neighborhoods as one way to illustrate transitions. I didn’t agree with all of his analysis (which is presumptuous of me since he knows far more about this era than I do, but I guess editors need to be presumptuous), but it certainly got me thinking about houses built in Salem in the Revolutionary era. I decided to take a little tour of before, during and after. Federal Street seemed the best place to start.

The first three houses illustrate a pre-revolutionary style: two-story boxes, square or rectangular. They get additions and embellishments later on, but they are stalwart, well-built houses from the pre-Revolutionary era. They make me wonder: what were their builders thinking? Oh, this will all blow over? Obviously building a house is an expression of hope and confidence, or maybe I’m just projecting too much of a modern mindset. And when the war is not quite over, we start to see the Salem Federals built: larger three-story buildings that just exude confidence—we’re winning (lots of houses built in 1782, including the Peirce-Nichols House below) or we’ve won. 

Does style follow politics? I’m just not certain: I think fashion might, but architecture? Most of the characteristic Federals for which Salem is famous were built at the beginning of the nineteenth century, not the tail end of the eighteenth. And if you widen your search for Revolutionary-era houses to all of downtown Salem, an architectural conservatism is immediately apparent: the first house below, on Turner Street, was built in 1771, but it’s similiar to the two yellow houses off the Common and Derby Street built ten and twenty years later. And before the Revolution, before the laying out of Chestnut Street in 1805 really, there is no housing segregation, so we are left with an interesting mix of architectural styles: so very evident along Essex and Derby Streets.

Building in 1779-1780: now that’s confidence. Elias Hasket and Derby began construction on Salem’s Maritime’s Hawkes House in the latter year, as their family had outgrown the Derby House next door.

I’m off to Scotland on Friday so no posts for a few weeks: “see” you after Thanksgiving! In the meantime, if you’re interested in Salem architecture, tickets for Historic Salem’s Christmas in Salem tour on December 2-3, featuring houses in the Salem Common neighborhood, are available here.


Salem’s Bêche-de-mer Boom

Back in Salem until I take off for Scotland at the end of next week. I’ve got lots of teaching, writing, and organizing to do, but I ignored all of my obligations last weekend and read a fascinating book about early American trade in the South Pacific: Nancy Shoemaker’s Pursuing Respect in the Cannibal Isles. I couldn’t put it down! It gave me all sorts of insights into a very particular and profitable trade dominated by Salem merchants and sea captains in the 1830s and 1840s: in bêchedemer or sea cucumbers, highly sought after in China for medicinal and culinary uses. Trepang (the primary eastern term) were and are sea cucumbers (often called sea slugs in the 19th century) which were processed in a special way, still in use today: boiled in sea water, placed in baskets and washed again, then dried in smokehouses. A Pacific example of the importance of dried seafood in world history, the bêche-de-mer trade was characterized by boom and bust phases over its long history due to overfishing in response to the sustained demand, but in the 1830s and 1840s Salem traders were very dominant. Shoemaker provides her readers with an appendix of Salem ships engaged in the trade, from ship Clay in 1827 to bark Dragon in 1857, with all sorts of familiar Salem names on board. William Driver, of Old Glory fame, then second mate on the Clay, claimed that he was the first “white man” (not westerner, or American, or Salemite) to execute the bêche-drying process sucessfully, thanks to the instruction of a band of pirates from Manilla. This trade has it all, believe me: daring captains working for equally-daring shipowners engaged in a risky trade that was potentially lucrative but also completely dependent on native “cooperation,” profit-seeking pirates and bureaucrats, a range of nineteenth-century ethnographic attitudes, tales of cannibalism and violence, big money.

Still very much in demand: bêche-de-mer at a Hong Kong market, photo by G. Clayden

My colleague Dane Morrison works in the field, and I can understand why he finds it so enticing: the stories and the sources are amazing, lending great narratives to important historical analyses of trade, imperialism, and cross-cultural influences and interaction. Using a micro-historical approach, Shoemaker explores American-Fijian encounters through the lives of three people: David Whippy, a Nantucket whaler who remained in Fiji and became an extremely important intermediary, Mary D. Wallis, the wife of Salem sea captain Bejamin Wallis who accompanied her husbanad to Fiji in the 1840s and later wrote about her experiences (as an anonymous “Lady”) there in Life in Feegee. Five Years Among the Cannibals (1851), and John B. Williams, son of a prominent Salem commercial family who tried to make his own fortune in the islands through a more bureaucratic route. So we have quite a Salem focus here: it’s another reminder that the historical Salem experience is played out in Salem and abroad. Williams in particular offers a very interesting perspective: born into money and raised on Chestnut Street (at #19) he was desperate to make his own fortune, beause “to go home poor its a curse in Salem.” These stories of Massachusetts men (and one woman) abroad illustrate how the entire bêche-de-mer trade was dependent on Fijian labor, coerced by native elites with whom the Salem traders negotiated and paid off. So many interesting anecdotes emerge from Shoemaker’s analysis of the exploitative yet intimate relationships tied to this trade: a powerful chieftain named Cokanauto whom Salem captain John Eagleston nicknamed Phillips after his employer Stephen C. Phillips back home (apparently it stuck), a young native woman named Phebe who became the servant (slave???) of Mrs. Wallis, a “Feegee dwarf, about four feet in height, —- said to have been a man of some distinction at home,” transported to Salem on the ship Eliza. (Shoemaker tells us that he made it back home). Captain Eagleston, who made four voyages to Fiji (on the Peru, Emerald, Mermaid, and Leonidas) from 1831-1841, called “his” bêche-de-mer operations “our little city.”

Cokanauto in Charles Wilkes’ United States Exploring Expedition (1845): 3:122.

The Zotoff (1922 lithograph) and  Emerald returning to Salem, (c. 1950 postcard issued by the Salem Chamber of Commerce).

Shoemaker’s focus is appropriately on Fiji, but it would be nice to explore the impact of this trade on Salem: the sources are numerous as many participants, Eagleston among them, memorialized their particpation in logs, journals, and reminiscences. I’m always looking for narratives to counter Salem’s storied post-1820 decline, as it seems to imply that merchants and seafarers just sat on their hands looking at empty wharves like Nathaniel Hawthorne. I’m not digging into the economics here, but Shoemaker does, and the fortunes that could be made from this trade were astounding! We can see the material legacy of the trade among the Oceanic collections at the Peabody Essex Museum here in Salem, as all of the bêche-le-mer traders were members of the East India Marine Society and thus brought stuff home, but I want to know more.

Bure Kalou (Spirit House), Fiji. Peabody Essex Museum. Gift of Joseph Winn Jr., 1835. 


Salem in the Press, 2023 Halloween Edition

Since I’ve been living outside of Salem for the past month, only coming in for classes and shooting right back to Maine on my (not-so) secret routes, I followed the press coverage on seasonal tourism a bit more closely than in years past. I set up a google alert and got notifications nearly every day. There are always a lot of what I would call obligatory articles about Salem at this time of year focusing on crowds and traffic but it struck me that in this particularly year the coverage was a bit more negative, though as you know, I’m not a Haunted Happenings fan, so I could have been reading what I wanted to read. I will be the first to admit extreme bias in this realm, but I tried to read every article which came my way several times, and there was definitely an underlying tension in several, between the “success” of Salem’s tourism and its costs, whether they were traffic, trash, or exorbitant short-term rentals. For me, the tone seemed to be set in late August, when the Salem Witch Museum was identified by as the #2 tourist trap in the entire world by USA Today: this generated more stories in the regional press, concluding with the recent “visit” of the Boston Globe to the “Museum.” This article is not especially probing in its exploration of either a for or against position on the attraction’s rating, and gives a rather blase tourist the last word: “you have to expect it to be a tourist trap. It’s Salem in October. Isn’t that kind of the whole point?” Indeed.  The Globe featured a stronger, more focused article in mid-October on the skyrocketing prices of Salem airbnbs, which was no surprise to anyone who lives in Salem. They’re everywhere, even though municipal regulations attempted to limit their number a few years back. The article quoted Mayor Dominick Pangallo as asserting that there are “250 t0 300 airbnbs” in Salem, while the rental website listed considerably more units in October.

Of course the victims of 1692 were NOT witches, but Airbnb puts a special focus on “haunted” or themed Salem rentals in October, like this one featuring a “100% that witch” bedroom./Airbnb

This year’s offering from the Washington Post is longer than the Globe pieces, but nevertheless manages to say very little. I don’t understand its title, “Salem bet big on spooky season. Now witch girlies are everywhere,” nor do I discern anything close to a theme or thesis. It’s all over the place with lots of quotes from locals, including my colleague, the president of our preservation organization, and several Salem shopkeepers. But none of the quotes seem to have much context, including one which made me see red after (apparently) confining twentieth-century Salem to the simplistic characterization of a “horrible factory town.” This is the tourist industry’s party line: witchcraft tourism saved Salem. After a summer of reading and writing about the past century for our book, I just can’t stand to hear it anymore–it erases the hopes, dreams, activities and achievements of generations. It’s a falsehood, but also a quote out of context according those who offered this characterization. So now I’m wondering what it, and the entire article, means. I can tell that my colleague is presenting an argument here—about the balance of history and entertainment, the need to discern the authentic from the fake, and tourism’s toll on Salem’s residents, but his quotes are so strung out that I couldn’t quite grasp it–and I know him! And then there are the captions, like the one for the photo below: “people dress up in Salem in late October.”  Wow, really? I have news for you, Washington Post, people dress up in Salem in late July.

Washington Post

The Wall Street Journal’s Salem story, “Living in the Middle of Halloween Central is Not Wicked Fun,” is much tighter and much better. And as you can tell from its title, more negative with its focus on the experience of residents. It’s far more historical in its analysis of how Salem evolved from shame to exploitation in its attitude to the trials, with one Salem tour guide furnishing a very interesting anecdote about Southern slaveholders taunting Salem abolitionists for “burning their grandmothers” and yet another referencing Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher (the spectrum of Salem tour guides never ceases to amaze). And then there is the suggestion of a Florida (of course) tourist, who wants to see “a life-size wooden replica of the gallows where they hung the witches,” in order to “give a real sence of how intense it must have been.” A wary Salem social worker worries that “we’re commercializing a tragedy” and yes, her use of the word “we’re” is spot on: Salem’s exploitative and ever-encroaching tourism not only impacts but also reflects upon all of its residents. The WSJ article was my pick of the litter until a late-season entry appeared on my screen just two days ago: “Salem’s Unholy Bargain” by Lex Pryor, a writer for the sports and popular culture website The Ringer. A BRILLIANT writer: just read this one paragraph, and you’ll be hooked, like me:

It is awesome, financially beneficial, and out of control. In Salem, Halloween is a monthslong beast with an unquenchable appetite. It gobbles late-summer weekends and the first-of-winter snows. There are people who welcome it and people who flee it, but everyone feels it. And though by lineage this creation is at best rarely theirs, by geography and the inalterable stain of days gone by, they are full inheritors of its weight. Because of history—its burdens and allure—a community is held in a periodical and self-imposed state of bedlam. Look beyond the hoopla and you’ll see in Salem a storm, age-old as it is modern, that manages to unmask the knotty, innermost contents of the place and the folks who frequent it.

And one more: a brilliant quip involving bratwursts: the morbid nature of Salem’s appeal isn’t that uncommon among travel destinations. Millions visit the Colosseum every year. Same with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I have never been to Auschwitz, but I am wholly certain that someone is selling something like bratwursts somewhere nearby. Salem is Salem because, unlike those sites, in Salem a plurality of people come for the bratwursts. They arrive in spite of the history, and they have no shame in this.

THEY COME FOR THE BRATWURSTS! And we can’t get away.

Well I could keep quoting this brilliant piece, but you can read it for yourself: you should read it for yourself if you’re interested in what Salem has become. I was going to conclude with the New York Times’ Salem article for this year but it is quite literally so small by comparison with Mr. Pryor’s piece in its focus on the plague of nip bottles on the streets of Salem that I think I’ll just leave you with the link.

NOVEMBER 1!!!


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