Category Archives: History

Christmas in Salem 2016

stellar Christmas in Salem tour around Salem Common this past weekend, featuring all the things that I love about Salem houses and Salem people. The combination of generous and creative homeowners, perfect clear and crisp December weather, and myriad magical details made for a very special experience. Here’s just a short list of attractions (I really could go on and on): a McIntire spiral staircase, beautiful views of the Common (as seen through very clean windows–the first thing I noticed when I got home was how dirty mine are), an artist’s atelier/bedroom, an alpine-decorated deck, kitchens extraordinaire, an architectural dollhouse, exceptional artwork and collections. To be honest, I barely noticed the Christmas decorations as I was so focused on the architecture and interior design. I was a bit pressed for time, so I skipped the three institutional stops on the tour–the PEM’s Andrew Safford House, the Bertram House, and St. Peter’s Church–and went right for the private homes, all along the Common and a few adjacent side streets. It seemed to me that the tour was curated for contrast: of scale (larger institutional or single-family homes contrasted with smaller structures and condominiums), of architectural style (everything was built in the nineteenth century but what a difference between the Federal, Greek Revival, Victorian and Colonial Revival!), of design (very modern and more traditional), of embellishment (very decorated and more minimalistic), and above all, of expression: the homeowners expressed themselves in various ways: through their own art or design, or through their collections, or both!

I was fortunate to obtain a press pass so I could take photographs of the houses, but 1) I am not a professional photographer and 2) I got completely overwhelmed by all I had to see/ “capture”, so please go on over to Creative Salem  or to Historic Salem for more polished and comprehensive portfolios: it was really all too much for me, in the best possible way!

Let’s start with a sampling of beautiful rooms, and then I’ll try to present some of the details that caught my eye–just some, because there was so much to see.

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Let there be light! This  was a very enlightened tour, in more ways than one:

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Myriad Mantles……..

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Dazzling Details…….of collections, an amazing restoration, and all sorts of embellishment, including an historic Salem gallery wall, an exterior Christmas tablescape (set up by the homeowner of a beautiful condo, who felt that she need to offer a “bit more”), and the ultimate dollhouse.

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It was impossible for me to capture the complete creativity of Salem artist Thomas Darsney’s stunning home/gallery: his canvases were luminous but the entire home was in fact a canvas, with no surface or detail unconsidered. 

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Just a few exterior shots because again, the light was so beautiful on Sunday……

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Why not tie everything up with a big red bow?

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St. Andrew’s Cross

I’ve been writing posts on various saints days over the years and yesterday I realized I had never posted about St. Andrew on his feast day, a notable omission both in general and for me, in particular, as I was fortunate to spend my junior year at St. Andrew’s University, and the town remains one of my very favorite places on earth. Though I think most people associate St. Andrew exclusively with Scotland, he is venerated widely: in much of eastern Europe, in the Caribbean and even South America. Andrew was the first Apostle, the brother of Peter, and an ardent missionary: it is said that he continued to spread the gospel during much of his crucifixion, on an x-shaped cross forever associated with his name: the saltire or St. Andrew’s Cross. Such a powerful symbol of assertion, both against a field of blue as the Scottish flag, or as the southern cross on the Confederate flag. The connotations of the former are all positive as compared with the latter, of course, and St. Andrew’s Day has been a bank holiday in Scotland since 2006.

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st-andrews-the-saltire-flag Late medieval manuscript images of St. Andrew from the British and St. Andrew’s University Libraries; Juan Correa de Vivar, Crucifixion of St. Andrew, c. 1540, University of St. Andrew’s Special Collections; the saltire unfurled.

Scotland’s claim to St. Andrew has always struck me as a little convoluted, but it became official, and lasting, with the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), a letter written by the barons of Scotland to Pope John XXII asking for recognition of the country’s independence and acknowledgment of Robert the Bruce as its rightful king. Scotland’s “Declaration of Independence” incorporated the esteemed St. Andrew as part of its plea, for “The high qualities and deserts of these people, were they not otherwise manifest, gain glory enough from this: that the King of kings and Lord of lords, our Lord Jesus Christ, after his Passion and Resurrection, called them, even though settled in the uttermost parts of the earth, almost the first to His most holy faith. Nor would He have them confirmed in that faith by merely anyone but by the first of His Apostles – by calling, though second or third rank – the most gentle Saint Andrew, the Blessed Peter’s brother, and desired him to keep them under his protection as their patron for ever.”  Another very powerful assertion, as St. Andrew certainly outranked the emerging patron saint George of Scotland’s perennial enemy, England. Combined with a classical origins story, language, literature, Presbyterianism, the “auld alliance” with France, and myriad other claims and customs, St. Andrew helped Scotland preserve a very distinct national identity even after it became part of Great Britain. And then, in that golden age of romantic nationalism that was the nineteenth century, the Saint and his cross seem to be emblazoned on all forms of material culture associated with Scotland, transforming him into a more secular patron and ensuring his survival into the modern age.

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The symbolic British Empire in glass, c. 1840: stained glass panels by C.E. Gwilt representing St. Andrew of Scotland, St. Patrick of Ireland, and St. George of England; a Minton tile, c. 1875; Walter Crane’s “National” wallpaper, 1890s, all collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum; St. Andrew’s Day 2013 in Edinburgh.


Cabinets on Canvas

After stuffing ourselves with Thanksgiving dinner the day before, and Thanksgiving breakfast pie yesterday morning, we walked downtown to the Peabody Essex Museum to see their latest blockbuster exhibition, Shoes: Pleasure and PainIt is a fine visual feast for sure, but not exactly thought-provoking for me (and I’m not really a shoe girl–but I did get some great pictures for another post), so I wandered next door to another current exhibition, Samuel F.B. Morses Gallery at the Louvreand the Art of InventionThis traveling exhibition focuses on Morse the artist and “copyist” rather than Morse the inventor: his 1831-33 painting of an imagined exhibition of 40 artworks at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, combined with his role as the “father of American photography” based on his early experimentation with the daguerreotype process, is the inspiration for a complementary display of over 65 photographs from the PEM’s extensive collection. I must admit I didn’t quite grasp the connection between the painting and the photographs—“the spirit of curation, storytelling, and cross-cultural affinities”—but I was happy to see both, and I spent some time trying to find my own connections, which is the very best impact any exhibition can have.

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Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery at the Louvre (Terra Foundation for American Art) in the PEM show, along with his copy of Titian’s portrait of François I and a crop of the artist/inventor instructing his daughter in the center of the painting from a blog post by Shoshana Resnikoff on the PEM blog Connected.

After a bit of thought and browsing around, ultimately I think I made one of the connections the curators of this exhibition wanted me to make by comparing Morse’s “gallery painting” with the original examples of this genre from the seventeenth century. The whole idea of collecting and creating a “cabinet” of curiosities, wonders, or magnificent works of art is so very early modern, and best expressed by Francis Bacon who prescribed that every Renaissance Man should have a goodly huge cabinet, wherein whatsoever the hand of man by exquisite art or engine hath made rare in stuff, form or motion; whatsoever singularity chance and the shuffle of things hath produced; whatsoever Nature hath wrought in things that want life and may be kept; shall be sorted and included. In idealized ways, these cabinets were depicted by a succession of artists, and most ardently by Flemish and Dutch Golden Age painters such as members of the multi-generational Francken dynasty and David Teniers the Younger. There are notable differences between gallery paintings of the seventeenth century and Morse’s painting (besides the fact that the earlier paintings are obviously much better): the people depicted in the former are engaged with the art on the walls and tables through collection and admiration, not replication. As (old) Europeans living in an age of confidence–they probably thought they would always be surrounded by art: the gallery of Archduke Wilhelm, in the Teniers painting below, was newly-assembled following a bout of Swedish looting during the Thirty Years’ War (and many of these same painting came from the estates of English Royalists confiscated by Oliver Cromwell!). Morse’s painting seems more about capturing and transmitting art and culture–by whatever means possible– from the Old World to the New, which seems very appropriate for the inventor of his namesake code.

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Happy Thanksgiving

I’m hosting Thanksgiving this year, an intimidating task for me, and I’ve been too busy with my various preparations to come up with a proper (thematic, colorful, aspirationally interesting?) post for the holiday, but I did want to say Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, however briefly. May we all have the calm and the company to reflect on what we are truly grateful for in this…..interesting year. Back in a few days with something more substantive, and leaving you with a few images for the day: Trinity (helpfully) serving as a centerpiece until I came up with something more stable, the glittery squirrels I seem to be placing everywhere (tacky I know, but I just love them), and Governor Belcher’s 1730 Thanksgiving Proclamation for Massachusetts Bay. What were our predecessors thankful for? Peace, a good harvest, and the diminution of pirates and smallpox. The basics.

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Courtesy Winterthur Museum Collections.

    I have therefore thought fit, with the advice of His Majesty’s Council, to appoint THURSDAY the TWELFTH of NOVEMBER next, a day of Public THANKSGIVING throughout this Province, hereby exhorting both ministers and people in their several assemblies, religiously to solemnize the same by offering up their sincere and grateful PRAISES for the manifold blessings and favors which GOD of His undeserved goodness hath conferred upon us; PARTICULARLY, in continuing to us the invaluable life of Our Sovereign Lord the KING, with His Royal Consort Our Most Gracious QUEEN, His Royal Highness the PRINCE OF WALES, and the rest of the royal issue; In succeeding His Majesty’s wise councils FOR RESTORING and establishing the peace of EUROPE; In prolonging the ecclesiastical and civil privileges of this people; In granting his gracious conduct and assistance in the administration of the civil government of this Province; In restoring HEALTH to many of our towns lately visited with a contagious distemper [small pox], and preserving others from the infection thereof; In maintaining our PEACE with the Indian Natives, and granting us a plentiful HARVEST, in giving success to our MERCHANDISE AND FISHERY, and protecting it from the insults and ravages of PIRATES, with other numberless instances of the Divine beneficence: And all servile labor is prohibited on the said Day.


Fantastic Beasts (and where to find them)

When I need to find fantastic beasts I know precisely where to go: straight to Conrad Gessner’s five-volume Historiae animalium (1551-1558) or to its English variant, Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), both of which are illustrated extensively and digitized. Why do I need fantastic beasts? Principally for teaching purposes: there’s nothing better to illustrate the sense of the wonder of discovery in the early modern era along with a fledgling (in Topsell’s case very fledgling) scientific empiricism. Both authors describe what they have seen or heard about these beasts, and that is the difference between the early modern approach and the modern one: hearing about things seems to be just as valid as seeing them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Consequently a unicorn can be just as real as a rhinoceros, as neither had actually been seen. What I generally do with the images and descriptions of these texts is examine very real, even mundane animals side by side with more exotic, fantastic ones, and compare the details of their descriptions: a more scientific empiricism is evident in descriptions of dogs, horses and sheep, while the much shorter chapters on camels and lions and tigers–and their more mysterious but fellow four-footed beasts–rely on ancient “authorities” and “sundry learned” authors. We do not see the hearsay purged from natural history texts until the later seventeenth and eighteenth century, and thereafter fantastic beasts roam into the realm of the imagination.

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You can see how dependent Topsell (bottom) was on Gessner (top) in their comparative illustrations of camels, along with many of the other beasts–both common and exotic–featured in both books. Gesner’s peacock is particularly beautiful, and he also includes a North American turkey.

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Beavers are very interesting to both Gessner and Topsell, as the European beaver had become very scarce, if not extinct, in the region and its American counterparts were the source of both valuable fur and a musk-like substance called castoreum, which is secreted by both male and female beavers every spring. Gessner and Topsell both feature rather ferocious beavers, and the latter added an alternate view exposing the supposed source of castoreum.

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Now for some truly fantastic beasts: the unicorns of Gessner and Topsell, a satyr from Gessner, along with some sea monsters and a seven-headed hydra.

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Topsell’s Baboon looks rather wondrous/monstrous, but his manticore, a composite beast of ancient Persian origin, and the legendary lamia, a vampire-like siren, represent a more threatening form of hybrid monster. Here be dragons and sea serpents too, as well as beast from the New World (where wonders abound) called the Su, all part of God’s plan.

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topsell-su1 Illustrations from Conrad Gessner’s  Historiae animalium (1551-1558) and Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), National Library of Medicine and University of Houston.


Enduring Edifices

I’m really glad that I’ve made my blog relatively apolitical, and I’m equally grateful that I am not an American historian: I wouldn’t want to be in a position to explain what happened yesterday. Hopefully my words and images can serve as a distraction for some, as they do for me. Along with history in general, I’ve always found historical architecture comforting in times of stress: older buildings seem like testaments to both what we have achieved and what we can endure. Yesterday was a beautiful and bright election day, when anything seemed possible. After my husband and I voted in the parish hall of one Salem Catholic church (St. John the Baptist) we made our way down Federal Street (past the newly-refurbished Probate Court, which was quite literally shining in the sun) to another parish, St. James, where he is working on the restoration and conversion of the former rectory and convent into condominiums. The rectory building is unique in that it was built (in 1889) by the parish priest, the Reverend John. J. Gray, for his residence and then later donated to the archdiocese. As you can see it is a huge Italianate building which has been taken down to the studs: the banisters, mantles, and floors are all wrapped up in protective materials and the doors and windows are all being restored to their original condition. Lots of Eastlake details. The same developers have purchased the 1878 building across the street, which served as a convent for the Sisters of Notre Dame, an order that joined the parish in 1864. I could only explore the front foyer of this huge building, which appears to have been stripped of much of its interior detail (not to mention its radiators) as it was utilized in an institutional capacity in recent years. It is also Italianate (which must have been Father Gray’s favorite style–I certainly came away with a lot of admiration for his ability to expand his parish’s physical presence during his tenure), with a mansard roof.

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The newly-published Probate Court and Registry of Deeds building on Federal Street, and further down, nos. 161 (the Rectory) and 162 (the Convent).

Sometimes I worry that too many of Salem’s historic buildings have been carved up into condominiums, but not with these two structures, as they are very large in scale and physical space–much too big for one family or even two or three in the case of the rectory and four or more in the case of the convent–and quite neglected. The units built within both will be comparatively large, and through their conversion both buildings will (hopefully) endure for many more years to come.

Inside the Rectory: first, second, and third floor views, and an exterior side door to the basement.

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The Convent: front foyer, looking up–hope to get into the rest of the building at a later time. I love radiators.

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Electoral Ephemera Euphoria/Escapism

I’m still very preoccupied with the large collection of nineteenth-century ballots at the American Antiquarian Society: if I had time I would drive down to Worcester and immerse myself in the real paper; because I do not, I have to settle for digital immersion. Every little slip/image fascinates me–I woke up at 4:00 the night before last thinking why is the image of an upside-down chained beast associated with the movement AGAINST the incorporation of Boston as a city in 1822? Would livestock no longer be able to roam freely on the Common? That was my 4:00 am thought, but in the light of morning I realized the image probably had a more metaphorical meaning.

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I still don’t know what the symbol of the chained beast means, but these particular ballot tickets represent the failing side: Boston did indeed become a city in 1822. So today, I’m going to focus on referenda, something we should all be familiar with as I believe nearly every state has ballot questions to decide on Election Day. Here in Massachusetts, our measures pertain to: 1) slot licenses; 2) charter schools; 3) the containment of farm animals (here we are, back to the chained beast!); and 4) recreational use of marijuana. In the nineteenth century, it was all about municipal incorporations, infrastructure, and above all, liquor. And taxation, of course: you know that old saying about death and taxes.

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Some of these private party tickets offered a public service by reminding voters when the polls were open–and where they where. Vote early [vote often?] and vote no.

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This last ticket obvious refers to the presidential election rather than a contemporary referendum, but I had to include it because it’s just so great: eminent historian George Bancroft weighing in on the [1864?] election. Imagine a world where an historian’s words could sway votes!

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All images courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society: their digitized collection of nineteenth-century electoral ballots and ephemera can be found here.


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