Lilacs are so ubiquitous in New England in May that you tend to overlook them, but over the past pleasant days I have been seeking them out in some of my favorite spots. I’m always so conflicted during this month, as my academic responsiblities conflict with my desire to immerse myself in all things horticultural. Over the last few weeks, I missed both Lilac Sunday at the Arnold Arboretum, as well as the peak spring blooming at the Stevens-Coolidge garden in North Andover. But I finished my grading over the weekend, and found myself going to and from my family’s house in York Harbor, Maine on my own wayward routes, chasing lilacs along the way. I saw lilacs by the sea, lilacs in town, lilacs in the country, lilacs by front doors, back doors, bulkheads, gates, and many many fences.
Starting out in York Harbor yesterday (where it seems to me that there were many more lilacs in the past; I guess childhood memories are always like that!), then on to Portsmouth, where lilacs peaking through garden gates and alongside foundations lured me into StrawberryBanke. I really loved the garden at the Nutter House, the boyhood home of author Thomas Bailey Aldrich–this last lilac bush is in the garden his wife designed for him later and it is at least a century old. More on this garden later in the summer!
From Portsmouth, I drove to North Andover, as I decided to visit the Stevens-Coolidge garden even though I knew the tulips would be a bit past their peak: it’s still a lovely garden! Not many lilacs though: just a couple of tall hedges, which were waving constantly on this very breezy day. North Andover is an old town, so I knew I’d find some lilacs peaking out from any number of places, and I was not disappointed: they enclose several venerable house lots, the Parson Barnard House included.
From North Andover I headed home on the old Salem Road that takes you through Middleton and Danvers: bound for the beautiful GlenMagna garden in the latter town. I ended the day in a purple haze, but also with lots of gratitude and appreciation for the North Andover, Topsfield and Danvers Historical Societies, which maintain all these properties in such beautiful condition. From my jaded Salem perspective, the absence of cash-cow commodification of heritage sites is so welcome and refreshing. I visit the Glen Magna garden all summer long, and view it much in the same way that its founder and his successors, the Salem merchant Joseph Peabody and several generations of the Endicott family, must have: as a retreat from bustling Salem. Of course I can’t set myself up in the house like they did, but I’m very grateful for the open garden! The last Endicott to summer at Glen Magna, William Crowninshield Endicott, Jr., brought the 1794 summer house designed by Samuel McIntire for the Derby farm on Lowell Street in Peabody to Glen Magna in 1901. This amazing structure is worth a visit at any time of the year—it looks just as strking in the midst of winter as it does in the midst of all this green, and purple.
Lilacs against the Parson Capen House’s barn, and the gardens at Glen Magna.
I’m starting to work on the proposal for a book on Salem history to be published for the city’s 400th anniversary in 2026. This would be a joint enterprise: I have a colleague (and collegial) co-editor, BradAustin, and we hope to have contributions from as many members of Salem State’s History Department as possible. Brad came up with the tentative title, Salem’s Centuries: 400 Years of Culture, Conflict, and Contributions, and we already have chapter proposals on topics ranging from the material culture of witchcraft in the seventeenth century to Catholic women in the nineteenth century to initiatives in support of Jewish refugees in the twentieth. As usual, I’m kind of in an odd spot: I’m not an American historian and my academic expertise is winding down just when Salem’s history is beginning! But I do think I have learned some things here, and so I’ve committed to chapters on the Remond family in the nineteenth century and urban development/preservation in the twentieth. I’m going to trust my co-editor and my colleagues who have more authority in these eras to prevent me from embarassing myself! For the Remond chapter, I want to use the family’s hospitality and provisioning roles as avenues into civic life in Salem during the early Republic. I’m fascinated with the idea that John and Nancy Remond, in particular, were catering events for institutions which excluded them. I always thought they were exemplary (and I still do, in many ways), but it turns out that there were actually many African-American caterers working up and down the Atlantic seaboard under similar conditions, pursuing their professional careers in civic settings while at the same time working to advance their civil rights. Despite the identification of African-American caterers in Philadelphia as “as remarkable a trade guild as ever ruled in a medieval city… [who] took complete leadership of the bewildered group of Negroes, and led them steadily to a degree of affluence, culture and respect such as has probably never been surpassed in the history of the Negro in America” by no less than W.E.B. Du Bois in his Negro in Philadelphia: A Social Study (1899), I know very little about these powerful purveyors. This is a perfect exemple of the potential pitfalls I am confronting with this project: I know a lot about the Remonds and their Salem world, but very little about the national context in which they lived and worked.
The Remond menu for the 200th Anniversary of the Settlement of Salem Dinner at Hamilton Hall in September of 1828 (I’m not sure why this was not held in 1826?), Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.
Clearly I’ve got to up my game, but this effort will not be a hardship if I get to learn about people like these amazing caterer-abolitionists:
Joshua Bowen Smith (1813-1879): a Pennsylvania native who became a prominent Boston caterer and abolitionist, and later a Massachusetts state senator. Smith catered for Harvard University and many prominent Boston families including that of Robert Gould Shaw, with whom he was reportedly quite close. He was also a close friend of Massachusetts Senator Senator Charles Sumner (along with George T. Downing, below). Smith employed African-American refugees from the South in his business, and aided them in numerous ways through his membership in Boston’s Vigilance Committee, his participation in the Underground Railroad, and his foundation of the New England Freedom Association. Neither his abolitionist activism or his connections aided him when he was stiffed by his fellow abolitionist Governor John Andrew, who refused to pay a $40,000 bill submitted for catering services for the 12th Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers. Andrew claimed that the legislature had not appropriated the funds, but managed to pay other provisioners without appropriations. Smith was consequently in a financially-vulnerable situation for the rest of his career, but this did not stop his public service.
Joshua Bowen Smith, Massachusetts Historical Society; Bill of Fare for the 75th Anniversary of the American Revolution Dinner for the Boston City Council, 1851. Boston Athenaeum Digital Collections.
Thomas Downing (1791-1866): I think I’ve called John Remond an “oyster king” a few times, and he certainly earned that title in Salem, but his contemporary Thomas Downing was the original Oyster King of a bigger kingdom: New York City. Downing was a native of Chincoteague Island off Virginia (one of my favorite places as a child because of my love for Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague: my pony’s name was Chinka), the son of enslaved and then freed parents. He made his way north as a young man, spending some time in that foodie mecca Philadelphia, and then came to New York where his skills as both an oysterman and an entrepreneur enabled him to open the ultimate oyster establishment in 1825. By all accounts, Thomas Downing’s Oyster House was a cut (or several) above all the other oyster “cellars” in New York City, and so it attracted a more genteel, monied, and political crowd. Downing expanded the scale of both his establishment and his business over the next decade, filling mail orders for an international clientele (including Queen Victoria!). Just like John Remond in Salem and Joshua Bowen Smith in Boston, he was also very active in several abolitionist efforts: he founded the Anti-Slavery Society of New York as well as the refuge aid Committee of Thirteen, and worked for both school and transportation desegregation. I’m sure he and John Remond would have heard OF each other, but I’m really curious if they knew each other: they seem to be moving forward on tandem tracks. Downing was definitely the king of PICKLED oysters, which Remond also offered, but I don’t think the New Yorker moved into the latter’s lobster territory.
A stoneware pickled oyster jar from Thomas Downing’s Oyster House (New York City Historical Society) and a handbill for John Remond’s pickled oysters (Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum).
George T. Downing (1813-1903): followed in his father’s footsteps in both his profession and his activism, though primarily in a different setting: Newport, Rhode Island. It’s difficult to discern the difference between a restauranteur and a caterer in this period, but Downing Jr. seems to have operated as both with his establishments in Newport and his role as manager of the Members’ Dining Room at the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington from 1865 to 1877. This position was preceded by a long struggle to desegregate the Newport schools: the Remonds had removed to Newport during their own struggle for school desegregation in Salem in the later 1830s, so I’m pretty certain there is a connection here. Both before and after the Civil War, Downing Jr. was active in all of the abolitionist and equal rights organizations which his father and circle supported, always striving for more equality, more access, and more opportunities for African-Americans.
George Thomas Downing and his family, Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. What I would give for a photograph of all of the Remonds!
Robert Bogle (1774-1848): the first of the emerging Philadelphia African-American “caterers’ guild” referred to by Du Bois above; in fact, Bogle is often credited as not just the first African-American caterer but the first caterer, period (although the term was not used until after his death). He merged the professions of caterer and funeral director in Philadelphia for several decades, inspiring Nicholas Biddle to pay tribute to Boggle in 1830 as one whose “reign extends oe’r nature’s wide domain begins before our earliest breath nor ceases with the hour of death.” Bogle’s Blue Bell Tavern opened in 1813, and soon became famous for its meat pies and terrapin creations as well as a gathering place for Philadelphia’s political leaders: this is the hospitality entrée that accomplished caterers of any color could obtain, but perhaps one of the few avenues of access for African-Americans in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the wonderful digital exhibition on the life and work of an enslaved Charleston cook presented by the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative at the College of Charleston observes that the multi-faceted role of caterer was “one of the few, and most lucrative, prominent public positions that could be acceptably filled by an African American during slavery.”
Nat Fuller (1812-1866): It must have been difficult enough to be an African-American caterer in the North during this period, just imagine what that role would entail in the south! Fortunately we don’t have to imagine because we have this great digital exhibition: Nat Fuller’s Feast: the Life and Legacy of an Enslaved Cook in Charleston. As an enslaved teenager in Charleston in the 1820s, Nat Fuller was apprenticed to a remarkable free African-American couple who seem to be playing the same culinary and catering roles in Charleston that John and Nancy Remond were occupying in Salem, at the exact same time: John and Eliza Seymour Lee. Charleston John was the event manager for several venues; his wife Eliza the famous cook and pastry chef. After Nat Fuller completed his culinary training under Eliza, he worked as an enslaved cook for his slaveholder William C. Gatewood, an ambitious man who entertained frequently, for the next three decades under “evolving” conditions: in 1852 Gatewood agreed to let Fuller live outside of his household with his wife Diana (another famous pastry chef) under the so-called “self-hire” system. The Fullers began to operate independent provisioning and catering businesses in Charleston, paying Gatewood a percentage of their profits. By the later 1850s, though still enslaved, Fuller was Charleston’s “well known” and go-to caterer, staging elaborate events like the Jubilee of Southern Union dinner celebrating the completion of a railway between Memphis and Charleston in May of 1857 for 600 guests. In the fall of 1860, though still enslaved, Fuller opened his famous restaurant, the Bachelor’s Retreat, operating it throughout the war except for a few periods of illness and relocation, and at which, as a newly-free man, he hosted a dinner celebrating the end of the war and slavery in the spring of 1865. Abby Louisa Porcher, a white Charleston lady, documented this momentous event in a letter soon afterwards: “Nat Fuller, a Negro caterer, provided munificently for a miscegenation dinner, at which blacks and whites sat on an equality and gave toasts and sang songs for Lincoln and freedom.” Perhaps Fuller could not operate as a caterer-abolitionist like his colleagues in the North, but he emerged as an advocate for racial equality as soon as he was enabled. He died in the next year.
Appendix: you can read all about the “reenactment” of Nat Fuller’s Feast on the occasion of its 150th anniversary in 2015 here; Invitation below. Another prominent southern African-American caterer, John Dabney of Richmond, was born into slavery, is the subject of a beautiful documentary, The Hail-Storm. John Dabney in Virginia, which you can watch here.
For the most part, this blog has been an academic release for me rather than academic engagement: I consider most of the history I’ve offered up here more pop-up than professional. But there is one academic field with which I have been engaging (mostly in the form of learning) continuously: the history of tourism. This is a relatively new field, emerging in the 1990s, but also a very interdisciplinary and important one, involving social, cultural, and economic factors interacting at local, regional, and global levels. There’s a Journal of Tourism History, several academic book series, and an emerging taxonomy: the general category of Heritage Tourism, for example, can be broken down into more specialized endeavors: literary tourism, thanatourism (also called Dark Tourism, focused on visitation to sites of death and suffering), legacy (genealogical) tourism. Salem became a tourist designation in the later nineteenth century, and from that time its projections have included all of these pursuits. With the bicentennial of the Salem Witch Trials in 1892, witches started appearing everywhere, but Nathaniel Hawthorne represented stiff competition in the opening decades of the twentieth century, particularly after the centennial commemoration of his birth in 1904 and the opening of the House of the Seven Gables in 1910. Over the twentieth century Hawthorne waned and the witches ultimately triumphed, but at mid-century there was a relatively brief span when Salem and its history were both perceived and presented more broadly, as an essential “historyland” which one must visit in order to understand the foundations of American civilization. The major periodicals of the 1940s and 1950s, including Time, Life, American Heritage and National Geographic, presented Salem not only as a Puritan settlement, but also as an “incubator” of both democracy and capitalism with the events of 1692 subsumed by those larger themes.
I think I need to explain and qualify my use of the term “historyland” before I continue, as I’m not using it in the perjorative way that it has come to be used in recent decades: idealized history theme park where one can escape the present and have fun! The “American Way of History” in the words of David Lowenthal. Its meaning evolves, but I am using it first (more later) as it was initially applied: to a region in which much happened and much remained as material legacy to what happened. It emerges in the 1930s as a very specific reference to the area encompassing Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia: I believe a section of Virginia’s Route 3 is still called the “Historyland Highway.” Virginia was so great at marketing itself as Historyland (an example is upper left in the above graphic—some chutzpah to claim that the “nation was preserved” in Virginia!) that other states, like nearby Maryland and North Carolina, started using the term as well. I’m sure that every state on the eastern seaboard was jealous, and the term was extended geographically, chronologically, and conceptually when a Historyland living history park focused on the logging industry opened in Wisconsin in 1954. In the next decade, National Geographic started using the term more generally in reference to national landmarks, in the succession volumes to its popular Wonderlands guides. I don’t want to romanticize the word or its meaning too much: the history that characterized these historylands was overwhelmingly European, narrative, and a bit too focused on colonial costumes for my taste, but at least it was place-based. I can imagine that the civic authorities would have been just a bit wary about the impact of for-profit attractions peddling a story that was not Salem’s in the 1950s and 1960s, especially with the presence of so many non-profit local history museums like the Essex Institute, the Peabody Museum, Pioneer Village, and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Clearly that is not a concern now. In characteristic fashion, National Geographic focused on the site-specific aspects of Salem’s past and present in its September 1945 issue, focused on the Northeast. Its industrial base has created some “drabness,” but “this prosaic, utilitarian present is more than matched by an extraordinarily insistent and romantic past. Salem is literally a treasure house of early American landmarks, relics, articles, and documents of historic interest, all easily accessible and within a small area. The little city is fairly haunted by these still-visible evidences of its illustrious position, first as progenitor of the great Massachusetts Bay Colony, and later as a mistress of the seas. Unlike some larger cities of venerable age, in which population grew apace, it was unnecessary for Salem to tear down and rebuild: thus a larger proportion of memorable objects remains undisturbed.” Wow: a city which retains its treasures, was focused on preservation, and haunted by its still visible-past rather than made-up ghosts! What we have lost.
Photographs of Salem from the September 1945 issue of National Geographic, obove, and from America’s Historylands: Landmarks of Liberty (1962) below: the Witch House, secret staircase at the House of the Seven Gables, and Pioneer Village.
This total package, “treasure house” characterization continued to define Salem’s representation in national periodicals over the next two decades, during which Life, Time, and even Ladies Home Journal came to the city to take it all in: the Custom House and Derby Wharf, the House of the Seven Gables, Pioneer Village, the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum, the Court House with its pins, the YMCA with its small Alexander Graham Bell display (see above), the recently-restored Witch House, and Chestnut Street. (And everything was open all the time! Peirce-Nichols, Derby, all those houses we can seldom enter today). But change was coming, to they ways and means by which we interpreted the past as well as to Salem. From the late 1960s, the meaning of “historyland” took on a more negative meaning and associated “living history” attractions began to fall out of fashion, a trend that culminated with Disney’s disastrous Virginia pitch in the early 1990s. And then Samantha and her Bewitched crew came to Salem, allegedly showing it the way forward: tell one story rather than many and focus on private profits rather than civic pride. The Salem Witch Museum demonstrated that that path could be very successful, and so everybody else jumped on board: the public sanction of “Haunted Happenings” eventually transformed Salem into a full-time Witch City and undermined those institutions which were trying to tell other, or more complicated stories. Many of Salem’s textual treasures have been transferred to Rowley, but I guess we are compensated by the real pirate’s treasure from the Whydah? In recent years, the city’s tourism agency, Destination Salem, has attempted to broaden its appeal by taking advantage of the popularity of genealogical research/travel with its Ancestry Days (next week: see schedule of events here) but I wonder how far that initiative can go when most of Salem’s genealogical assets are in Rowley. Perhaps no structure represents Salem’s transition into a modern historyland, with all of its current connotations, better than the Peabody Essex Museum’s Ropes Mansion, once merely an “early home on an old street” and now the Hocus Pocus house. If I were a true historian of tourism, I could explain this transition in social, cultural, and economic terms, but I’m not there yet. Nevertheless, Salem is the perfect subject for this dynamic field: we’ve already seen some great studies, and I’m sure we’ll see more.
The Ropes Mansion in the May 16, 1958 issue of Life Magazine, and October 2021.
What do place names mean? Whenever I’m walking around a town or city I look at the names of streets and spaces and assume that they are clues to the history of said town or city but what if these names mean nothing? What if they are just slapped on there to give an impression, rather than as a form of remembrance—and honor? Taking its cue from our long-serving Mayor, Kimberley Driscoll, Salem’s municipal government sees itself and sells itself as progressive, and loses no opportunity to broadcast that message, often in reference to “history”. Actually, this public relations policy predates Mayor’s Driscoll’s reign: Salem had to become a City of “toleration” to compensate for its famous Witch Hunts and enable those who profit from that tragedy to do so with a clear conscience. It seems to me that the virtue-signaling has been switched on to hyperdrive more recently, however. The Trump era afforded Mayor Driscoll many opportunities to expound upon the lessons of real witch hunts as the Mayor of Salem, a tolerant (and hip, never forget hip) city which nevertheless showcases a statue of a fictional television witch in the midst of its most historic square, Town House Square. Two relatively new Salem parks have been named after prominent African-American residents of Salem, even though their locations bear no relation to their namesakes. To my knowledge, Remond Park, on the outskirts of town far from where that family lived and worked, has been the scene of no commemoration or education apart from a sign bearing incorrect information since its naming a few years ago. The name represents the extent of the City’s commitment to the Remonds’ memory. Charlotte Forten Park, once a muddy vacant lot bordering the South River along Derby Street, was created in 2019 and named for Forten (Grimké), the African-American abolitionist, poet and educator who came to Salem in 1854 to live with the Remonds while receiving her education in the city’s recently-segregated public schools and later Salem Normal School, the founding institution of Salem State University. Forten became Salem’s first African-American teacher upon her graduation, and went on to live an active life of advocacy, instruction, and reflection. Salem residents had a rare moment of enfranchisement in that they were actually able to VOTE on the name of the park upon its completion, and Sarah won by a mile, I think! It was a rather rigged election with only a few choices and I can’t even remember what the other names were, but still, it was a somewhat public process, a rarity for Salem. I will share my guilty secret that I didn’t vote for Charlotte (I think I wrote in Luis Emilio). It’s not that I don’t admire her, or believe that she deserved such recognition: it’s rather that I thought that the finished space, which was more modern concrete than timeless green, did not reflect her interests or her character in design or location. You just have to read a few snippets of Charlotte’s Journals to discern her love for nature, and calmness: she was always ready to engage with the world but she needed respites from it as well. The new park, with its limited green space and its mission to be a happening place with a plaza for programs and performances and built-in percussion features, seemed rather disconnected to Charlotte for me, but the City pledged to pay tribute to her life and legacy with more than a name.
Charlotte Forten Park in Salem, shortly after it opened in 2019 in two pictures from my post from that year and a photograph from the City’s facebook page (tables and chairs; the photographer wasn’t identified, sorry! It’s a great photo: this space always looks nicer at night); An excerpt from Charlotte’s Journal: she loved to walk in Harmony Grove Cemetery, which is very close to the house of Caroline Remond Putnam, with whom Charlotte lived for a while.
There’s been talk of a statue of Charlotte for the park: not sure what the status is of that project. I think that would be great, but as of this weekend, I really don’t see how this space can be crafted into anything evocative of Charlotte, because “her” park has been plundered by PIRATES! Real Pirates. The Real Pirates Museum (as opposed to the New England Pirate Museum, just across Derby Street) has opened up adjacent to the park, with a broad walkway carved out of the park and an entryway into and out of the park. This new business advertises its location as “on Charlotte Forten Park” and paintings of pirates embellish its walls, thus framing the park. Charlotte Forten Park appears to have been transformed into Real Pirates Park. And so I guess the answer to my opening question what do place names mean is “not much” in reference to this poor park, even nothing. Perhaps it could be relocated to a more meaningful space with room for remembrance and reflection: that section of Mack Park across from Harmony Grove Cemetery?
Charlotte Forten Park (or Real Pirates Plaza?): April 10, 2022.
The Peabody Essex Museum has opened a new integrated exhibit of items from its American and Native American collections entitled On This Ground: Being and Belonging in America and I made my first visit last weekend. This is an “ongoing” exhibition, which I guess means permanent, and I’m glad it is going to be on view for some time as it offers quite a lot to take in and think about: there are new things to see but even familiar items are cast in a new light through their arrangement. While the exhibition explores various themes relating to “being and belonging in America” its overall curation is what captivated me on this first viewing: it seemed as if there were a succession of cascading vignettes crafted from the artful juxtaposition of both like and unlike objects. Juxtaposition is a powerful way to engage and to teach: I use contrast and comparison quite a bit in class but I wouldn’t call my efforts artful. In contrast, On This Ground’s presentations cross genres and time very fluidly, right from the beginning when a video featuring Elizabeth Solomon, a member of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, is contrasted with the original Massachusetts Bay Charter of 1628-29 through which King Charles I claimed the land of her ancestors (I have to say that the Charter actually belongs to the Salem Athenaeum, which placed it in storage at the Essex Institute long ago; the PEM seemed to develop an interest in exhibiting the Charter only when the Athenaeum was seriously considering selling it in 2006, so it’s great to see it as one of the opening exhibits of this important new exhibition.)
The juxtapositions are not always so jarring: each culture gets the opportunity to tell its own stories as they cycle through history, as exhibit text proclaims that “history is not linear” repeatedly. Then there is convergence, but there are intra-cultural juxtapositions too: I particularly liked the contrast of proximity between the works of two of Salem’s most well-known sculptors, William Wetmore Story (Marguerite) and Louise Lander (Evangeline), as the latter was explicitly slandered by the former. And the Hawthornes are in close proximity, as they also shut their doors to Miss Lander. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a work of Salem’s even more famous “people’s sculptor,” John Rogers, in real life (clay), so it was great to see The Wounded Scout: its sentimentality was a good match for what I think is a new acquisition by the PEM (in honor of recently-retired curator Dean Lahikainen), Tompkins Harrison Matteson’s The Pillory Scene from The Scarlet Letter (chap. 12, p. 185-188), 1860.
But there are also some starker contrasts which are illuminating: with context but also aesthetically, including two “political teapots” placed side by side (“Stamp Act Repeal’d, 1760s & Nuclear Nuts Teapot Variation #13 by Richard T. Notkin, 2001), a very fancy dressing table paired with some equally fancy boots, and so many aligned portraits. The internal “windows” of the gallery space open up some interesting juxtapositions as well.
There were two aspects of the exhibition that remain rather “unsettled” in my mind, one very general and the other very particular. So of course I have to go back and settle them! It seemed to me as if the Native American objects came from a much broader geographic region, but that just might be my parochial perspective. And once again (for the 99,000th time) I am troubled by the Salem Witch Trials. I was really excited when I read the thematic label for the “Heroes & Histories” section of the exhibit, especially the opening line if the same stories are repeatedly told, whose stories are we missing? That’s Salem in a nutshell: we just keep telling the same story! So I kept going, and there’s the same old story of the Salem Witch Trials in (very familiar; TOO familiar) images, objects and texts. I just don’t understand how a(nother) Tompkins Harrison Matteson painting represents a “new way of looking at the past.” The most recent historiography of the Salem Witch Trials has focused on Salem as a “frontier” society: wouldn’t this be a relevant perspective to explore here?
This was just one discordant corner of this sweeping exhibition, which otherwise struck a pitch-perfect balance of the familiar and the new for me. The two paintings which captured my attention for the longest time were one which I was quite familiar with (Alvan Fisher’s Salem from Gallows Hill, 1818) and one which was brand-new to me (Bahareh and Farzaneh Safarani’s Twilight Reincarnation, 2018). I like to orient myself in the past through the former, while the latter simply delighted me with its fleeting window shadows, so much so that I forgot to contextualize the painting altogether.
On This Ground: Being and Belonging in America: ongoing at the Peabody Essex Museum.
I have a guilty secret to admit, one which will reveal me to be out of step with most of my fellow Salem residents (no, it’s not about “witches”): I’m not particularly fond of Salem Willows. It’s got a great history and a great spirit, and I’m always happy when I go there, but I don’t really appreciate it. I’m sure I must be a bit of snob about seaside amusement parks, as I never really appreciated York Beach while I was growing up in York either. I don’t understand chop suey sandwiches, and while the popcorn at Hobbs is great, I enjoy my friend Carol’s just as much. While I can take or leave the Willows, I know that many Salem natives wait eagerly for its opening every spring: they have strong memories and associations which I don’t have, and they like chop suey sandwiches. The other day, I came across an article in a 1941 issue of Woman’s Day in a trial database of women’s magazines that we just obtained at Salem State: it was so enthusiastic about the Willows experience back in the day that I began looking at it in a new (old) light.
The article is primarily about Ebsen’s, established in 1885 and the last restaurant standing on the Willows’ Restaurant Row. By the end of the decade, it would be gone, but it was clearly alive and well in 1941. Since that was such a fateful year, one can’t help but feel we are “witnessing” the end of the era in the enthusiastic prose of Sallie Belle Cox, who was embarking on her second career after making a name for herself as the “cry baby of the airwaves” playing crying babies on radio broadcasts in the 1930s. On one such program, she met her husband, radio writer and broadcaster Raymond Knight, a Salem native. She became his second (of three) wives, and by her account he was horrified that she did not know the glories of Salem Willows in general and Ebsen’s in particular, so they drove up from New York City in the early summer of 1941. While her husband insisted that his hometown was the “one city in the world where they know how to make a fish dinner,” Cox’s image of Salem was “a weird, fascinating place filled with clipper ships and jaunty old sea captains who brought home exotic wives with rings in their ears to annoy all the other natives whose only fun in life was roasting witches on dull Saturday nights.”
Salem native Raymond Knight and his soon-to-be wife Sallie Belle Cox (behind the microphone at left) in Radio Stars magazine, 1933-34.
And straight to the Willows and Ebsen’s they went. The restaurant was packed, its oilcloth-covered tables and chairs the same which had been installed in 1890. They partake of equally-old Charley Ebsen’s Shore Dinners: fish or clam chowder, fried clams, fried flounders, and fried lobster, with potato chips, pickles, ice cream, and their choice of non-alcoholic beverages. Cox finds the chowder divine and furnishes her readers with the recipe from chef Fred Millet, who has also been around since before 1900. She also notes that “the Rhode Island and Manhattan clam chowders are not even considered worth discussing in Salem” and admits that there can never be enough fried seafood.
“Shore Dinners” by Sallie Belle Cox, Woman’s Day, July 1941.
This is a rather lazy picture post: I’m basking in the glow of the publication of my book and rather drained from teaching AND I have some nice pictures of Salem on my camera roll so I thought I would just share them. Salem is really lovely after snowfalls: the architecture pops as the automobiles disappear. It’s rather brown out there now: these photographs were taken after a big snowstorm several weeks ago and a much smaller one a week ago. There are some truly dreadful structures that have risen in Salem over the past few years downtown and around, but if you stick to the neighborhoods you can avoid them for the most part. I observe a strict don’t look up (or over) rule as I walk to work past the Frankenstein-esque Hampton Inn, but once I make it home to the McIntire District I’m happy.
After the first big snowstorm:
The park, our house and garden, and a few other snowy structures on Super Bowl evening, and earlier in the day:
In my sweetest dreams Salem is Candy Land rather than Witch City, and it certainly has the heritage to claim that title (although Candy Land was a Milton Bradley game rather than a Parker Brothers production.) There are of course the famous Gibralters and Black Jacks, still sold at the Ye Olde Pepper Candy Company on Derby Street, America’s oldest candy company. Mrs. Spencer sold her hard candy from a horse-driven carriage, and her primary competition seems to have been the stationary confectioner John Simon, whose shop was stocked with a variety of syrups and sweets, everything from anise drops to peppermint. He was always announcing his “removal” to Boston but somehow never made the move. Before the later nineteenth century, however, most confectionary item were not sold by single confectioners, but rather by grocers and apothecaries, and their lists of available sweets became longer and longer with every decade. Nourse’s Fruit Store on Washington Street sold “calves foot jelly candy, strawberry jelly candy, sherbet candy, gum jelly drops, and “East India Red Rock Candy” and all sorts of candies made with the New England’s favorite ingredient, molasses. Confections got a bit softer in the later nineteenth century, when cream candies became popular, and then comes Chocolate!
The Theodore Metcalf Company, one of Boston’s most successful apothecaries, published a beautiful pamphlet on gibralters and black jacks but these were SALEM candies; Nourse’s advertisement, Salem Observer 4 November 1865; Trade cards illustrate the softer trend in confectionary consumption.
The decline of hard candy and the rise of chocolate seems to be a major trend, but candy customers still loved variety. The most successful, and very long-running, confectionary business in twentieth-century Salem was the “Palace of Sweets” on Essex Street, from which the Moustakis Brothers sold their “mastermade” (a patented term) confections. This business was in operation from 1905 until 1968, and after the Taft Summer White House in Beverly placed a series of larger orders it received—and marketed—the presidential seal of approval.
Moustakis Brothers’ Menu from the digital archives of the Culinary Institute of Technology.
Salem is still candy central, in fact two confectionary shops opened up just this past year: Curly Girl Candy Shop on Washington Street and the Chocolate Pantry on Derby, not far from Ye Olde Pepper Candy Company further down the street. And then there is the venerable and amazing HarborSweets, the manufacturers of my very favorite candy, Sweet Sloops. I don’t even really have a sweet tooth, and if I am going to indulge I prefer jelly beans to chocolates, but bring a box of Sweet Sloops into the house and I will not rest until they are gone!
The House of the Seven Gables and Ye Olde Pepper Candy Company sponsored the ice sculpture of Mrs. Spencer’s horse and carriage for the Salem’s So Sweet festival this past weekend: its position made it difficult to photograph but it’s much bigger than it appears in this photo! My beloved Sweet Sloops, available at HarborSweets on Leavitt Street in Salem as well as lots of other retailers.
I’ve written about the Remonds, the African-American family who lived, worked, and strove for a succession of causes in nineteenth-century Salem quite a bit, but I think there is more to write, and more to learn. I live right next to Hamilton Hall, which was the center of many of their activities, and it’s really difficult for me NOT to think of it as their hall, their place. Rather intimate spaces in our home, including my study, the kitchen, and our dressing room (I know, who has a dressing room? Well, we live in a town house with interconnected bedrooms so that’s what we call the room adjacent to our bedroom as that’s pretty much all we do in there), look out to the Hall and so I feel like I am constantly in its presence or their presence. Charles Lenox and Sarah Parker Remond are the famous Remonds, as they were both very active speakers for the Abolitionist movement here in America and also (in the case of Sarah) in England, but it is their father, John Remond (1788-1874), who captivates me. He was an incredible man in so many ways and I am constantly trying to understand the historical landscape which he navigated so successfully. He arrived in Massachusetts from Curaçao in 1798 as a lone ten-year-old and over the next decade established himself in several occupations, married Nancy Lenox of Newton, and became settled in Salem’s newest assembly house, Hamilton Hall. During the following decades, his primary occupational identity as caterer and manager of the Hall was supplemented by a succession of provisioning roles: restauranter, grocer, wholesaler. He acquired properties in Salem and supported the various entrepreneurial and activist pursuits of his eight children. “Venerable” and “famous” are the adjectives employed in his 1874 obituaries, indicating that he attained a high level of respect for the accomplishments of his long life. In retrospect, his career looks like the proverbial American success story, unencumbered by race (I’m sure this is not true, but it looks that way from afar). Those most “American” of commemorators, the Daughters of the American Revolution, even included several items associated with John Remond items in their 1897 exhibition at Copley Hall in Boston , including the bottle of Schiedam gin given to him by his mother, Marytelia, on the day he disembarked for the United States.
Undated photograph of John Remond, Collection of Hamilton Hall; advertisement in The Salem Literary & Commercial Observer, 1827 January 13; Catalogue of a Loan Exhibition of Ancient and Historical Articles, Daughters of the American Revolution, 1897; John Remond’s gin bottle on display in the “Salem Stories” exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum.
I saw John Remond’s gin bottle—his sole childhood possession!—at the Peabody Essex Museum the other day, where it is featured in the “Salem Stories” exhibition (see above): I think he would be pleased with its display both in Copley Hall at the end of the nineteenth century and here in Salem in the twenty-first. While his professional struggles are not immediately apparent and overwhelmed by his achievements, his personal struggles to claim the identity and rights of an American citizen are manifest, so I think he would have been particularly pleased by his inclusion in the DAR exhibition. There were several moments during his life where we can see his strong desire for citizenship: his naturalization in 1811, his son John Lenox’s acquisition of a Seaman’s Protection Certificate in 1839 (even though he was not, to my knowledge, a seaman), his own acquisition of an American passport in 1854, and his obvious frustration with his daughter Sarah’s inability to leave Britain five years later when the U.S. Department of State failed to recognize the passport that it had issued her in 1858! In the interim the Dred Scott decision had invalidated the paper trail of citizenship he had so carefully crafted for himself and his children, placing them all in a terrible limbo.
The paper trail records the paper trail: The National Era, The New York Times, and the Salem Register cover the passport paradox, 1858-1860. Sarah’s middle name was incorrectly presented as Lenox rather than Parker in the rather haughty Times!
Sarah Remond ultimately obtained a visa which enabled her to travel to Italy and back home for brief periods: she became a British citizen in 1865. From the vantage point of 1860 however, her father was in evident distress. In a long article published in the Salem Register in July of that year, he asked the reporter, or the readers, or the government: if we cannot be citizens either home or abroad, what is going to become of us?
Transportation segregation was another issue confronted by the eldest Remond son, Charles Lenox Remond: Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor’s Colored Travelers. Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War presents essential context for the restricted mobility of African-Americans both home and abroad. School segregation was an issue for all the Remonds, who moved to Newport for a lengthy period of time in 1835 after Sarah and her sister Caroline were expelled from Salem High School, only to keep fighting and return once the public schools were desegregated. This struggle will be the focus of an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum later this spring!
For some reason, I’ve been going through the archives of Life magazine over the last month or so: it started with the photographs, and then I had to read the stories too. Life seems like it was a perfect mix of news and popular culture: we don’t have the like now, do we? And I doubt we ever will again with our very diffused and digital media. I’m no twentieth-century historian, but it also seems to represent the collective mindsets of its changing times: it really excels at representing wartime America, of course, but the later decades too. So far my favorite issue bears a beautiful Elizabeth Taylor on the cover on the occasion of her fortieth birthday: but inside the focus is on President Nixon’s imminent trip to China. It was fifty years ago this very month, and a very big deal. For some historical context, Life went to Salem, which emerges as kind of cultural intermediary between the United States and China, as it was the first American city to become thoroughly acquainted with the East. And so we get to read about Elias Hasket Derby and his ships, and see Derby Wharf, and all sorts of “exotic souvenirs” brought back from China by Salem’s daring merchants and later installed in the old Peabody Museum of Salem. It’s all great, but the best photograph is an aerial view of Chestnut Street where nothing much has changed in fifty years.
“When the US Sailed to China,” Life magazine, 25 February 1972. Photographs by Henry Groskinsky.
I think that the Peabody Essex Museum is still playing that intermediary “West meets East” role, although now the perspective is far more global than western. I know that I fault the PEM often for its displaced library and limited local offerings, but their East Asian and China Trade galleries are beyond impressive. I find myself teaching the first half of World History this semester for the first time in a decade, and I really had to do a lot of preparation before I stepped into the classroom (well, first it was on the screen as we had a “staggered” opening). China is the star of pre-1500 world history, and all my “color” comes from the PEM! Its collections are much stronger in later-dynasty objects, but there’s still some wonderful things on display from earlier eras. Much has happened in the past half-century: the Cold War is over, and Life magazine has also concluded its run, but Salem’s “China Cabinet” not only endures, but has been expanded considerably (and we no longer refer to its contents as souvenirs). In fact, aside from Salem’s built landscape, PEM’s East Asian collections constitute one of the largest and most lasting material legacies of “its” history insitu: this seems like an odd statement, but I think it is true.
Yichengyong Picture Workshop, Tianjin. Family celebrating the New Year and welcoming wealth from all directions, 1908-11, reproduction of detail from a woodblock print; Standing official with tablet, Jin dynasty, early 13th century; Guangzhou artists, Tea packer and porter, about 1803; Guangzhou artists, Wu Bingjian, Known as Houqua, about 1835; George Chinnery, detail from Dr. Thomas Richardson Colledge and His Assistant Afun in Their Opthalmic Hospital, Macau, 1833. There’s an emphasis on people and their relationships in PEM’s present galleries, but there’s also the “Great Wall of China” and a transplanted 18th-century Chinese house, Yin Yu Tang, to see.