Category Archives: History

Red Roofs

Patriots Day 2019 was not a very enjoyable day. It was certainly not as dreadful as Patriots Day 2013, but still a frightful day. I woke up to thunder, looked out at the dreary rain, made the decision not to drive to Lexington so I could walk the Battle Road as is my custom, did some errands, and then turned on the radio to hear the Marathon results and instead heard “Notre Dame is burning”.  And that was the story for the rest of the day: listening, watching (big mistake but I could not look away), and (towards the end of the day) drinking. I admire all historical architecture, but Gothic cathedrals are more than mere buildings: they symbolize the aspirations and abilities of an era and a civilization. Very early in my teaching career, I essentially turned my medieval survey into an “Age of Cathedrals” course, and I still teach through and around and with these monuments. At first reference that might sound like an approach that is simplistic and old-fashioned, but for me the cathedral has always been both a symbol and a conduit, connecting one to all the layers of medieval history, not just religious, but social, economic, political, cultural, and of course technological. Cathedrals can open up minds too: especially the minds of college students who are predisposed to think of the Middle Ages as merely “dark”,  and “backward”. It’s impossible to look at a cathedral and not be impressed by its creators, or maintain a presentist perspective.

aptopix-france-notre-dame-fire-20190415155934-12400800AP Photo by Thibault Camus

As the day wore on, I realized I was getting upset as much by the commentary and coverage as by the incessant fire. There was a lot of speculation, and little confirmation, and of course we could see the fire burning and burning and burning. So I turned everything off and went to bed. The next day, the fire had finally been stopped and Notre Dame was still standing: its roof and spire were gone but the bulk of its early Gothic expanse and vaulting, its bell towers, and even its trio of rose windows had been saved. I welcome the full report on the fire’s causes and damage because there is still a lot of contradictory information out there, but I learned a lot from a few select Twitter threads that found their way into my feed, mostly through architectural historians: about the protocol followed by the Parisian firefighters, put in place after the last time Notre Dame was ravaged during the French Revolution and sustained through two world wars, about the oak trees planted at Versailles after the last restoration of Notre Dame’s roof 160 years ago, and about the human chain created to rescue its treasures, with a fire-fighting chaplain serving as the essential link.  The combination of a still-standing Notre Dame, human heroism, and the resolute statement of President Macron reassured me quite a bit (French cathedrals have been owned by the state since 1905), but more than anything I am hopeful because of history: cathedrals were built over generations, in fits and starts, many sustained fire damage as well as human assaults but survived and were rebuilt. There are several precedents for the restoration of Notre Dame, but I think the most inspirational examples must be Reims Cathedral, which sustained devastating damage during World War I, and the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Nantes, which was bombed heavily during World War II and severely damaged by a fire in 1972.

Cathedral CollageThe Cathedrals of Reims and Nantes in their present glorious condition. Photographs by Nicolas Janberg for Structurae.

The restoration of Reims, the most royal of French cathedrals, was an epic achievement. It sustained intense shelling by German forces outside of the city in September of 1914, setting fire to the wood scaffolding that was in place, and then the cathedral’s oak roof, which caved into the nave below. Reims lay in a state of semi-ruin for the rest of the war, and was bombed again in 1917 and 1918, thus attaining its status as a “martyred cathedral”. I inherited a book from my great aunt by the American illustrator George Wharton Edwards titled Vanished Halls & Cathedrals of France which was published at the height of the war. Reims is on the cover and inside, looking beautiful in his pre-war paintings, but the text reads like a eulogy: the catastrophe is so unbelievable that one cannot realize it…….Reims can never be restored to what it was before the bombardment. Let it rest thus….a sacred ruin—the scarred, pierced heart of France. He goes on a bit later: Let it remain….the living, standing record of an infamous crime. Consumed by fire, soaked in blood, Reims, which crowned and sheltered a hundred kings, has passed. Deleta est Carthago.

Vanished Halls

Edwards Collage

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Vanished Halls Reims PC

The burning of Reims Cathedral after the severe bombardment by the Germans, 17-24 September 1914Edwards’ book and paintings; two 1914 postcards; Charles W. Wyllie, The Burning of Reims Cathedral after the Severe Bombardment of the Germans, 17-24 September 1914. From The Sphere, 7 December 1914.

Edwards would not get his wish. Reims would be restored after the war (with a good deal of American money) and it served as the site of the signing of the peace treaty which ended the second World War in Europe in May of 1945. Only a year before, and more than 300 miles to the east, the city and cathedral of Nantes sustained significant damage from Allied bombing in June of 1944, but the more serious threat to the latter was the fire that broke out in January of 1972 related to ongoing restoration on the roof. Indeed, the post-war restoration was barely completed by that time according to most accounts, but the “resuscitation” following the fire was shorter, and detailed in a wonderful short video you can view here. President Macron’s five-year plan is perhaps ambitious, but not impossible: it’s been done before.

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[The Angel of the Resurrection on the Roof of Notre-Dame, Paris]Nantes Cathedral in flames on the night of January 28, 1972, Museum of firefighters Loire-Atlantique. Hervio Fund; Charles Nègre, Angel of Resurrection at Notre Dame, 1853, Getty Museum.


A Cabinetmaker is Captured

Even though a Salem company of militia men did not make it to Lexington and Concord in time to participate in the battles that commenced the Revolutionary War (I still can’t figure out what Timothy Pickering was doing on that day), there are still some important connections and contributions to note on this Patriots Day, including the publication of one of its most essential primary sources, the coffin-embellished broadside Bloody Butchery of the British Troops: or, The Runaway Fight of the Regulars, by Salem printer Ezekiel Russell. Russell documents the death of Salem’s one casualty of the day, Benjamin Pierce, but a source from years later established another important connection: Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle of Lexington, on the Morning of the 19th of April, 1775, published for the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the battles in 1825. Phinney took oral histories from participants who were still alive, published in the form of sworn affidavits in the book’s appendix, and the very first account was that of Elijah Sanderson, who was at the end of a long career as one of Salem’s most successful cabinetmakers. Sanderson’s testimony was given just weeks before his death in early 1825, and published not only in Phinney’s account but also in the regional newspapers that year, when historical consciousness of the importance of the Battles of Lexington and Concord seems quite well-developed.

Sanderson Phinney

Sanderson Essex Register Essex Register

Elijah Sanderson and his younger brother Jacob were among the most prolific and consequential cabinetmakers of Salem, who spread the city’s craftsmanship and style far beyond New England through an expansive export trade in alliance with their partner Josiah Austin and several prominent merchants and shipowners.  Through their collaborative business, and with half-shares in several Salem ships themselves, they sent cargoes of furniture to the Southern seaports, the West Indies, Africa, and India in a series of voyages that are well-documented in the Phillips Library and have been analyzed by scholars Mabel M. Swan, Thomas Hamilton Ornsbee, and more recently, Dean Lahikainen. Their success was clearly tied to Salem, but in 1775 the Sanderson brothers were living in Lexington, in the home of their elder brother Samuel, when Elijah found himself swept up in the events of April 18 and 19, for a time even finding himself in the captive company of Paul Revere! I love his testimony because it rings true in its lack of heroism and drama: it must be true because it is recounted in such a detailed yet mundane manner! The Sanderson house was on the main road from Boston, and relatively late on the evening of the 18th Elijah noted the passing of a party of British officers “all dressed in blue wrappers”. He decided to discern what was up, so made his way to John Buckman’s tavern where an older gentleman encouraged him to “ascertain the object” of these officers, so he did so, on a borrowed horse in the company of two other comrades. There was general concern that the British were after John Hancock and John Adams, who had been “boarding some time at Parson Clark’s”. Elijah’s party was stopped by nine British officers a few miles down the road in Lincoln, and they were detained and examined, along with two other “prisoners”, a one-handed pedlar named Allen and Col. Paul Revere. After “as many question as a Yankee could” ask, the entire party mounted and made their way to Lexington, where the British officer named Loring observed “The bell’s a ringing, and the town’s alarmed, and you’re all dead men” but let them go, after cutting the bridle and girth of Elijah’s horse. We hear no more of Revere, but Elijah made his way to the tavern in Lexington and there promptly fell asleep! Yes, he fell asleep in the middle of the opening act of the American Revolution.

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Sanderson Lexington The taproom of the Buckman Tavern, where Elijah Sanderson fell asleep by the fire; early 19th century view of the Battle of Lexington, New York Public Library Digital  Collections.

Well not for long: Elijah awoke to the sound of drums and ran out to Lexington Common where he fell in, without a gun, but then stepped out “reflecting I was of no use” to become the perfect eyewitness bystander of the Battle of Lexington. He heard the British commander say “Fire” and then all was smoke and fire. After the British left for Concord, Elijah ran home to get his gun,, but it was gone (his brother took it) and so he returned to the center of town to “see to the dead”. A few hours later he witnessed the retreat of the British from Concord, firing houses as they made their way back to Boston. He ends his testimony with two statements that he clearly wanted to get on the record: 1) he spoke with one casualty of the day several days prior: a certain Jonas Parker who “expressed his determination never to run from before the British troops” and; 2) his wayward musket was still in his possession, and his brother “told me he fired at the British with it” on that fateful day. What a life this man led: his experience in Lexington, combined with his brilliant Salem career, could provide the basis for an absolutely amazing book. Reading between the lines of the Sanderson scholars, I’m guessing it was the younger brother, Jacob, who was the better craftsman and workshop manager, while Elijah was the traveling dealer and supercargo, with the responsibility of selling their wares up and down several coasts. Jacob died in 1810, and Elijah carried on through a series of less profitable (or at less amenable if the legal notices are any indication) partnerships. Lexington pops up in each and every obituary notice of this memorable man.

Sanderson Label Winterthur

Sanderson Collage

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Sanderson Salem Observer Feb 19 1825

“E & J Sanderson” label on a Salem-made pembroke table, Winterthur collections; Sanderson pieces from the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Christie’s Auctions, and the State Department; The Elijah & Jacob Sanderson House on Federal Street, 1783 (a very rare— I think—back-to-back double house which received Historic Salem Inc.’s first plaque!); just one Sanderson obituary.


Fabricating Revere’s Ride

Because of his entrepreneurial engravings, his silverwork, portraits of him and by him, his storied ride, and his boundless brand, Paul Revere as always been the most material of our Founding Fathers: he didn’t just act, he produced, and after his legendary life was over he continued to be a focus and force of production. As we head into (a rather early) Patriots Day weekend, I am thinking about Revere, mostly in reference to Grant Wood’s 1931 painting The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, which supposedly aims to highlight the mythology overwhelming the event from the publication of Longfellow’s 1863 poem. The painting is so very accessible, however, that I fear that it simply reinforces Revere’s singular ride, or it has just become an aesthetic object: Wood himself transformed the image into a textile design (in which the rider gets lost in the landscape) for the Association of American Artists, and now you can even buy laminated placemats of it on Etsy! Revere the Midnight Rider was featured in a design by Anton Refregier in another “Pioneer Pathways” design, issued in several colorways by Riverdale Fabrics in 1952. A few decades earlier, Walter Mitschke also included Paul Revere’s ride in drawings for his “Early America” series of textile designs produced by R. Mallinson and Company.

Revere Wood

Reveres Ride of Paul Revere Textile

Revere the Rider Pioneer Pathways

Revere Red

Reveres Ride Mallinson

Grant Wood, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Textile designs by Grant Wood and Anton Refregier for the Association of American Artists, produced by Riverdale Fabrics as part of the “Pioneer Pathways” series, 1952, Cooper Hewitt Museum; Walter Mitschke’s drawings for the Mallinson Company, 1927, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 

Obviously Paul Revere’s Ride is larger than the man himself in terms of its myriad representations in text, image, and fabric, but I think the most effective displays are those that were created close to home: Robert Reid’s 1904 mural in the State House, the iconic statue of Cyrus Dallin, the Paul Revere pottery produced by the Saturday Evening Girls Club, all those calendars issued by another institution with a founding- father-affiliation, the John Hancock Life Insurance Company. For a more updated presentation of the route rather than the ride, there is an exhibition of drawings by artist and illustrator Fred Lynch on view now at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library in Lexington (which used to be called the National Heritage Museum) titled “Paul Revere’s Ride Revisited”.

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Reveres Ride Tile MFA

Revere Calendars

Robert Reid mural in the Massachusetts State House, 1904, Caproni Brothers plaster bas-relief sculpture, Skinner Auctions, Tile by Paul Revere Pottery of the Saturday Evening Girls Club, 1917 (decorated by Sara Galner), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; 1889 & 1903 calendars by the John Hancock Life Insurance Company, Historic New England.


Salem 1897

Salem 1897: William McKinley was President of the United States, Roger Wolcott was Governor of Massachusetts, and the Salem Evening News published an Illustrated History of Salem and its Environs, which includes photographs of many mustachioed men, their residences and places of business, and some of the city’s more notable public landmarks. Despite its title, it’s not really a guide to historic Salem (although there is a little narrative history of the city from its founding) but rather a visual “state of the city” in that very year, from a decidedly commercial point of view. Sometimes it is interesting to just swoop in and look at the lay of the land of a particular place and time, so that’s what I’m doing today. I don’t believe that there is a single featured woman in the entire publication: one would think the city was made up of white men except for sights of women and children in the distance: waiting for a train or the beach. And while we see many exterior views of factories—particularly tanneries—we don’t get to peer inside and see any work being done, by men or women.  Even with these limitations, it’s an interesting book, especially for one (such as myself) who is interested in built history: it allows us to see Lafayette Street before the Fire, a very busy Bridge Street, and many lost churches—and the engraved illustrations are particularly nice.

Salem 1897 Cover

Salem 1897 Courthouses

Salem 1897 Derby

Salem 1897 Jail

Lost Churches

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Salem 1897 Mercantile National Bank 225 Essex @ 225 Essex Street.

It’s always interesting to see anachronistic trades and businesses in publications such as this as well: anything to do with horses, all those tanneries and factories, lead works, house movers (moving houses rather than the contents of houses): there were two in Salem!  This was a city full of houses of worship and work, many stores, and many banks–and not so many restaurants. The usual public institutions are featured as well: I think we’ve all seen enough old photographs of the Salem Public Library, the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum, various schools, and our famous, beloved Gothic fortress of a train station, so I have foregone those images in favor of less-broadcast ones here. Salem appears to have been thriving in 1897, though somewhat sparsely-populated in this (re)presentation—except for all those mustachioed men!

Salem 1897 37 Bridge Street

Salem 1897 Parker

Salem 1897 Store

Salem 1897 Almys

Salem 1897 Storage

Salem 1897 Lynch on Skerry

Salem 1897 Forest River

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Salem 1897 Fairmount Street

Salem 1897 Gorman

Just a few of the businessmen featured: Messers Almy, Bigelow, Washburn & the three Vaughn brothers.

Mustache Men


The Forces Align

This past weekend was happening; the streets of Salem were full of tourists and the historical events in which I was somewhat involved came off very well: the Salem Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall and the “Salt Cod for Silver” symposium at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Clever costumes and a joyful spirit imbued the former, while a packed house turned out for the latter—for fish, and a deep dive into this often-overlooked Atlantic trade which brought a lot of wealth to Salem and the North Shore. The Resistance Ball is kind of important to me for several reasons, so I’m very grateful to everyone who made it a success. It benefited Hamilton Hall, a beautiful historic hall with a slight endowment that has to work for a living: the more support the Hall gets from its fundraising activities the more it can support the community (as for example, by providing its ballroom to Salem High School for the Junior Prom free of charge on Friday night) and the fewer weddings it has to host. I live right next to the Hall and I was president of its Board of Trustees for six years. But more than all of that, this particular event represents a relatively unique attempt to showcase the comprehensive and the progressive forces in Salem’s history, rather than one singular dark event that serves (and provides) the basis for constant exploitation. This is a city in which the commercial symbol of that exploitation is situated in its chief city square, so an event that celebrates resistance to: British rule in particular, imperialism in general, segregation, slavery, gender and racial discrimination, inequality, let alone Star Wars, is very welcome. Hester Prynne was in attendance as well as a lightsaber-wielding Rey. There is always some power force which provokes resistance, so how universal is this theme?

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Forces 14Tried to get more juxtapositions of historical and modern dress but what can I say? I was enjoying the party! Above is my beautiful friend and a very talented seamstress, Louise Brown, in her own creation of course. Below is our committee (with a few conspicuous absences) with chair Michael Selbst in the middle, to the right of me! And then we have some swag…..thanks to all our sponsors too!

Resistance Ball Committee

Forces Swag

Saturday night to Sunday afternoon: from festivities to fish! Salem is so fortunate to have a National Park in its midst: the Salem Maritime National Historic Site is always the perfect host, the perfect partner, the sole steward of our maritime history with the retreat of the PEM. The symposium went off beautifully and I was particularly interested to see some maps I had never seen before in the presentation by Karen Alexander of the University of New Hampshire (including a 1774 map from the British Museum which shows a very-populated and strategic Salem). It’s always interesting to hear about how port cities actually work, and I thought that Xabier Lamikiz of the University of the Basque Country explained the inner (and outer) workings of Bilbao really well. It was kind of odd to be staring at a screen with sources from the Phillips Library while the Salem storage facility for the same was being dismantled just next door, but I doubt very many people in the crowd were aware of that dissonance.

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Forces AlignScenes from the Salt Cod for Silver Symposium, and the demolition of the Stacks next door.


Mirror of History

Louis XIV famously once said Fashion is the mirror of history but as we all know, sometimes mirrors show us things we don’t want to see. I was looking around for some inspiration for my Resistance Ball dress, when I discovered the work of an amazing Haitian-born, Brooklyn-based artist named Fabiola JeanLouis, a photographer, a stylist, a (paper)dressmaker, and a “maker” who seems to be able to embrace the past, present and future in her work, sometimes simultaneously. Her breakthrough exhibition, Rewriting History (2016), took my breath away. Look at this “mirror image”, in which the embroidery design on the back of the embellished dress of “Madame Beauvoir” mirrors the scars from the scourged back of the once-enslaved man named Gordon, displayed in a famous photograph by McPherson & Oliver that went viral during the Civil War.

Fabiola Jean Louis MADAME BEAUVOIR'S PAINTINGMadame Beavoir’s Painting

The juxtaposition of the very beautiful (women, dresses, surroundings) with very ugly historical events is jarring in these compositions, but also remarkably effective: you can’t look away. According to Ms. Jean-Louis, it’s not just the medium and the message but also the material: the paper gown sculptures are transformed in a way that allows me to represent layers of time and the events of the past as they intrude upon the present. Through the materials, I suggest that although we cannot change the past, we can act to change the present, as we activate the memories, visions, and legacies of our ancestors. Rewriting History seeks to reconnect viewers to the past so that parallels with current events are amplified.

Fabiola Jean Louis Madam LeRoy

Fabiola Jean Louis Rest in Peace

Fabiola Jean Louis Revolutionary-Dress-Top Madame Leroy and Rest in Peace; Revolutionary Dress Top (detail).

The beautiful Madame Leroy in her exquisite eighteenth-century gown with a stomacher (locket? window?) encasing a lynched man, an image which is repeated even more starkly in the model-less Revolutionary Dress. Less straightforward, at least for me, is Marie Antoinette is Dead, modeled on François Boucher’s portrait of a reclining Madame de Pompadour, but the updated subject seems to be a Voodoo Queen in a rococo dress. There are no fashion victims among Jean-Louis’s subjects: only powerful women, and heroines such as Mathilda Taylor Beasley: born into slavery in Georgia in 1832, she somehow escaped, and operated a secret school for African-American children in Savannah in the 1850s—a very dangerous act at that time and place. I cannot help but think of Charlotte Forten Grimké, a contemporary of Beasley’s and Salem’s first African-American educator, who ascended to that profession under far more advantageous circumstances in the North. Beasley is memorialized in Passing and Violin of the Dead, and now I know her name. I really can’t discern whether I am reacting to these works as a cultural consumer or an educator.

Fabiola Jean Louis Marie Antoinette is Dead

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Fabiola Jean Louis CollageMarie Antoinette is Dead; Boucher’s Portrait of Madame de Pompadour (Neue Pinakothek, Munich); Passing and Violin of the Dead.  All photographs by Fabiola Jean-Louis with more + commentary at her website: www.fabiolajeanlouis.com .


Codfish Aristocracy

Growing up in York, Maine, my focus was increasingly over the river and out of state once I hit my teens, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a larger town with a mall, movie theaters, downtown shops, and lots and lots of restaurants. As I’ve said before, I think I ended up in Salem in large part because of its similarity to Portsmouth, and its greater proximity to Boston (now Salem surely has more restaurants, but fewer shops). For some reason which I can’t remember, my favorite restaurant in Portsmouth has always been The Oar House, which still exists, but a close second was The Codfish Aristocracy, which is long gone. I had very little historical curiosity then, as well as very little regard for American history, so I never questioned the name; only later did I delve into the origins of this interesting idiom. Since I have cod on the brain this week, I decided to delve into it a bit more, and of course, in this year of discovering all sorts of legacies of slavery, here is another one. I think there are several connections, actually. As a general reference to the New England aristocracy of families whose “new” wealth was based on the Atlantic fisheries and trade to both the West Indies and Europe, the term predates the nineteenth century; after all the original “sacred cod” was placed in the old Colonial State House in the early eighteenth century and the present one dates from 1798. Salem even has a claim for the origins of the term, based on the cod embellishment on the stairs in Colonel Benjamin Pickman’s beautiful Georgian mansion on Essex Street, built in 1756. A lithograph of this house was included in the materials chosen by a special Essex Institute committee to represent Salem at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, when it was “still standing though defaced by shops in front. It is said that the term “Codfish Aristocracy” arose from the fact that the end of each stair in the hall of this was house was ornamented with gilded codfish, Colonel Pickman’s fortune being derived from the fisheries”.

Cod in State House Griffin DC

Pendleton PickmanArthur Griffin photograph of the Sacred Cod in the State House, 1950s; The Pickman House by Pendleton’s Lithography, Digital Commonwealth & Boston Athenaeum.

New England cod fed both enslaved Africans and free Europeans and thus created great wealth in New England, but the derisive use of the term “Codfish Aristocracy”, in reference to the ostentatious and vulgar display of that wealth, comes later, in the 1840s and 1850s, and most prominently in the debate over slavery. He was not the originator of the phrase, but when Senator Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina remarked that We should regard it somewhat strange if we should require a codfish aristocracy to keep us in order in the midst of a speech on the floor of the Senate in the summer of 1850, it seemed to hit a chord. As a leading pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist voice, Butler drew heated criticism from Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who indicted Butler as both “the Don Quixote of slavery,” and an admirer of “the harlot, Slavery” in his own Senate speech in May of 1856: in retaliation Butler’s cousin Preston S. Brooks responded by caning Sumner on the Senate floor days later, instigating his three-year incapacitation. In the following year, after Senator Clement Claiborne Clay introduced a bill repealing all laws allowing bounties to vessels employed in the fisheries under the rationale that 25 states were made to pay tribute to the Codfish Aristocracy of a mere six, papers in Massachusetts opined that “southern hatred of New England” was his true motivation.

Somewhere between the absolute disdain conveyed by the southern use of the term and the occasional pride displayed in the North was the New York attitude: more mockery than condemnation. There are three caricatures of the Codfish Aristocracy that represent this perspective well in the collection of the Library Collection of Philadelphia: literal representations are always an effective form of censure!

Codfish LC

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Codfish Aristocracy LC 3Three Codfish Aristocrats: McAllister Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia, c. 1840-1880.


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