Author Archives: daseger

Connecting my Courses

This is that time in the semester when I am inevitably behind in my course content, racing towards the end of classes in early December: in one course I’m only in thirteenth century when I should be in the fourteenth; in another I’m in the eighteenth and I should be in the nineteenth. It’s either poor organization or too many tangents, likely both, but I’ll manage to wrap everything up somehow. Just the other night, as is my custom, I was watching an old movie on TCM and I stumbled upon an odd connection between the two very different eras I am trying to get out of, forestalling my mental departure for a little while longer. The film was Anthony Adverse (1936), a rather disjointed story about an abandoned boy who navigates the challenges and opportunities of the late eighteenth-century Atlantic world, and the connection was a foundling wheel. 

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In a film that shifts (laboriously) its locales from Italy to Cuba to Africa to Paris and somehow manages to incorporate both the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Napoleon, it was the foundling wheel that caught my attention. It is the mode of entry by which the cruel aristocratic husband of Anthony’s mother deposits him in a convent following her death in childbirth, just after he killed her lover (Anthony’s real father) in a duel. The convent is conveniently located in northern Italy, adjacent to the trading business of Anthony’s maternal grandfather and later foster father, but let’s not get bogged down in the narrative. It’s all about this nifty device, an invention of the thirteenth century resurrected in the eighteenth.

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Connecting 3The evil Marquis Don Luis (Claude Rains) places little Anthony Adverse in the foundling wheel.

Two eras of dynamic demographic growth in Europe: in the former, Pope Innocent III, the very pinnacle of the very purposeful high medieval papacy, sought to discourage infanticide via exposure by offering parents an anonymous means by which to “donate” their unwanted children to the church, and the first “window of life” was installed in the Ospedale di Santo Spirito in Rome in 1204. In Omne Bonumthe absolutely wonderful English illuminated encyclopedia of the next century (a time of dramatic demographic decline), the entry for expositus (abandoned child) shows an tightly-swaddled infant being deposited at a city gate and a cleric lecturing the supposed parents, indicating a collaborative policy of church and state. Foundling wheels reappeared in the eighteenth century, when the beginnings of an “illegitimacy explosion” (the number of illegitimate children born in Europe increased from 3% of births in 1750 to 20% by 1850) prompted the establishment of foundling hospitals in nearly every major European city. The revolving barrel in which Anthony Adverse was placed would more likely have been part of a secular institution than the convent of the film in the later eighteenth century, but of course it’s Hollywood history. It looks right!

Foundling Hospital Rome

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Foundling Hospital London WellcomePiranesi print of the church and hospital of Santo Spirito, Rome from the ‘Varie vedute di Roma antica e moderna‘, Rome, 1741-8, British Museum; the Foundling Wheel at Santo Spirito, Expositus illuminations from James le Palmer’s Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, British Library MS Royal MS 6 E VI/2; “Madonna of the Foundlings” (also very wound up!) by Domenico di Michelino c. 1446, Ospedale degli Innocenti di Firenze; The London Foundling Hospital in the 18th Century, Wellcome Collection.

Appendix:  Apparently there is a limited but controversial 21st-century revival of the foundling wheel, in the guise of the much less rolling barrel- or lazy susan-ish “baby hatch” or “baby box” in several European countries–as well as Asia.


Salem Tokens, and my appreciation

Periodically, but continually, I get tokens from readers of my blog—scanned pictures or stories from old magazines, little pamphlets, scraps of Salem history—which I place in a file for safekeeping with the intent that I will devote one post to each item at some point. This file has grown pretty full, so I wanted to expose some of these items to the light of day. I’ve reserved some pieces for their own special posts, but I’m not sure I can contextualize all of these treasures so better just to get them out there as maybe someone else can! I’m so appreciative of all these gifts, and will be donating them to a public repository in due time, but for now I’m holding on to them, because I never know when inspiration will strike, or some other little piece of paper will come along to amplify something I already have. So here we go, perhaps the first of what may become a series of “tales from the files” posts, beginning with a lovely fundraising pamphlet issued by the Essex Institute in 1929, when its directors were seeking to raise the grand amount of $400,000. The focus is on preservation, accessibility, and “remembrance of things past” throughout the pamphlet, which features silhouettes of famous Salemites in the margins and highlights of the collections on every other page. I sense some emerging sentimentality around the old Essex Institute these days, with the prolonged absence of the Phillips Library: I’ve received several items in just the past few months.

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I have quite a collection of little books, souvenirs I suppose, including several of Fred Gannon’s compilations from the 1940s published by Salem Books Co., guidebooks such as the Streets & Homes in Old Salem, published from 1930 to 1953, and leather industry newsletters: I love the photograph of the old tanneries (on Goodhue Street???) which is in the Leather in Salem and Peabody newsletter below, sourced (of course) from the Essex Institute.

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Token Tannery

My own postcard collection has been supplemented by gifts from readers, encompassing cards from all eras, undivided and divided backs, dignified black-and-white and cheerful chromes, depicting mostly Salem buildings—people don’t send me witches, except for very close friends! Last but far from least, I have been privileged to receive quite a few family photographs–scans of course–including one of my very favorites below: some lovely ladies and the bride at a Ropes Family wedding in 1898.

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Salem Tokens Lucia Ropes Wedding Day 1890s


Student Soldiers

One of the benefits, or should I say privileges, of teaching at a relatively large public university is the opportunity to teach a fair number of veterans: given the length of the Iraq and Afghanistan operations this will likely be true for the rest of my career. And then some. It’s not possible to generalize about student veterans any more than it is about any other category of student, but I will say that those that I have had in my courses have been mature, engaged, focused: they don’t like to waste time. Everyone in the classroom profits from their participation–actually, even their presence. I’m looking forward to my post-chair life when I will be able to teach more in general, and teach more veterans in particular. And hopefully learn from them as well. I’ve always maintained a certain professorial distance with my students, but there are two professors who I know of, one a predecessor and the other a colleague, who have really engaged with students soldiers, amplifying their voices in very meaningful ways. During World War II, the chair of the Salem State History Department was Edna McGlynn, who organized a letter-writing campaign for Salem soldiers fighting overseas, resulting in the exchange of over 1400 letters and postcards, now housed in the University’s Archives and Special Collections. Also there are the “Salem News Letters”, edited summaries of all the letters she received, mailed out to the campus community and all those Salemites in service. All accounts indicate that Dr. McGlynn also worked tirelessly to help both World War II and Korean veterans transition into civilian and campus life once they returned from war.

Veterans Day Letter

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Veterans Salem Newsletter

6311698675_41c9c18d12_oJust one letter to “Miss McGlyn”; Edna McGlynn (second from right) with the Collegiate Defense Committee, for which she was Faculty Advisor; A “Salem News Letter” from the spring of 1945, announcing the death of Joseph Hancock, Class of 1943, who is pictured in the yearbook from that year: all, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

Flash forward 70+ years to the ongoing work of my colleague Andrew Darien, who has brought his decade-long work with Salem State veterans, encompassing several initiatives but best expressed by the “Student, Citizen, Soldier” project in which he has enlisted scores of undergraduate and graduate oral history students to document the varied experiences of veterans on campus and raise awareness of their service, sacrifices, struggles—and perspectives. Intended to foster a community dialogue on campus, this project now has a new website which extends its reach to everyone. I am struck by the continuity of purpose and commitment on the part of these two historians, separated by time and technology but united in their missions of enabling student-soldiers to tell their stories.

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Darien2Dr. Darien at work. On this Veterans Day, hear the stories of Salem State Student Soldiers in their own words at salemveterans.com.


Porcelain Propaganda

I’m thinking about Russia this week for two reasons. In a year of big historical anniversaries, we have now arrived at the centenary of the Russian Revolution–which I must say is not getting much play here, or even in Russia apparently! Regardless of how it turned out in the end, this was an extremely consequential event, almost right up there with Luther’s revolutionary Reformation, which has received some serious commemoration across the globe. It is always interesting to me what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. I’m also thinking about Russia now, because of an event this week sponsored by the Pickering House featuring Ambassador Emeritus Thomas R. Pickering, former US Ambassador to the United Nations (under President George H.W. Bush) and Russia (under President Clinton). The title of Ambassador Pickering’s Thursday night talk is Russia and the United States: Marriage, Separation, Divorce? , which sounds very timely indeed. I have to admit that I’m thinking about Russia for a third, much more materialistic reason too: I recently came upon a trove of porcelain propaganda plates from the first decade of the Soviet Union, and I’m obsessed with both the images and the idea of these “vessels”. The idea is so contradictory: porcelain and propaganda? Porcelain is for the elite, propaganda for the masses: why should these two things ever come together? Apparently there is a utilitarian reason: in the years after the Revolution and Civil War, shortages were great and opportunities for projection were few, but when the new government took over the famous Imperial Porcelain Factory it found a ready supply of blank porcelain plates. Russian artists were mobilized to adorn these “canvases” with revolutionary symbols and slogans, a dramatic departure from the Factory’s previous designs: hammers and sickles rather than gilded flowers. The designs are all so striking: some are symbolic, some folkloric, some futuristic, all vivid. Here are a few examples from the Hermitage, which is opening an exhibition next month titled The Voice of the Time. Soviet Porcelain: Art and Propaganda.

PP Red Man Hermitage

PP Red Genius “Red Man” with “All Power to the Soviets” banner, Mikhail Adamovich and Maria Kirillova, 1921; “Red Genius” with the slogan “We will Emblazon the World with the Third International”, Alisa Golenkina, 1920.

PP Star

PP Large Star with a Shief

PP Eat“The Star”, Mikhail Adamovich, 1921; “Large Star with Sheaf “, Nina Zander, Sergey Chekhonin and L.Vychegzhanin, 1921; “Who Does Not Work, Neither Will He Eat”, Maria Lebedeva, 1920.

PP Stir

PP Cup and Saucer
“Stir” Cup & Saucer, Alexandra Shchekotikhina-Pototskaya, 1920;  “A Hammer, Sickle, and Gear Wheel” Cup & Saucer, Victor Rilde, 1921-22.

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Pope Night in Salem

The colonial American equivalent of Bonfire Night, which has been celebrated in Britain ever since the foiling of Guy Fawkes’ and his fellow Catholic conspirators’ attempt to blow up King James I and Parliament on November 5, 1605, seems to have flourished in eighteenth-century New England as “Pope-Night” or “Pope-Day”. We have a pretty good idea of how Pope Night was observed, at least in Boston, thanks to the survival of a remarkable 1768 broadside: South End Forever. North End Forever. Extraordinary Verses on Pope-Night, Or a Commemoration of the Fifth of November, giving a History of the Attempt, made by the Papistes, to blow up King and Parliament, A.D. 1588……..[interesting that the author has confused the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 with that other big triumph over militant Catholicism, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588].

Pope Night Broadside LC

The “extraordinary verses” above can be supplemented with more narrative accounts in the Boston and Massachusetts Gazettes from around the same time. They describe elaborate “pageants” and processions in which effigies representing the Pope, the Devil, the Stuart Pretender, and other representations of “tyranny, oppression, and slavery” were paraded about before enthusiastic spectators before their consignment to the flames of majestic bonfires. While some accounts stress the “order” of the event: Boston Pope Nights in particular seem to have been characterized by considerable disorder, including brawling between the North End and South End gangs, extortion, destruction, and all sorts of mischief. They seem divisive, but also representative of the agitated environment of pre-Revolutionary Boston. One would think that this most British of holidays would have been dispensed with once the American Revolution began, but George Washington’s order of November 5, 1775 indicates that this was not the case:  As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope–He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.

482px-Washington_Before_Yorktown_Rembrandt_Peale_1823Washington and Lafayette in Rembrandt Peale’s Washington Before Yorktown, 1824, National Gallery of Art—Washington would not meet Lafayette for some time after his Pope Night order, but I imagine he was also thinking about France as well as Canada at that time.

And it is to our second President that we owe the first reference to Pope Night in Salem, long before he became our second President. When he was attending court in Salem he made the following note in his diary for November 5, 1766: Spent the evening at Mr. Pynchon’s [on Summer Street–a house that is still with us but much changed], with Farnham, Sewall, Sargeant, Col. Saltonstall &ct. very agreeably. Punch, wine, bread and cheese, apples, pipes and tobacco. Popes and bonfires, this evening at Salem, and a swarm of tumultuous people attending. I don’t know if people in Salem abstained from following General Washington’s order, but Pope Night certainly continued on after the Revolution: I can find references up to 1819 in the Reverend William Bentley’s famous diary. His entry for the 5th of November, 1792 reads: Not all the revolutions which have passed over our Country can efface the remembrance of this anniversary. The boys must have their bonfire. But the light of it is going out. We have little concern in powder plots of Kings at this day. The Town of Boston have determined not to disturb any ground in the antient Burying places. For a long time these grounds have been crowded & it was impossible to observe decency in the opening of graves. The Charge is just in a great degree against the old ground in this Town, but the objections have not yet become serious. I’m not exactly sure what he is referencing here: the Boston festivities did occur at Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in the North End, but I can’t find any references to Pope Night events occurring in Salem cemeteries: the bonfires were always lit at Salem Neck. He sounds like me complaining about the toll of Halloween on the Old Burying Ground! Every other year or so the Reverend makes a Pope Night entry, all of which express his increasing irritation, until his final words on the matter in 1819: We have had this evening the full proof of the obstinate power of superstition & habit. The 5 of Nov. was celebrated by the ritual & rubric of the English Church for political purposes. The history of the plot against all fact most pertinaciously insisted upon rea, & the popular celebration, by the carrying about the Pope & the Devil, most zealously encouraged. Tho we have lost all connection with Great Britain & have detected the fraud & the purpose, yet our common people still keep the 5 of Nov. and we had a roaring fire on the Neck on this occasion. We had not the old fashion transportation through the streets, nor the riots & quarrels, but we had enough to shew us that old habits are invincible against all the light which can be offered them.

Pope Night Dr. Bentley's Rock at Salem Neck SSU “Dr. Bentley’s Rock at Salem Neck”—the site of the Pope Night bonfires?—many decades later, Nelson Dionne Collection, Salem State Archives & Special Collections.

And after 1820 or so, no other Salem references, save Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Old Times” where Pope Night is something distinctly past. The “holiday” seems to survive over the nineteenth century in a few other places, namely Marblehead, Newburyport, and Portsmouth, where it became known as Pork Night. I think the boys of Salem transferred all of their mischief and mayhem and bonfire-building energies to two other more American holidays: Halloween and the Fourth of July.

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GunpowderSome exciting news!  BBC One’s Gunpowder miniseries, starring Kit Harrington of Game of Thrones (a descendant of conspirator Robert Catesby), will be coming to the US next month on HBO.


A Half-Hour at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial (on Halloween)

November 1!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

We actually had a lovely night with a steady succession of trick-or-treating families coming to the door: all happy and excited and exceedingly polite (while low-flying helicopters circled overhead, continuously). Halloween night is always a small compensation for the month of Halloween celebrations that we endure here in Salem, at least for me. During the day, I walked over to the Salem Witch Trials Memorial on Charter Street because I wanted to see how the site was affected by the limitation of visitors to the adjacent Old Burying Ground. Just last week, the city announced that the cemetery would be limited to 100 people at a time, a policy that was was heralded in a Boston Globe article with the great title: “Salem to Visitors: Don’t Change Diapers and Eat Ice Cream on Gravestones”. The cemetery is really part of the Memorial in the sense that the gravestones of the latter bear silent witness to the cenotaphs of the latter, so diaper-changing and ice cream-eating tourists give the message: we don’t care what happened to those people in 1692. A less carnival-esque atmosphere next door would give the opposite message presumably. During my half-hour on Charter Street (bear in mind this was a Tuesday, not a Saturday) I did see a much more solemn cemetery, but the carnival was still going on within the Memorial, including: ice-cream eating tourists sitting on the bench-cenotaphs, a large tour group, three staged photo opportunities (all of which involved sitting on the cenotaphs or wall behind), and a wedding (after which all the people in the adjacent tour group clapped enthusiastically, of course). All in 30 minutes, no more.

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Weekend at the Mt. Washington

My grandmother introduced me to two things of which I can never have enough: a parade of new dresses for back-to-school every fall and grand old hotels. One indulgence started early in life but endured because of my profession; the other started a bit later but is also still ongoing. It was a family tradition to stay at the Equinox in Vermont for long Thanksgiving weekends, and later the White Elephant on Nantucket, and the two of us traveled to a succession of historic hotels on an epic trip down the east coast and back twenty-plus years ago. Nana passed away just about a year ago after her 104th birthday, so I was thinking about her when I planned my last October getaway weekend at the Mt. Washington Hotel. Built in 1902 in a (Spanish) Renaissance Revival style that is meant to dominate, rather than blend into, its setting, the Mt. Washington was one of the last of the great Gilded Era New England resorts to be built before the onset of the automobile, and it remains a conspicuous survivor. I really only wanted to do two things from the moment we arrived on a sunny Friday afternoon: capture the hotel from every angle, and sit on the back veranda (drink in hand) and stare at Mt. Washington and the Presidential Range, like generations of guests before me.

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The interior of the hotel has a formal-but-not-fussy aesthetic designed to frame the views outside and mix faded grandeur with modern comforts. In the central lobby, a large fieldstone fireplace “crowned” with a Moose bust contrasts with crystal chandeliers from the 1920s, which seems to be the decade that supplied most of the Hotel’s lighting–and glass inserts everywhere. A ballroom, dining room, several bars, and a domed conservatory are also on the first floor, along with the famous “Gold Room” where the International Monetary Fund agreement was reached in the closing year of World War II.

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Mount Washington collage

We had great weather on Friday and Saturday so I spent as much time as possible out on the 900+ foot veranda, watching the light and cloud patterns change over Mt. Washington every few minutes, especially at twilight, when I got my best picture (s) ever: behold below! No filters necessary: the sunset was gold and purple on Friday night.

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My husband was not content to hang out at the hotel all the time so we took a hike—where we happened upon a man playing his flute in the woods–and went to the top of Mt. Washington on the cog railway. When I was quite young, for some reason I read a book about all the people who died on Mt. Washington and these sad stories have always stayed with me so I’ve never been particularly drawn to the mountain, but our traverse did afford me several new vantage points of the Hotel—you can just see it in the valley down below from the summit in the next-to-last picture, a little bit of white encircled by green far far away. As usual, it’s man-made over natural for me!

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