Category Archives: books

A Big end-of-year Book Post

I always do a book post at this time of year for several reasons: it’s fun to go through the mental process of compiling “best of” lists, I like to offer gift suggestions, and the time between semesters is always one of intense reading for me. This year, I’m a little late for gift suggestions, but the two other inspirations apply: I read some great books over the past summer and I have my usual stack of unread books right by my bedside, all ready for December 26. This was the year that I published my own book, so I had more time for reading, but now I’ve just finished proposals for two new books, so the next year might not be so free (hopefully). I want to take advantage of the time that I have to read as much as I can, and I’m driven to learn more about: 1) Ukraine (because war); 2) commodities and trade in the pre-modern world (because saffron, the subject of one of my proposed books; 3) information dispersion, broadly defined (because academic+general interest); 4) the history of science (because academic+general interest); 5) early American history (because Salem, the subject of the other proposed book); and anything to do with design (just because). No fiction recommendations here, sorry: I  like fiction, I try to read fiction, but I just don’t seem to be able to finish novels at this point in my life. I put them down because I get curious about something: there are dog-eared spine-cracked books all over the house! So here goes: this is a “best of” list of what I’ve read or was on my radar in 2022 rather than what was published this year, and it’s pretty academic, but there are some fun and beautiful books here too.

Ukraine: I read Yale historian Marci Shore’s The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of the Revolution this past summer (and into September—it took me a while): I really learned a lot. My Ph.D. is in European comparative history, but boy, this book made me realize how little I know about Eastern Europe—and the twentieth century. The Ukrainian Night places the Crimean crisis of 2014 in historical context and thus also provides the context for the current crisis, and it is very much a personal, “intimate” history rather than an academic tome. I picked up Polish journalist Pawel Pieniazek’s Greetings from Novorossiya (2017) for more personal history of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine and Timothy Snyder’s introduction: the latter (also at Yale) is my guide to everything Ukraine on Twitter (still). I imagine we’ll get “first-draft” histories of the Russian assault and Ukrainian response soon.

The demand, supply, consumption, and exchange of a range of commodities in the late medieval and early modern world are all academic and personal interests of mine, and 2022 was a banner year for books on all sorts of economic history. Any former student of mine will tell you that I believe that the Black Death was the most consequential event ever, for a variety of reasons, so I have been waiting for Belich’s book forever. It’s brilliant, and ties together all the trends and themes I have been teaching for years. I wanted to assign it to my undergrads this past semester, but I thought it would be a bit much for them. Future grad students, however, are duly “warned.” In terms of economic dominance in the world the plague made, it’s increasingly all about the Dutch, so Pioneers of Capitalism. The Netherlands 1000-1800 is a welcome book too. I like its long time span: too often the Dutch “Golden Age” seems to spring from a rather shallow pool. Anne Gerritsen’s The City of Blue and White has been by my bedside for a year or so, but I recently moved it to the top of the stack.

The City of Blue and White is definitely calling me, but it will probably have to wait until I have finished Pamela H. Smith’s latest book From Lived Experience to the Written Word. Reconstructing Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern World as I’m reviewing it for an academic journal. I wish I had read this book before I wrote my own, but Smith is a prolific and active scholar so I had the benefit of her prior publications. She teaches at Columbia, where she is also the Director of the Center for Science and Society and its Making and Knowing Project, which “explores the intersections between artistic making and scientific knowing.” There’s nothing new about “maker culture” and it was far more robust and fluid in the early modern era, when making became knowing. Jumping up a century or so and into the realm of visual information dissemination, I am obsessed with the new book series from San Francisco’s Visionary Press : Information Graphic Visionaries, edited by RJ Andrews, who told Print magazine’s Steven Heller that he is “obsessed with craft. To me, the most fascinating thing is to understand the story behind how something came to be.” That’s just how I feel, so I wish I had put these three books on my Christmas list. I’ll just have to buy them myself, beginning with volume on Emma Willard’s history maps (the “Temple of Time,” above, is just one) which are just fascinating in so many ways.

Speaking of ambitious and confident Victorians who believed in progress passionately, Iwan Rhys Morus’s How the Victorians Took Us to The Moon is a survey of nineteenth-century British innovators as well as the innovative “spirit” of their era. It’s a bit biographical for me but that approach definitely increases its accessibility. The other history of science, broadly and brilliantly focused, which I purchased this year is Lorraine Daston’s Rules: A Short History of What We Live By. I thought it would be a good aid for teaching, but I just devoured it, and find myself picking it up often: reference and readability: you can’t beat that!

My Salem State colleagues and I are collaborating on a book of essays for Salem’s 400th anniversary in 2026 and I’m going to have to do a deep dive into several periods of American history for my contributions. Since I’m not an American historian, I need some foundations, and I really like the “American Beginnings” series from the University of Chicago. Three series books are above: the first two explore a topic that my colleague Dane Morrison has been working on for a while: how trade to the East in particular and maritime history in general contributed to the formation of American identity. Dane has a book out this year too: Eastward of Good Hope. Early America in a Dangerous World. Salem was absolutely central to this expansive trade and thus to America’s emerging identify, and this is the broad context that we want for our book.

I’m just realizing that this is a very serious list so let’s lighten it up a bit! I’m not sure it’s an actual genre, but my favorite books to read for pleasure are “house stories” focused on houses and their evolution over time, along with, and because of, the people who lived in them. Here are three examples I picked up this year:

I absolutely hated the recent Netflix series on Anne Boleyn, Blood, Sex & Royality: it is that same weird hybrid documentary drama approach last seen in The Last Czars, which remains the most appalling historical “thing” I have ever seen. It’s so odd to see the main characters, actual historical people, engaging in intimacies followed by the commentary of a talking head. Anyway, one of the talking heads in Anne’s story, Owen Emerson, is one of the authors of The Boleyns of Hever Castle, which I absolutely love. I bought the book after I viewed the program, just to get all the horribly imagery of the latter out of my head, and it did. Clive Aslet’s The Story of the Country House is just wonderful, and I think Ruth Dalton’s Living in Houses. A Personal History of English Domestic Architecture (over four centuries) is going to be great too: I do hope I have time to read it. As you can see, I really need some stories of houses outside of Britain, so please send recommendations! Merry Christmas to all, and to all: try to reserve the week between Christmas and New Year’s for yourself: for reading (or whatever else you like to do).


Books for Women’s History Month 2022

Next week is Spring Break and I haven’t decided if I’m going to get away or get reading a large stack of bedside books. A lot of said books are about later medieval/early modern trade and agriculture in preparation for my new project on saffron, but many are about women’s history over a succession of periods so I thought I’d share some titles for this Women’s History Month. As you will see, there is no rhyme or reason or unifying theme around these titles other than women: all sorts of women in a succession of chronological contexts. I’m always interested in English women of the medieval and early modern eras, lately I’ve become quite interested in the entrepreneurial Salem women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I find rich and/or powerful women of all eras endlessly fascinating. It was not always this way: I almost didn’t get the position I currently hold now because I protested the name of a course which my interviewers wanted me to take on: “Herstory in History.” I proclaimed, with all the confidence of a twenty-something, that that was a ridiculous title for a course as women were PEOPLE and all history is about PEOPLE. But the past decades have taught me that a feminine focus in enlightening: it’s another gaze, another perspective, another open window on the past. I still don’t teach a course exclusively on women’s history but I certainly have incorporated a lot of women’s stories into my courses, because of books like these.

So I’ve read all of the books above and am recommending them to you for the following reasons. Judith Herrin is a wonderful historian whose Formation of Christendom got me through the first few years of teaching medieval history. While I teach mostly western medieval history, knowledge of the Byzantine Empire is pretty essential to understanding everything in this era, and Herrin’s book is really substantive and ambitious (and also very academic). Helen Castor’s She-Wolves: the Women who Ruled England before Elizabeth is a more accessible book which presents contextual biographies of four powerful medieval queens: I’m showcasing the Folio edition published in 2017 but there are more affordable options. Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer and Brewsters is a classic examination of women’s work in late medieval England which I consult regularly, and Monuments and Maidens and The Pocket. A Hidden History of Women’s Lives are two very creative books which examine longer eras from cultural and economic perspectives.

Vast uncharted territory above, but all these books have been recommended to me by colleagues and friends, beginning with Malcolm Gaskill’s The Ruin of Witches, a very welcome microhistory of a non-Salem American witch trial. Salem has become so boring: let’s look west to Springfield, Massachusetts! While not strictly women’s history, I don’t really think any history is strictly women’s history. I’m interested in Material Lives, To Her Credit, The Ties that Buy because I keep encountering entrepreneurial Salem women in that later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for whom I want to create more context and They Were Her Property appears to be an absolutely groundbreaking work. Jumping up about a century to the late nineteenth century and beyond, The Man Who Hated Women examines anti-vice activist Anthony Comstock’s campaigns against pretty much every everything and The Season and Double Lives looks at a broad spectrum of British women’s experiences in the twentieth century. And so we have progressed (chronologically) from empresses to socialites and “superwomen”!


Books for Christmas/Break

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.


What I’m Reading this Summer

I haven’t done a reading list in a while and I have really been reading, so it’s time. It’s been a voracious reading summer for me: it’s as if I was emptied out by writing my own book and I need to fill myself up! There are the usual random categories you will be familiar with if you’ve been following me for a while: history, architecture, decorative arts, design, a marked preference for nonfiction over fiction. This summer I seem to be more interested in the public aspects of all these things: public history, urban planning, media. History has become so very contentious in our time, and I feel my deficiencies in American history knowledge very keenly. I’m also troubled by the constant tide of development here in Salem, and looking for new urban ideas, strategies and policies that lend themselves towards unification rather than division. My major collecting focus has always been pottery, but for some reason I’ve become obsessed with fabric this year, not so much as an objection of consumption but of production. And I have read some fiction, though not much. So here’s a working list of what I have read or am planning to read before I go back to school.

History is very, very, very public in general and Texas history in particular: 

Well the top three books are not only public histories but also personal histories, and that makes them very compelling, although a bit uneven in places. Denmark Vesey’s Garden is magisterial (thus I had to amplify or “quadrify”? it); it’s one of the best history books I’ve ever read, examining the very complex story of “how slavery has been remembered in Charleston, South Carolina from 1865 to the present” in the words of its married historian authors. I’m finally realizing now, probably long after most American historians, that slavery really has to be examined historically at both the macro and the micro levels to fully grasp both its existence and its impact.

But BIG history is also important and interesting (and very useful for teaching):

I don’t really understand the modern world so I try to read as many books with the subtitle “the making of the modern world” as possible. This is actually a pretty large genre: you would be surprised at just how many books claim that their subjects “made” the modern world, beginning with a study of Genghis Khan. These are this year’s “making” books: I read everything by Linda Colley and my understand of the 18th century is basically based on her interpretation, so I would have read this even without its “making” subtitle, but I certainly would not have picked The Butterfly Effect without its making claim: Melillo makes a pretty good argument for the centrality of insects.

I’m particularly interested in material history this year: just loved these two books—they are big history too.

These histories of fabric are a bit more than the standard commodity global histories that we have seen over the past several decades (oysters, alcohol, drugs) in that they are about production as much as consumption, and like food, fabric is pretty essential.

Two books with Napoleon in the title, which are not necessarily about Napoleon:

Actually the first book is about Napoleon, but more about the painting he stole from a Venetian monastery, Paolo Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana, which ended up, and still remains at the Louvre. I believe that it is hanging right across from the Mona Lisa, another Italian painting that ended up in Paris. I’m always looking for works at the intersection of art and history, especially stories that involve theft, and Saltzman’s work was perfect. The center figure of Ben Macintyre’s The Napoleon of Crime, was an art thief, but much more: apparently master (and short) thief Adam Worth was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Moriarty.

Insights into vexing problems:

Besides the changing environment, on which I think I can have minimal impact beyond my personal and household habits, the two pressing issues which concern me the most are deliberate ignorance and disinformation and ugly architecture. Information literacy has become a much more important focus of my teaching over the past few years, but deliberate, willful ignorance and disinformation still confounds me. I’m looking for some historical context with Ovenden’s book, which I haven’t read yet. On a more local level, Salem has been experiencing a building boom over the past few years with the construction of steady stream of really ugly—or even worse, generic—buildings. Despite the fact that nearly everyone I talk to in town is wondering how we are getting all these monstrosities, there seems to be no opportunity for public discourse. Expectations are very low: why don’t we want beauty in our lives? Sometimes critics are labeled busybodies, but I believe that architecture is public, and so I was particularly struck by the title of Timothy Hyde’s book, Ugliness and Judgement. I’m looking for ways to be a more educated and effective critic: Hyde was helpful as was Charles Montgomery’s Happy City.

And finally fiction!

Well, I read Station Eleven because it seemed timely: it’s about a post-pandemic world! And it is a wonderful book, but not for me: I am not a future-dweller. It drove me back to a comfortable period, and some classic works of historical fiction which I never read, never even considered reading before this odd year. Norah Lofts was an amazingly prolific author of historical fiction and mysteries, and the second volume of her “House” trilogy, which follows the history of a Suffolk house and the residents who lived in it from the fourteenth century to the twentieth, is a Tudor-Stuart treat. In the same vein and tradition, Hilda Lewis’s Mortal Malice is more focused on one of the major scandals of the Jacobean era: the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury while a royal prisoner in the Tower of London, a scandal that involved not only poison but also affairs, plots, and Sir Francis Bacon. It even attracted the attention of Nathaniel Hawthorne centuries later. It’s hard to turn this scandal into a bad book, and Lewis does not disappoint.


Paper Houses

My manuscript is completed and has been dispatched to London, so last night I actually started reading a non-academic book, the first in a year or more. I didn’t last long, between the covers and between the sheets, because I’m tired, but it was novel. The book in question was almost-academic, so it was a good transition: Novel Houses by Christina Hardyment, featuring 20 “famous fictional dwellings,” including everything from Horace Walpole to Hogwarts. This morning I read it right through: a very pleasant read with great illustrations, so I thought I would showcase some of them here. Hardyment chose novels in which the plot is dominated by a structure, so much so that the latter is almost like a character: Walpole’s Castle of Otronto, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables (of course, but is this a fictional house?), Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton, John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, E.M. Forster’s Howards End, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando & Vita Sackville West’s The Edwardians, Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. 

In no particular order: Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, Jane Austen’s ancestral home Chawton, inspiration for many of her novels, 1913 edition of The House of the Seven Gables, an advertisement for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1949 edition of I Capture the Castle, Knole, inspiration for Woolf’s Orlando, Galsworthy’s drawing of the fictional “Robin Hill” in The Forsyte Saga, the first edition of Rebecca, cool cover for Cold Comfort Farm, Hobbit houses, Beacon Towers on Long Island Sound, which might have inspired Gatsby’s mansion in West Egg.

Some chapters worked better than others for me in terms of inspirational houses: I haven’t read Peake or Conan Doyle, or The Spoils of Poynton. I think perhaps Manderley and Brideshead are the strongest house-characters. It’s difficult for me to think of the Gables as simply a fictional house, because it actually exists, but it bears remembering that it did not in Hawthorne’s time.

I would love to get some more suggestions for novels in which houses play a major role in the plot, not just the setting.


My Favorite Penguins

Happy New Year! And my very best wishes to all for a better year than last! I’m a little bleary-eyed, having worked very hard over the holidays on grading and my forthcoming book, which is due at the publisher on March 1. And I’ve got to prep for next semester, which will include a brand new course on English legal history of all topics (yawn: a requirement for our department’s pre-legal concentration). So my posts are going to be a bit sporadic over the next few months but I did want to ring in the New Year with a post and give you all the heads up. Even after ten years, there’s still quite a few Salem topics I want to take on, and I’m hoping, like many of you I am sure, to travel at some point in 2021 so I should have some interesting posts after my big delivery date!

Normally I’m all about books on the blog this time of year: end-of-year best booklists, books I’m looking forward to reading, books for my courses. I’m so focused on my own book this year that I can’t really think about other people’s books during this particular January, except for very specialized academic books which I must include in my bibliography. Books for me are not just things to read however, they are objects which I like to have around, to dip into and just to look at. I love everything about book-objects: fonts, paper, cover design, illustrations, formats, colors. And my favorite books of all are Penguins: plain old orange-and-white paperbacks with yellowed pages and very pretty clothbound classics of more recent vintage and everything in between. I have evolving favorite series, and when I’m focused on a particular series I want to collect every volume possible: a couple years ago it was mid-century King Penguins and I remain very fond of them. People have given me gifts so I have quite a few now: I received “Compliments of the Season” this very Christmas.

My most recent Penguin obsession, however, is the Drop Caps series, a colorful collection of twenty-six classic hardbound books designed by Jessica Hische, lettering artist extraordinaire. I saw one in a bookshop this summer and suddenly had to have all of them, and I have collected quite a few in the past six months or so. They are very object-like: you can shelve them and stack them in all sorts of interesting combinations. This makes them the perfect Penguins for me now, as I don’t actually have time to read them. But I will soon.


Summer 2020 Reading List: What I Would Have Read

I’m a bit late with this summer reading list: it’s August! And this list is more intentional than actual, so I’m not going to be able to give informed commentary on most of these books. I planned to read all of them, but as soon as the end-of-semester responsibilities were over, intensive gardening began. And as soon as intensive spring gardening ceased, family trips were taken. And then I returned home and BOOM: big book contract! So the last month has been all about writing rather than reading. Yet I have heard from many of you that you like my book lists, so I thought I would offer up one: I did choose these carefully, and many of them are sitting by my bedside, but I usually pass out before I can pick one up! I didn’t even have time to go back and look at my previous book lists but I bet there is a trend of increasing interest in historical fiction over the years: I used to be pretty snobby about that genre, but after reading several titles which were researched meticulously and crafted beautifully—enabling one to really plunge into the world in question—I have changed my tune. I think there are a few of these on this list: you’ll have to forward your assessments, and after my own book is finished I will either return to these books—or I won’t!

So let’s start with fiction. I am dying to read James Meek’s To Calais, in Ordinary Time, which is set in England and France during the Hundred Years’ War and Black Death, and the publication date of Emma Donoghue’s 1918 book was moved up to Corona time. Talk about plunging into the past: I read Andrew Miller’s previous historical novel, Pure, last year and was definitely plunged into the world of an eighteenth-century engineer in Paris; Free is set in Scotland during the Napoleonic Wars, and I really want to go there. I always want to go to sixteenth-century England, even into the somber Shakespeare household following the death of Hamnet, from the plague, of course. Big jump in terms of both chronology and topics: I’ve been reading my way through Evelyn Waugh and his era over the years, and I loved these new covers so purchased them for my bedside stack (I purchased Martin Green’s Children of the Sun a few years ago for some context and insights into this era, but have read it only in snippets so far). And another favorite era in fiction and fact: the Daphne Du Maurier’s novel is from the 1940s, Nadine Akkerman’s scholarly book on female spies in the seventeenth century is much more recent.

Reading Pandemics

Reading Miller

Reading Hamnet

Reading Waugh collage

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For the first time every, I think I have more fiction books than nonfiction—-probably because I’m all nonfiction all the time for by work: both writing and teaching. I don’t really have time to indulge my curiosity this year, but if I did, I would move Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown, about the medieval Lewis Chessmen, up to the top of my bedside stack: I’ve been curious about these guys forever. The other books are somewhat related to my book so I supposed I can categorize them as research: I’m writing about gardening and cooking right now, in my Chapter Three, so Floud’s and Dawson’s books are right by my side, offering some great insights and context supplementary to my primary sources. Newton is a little late for me, but I’ve got to read all about alchemy for my book as it creeps into several topics (medicine, beauty, even agriculture), so William R. Newman’s Newton the Alchemist will be illuminating, I’m sure.

Reading Chess

Reading Gardens

Reading Food

Reading Newton Collage


The Knave of Hearts

I have featured hearts in random ways for Valentine’s Day posts in the past: heart-shaped maps, the heart-in-hand motif, hearts seized by love during the Renaissance, hearts as emblems, the Queen of Hearts. This week I’m featuring one of her Wonderland associates—sort of–the knave of hearts: the title character of a beautiful book written by Louise Saunders (wife of editor extraordinaire Max Perkins), illustrated by Maxfield Parrish at the height of his powers, and published in 1925 in a large quarto encased in a black paper box with a gold printed title. This was Parrish’s last illustration commission, and he worked on the plates for three years, a labor of friendship for his (Cornish, NH) neighbor Louise. In typical Parrish fashion, the illustrations are positively luminous and their colors deeply saturated, but they also bear a sense of whimsy and the “everday,” as he supposedly featured items from his own household. The text presents a play, commencing with a raised curtain and involving tarts, of course, and not only is the title character—clad in “Parrish blue”—not a knave at all, but a chivalrous hero, whose theft is a plot designed to mask the shaky baking skills of the beautiful Lady Violetta.

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The Knave: All my life I have had a craving for tarts of any kind. There is something in my nature that demands tarts—something in my constitution that cries out for them—and I obey my constitution as rigidly as does the Chancellor seek to obey his. I was in the garden reading, as is my habit, when a delicate odor floated to my nostrils, a persuasive odor, a seductive, light brown, flaky odor, an odor so enticing, so suggestive of tarts fit for the gods—- that I could stand it no longer. It was stronger than I. With one gesture I threw reputation, my chances for future happiness, to the winds, and leaped through the window. The odor led me to the oven; I seized a tart, and, eating it, experienced the one perfect moment of my existence. After having eaten that one tart, my craving for other tarts has disappeared. I shall live with the memory of that first tart before me forever, or die content, having tasted true perfection.

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Knave 8

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The Knave of Hearts: An alternative Wonderland in a book by Louise Saunders with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925.


A Portfolio of Prints

This is kind of a housekeeping post: the blog has gotten so big (over 9 years!) that I have lost track of what’s in it, so I’m going to gather together a few portfolios of images for ready reference. Today: some of my favorite Salem prints. I could spend hours going through every one of Frank Cousin’s photographs of Salem (especially now that so many have been digitized) but there’s something about prints that really captures the essence of a structure—or a street—so I’m always seeking them out. Below are some of my favorites: most from the nineteenth century, and most from books; some from the twentieth century and some “stand-alone” imprints. Some are from engravings; some from drawings. I think most have been featured in the blog before, but I’m not sure! In any case, they are all my go-to images when I want to conjur up a time and space in Salem’s history.

Salem Prints John Turner House, Drawing Circa 1899

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screenshot_20200105-104448_chromeMy favorite pre-restoration print of the House of the Seven Gables, 1889; prints by two women artists—Mary Jane Derby (North Salem) & Ellen Day Hale (Corner of Summer, Norman, and Chestnut Streets, where now we have a traffic circle!)–and pioneering lithography firms from the Boston Athenaeum’s Digital Collections.

These next images will seem familiar: they are from John Warner Barber’s Historical Collections of Massachusetts, which was first published in 1839. They have been reprinted many times, but my favorite version of them is in antiquarian George Francis Dow’s Old wood engravings, views and buildings in the county of Essex, a beautiful little volume published in 1908. Dow supplements Barber a bit with information and images he found in the Essex Institute, of course.

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As you can see in the caption for the (Downing-)Bradstreet house above, Joseph Felt’s Annals of Salem, first published in 1844, is the source of some classic Salem printed images, as are the guidebooks published in the later nineteenth century and national publications like Gleason’s/Ballou’s Pictorial and Harper’s. Salem got a lot of press once Hawthorne started selling, and the national Centennial and Bicentennial of the Witch Trials in 1892 also focused attention on “Old” Salem. And another great source for graven images is of course ephemera: the front and back pages of the successive Salem Directories are full of imagery, and many invoices, billheads, and other business paper contain beautiful prints. Fortunately the Salem State Archives is digitizing whatever comes their way.

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Salem Print Directory

20170207_145723Prints of the James Emerton Pharmacy in the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum and the Salem Directory; Seccomb Oil Works billhead, Salem State Archives and Special Collections.

On the verge of the twentieth century, a lot of the classic images above were started to look a bit dated, so we get new versions of Salem’s most characteristic buildings and streets in periodicals and guidebooks like Moses Sweetser’s Here and There in New England and Canada, first published in 1899. Most architectural publications from this time and after used the photographs of Frank Cousins or (a bit later) Mary Harrod Northend for illustrations, with the notable exception of the measured and drawn renderings of “Colonial Work” contained in the Georgian Period portfolios. I can never get enough of these! More impressionistic, printed illustrations return in architectural books aimed at the general public in the mid-twentieth century: I particular like Ethel Fay Robinson’s Houses in America (1936, with drawings by her husband Thomas.

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Salem Prints Georgian Period Details Vol 1 1899

pixlr_20200105165102085Illustrations of Salem architecture from Here and There in New England and Canada, The Georgian Period, and Houses in America.


Colonialesque Christmas

The twentieth-century American artist Walter Ernest Tittle (1883-1966) was sought after on both sides of the Atlantic for his etchings, illustrations, and contemporary portraits. Among his diverse works are magazine covers, presidential portraits, and a whole series of drypoint “international dignatories” rendered in the 1920s, but also two slim volumes—advertised as “gift books”— in which he merged both original and historical texts and images to create a “lost” world of colonial holidays:  The First Nantucket Tea Party (1907) and Colonial Holidays (1910).

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These books are gorgeous, even though the images inside are a bit…….overwrought. I’m willing to leaf past some of the colorful colonial “belles” just so I can see Tittle’s fonts and illuminations: everything works together. As its subtitle reveals, Colonial Holidays is a compilation of historical references to Christmas and other holidays, embedded in Tittle’s gilded pages. He wishes the Puritans were more joyous in their celebrations, but “time brings change” and William Pynchon’s diary reveals some holiday merrymaking in Salem during the Revolutionary War. The new Assembly Room seems to have been very busy during the extended Christmas season with concerts and dances; “the elders shake their heads with, What are we coming to?” And so many sleds in the streets of Salem!

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Tory that he is, Pynchon is not interested in George Washington’s Christmas, but patriot that he is, Tittle shows us Mount Vernon at Christmas—-no Valley Forge for his illuminated pages, but rather Christmas with the President and Mrs. Washington in 1795 and another reference to 1799–though Washington would have just died so certainly that was no festive occasion. The First Nantucket Tea Party does not have a Christmas setting per se but is also all about Colonial festivity, on the particular occasion of the return of Captain Nathaniel Starbuck Jr. from his “late long” voyage to China supplied with a chest of Chinese tea. Everyone is very excited about the tea, but for me it’s all about the amazing font used throughout the text. Merry Christmas!

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Tea Party Text (2)

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