Category Archives: Culture

Cogswell’s Grant

Like several summers in the past, this was supposed to be my “Historic New England Summer” in which I made a determined attempt to visit and write about as many HNE houses as possible. I started out very close to home at the Phillips House, and then was supposed to go on from there, but other plans and places interfered, and so I’m just now getting back to the “plan.” Yesterday I spent a delightful hour or so at Cogswell’s Grant, an expansive eighteenth-century farm which was long the summer house of two prominent collectors of Americana, Bertram and Nina Fletcher Little. The house is in the midst of glorious farmland surrounded by river and bays in Essex: a New England home in the midst of “Constable country” has always been my impression, reinforced by the golden early-September ambiance. I was so fortunate to have been given a tour by the site manager, Kristen Weiss, who knows the collections, and the family, so well. And that’s the key to Cogswell’s Grant: it is full to overflowing with the Littles’ collections, but also the stories of the things they collected as well as their own stories as collectors. The collections and the stories are inseparable and integral to the story of the house, from the 1930s until today.

A front parlor and Mrs. Little’s charming closet office.

My perspective on the Littles was far too Salem-centric, as Bertram Little was the son of Salem Mayor (as well as naval architect, photographer, silversmith, military officer, bank director, and the last collector of the Custom House) David Mason Little and grew up on Chestnut Street in the midst of other Littles. But his purview, along with that of his wife and and collecting partner, Nina Fletcher of Brookline, was regional rather than parochial. They were New Englanders, who lived in Brookline during most of the year and at Cogswell’s Grant during the summers, from the late 1930s. I did not appreciate the professionalism of their collecting activities to the extent that I should have, or their partnership, or her scholarship: I returned home with just a few of her many books. Generally, when I visit a historic house I feel that I can sum it up in a somewhat representative way pretty quickly, but there’s just too many stories at Cogswell’s Grant: I’ve got to go back for more. It’s probably best to approach the vast collection through categories, which Mrs. Little does in her narrative of how their collection grew, Little by Little. Six Decades of Collecting American Decorative Arts (although as Kristen pointed out, this very accessible book employs a chronological framework as well). Again, so many stories: she was collecting stories as well as objects. Beginning with her first piece of blue and white Staffordshire she leads us through fireplace accessories, hooked rugs, clocks, “useful wares,” furniture, maritime art (the collection of which was tied to her husband’s Salem heritage), decoys, textiles, pictorial panels, all manner of portraits and paintings, and interesting miscellaneous items, like the engraved ostrich eggs the Littles purchased at a North Shore auction on the eve of World War II: they had to use a good amount of their precious gas ration to attend, but it was worth it! The portraits stand out in my photographs, just as they do in the house, but they are only part of a much larger story.

The open hearth kitchen/dining room and various halls of objects. An anonymous couple in their finery by Royall Brewster Smith, c. 1830.

With so much visual stimulation, you can either get overwhelmed or adopt a very personal perspective on what you are seeing: I always try to do the latter. Of all the portraits at Cogswell’s Grant, the one that I had the most immediate reaction to was of eighty-four-year-old Jacob Gould [Jacop Goold] by Benjamin Greenleaf, painted in 1803. He has an open book and a conspicuously-pointed finger, but all I could see was his red cap! I had just been proofing the copy edits to my forthcoming book the day before, and one chapter has a section on Renaissance suggestions for better sleep: wear a red cap!

Mr. Gould in his red cap; second-floor parlor and bedrooms; an amazing pictorial collage of the arrival of the first Oddfellows in America (there they are in the bottom left corner!); the BIG barn.


Mushroom Summer

The combination of my absence and the tropical weather has turned my garden into a wild jungle: I tried to tame it the other day but succeeded merely in clearing out all the mushrooms. I’ve never seen so many in my small patch, and pretty much everywhere I go. Mushrooms are endlessly fascinating, whether approached through a scientific, artistic, culinary, psychotic, folkloric, or toxic focus, or all of the above. Like many natural phenomena, mushrooms can dwell at the intersection of science and art, along with their greener companions in the forest and garden. And as is the case with other botanical categories, mycology is a field where women were able to make their mark before they could ever be considered proper and professional scientists. The most celebrated example of a female mycologist is Beatrix Potter, who illustrated over 350 species of fungi in the 1890s, before she turned to Peter Rabbit. Potter included cross-sections and even experimented with germination, and presented a paper (through a gentleman proxy) to the Linnean Society of London a decade before women scientists were admitted into membership.

Beatrix Potter’s drawings of Hygrophorus puniceus and Hygrocybe coccinea, Armitt Museum and Library.

I wonder if Miss Potter was influenced by the mysterious Miss M.F. Lewis, who produced three beautiful volumes of mushroom illustrations entitled Fungi collected in Shropshire and other neighborhoods beginning in the 1870s? You can check them all out at the Biodiversity Heritage Library, along with the bestselling Mushroom Book. A Popular Guide to the Identification and Study of our Commoner Fungi, with Special Emphasis on the Edible Varieties by the American mycologist, or mycological compiler, Nina Lovering Marshall.

Just across the Hudson River from Kingston, the birthplace of Miss Marshall, is the beautiful Montgomery Place, which is visited last week. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, Violetta White Delafield lived in the mansion and utilized its beautiful river-front grounds (supplemented by foraging trips throughout the Northeast)  to study mushrooms, producing several scholarly works and a portfolio of lovely annotated drawings.

Delafield, Violetta White (botanist, mycologist, and garden designer, 1875-1949), “Boletus spectabilis [?],” and “Clitocybe virens,” Stevenson Library Digital Collections, accessed August 30, 2021, https://omekalib.bard.edu/items/show/2483, 2346. Bard College, which now owns Montgomery Place, digitized a selection of Delafield’s mushroom renderings for the exhibit “Fruiting Bodies: the Mycological Passions of John Cage (1912-1992) and Violetta White Delafield (1875-1949).”

There seem to have been so many women enchanted by mushrooms in the early part of the twentieth century, I thought: there MUST be a Salem woman mycologist! And indeed I found one, at the very least a mushroom enthusiast and a long-time member of the Mycological Club of America, Eliza Philbrick. Miss Philbrick lived with her sister on Orne Street in North Salem, and she was extremely active in several organizations, including the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, the Samaritan Society, and the Daughters of the American Revolution. She even exhibited a painting at the Essex Institute, so I know there must be one of her mushroom illustrations out there somewhere, but I can’t find one. She is memorialized by the homemade period dress she made for a DAR anniversary dinner, which was bequeathed to the Peabody Essex Museum and featured in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Age of Homespun, rather than her mushrooms. So in lieu of a Salem mycologist, I’ll just offer up some of my own mushrooms, found or assembled rather than discovered and drawn: material mushrooms, of the seasonless variety.

Mushrooms in the dining room and kitchen: I just bought this cutting board at my very favorite Rhinebeck shop, Paper Trail.

 


Renaissance Refresh in Worcester

This past Wednesday was my stepson’s 20th birthday and lo and behold, instead of all the outdoorsy things we have done on birthdays past he wanted to go see the collection of armor and arms at the Worcester Art Museum, which absorbed the John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection in 2014. This is the second largest arms and armor collection in the US, and I have been speaking about it to my stepson for a decade or so, so I was thrilled that he wanted to dedicate his birthday to this little trip: Salem is all about the coast and the sea for him in the summer, so going “inland” was quite a change. I hadn’t been to the Worcester Museum for quite some time, but I remembered it as a treasure, and so it remains: it’s just the right size, you don’t get overwhelmed, and you can see a curated timeline of western art from the classical era to the present. Taking their cue from the Renaissance court at its entrance, the galleries are humanistic in their proportions and colors, so the whole experience is rather intimate. We started with the medieval galleries on the first floor, and worked our way to the top: I lingered in the Renaissance rooms, but also really enjoyed those that featured art from Colonial and 19th century America, as it was nice to see some familiar favorites in “person”.

Wednesday at the Worcester Art Museum: the Renaissance Court with These Days of Maiuma by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison on the wall; Chapter House of the Benedictine priory of St. John Le Bas-Nueil, later 12th century, installed in 1927; armor & weaponry are clustered in the Medieval galleries but spread about in the Renaissance and early modern galleries upstairs; Christ Carrying the Cross, 1401-4, by Taddeo di Bartolo; Vision of Saint Gregory, 1480-90, a FRENCH Renaissance painting; Jan Gossaert, Portrait of Queen Eleanor of Austria, c. 1516 (I was quite taken with this portrait, but the photograph doesn’t really capture it very well–her fur glistened!); Steven van der Meulen, Portrait of John Farnham, 1563. Follower of Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Giovanna Chevara and Giovanni Montalvo, early 1560s.

While Queen Eleanor above was captivating, I am obsessed with the “Madonna of Humility” by Stefano da Verona, a painter with whom I was not familiar. She dates from about 1430, and I think this painting is the essential Renaissance encapsulated: I stared at it for a good half hour, and could have spent hours before/with her.

There was a “Women at WAM” theme running through the galleries, perhaps a holdover from the suffrage centenary last year, and I did find myself focusing on the ladies, both familiar and “new,” from near and far.

Women at WAM: Mrs John Freake and Baby Mary, 1670s; Joseph Badger, Rebecca Orne (of Salem!), 1757; Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of the Artist’s Daughters, 1760s; Philippe Jacques Van Brée, crop of The Studio of the Flower Painter Van Dael at the Sorbonne, 1816; Att. to John Samuel Blunt or Edward Plummer, An Unidentified Lady Wearing a Green Dress with Jewelry, about 1831; Winslow Homer, The School Mistress, about 1871; Frank Weston Benson (from Salem), Girl Playing Solitaire, 1909.

And then there are those charming “primitives” in the collection, including the very familiar Peaceable Kingdom of Edward Hicks with its odd animals and the Savage family portrait with its odd people! I looked at the latter every which way to try to perfect their proportions, but it’s just not possible.

Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom, 1833; the big-headed Savage family by Edward Savage, about 1779 (the artist is on the far left–“Savage’s initial struggles with perspective and anatomical proportions are evident in this work”).

As I said above, the Worcester Art Museum dedicates the majority of its space to its own collections, but there are two very special—and very different—temporary exhibitions on now: one on baseball jerseys, as Worcester is enjoying its first year as home to the Triple A WooSox who have relocated from Pawtucket, and a very poignant display of the processes of theft and retrieval of Austrian collector Richard Neumann’s paintings, the target of Nazi plunder. The story told was fascinating and the pictures presented lovely, but what really caught my attention were their backs, displaying the numbers by which they were added to the “Reichsliste,” the Nazis’ centralized inventory of cultural treasures, and considered for inclusion in Hitler’s Führermuseum. So chilling to see these mundane Nazi numbers.

Baseball jerseys and Nazi numbers at the Worcester Art Museum.


The Howard Street Church

The Howard Street Church was a short-lived institution, but it had an enormous impact on Salem’s nineteenth-century social and political life, far beyond the brevity of its existence or size of its membership. It is also a great example of how Salem’s history has been distorted by the exploitation and commodification of the Witch Trials: today the Church is little-known, and the adjacent Howard Street Cemetery is significant primarily as the place where accused victim Giles Corey was pressed to death upon his plea of “standing mute” and the imposition of peine forte et dure.

The Howard Street Cemetery in 1949 by Life photographer Nina Leen: it looks much the same now and the vantage point is approximately the location of the Howard Street Church.

The Church was founded out of a schism, and it too experienced schisms during its brief existence, from 1803-1864: both it pastors and its membership were active and engaged citizens, often to the extreme. As its last pastor, the Reverend C.C. Beaman, concluded in his 1861 history (Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. 3): “the Church has been likened in reference to its trials to the bush that was in the fire and yet not consumed. On the slavery question and on temperance it has been a marked church, having early spoken boldly upon them;—and if the being cast into prison is a proof of regular descent from the apostles, this church has a strong claim, inasmuch as one of its ministers died in prison and another was confined there.” The men in question were the Reverends Charles T. Torrey and George Barrell Cheever. The latter was a passionate proponent of temperance, who targeted one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in town, John Stone, Deacon of the First Church and simultaneously Salem’s largest distiller (who also built my house), in The Dream, or, The True History of Deacon Giles’ Distillery and Deacon Jones’ Brewery: Reported for the Benefit of Posterity, which was first published in Salem in 1835 and later in New York City for national distribution. After its publication, Cheever was accosted in the streets, horse-whipped, and sued, convicted, and imprisoned for slander, but his campaign for temperance, waged from the pulpit as well as in print, did not cease. I wrote about this story way back in 2011, and now we have a distillery named after Deacon Giles (a perfect Salem story).

One of Deacon Giles’ Distillery’s great illustrations, from an edition at Boston Rare Maps.

So the Howard Street was a center of a temperance storm in the 1830s, but it was the center of Salem’s abolitionist activities from its foundation to its end. Its first pastor, the Reverend Joshua Spalding (sometimes spelled Spaulding) had welcomed African-Americans into his new congregation from the beginning, after his dismissal and his flock’s “separation” from the Tabernacle Church in 1802, and with each successive pastor the commitment to abolition became stronger. Spalding was an early advocate of public education for Salem’s African-American children, and he appointed an African-American man, Israel Freeman, as one of his new church’s deacons. A short-lived successor of Cheever, Charles Turner Torrey clearly could not stand to just talk about the evils of slavery in somewhat-enlightened Salem: he went south and became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, dying in a Baltimore jail of consumption after facilitating the freedom of some 400 enslaved persons. In jail, he wrote his memoirs to support his family back in Massachusetts: Home or The Pilgrims’ Faith Revived was first published in Salem in 1845; following his death in the following year, Torrey “returned” to Massachusetts and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery with considerable ceremony. One of Salem’s most eminent educators and abolitionists, William B. Dodge, was a long-time member and Elder of the Howard Street Church: he first taught Salem’s African-American students in its vestry, where the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society (among whose founding members were Dodge’s wife Sarah Dole Dodge and daughters Lydia and Lucia) also met frequently. The whole congregation, and indeed the city, was summoned to the Howard Street Church on occasions for prayer services for the end of slavery, as was the case in June of 1835.

There is ample evidence that the Howard Street Church served as a hub for abolitionist activities in Salem over the first half of the nineteenth century, but it’s hard to pay tribute to a site that is no longer there. I can’t even come up with a photograph (well, there is a semblance, see below), which is really frustrating as the Church was the creation of Samuel McIntire! It had a tower, and a very famous bell, which might have ended up the adjacent Central Baptist Church on St. Peter Street after the Howard Street congregation was dissolved (but the City of Salem had a claim, so I’m not sure). The Church was almost in constant flux: it started out as the Branch Street Church, named for the lane that connected Brown and Bridge Streets, later called Howard, and assumed the name Howard Street Church in 1828. Its denomination changed too: from Congregational to Presbyterian and back to Congregational. It’s the individuals that stand out in the history of this church, though: Spalding, Cheever, Torrey, Dodge and more, It seemed to draw men and women of great conviction. And if Howard Street’s abolitionist history was not illustrious enough, there is the role that the Church played in one of the most deadly battles in pre-20th century naval history: the defeat of the USS Chesapeake by the HMS Shannon on June 1, 1813. The former ship’s crew was annihilated in the 12-minute battle, which was watched by North Shore residents from atop Legg’s Hill. The Chesapeake‘s captain, James Lawrence of “Don’t Give up the Ship” fame, died shortly after that famous plea, along with several of his officers. The Chesapeake was sailed to Nova Scotia by the British with its dead and wounded aboard, and Salem’s George Crowninshield retrieved the remains of Captain Lawrence and Lieutenant August Ludlow from Halifax at his own expense and returned them to Salem for a formal funeral at the “Rev. Mr. Spauldings Meeting-house” in late August 1813. And thus the Howard Street Church became the center of national attention.

Massachusetts State Library; Newburyport Reporter and Country Gazette, August 24,1813.

The Howard Street congregation began to dissolve in 1864 and the end of the material church (in Salem) came in 1867 when everything was auctioned off. The McIntire Church building was removed, not destroyed: it was floated (I assume) over to Beverly, where it became the new Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church in 1869, with some adjustments and alterations at that time, and more in the 1880s, so I don’t think that the photograph below represents what the Howard Street Church looked like—though perhaps some semblance. Its former location became the site of a new Salem public school, the Prescott School, but not for long: the growing Polish Catholic community represented by the Church of St. John the Baptist purchased the closed Central Baptist Church in the first decade of the twentieth century, and expanded its property to Howard Street in the 1960s. The history of Salem’s churches is indeed quite dynamic!

Salem Gazette; 1874 Salem Atlas @State Library of Massachusetts; photograph of the Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, Historic Beverly. The displaced congregation of St. Alphonse began worshipping in this Church after the Great Salem Fire of 1914, and it was destroyed by arson in 1963.


Postal Perspectives, Salem Edition

I was enthralled this week with news of the new technology which has unlocked “letterlocked” letters from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: before the onset of the envelope in the nineteenth century there were often-intricate practices of folding, cutting, creasing and sealing letters to secure their contents, making it impossible for modern scholars to pry them apart without causing considerable damage to invaluable sources. With every discovery of a locked letter, or a cache of locked letters, the pressure mounted to discovery another way to reveal the writing inside, and this very week, a team of scientists announced their process of “Unlocking history through automated virtual unfolding of sealed documents imaged by X-ray microtomography.” This is BIG news: the letters are scanned and “virtually unfolded,” rendering their physical integrity intact. Secrets are revealed! I just can’t think of anything more exciting.

I’ve worked with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century letters before but they had already been opened up: hopefully they weren’t quite as “locked” as some examples and no harm ensued. It’s so interesting that envelopes became common so late in western history: really only from the 1830s. With the completion of my manuscript (and before readers’ comments come in) I had the time to indulge my curiosity a bit this week, the first opportunity in over a year, so I engaged in one of my favorite pastimes, putting a Salem spin on a much larger and more global topic. I haven’t engaged in “ephemeral history ” for a while so it was also nice to look at some pieces of paper. Both epistolary and postal history can reveal all sorts of interesting things, even on the surface, and two great sources for all things philatelic are the Stamp Auction Network in general and Daniel F. Kelleher Auctions in particular: all the letters below come from the latter source unless otherwise noted. First up, some folded 18th-century Salem letters from the Kelleher archive: addressed to Mrs. Hannah Pickering, Widow from 1725, and the nephews of John Hancock, Thomas and John, from 1796 (via the Salem “packet”).

Once envelopes arrive, they become increasingly elaborate, especially with the coming of the Civil War. The Phillips Library has a large collection of Civil War Covers which I hope to see one day but the one below is from Kelleher: as you can see, it contrasts quite strikingly with the simple letter addressed to Mr. Robert Manning, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle. The Salem printer-publisher J.E. Tilton specialized in embellished envelopes: here is one showcasing John C. Frémont’s western expeditions in support of his presidential campaign in 1856. In the next decade Tilton moved his business to Boston, but other Salem printers took up the patriotic paper trade. The envelope illustrations seem to get larger and more colorful over the second half of the nineteenth century, leaving little space for the address—illustrated by the Spanish-American War cover from 1898.

In addition to patriotic purposes, envelopes were great means for advertising and commemoration: all sorts of engines start to appear from the 1870s on, along with a variety of other industrial (and agricultural) goods and of course, the company headquarters. Salem’s famous hotel, the Essex House, appeared on numerous envelopes in the later and early twentieth centuries. Clothing and shoe manufacturers took full advantage of their stationery (the 1895 letter to the Naumkeag Clothing Co. in Salem is from Downeast Stamps), and before the stamp became the chief expression of commemoration, it was all about the envelope.


Under Cover in the Renaissance

It’s a beautiful day here in Salem, but I’m in lockdown in my study, more than halfway through the very last chapter of my book! I am taking a break to show you some early modern masks, just because they are so wonderful. There is no material culture in my book: it’s all about information culture. But some of the instructive information I am coming across refers to very mundane matters like personal and household hygiene: one of my very favorite books is all about how to remove spots and stains from both precious and mundane fabrics, with dyeing advice if they won’t come out. Out, damned spot! Out, I say! This was of course a huge problem, as I am not dealing with a disposable society. Cleanliness was increasingly important for health reasons as well: sixteenth-and seventeenth-century people were living through constant pandemics of plague and various poxes and fevers, and while they knew nothing about germ theory, they had associated disease and squalidness. When they went outside, into the pestilential air, they covered up for protection if they could afford to: with hats, hoods, gloves and fans and yes, even masks. Everyone is now familiar with the beaked plague masks of the later seventeenth century, but this was just one, rather dramatic, form of early modern masks, which were also worn for “disguising,” for protection against the weather, for festivity, and for fashion. The most elaborate of fashionable early modern masks for women, the vizard or visard, which covered the entire face except for the eyes, seems to have had Italian origins, like so many fashions then (and now): when they began appearing in England, many commentators, especially of the Puritan disposition, were not impressed. In his Anatomy of Abuses (1583), Phillip Stubbes wrote: When they use to ride abroad they have invisories or visors made of velvet, wherewith they cover all their faces, having holes made in them for their eyes, whereout they look. So that if a man, that know not their guise before, should chance to meet one of them, he would think he met a monster or a devil, for he can see no face, but two broad holes against her eyes with glasses in them. Nevertheless, the household accounts of Queen Elizabeth’s reign list vizards among her purchases, and a century later, these “visors” were fashionable apparel for women of some means, who would wear them out and about, particularly when attending the theater. Samuel Pepys was so struck by one vizard-wearing lady at a performance that he went right out and bought a mask for his (long-suffering) wife. There are several digital sources for early modern apparel: I chose the images below from a late sixteenth-century album of costumes in watercolor at the Morgan Library and the “Friendship Album” (Album Amicorum) of a German Soldier in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

An Album of Costumes, Morgan Library.

Album Amicorum, LACMA.

Wenceslaus Hollar’s engravings of English women clothed for every season from the mid-seventeenth century illustrate the bit more utilitarian masks worn by women of means during the winter: many more Hollar images are at the Fisher Library at the University of Toronto and the Rijksmuseum, where I obtained these images—there is a new “Rijkstudio” where you can get creative with collection items; no time for that now, but later……..

Wenceslaus Hollar at the Rijksmusum.


Trial by Combat

Like most Americans, I am outraged by the pillaging of the Capitol on Wednesday by a mob incited by the President of the United States and his personal lawyer, once a serious figure, now a joke, who called for “Trial by Combat”. Tears and despair reigned on Wednesday and Thursday, but yesterday I was just mad: mad at so many things, but I think principally upset about the misuse of history by everyone on the wrong side of it. It’s really clear that there is massive ignorance of history in our country, enabling its constant exploitation. When you look at the scenes of the Capitol riots what do you see? Flags, so many flags: the Confederate flag was the most conspicuous, of course: we had never seen it in that building before. But there were several Revolutionary War flags as well, outrageously displayed in an ignorant attempt to establish some sort of equivalency or legitimacy. I’m used to the quasi-“medieval” emblems used by white supremacists, and I saw them on display as well: of course the Vikings never wore horned helmets—they are a Victorian creation—but these people don’t read so they don’t know. Anything medieval is just Game of Thrones fantasy to them, but how dare they use the “Appeal to Heaven” flag of the nascent U.S. Navy or the Gadsen “Don’t Treat on Me” flag.

A flag hangs between broken windows after President Donald Trump supporters tried to brake through police barriers outside the U.S. Capitol, Wednesday, Jan 6, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

That casual reference to trial by combat, which was archaic in the sixteenth century at the very least! As it evolved into the duel, monarchs wanted a monopoly on warfare, and so it was disdained, not celebrated, as it was on Wednesday (by the cowardly “generals” who of course did not accompany their “army” to the Capitol). And we’re supposed to be more civilized? I hardly think so. Trial by combat is already depicted as “orderly” and idealized in the fifteenth century: it’s on its way out then, only to be resurrected in the twenty-first.

Trial by combat as depicted in two late medieval manuscripts (British Library MS Royal 15 E VI and Royal 14 D I) and a Victorian reimagining.

Maybe it’s because I’m writing about the Renaissance now and completely focused on its messaging, but I feel like we can only move forward by looking back. We’ve got to learn our history, our real history. I think I’m also a bit concerned about this now because the Liberal Arts are being challenged across our nation at institutions of higher education, particularly public ones like the one at which I teach. I’m worried we are going to be transformed into a vocational school by our administration with its “bold” plan: offering instruction primarily in social service rather than social science. We excel at teacher education in several fields (including history, of course) because that is our history, and nothing is more important than that now. How can we move forward if we don’t know where we’ve been?

Oh, and those “backward” medievals always distinguished between trial by combat and pillage: that’s what happened on Wednesday.

Pillaging, BL MS Royal 14 D I


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.


Voting Matters

I am very, very anxious about the election and can think of little else. I have enough of a historian’s sensibility, of a human’s sensibility, to know that this is the most momentous election of my life. Of course there is little that I can do–other than donate and vote–so I have been appeasing my anxieties in my usual way: by reading about elections past. It has also helped me to read and listen to Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson, who has been putting the current situation in a comprehensive historical context for months now: talk about commitment! I have learned a lot about American history during this whole blogging experience, but I think I’ve learned more in the last 6 months than the past ten years: the problem is, I’ve been looking for the comfort of we’ve been here before but I seem to be surmising that many aspects of our current situation are truly aberrant! Apart from the search for context, there is just something very interesting about the logistics and detritus of elections past: in this digital age, we don’t have enough electoral texture. So here are just a few items that caught by eye.

Early Election Ballots: I love browsing through the early election ballots at the American Antiquarian Society: if you don’t understand the Electoral College—they are rather clear illustrations: also of the evolving concept of the ticket. Plus it’s interesting to see the emergence and disappearance of various political parties.

Mass Appeal: I love this flyer for Nathaniel Prentice Banks (also from the American Antiquarian Society), who was running for a Massachusetts congressional seat in the election of 1852. I don’t know if you can read it all, but he is appealing to all different sorts of men—mechanics, young men, middle-aged men and veterans! Plus he courts the ladies, and exhorts them to “stir up” their men!

 

Voting by Mail: since 1864. Very American. Poll Book from the Smithsonian Institution.

 

Poll Taxes! Who knew? I associated poll taxes with the segregated South, but in fact, people had to pay them right here in Massachusetts, and in other states as well, right up to the ratification of the 24th amendment in 1964! Imagine paying to vote. Imagine being an active suffragist, working your whole life for the voting rights of women, all women, and even after enfranchisement this barrier is still there! There were a few snarky articles published in the Boston papers right after the ratification of the 19th amendment in which the theory was put out there that perhaps women wouldn’t want to vote as they would have to tell the poll tax assessor their true ages! Unbelievable!

 

A Salem Parade Flag. Just because it must have been fun to see election parades, which I assume must have brought people together, but perhaps not. 13-star flag used in 1896 Salem parade, Cowan’s Auctions.

Pinback Buttons! Never can get enough of these: most are Roosevelt and McKinley, 1900 & 1904, from the Smithsonian; the Citizen pin is from 1915-20 and the Ann Lewis Suffrage Collection. I love the sentiment of Vote as you please but please vote.

 

A flyer from Margaret Chase Smith’s presidential campaign, 1964 (Smithsonian Collection). Because Margaret Chase Smith. And that’s as close as I am getting to our present time.


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

REading Untitled - 2020-08-03T132118.632

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


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