Category Archives: History

City of Signs

I have just returned from Raleigh, NC where I attended my stepson’s graduation and made my usual mad dash around the city’s historical sites and streets when not attending attendant graduation festivities! I’ve been to the Raleigh-Durham area many times, but I’ve never really focused on the downtown area of the capital city, so this time I was determined to do so. This region has seen dynamic development for quite some time, and prior visits had given me an impression of sprawling suburbia (apart from the college campuses) which I knew wasn’t entirely accurate. So I spent some time downtown, in the historic Oakwood neighborhood, and at a few historic house museums. In the city center, the attempt to preserve and blend older and new architecture was very apparent, but more than anything I was impressed by the historic markers which are everywhere. At the moment, I’m obsessed with Salem’s inconsistent signage, which is probably one reason Raleigh’s uniform and comprehensive signage was so noticeable to me, and to complete the comparison, I also noted two other essentials of Raleigh’s public history presentation not present in Salem: 1) historic walking tours; and 2) a really great little city historical museum: the City of Raleigh (COR) Museum. Once again I am struck by the amazing commitment that other towns and cities have made towards protecting and presenting their unique heritage, which we seem to take for granted here in Salem.

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20190607_081758Signs everywhere in Raleigh, which has held on to its state heritage markers (even for sites that no longer exist) and added lots more.

I loved the historic Oakwood neighborhood with its mixture of low-slung embellished bungalows and high-style Victorian mansions, but there are some preserved nineteenth-century residences in the immediate downtown as well, several converted to commercial or government uses. The Oakwood neighborhood is apparently not only Raleigh’s largest historic residential district, but North Carolina’s largest “intact 19th century residential neighborhood”, so it’s pretty specialEvery house and garden seemed to be in pristine condition; every porch perfectly positioned. Beyond the Oakwood neighborhood is the historic Oakwood cemetery, which I only had time to run through, and there is a slightly more modest neighborhood of shotgun houses (including some interesting new construction) running alongside that.

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20190609_104252The Heck-Andrews House (under renovation), Polk House, and Executive Mansion in the city center, and Oakwood beyond—and beyond Oakwood.

The oldest houses in Raleigh are two eighteenth-century houses which are now house museums: the Joel Lane House (1769; owned and operated by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America) and the Mordecai House (1785, owned and operated by the City of Raleigh). They are connected, because Joel Lane, a very important figure in the foundation of Raleigh, built the Mordecai (which is pronounced MordeKEY down there) house for his son Henry. There were interesting interpretations in both houses, with domestic life as a primary focus in both, but as the Mordecai House was situated in the midst of an extensive plantation there was more consideration of both slavery and the estate’s role in the development of Raleigh in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Mordecai House is now in the midst of a city park, and additional historic structures have been moved to the site, including the birthplace of Andrew Johnson, about whom I learned a lot. He is one of the the three presidents “claimed” by North Carolina, along with James K.  Polk and Andrew Jackson (what a trio! I can’t help but be a bit more proud of the Adamses and JFK from Massachusetts). While I love the Colonial Dames, I do think they tend to be a bit too dependent on plastic food in their houses, and I am remain a bit confused about the Mordecai family’s connections to the small Jewish community in early nineteenth-century North Carolina.

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20190608_112339Exteriors and Interiors of the Lane and Mordecai Houses + their gardens and the Andrew Johnson birthplace, adjacent to Mordecai.

I really want to give a shout-out to the City of Raleigh Museum, which presented the city’s history in professional and creative ways while focusing on the connections between the past, the present, and the future. It is: right downtown, in the center of everything, free, designed beautifully, completely engaged and engaging. If it were possible, I would love to entice our Mayor and City Council down there so they could see how powerful a real museum of Salem history could be! The museum utilized several different interpretive strategies and media in its presentations: permanent installations which presented an overview of Raleigh’s history around different themes with objects, texts and videos, a revolving spotlight on collection items, and temporary exhibits on topical themes connected to what is going on in Raleigh right now. I was so impressed, and am very envious.

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20190607_140010The City of Raleigh (COR) Museum: a must-visit spot; this last question is existential!

And finally, a food footnote, because food seems to be at the center of every thriving city, and Raleigh is no exception. I am no foodie (although I do appreciate a well-crafted cocktail), but even I was blown away by my meal (and my drinks) at one of Ashley Christensen’s four (soon to be five) Raleigh restaurants: Death and Taxes. Christensen is this year’s James Beard award winner for outstanding chef, and just based on this one experience, I can see why: beautiful restaurant, beautiful food. The food trucks were lined up along Fayetteville Street for the monthly Food Truck Rodeo yesterday, ending our visit on a very lively note.

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20190609_123009Death and Taxes and my companions’ food truck choices, including meatloaf-on-a-stick!


Salem as America’s Attic

I might be pushing it a bit with my title, but since I’ve returned from Winterthur earlier this Spring, I’ve been obsessed with exploring “Salem as source” for antiques and collectibles in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, when the passion for antiquing emerged. This is another avenue into Salem’s influence on the burgeoning Colonial Revival; I think its architectural influence has been established, by a succession of architects coming to town to sketch starting as early as the 1870s. It was during that Centennial decade that a group of Salem ladies put together a collection of regional “relics” for display both at the Essex Institute and the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, a visual representation and projection of “Old Salem” that was also published for a national readership in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (for January 22, 1876) .I just don’t see how items such as the baby-clothes worn by Judge Curwen who tried the Salem Witches, chalice made of the woodwork of a house still standing, which was built by Roger Williams in 1635 and is known at the Witch House, wine glass used by General Washington while in Salem, and an Elizabethan wainscot cupboard which has been stored away for the past fifty years in a barn could have failed to capture the American imagination!

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I pursued a variety of texts to support my thesis of Salem’s central role as antiques destination/influencer, including secondary texts such as Elizabeth Stillinger’s The Antiquers (1980) and Brian G. Greenfield’s Out of the Attic (2010) and texts from the first era of antiquing such as the Shackletons’ Quest of the Colonial (1907) and Walter Dyer’s Lure of the Antique (1910). I was not disappointed by either the historical or the contemporary view, and I love the older texts. Robert and Elizabeth Shackleton remark that Salem is “dear to memory, not only from its treasures of the past but from being the place where, Westerners that we at that time were, we first saw a grandfather’s clock ticking away, in a private house, in the very corner in which it had ticked through the Revolution,” and Walter Dyer’s book is filled with Salem treasures, captured by the camera of Salem’s very own Mary Harrod Northend.

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20190602_151257_20190602152523730A Treasure Trove of Silver in an old Salem house, from Walter Dyer’s Lure of the Antique (1910).

All of these texts, and others, point to several key factors which made Salem a collector’s paradise: the famous collections of individuals like Henry Fitzgilbert and George Rea Curwen and the Essex Institute, with its period rooms assembled by George Francis Dow, the photographs and texts of Frank Cousins and Miss Northend, and the perception of the sheer antiquity of the city, whether shaped by Nathaniel Hawthorne or the witch entrepreneurs, or both. In assembling his influential period rooms (largely drawn from Curwen’s bequest, and which have become historic “objects” themselves—I believe they are going to be reassembled in Plummer Hall by the PEM), Dow followed the lead of the Centennial ladies and focused on the humanity or “everyday life” of colonial dwellers, in order to enhance their accessibility. Dow clearly felt that he was in competition with more entrepreneurial purveyors of “old Salem” when he remarked in 1916 that Salem used to be viewed and “visited as a monument, a shrine—-something to be studied. Now the visitor lightly pauses, here are there, butterfly-like, or is whirled through the streets in an automobile, while on the running board a small boy “guide” delivers an extraordinary distortion of fact plentifully soused with fiction.” (Essex Institute Annual Report 1916: OMG what would he think NOW!!!). But, more visitors to Salem meant more visitors to Dow’s period rooms and historic houses at the Essex Institute, and eventually to his Pioneer Village, and to Caroline Emmerton’s House of the Seven Gables, and to Salem’s growing number of antique shops: tourism, then as now, is a double-edged sword. Periodical and ephemeral evidence points to a healthy number of antique shops in Salem in the first half of the twentieth century, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s.

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Boston_Herald_1918-01-27_27Amazing photo of a lady (perhaps Mary Harrod Northend?) at the door of the Old Bakery (before it was moved and became the John Ward House) inspecting some Old Salem wares in Dyer’s Lure of the Antique. The caption reads: “Don’t expect to buy these old treasures for a song. You are lucky to get them at all.” Once the Ward House was relocated and opened, it became the workshop of Sarah Symonds, who “perpetuated antiques” in the form of plaster-cast doorstops and mementos of famous Salem structures (Boston Herald, January 17, 1918). I think the days of buying antiques from guileless Salem homeowners were gone even by 1910, and in the next few decades the number of shops advertising in periodicals exploded.

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Antiques 1930s HNESalem Antique advertisement from the 1922 volume of the magazine Antiques, and from the collections of Historic New England.

There is one antique dealer from this era who really stands out, at least to me, but I think also in general: Miss A. Grace Atkinson, who kept a “shabby” shop at the “Old Witch House” on Essex Street right up until its conversion into the Witch House of today. Not only is Dyer’s book filled with items from the “Atkinson Collection”, but according to the long correspondence between her and Henry Francis du Pont, she was also a source for Winterthur. I think Miss Atkinson might have been the sister of James Almy’s second wife Emma, because of her residence at 395 Lafayette Street, the Colonial Revival mansion built by Mrs. Almy after the dearth of her prominent storeowner husband, but I can’t confirm that. She was by all accounts a shrewd collector and dealer, however, and did not hesitate use the witch connection to advance her business.

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wp-1559507355444.jpgAtkinson’s Advertising, and her shop on the left-hand side of the Witch House, in photographs from the New Bedford and Cambridge Historical Societies, via Digital Commonwealth; Some items from the “Atkinson Collection” in Dyer: she was particularly known for her selection of Lowestoft.


Witness Houses

I was out and about in Lexington and Concord last week as my favorite nurseries are in that area, and between bouts of perusing plants I walked around Lexington Green and along the Battle Road at the Minute Man National Historic Park. In both locales you will see eighteenth-century “witness houses” which overlooked the opening acts of the Revolutionary War and now stand as physical reminders. The National Park Service also utilizes “witness trees” to enhance historical interpretation, particularly at Civil War sites. Certainly both the houses and the trees add to the ambiance of these historic landscapes, but their roles are much more important than that. The trees might bear scars, the houses might have served as refuges or makeshift hospitals: every physical remainder is a reference point or a touchstone. One can grasp their landmark status immediately by glancing at photographic records like Alexander Gardner’s photographic sketchbooks of the Civil War, which documented the contemporary significance of the Matthews House in Manassas and the Burnside Bridge in Antietam among other structures: the house still stands as does the sycamore tree by the bridge, connecting us to the past with their very presence.

Mathews House Gardner

Stone House

Burnside Bridge

witness-tree-sycamore-burnside-bridge-antietam-620Pages from Gardner’s Sketchbook, Volume One at Duke University Library’s Digital Repository; the Stone House and Burnside Bridge at Manassas National Battlefield Park and Antietam National Battlefield.

The importance of place—both in general and in many specific instances—can also be gleaned from accounts of the long process of reconciliation and remembrance following the Civil War. The grave of Calvin Townes, a Salem shoemaker who fought and was wounded with the valiant 1st Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Heavy Artillery at Spotsylvania, drew me into the heady history of memorialization for and by these men, who lost 55 of their comrades at the “engagement” at Harris Farm on May 19, 1864, and 484 men during the entire war. The surviving members of the Regiment met annually after the war, and raised funds for a monument on the battlefield near the farmhouse which was the focus of so much of their collective remembrance. The monument was dedicated in 1901; it endures but unfortunately Harris Farm does not, despite its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places: it was purchased by a developer in 2014 and rather promptly demolished.

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1st regiment reunion at Salem Willows 1890

1st Regiment Monuments

Spotsylvania_HarrisFarmCalvin Townes of the First Regiment; the surviving Regiment at Salem Willows, 1890; Memorials at Spotsylvania and in the Essex Institute, from the History of the First Regiment of Heavy Artillery, Massachusetts Volunteers, formerly the Fourteenth Regiment of Infantry, 1861-1865 (1917); the demolished Harris Farm.

Revolutionary remembrance does not seem as intense, or we don’t have as much evidence of its expressions. Nor do we have opportunities for dramatic photographic contrasts, but the witness houses of Lexington and Concord remind us that these 1775 battles took place within a very human context—-settlements, not barren battlefields. And they also played their roles within the narrative of events. In Lexington Center the houses are privately-owned, and located around the Green; along the Battle Road they are part of the public park.

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20190528_114456The Munroe House on Lexington Green (which is presently for sale); the Smith House, Hartwell hearth and Tavern, Minute Man National Historic Park.

The term “witness” implies to something: an act or an event. Salem’s historic structures witnessed many events: the arrival of precious cargoes, military maneuvers, political parades, the progress of transportation technology, fires, men going off to war, hordes of Halloween revelers. But of course one event looms large over Salem’s long history: the Salem Witch Trials. There is only one surviving structure which “witnessed” that tragedy: the Jonathan Corwin House, better-known (unfortunately) as the Witch House. Despite Salem’s (unfortunate) dependence on the witch trade, it bears remembering that the Corwin house was not saved and restored by the City, but rather by Historic Salem, Inc., which was founded in 1944 for the purposes of saving the storied house (and its neighbor, the Bowditch House) from demolition due to the widening of Route 114, one of Salem’s major entrance corridors. After its slight relocation and restoration (or recreation? or creation?) by the Boston architect Gordon Robb, the Witch House opened to the public in 1948. Historic Salem, Inc. went on to play key roles in preventing full-scale urban redevelopment in the later 1960s and early 1970s and advocating for both preservation and sensitive redevelopment for decades—a particularly pressing responsibility now. This year marks its 75th anniversary, a notable achievement which will be celebrated this very weekend with an event at the Hawthorne Hotel. Come one and all, and congratulations to HSI!

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Witch House 1947

Witch House 1940sThe Jonathan Corwin (Witch) House, in all of its incarnations in an early 20th century postcard, Historic New England; in 1947 as restored by Gordon Robb and Historic Salem, Inc., and photographed by Harry Sampson, and in the tourist attraction in the 1950s, Arthur Griffin via Digital Commonwealth.


The War on Paper

I spend a lot of time in cemeteries all year long (well perhaps not in the depths of winter) but in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day that time intensifies: late May is characterized by that heady mix of beautiful blooms and remembrance. Salem’s two larger cemeteries, Greenlawn and Harmony Grove, are nineteenth-century “garden cemeteries” which are beautiful places to wander and to remember, as they contain graves of soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars One and Two, Korea and Vietnam. The two Salem men who were killed in Afghanistan, James Ayube and Benjamin Mejia, are buried in these cemeteries as well: the former at Harmony Grove and the latter at Greenlawn. In the center of town, Salem’s older cemeteries, at Charter, Broad and Howard Streets, contain the graves of Revolutionary War veterans, as well as those who fought in earlier colonial conflicts, and the Civil War. This is one of the more important aspects of living in an old settlement: you can feel the weight of history.

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Harmony Grove is the cemetery where you feel the weight of the Civil War the most, or the “War to Preserve the Union” as its northern combatants called it (because that is what it was). Greenlawn has a G.A.R monument and many graves of Civil War soldiers, but there is something about Harmony Grove that feels more connected to that era. There is a central circle commemorating the young Salem men that died during the war, and survivors’ graves are interspersed throughout the cemetery: the grave of Luis Emilio, the Captain of the Mass. 54th is there. He survived the assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina in 1863 and lived to tell the tale, but the grave of William P. Fabens, who died there the following year, is also at Harmony Grove.

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Stones can only tell you so much: if you want to want to know more, you need paper: the sources of the Civil War are plentiful and accessible in general but for Salem in particular, sparse, because of the removal of the Phillips Library.  With its present pledge to digitize more of its collections, this situation might change, but for now we are dependent on other repositories for glimpses of Salem’s Civil War history. Given Salem’s role as a regional center in northeastern Massachusetts, I was able to piece together a paper trail through two state digital databases, the New York Heritage and Digital Commonwealth, and a few other sources: this trail does lead us to the battlefield (or camp nearby) but is more evocative of the war at home. Salem emerges as a busy place of mobilization and recruitment, where young men from all over Essex County were mustered into service and dispatched to the major regional training camp in Lynnfield. At the beginning of the war, this is a process of enthusiastic volunteerism, but as it wears on it’s all about bounties and quotas. Massachusetts Adjutant-General William Schouler cited his own correspondence in his two-volume History of Massachusetts in the Civil War (1868) including this representative instruction to an official in Newburyport: Recruit every man you can; take him to the mustering officer in Salem and take a receipt for him. After he is mustered into United States service, you shall receive two dollars for each man. The officer will furnish transportation to Lynnfield. Work, work: for we want men badly. The correspondence between Daniel Johnson, the mustering officer and Provost Marshal in Salem who was responsible for recruiting men from Essex County in the last 18 months of the war and officials in the small town of Essex illustrates the intensifying local effort to meet quotas established by the state and federal governments.

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Civil War logistics DCRecruiting posters from 1861-1863, New York Historical Society via New York Heritage; Town of Essex Civil War records, 1864 via Digital Commonwealth.

Official records are illuminating yet necessarily focused on logistics; more intimate perspectives, bringing us closer to the camp or battlefield, can be found in diaries and journals. Two Salem soldiers recorded and projected their personal perspectives during and after the war: John Perkins Reynolds and Herbert Valentine. Reynolds (a grandson of Elijah Sanderson who was briefly detained by the British on the even of the battles of Lexington and Concord!) kept a diary of his service in the opening months of the war with the Salem Zouaves (at the Clements Library at the University of Michigan, and available here in print),  and also documented  his reminiscences of his time with the Massachusetts 19th (at the Massachusetts Historical Society). Valentine’s journals, scrapbooks, and visual impressions of the war are also in several repositories, including the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University, the Phillips Library, and the National Archives, which has digitized his watercolors of wartime scenes.

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Civil War Valentine 2Valentine’s Virginia vignettes, 1863-64, National Archives.

These are not impressions that would have been available to contemporaries, but I think people who lived during the war would have have been exposed to its images and texts every day: posters, newspapers, the daily mail. A sea of Civil War envelopes survives, emblazoned with all sorts of colorful messages: surely this must be a fraction of what was produced and disseminated. According to its finding aid (which is online), the Phillips Library has 17 boxes of Civil War envelopes! Wow—-those will make quite a splash when they come online. My very favorite example (about which I wrote a whole blog post) depicting President Lincoln as the “Union Alchemist” was printed by Salem printers G.M. Whipple and A.A. Smith: I hope that there are more examples of their clever imagery in that Rowley vault.

Civil War Envelope - C-O-53 Library Co of Philadelphia Union Alchemist

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Civil War Envelope 3Library Company of Philadelphia and Richard Frajola.

Newspaper accounts constituted a daily drumbeat and are thus too plenteous to consider here, but I did want to chart the beginnings of remembrance for this Memorial Day, so I looked at newspapers from the later 1860s and early 1870s—or so was my goal; I dug in and went quite a bit later. For the most part, the Salem story follows the national (or at least northeastern) pattern: in 1868 the first Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic declared May 30 to be Memorial Day and the Salem G.A.R obeyed his orders to the letter. I saw very few references to “Decoration Day”; Memorial Day seems to be have been the preferred designation right from the start. While local officials were invited to participate in the proceedings, the entire commemoration was a G.A.R affair until the early decades of the twentieth century. The only concerns expressed about the increasingly-ingrained “holiday” came right at its beginning and much later: an anonymous daughter of Civil War casualty expressed her concerns in 1870 that the proceedings were too commercialized, and certain members of the G.A.R leadership were profiting from supplying (see the C.H. Weber advertisement below), and much later the G.A.R itself expressed its concerns that a city-licensed circus was being allowed to operate on Memorial Day (see? protesting city-sanctioned circuses is a time-honored Salem tradition).

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Memorial Day BG Mary 26 1873

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Memorial Day 30 May 1944 BGThe evolution of Memorial Day: C.H. Webber outfits participants for the occasion, Salem Register, May 19, 1870; Boston Globe May 1873, 1923, and 1944: the last GAR members in Massachusetts, including Thomas A. Corson of Salem, who died later that year at age 103.


Looking for Daniel Bancroft

If you walk down the streets of Salem looking at house plaques bearing the date of construction and first owner, you will quickly notice that a fair number of them will read “housewright”. There seem to have been so many housewrights in Golden-Age Salem around the turn of the nineteenth century, but only one architect of note: Samuel McIntire, of course. “Architect” is a rather fluid term until the later nineteenth century when the occupation was professionalized, but I’m wondering if there were any other designers, rather than merely builders, of structures in Salem before that time. One candidate is a colleague of McIntire’s, often described as his “chief assistant” or builder, a man named Daniel Bancroft (1746-1818). We have an absolutely glowing epitaph for Bancroft from the Reverend William Bentley, following his death from typhus in 1818 at the age of 72: “the most able Architect we had. We gave more to the genius of Macintire, as a Carver, but as a practical man in every part of Carpentry in house building, I have never known Mr. B’s superior.” [Diary, IV, 6] High praise indeed, although Bentley seems to be citing Bancroft’s craftsmanship rather than his design skills, and praising McIntire for the very same reason. In any case, Bancroft is a bit elusive: not only do you have to go through McIntire to get to him, but there is also considerable confusion between Daniel Bancroft the Elder (McIntire’s Daniel) and his son, Daniel Bancroft Jr., who was also a housewright. The “Daniel Bancroft House” on River Street, for example, was the home (and presumably the work) of the younger Bancroft. Around the corner on Lynn Street—perhaps #3—was his father’s house and workshop.

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Bancroft July 1796Salem Gazette, July 1796.

The earliest “commission” I could find for Bancroft is for the construction of a new church or meeting house in 1776-77 for the Third Congregational Church, later (and now) called the Tabernacle Church, as the church which replaced the colonial construction was inspired by London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle. The Tabernacle’s records have been digitized by the Congregational Library, and among them are payments to Bancroft, specifically in terms of days of labor. Bancroft exceeds mere workman status thirteen years later in an article in the March 1790 issue of Massachusetts Magazine about the Salem meeting/courthouse at the head of Washington Street, which states that its plan “was designed by the ingenious Mr. Samuel McIntire and executed by that able architect, Mr. Daniel Bancroft.” Clearly the word is used to refer to the builder, or executor, of McIntire’s vision, and I guess we can conclude that Bancroft was just that. But he built the most elaborate buildings in the Salem of his day: not just the Tabernacle and the courthouse, but also the Assembly House and the short-lived mansion of Elias Hasket Derby, which stood on the present site of Old Town Hall for only fifteen years. And likely much more.

Bancrofts Tabernacle Church.

Bancroft Tabernacle

Bancroft Court House

Bancroft Felt Courthouse

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lost-mansion-old-shipmasters-of-salemThe Tabernacle Church of 1777-1854, from Samuel Worcester’s Memorial of the Old and New Tabernacle (1855); payments to Daniel Bancroft in the Tabernacle Church administrative records at the Congregational Library; Images of the McIntire courthouse from Massachusetts Magazine, George Washington Felt @ Peabody Essex Museum, and J.W. Barber. Drawing of the Derby Mansion from Charles E. Trow, Old Shipmasters of Salem (1905).

I’m sure that there is more evidence, material and textual, of Bancroft’s work and life; I can feel that there is a lot more to his story. If I had the time, I would: consult the McIntire papers at the Phillips Library in Rowley, explore Bancroft in records of the Symonds family of Salem, into which he married, and ascertain his possible connection (through McIntire, or alone) to the very Salemesque Thomas Symonds House in his native Reading. There is also his service in the 6th Massachusetts Regiment during the Revolutionary War to consider. For now, though, he remains an elusive figure: I couldn’t even find his gravestone in the Broad Street Cemetery where it is purported to be! There is a stone with a similar shape, but its inscription is illegible, as if symbolizing Bancroft’s ghostly presence in Salem.

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Cracking Open the Treasure Chest

There are two notable developments regarding the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), the major archival source of Salem’s history, so (fair warning) I am returning to that troublesome topic. I don’t think I’ve written about the Library and its collections since the very beginning of the semester, when I made my first trip up to Rowley: out of sight, out of mind has been one of my major concerns about the relocation of this venerable collection to this rather detached location, and that’s pretty much been the case for me. The Library has regular open hours up there, the staff is very helpful, there are many discoveries to be made, but while I’m sure it is an invaluable repository for the curators of the Museum and specialized researchers, it’s hard to see how it could develop into any sort of a community resource, despite the nature of many of its collections. The PEM (or I should say its leadership to date) has never acknowledged the historical-society-origins of its amalgamated Library, so I’m sure that’s fine with them, but they have taken several strident steps towards open access in recent weeks with the hiring of a new Head Librarian and the announcement of a digitization initiative which will roll out in several stages. Following up on their partnership with the Congregational Library, which has made some important manuscript collections accessible, there are now some very interesting printed materials available in the Internet Archive, with lots more to come, apparently.

PEM atlasmaritime1700mort_0060There is a facsimile edition, but how amazing to see the original 1693 maritime atlas of Pierre Mortier, the “most expensive sea-atlas ever published in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century” according to the eminent Dutch cartographical historian Cornelis Koeman. Stunning plates of beautiful European ships: here is a “Tartane de Pesche”.

This is wonderful: certainly the PEM should be commended for cracking open the treasure chest that is the Phillips Library but I do want to emphasize that this “opening” has been a long time coming and is as much due to outside pressures as inside initiatives. Thanks to all the people who are keeping track of these things in Salem (and to digitization), I have in my (FAT) Phillips Library file a collection of published articles in which a succession of PEM representatives made confusing claims about the museum’s progress towards making its holdings more accessible. In response to a major push-back by scholars and librarians in 2004 after Library hours and staff were reduced dramatically, the PEM indicated that increased internet offerings would compensate for the restricted access. Then-acting “Library Administrator” John R. Grimes made the egalitarian argument that “many of the people interested—or potentially interested—in historical documents are not professional researchers, but students and laypeople with regular jobs, for whom the new digitization technology and the Internet proved access to knowledge they would otherwise never see” (Northeast Regional Library Newsletter, June 2004). A decade later, Phillips Library Librarian Emeritus Sidney Berger published an update on the progress of digitization in the Winter 2014 issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazinestating that in an effort to bring the PEM’s material to a worldwide audience, during the last two years, PEM’s Phillips Library, with the assistance of a team of cataloguers, has gone from having 9 percent of its holdings to more than 90 percent digitally accessible; financial gifts from donors have made this possible. The team has undertaken a retrospective conversion of 175,000 old cataloging records into the preferred Library of Congress system and catalogued another 75,000 previously unprocessed materials. The retrospective conversion connects PEM’s vast library holdings to researchers near and far. One of the particularly gratifying aspects of this project has been to make 50,000 singular, one-of-a-kind documents that only exist in PEM’s Phillips Library Collection available online. We could all see the online catalog, a momentous achievement certainly, but where were the “50,000 singular, one-of-a-kind documents”? No one could find them, and there was also confusion among the general public about the distinction between “records” and “holdings”: both can refer to catalog entries as well as the documents themselves. I think the long-term claims and confusion left PEM in a bit of a vulnerable position when they finally announced that the Phillips Library would not be returning to Salem, because it was apparent that there was no compensatory commitment to digitization. When pressed at the dramatic public forum on January 11, 2018, CEO Dan Monroe would only say that digitization was “expensive”.

PEM DMMr. Monroe at the 1/11/18 public forum at PEM.

So that is why the recent announcements are so welcome. Digitization goals are clearly stated. Mr. Monroe is departing, to be succeeded by Brian Kennedy, the director of the Toledo Art Museum, an institution that seems to have all of its collections online. The newly-hired head librarian, Dan Lipcan, has a great track record of digitization at the Watson Library at the Met (and, if this blog post about the devastating losses at Brazil’s Museu Nacional is any indication, a higher degree of sensitivity about the importance of material heritage to a locale than I have discerned from most representatives of the PEM). The chief of collections, John Childs, has been a pretty steady advocate for more digitization throughout, so I’m assuming that he is behind the initiatives that have already been put into place. The materials “deposited” in the Internet Archive seem very well-curated and seemingly representative of the Phillips Library’s diverse collection: local history, maritime history, natural history, fashion (not a strength of past collecting, but definitely a present and future emphasis), all about China, and more.

PEM Pickering

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Essex Institute Annual Report 1988

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PEM Hats

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PEM Chinese Junks 1920

It’s very interesting to see the expansion vision that never happened on the front and back covers of the Essex Institute’s Annual Report from 1988, and I really want to dive into the Historic Structure Report for Derby Wharf from 1973, but I’ve also got to admit that I love George Barbier’s beautiful illustrations in Le bon ton d’aprèsguerre (the lady in the Poiret dress avec arrow above) and who can resist a book titled The Romance of Men’s Hats? But what I’m really looking forward to, along with many people, is the promised digitization of photographer Frank Cousins’ large body of work, encompassing images of Salem from c. 1890-1920. Apparently these are coming soon, and after that could we please see some scans from all those papers of Salem families? Almy, Butler & Robson, Crowinshield, Fabens, Lee, Loring, Peabody, Peirce-Nichols, Saltonstall, Waters……..my colleagues and I made a list if anyone’s interested.


Step it up, Salem

Nothing helps to define the distinguishing characteristics of where you live better than travel. I’ve been traveling quite a bit over the past year, near and far, in the US and abroad, but generally to places which are identified as tourist destinations, like Salem. I’m always happy to return home, where I am more appreciative of Salem’s many advantages and resources, but also its lost opportunities, for lack of a better phrase. There are quite a few places that make do with with a lot less than Salem has: they might or might not have streets of historic architecture (though most of the places I visit do), they might not have a “marketable historic event,” they might not have a harbor, they might not have 100 restaurants, but they do have: 1) historical societies and/or museums that provide free exhibits and walking tours for the public; 2) museums that are actually museums–nonprofit institutions with collections and curators; 3) attractive and informative signage; and 4) a sense of pride expressed by effective stewardship of public properties—historical and otherwise. I think Salem could do a lot better; I think we need to step it up in these four areas in particular. I’m not sure how to do that, however, as I’m not really sure who is in charge of Salem’s tourism planning and administration. Free enterprise seems to reign over the city’s tourism, with private institutions taking primary responsibility for selling our city’s heritage, with a few very notable exceptions like the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the House of the Seven Gables. There should be some role for our city government, but I’m not sure if that role has been defined or exists, so I’m going to make my key points in the form of questions and just cast them out there into the unknown.

Why can’t we ditch the Red Line? I’ve written a whole post about this and my feelings have not changed, so I’m not going to belabor the point, but the Red Line–as one of the few truly public history initiatives visible in the city—makes Salem look regressive (I’m sure it must be based on Boston’s Freedom Trail, which dates to 1951! Come on, times have changed in historical interpretation! Where is our app?) exclusive (there is no African-American history on the Red Line; at least Boston’s Freedom Trail intersects with its Black Heritage Trail. Salem has no Black Heritage Trail and no markers on black heritage sites), and exploitative (because it’s really all about shops and witch “museums” obviously). Plus it just looks bad. We can and should do a lot better: the foundation is already laid with some great tours produced by Salem Maritime and Essex Heritage  (here and here), among others. We just need to consolidate, repackage and go digital.

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20190506_142906Is the Red Line going to take us across North Street to the beautiful Peirce-Nichols House? Of course not, sharp left to the Witch House, after we’ve just been to the Witch Dungeon Museum.

Why can’t we transform this beautiful Greek Revival courthouse which is currently empty into the Salem History Museum and Visitor Center?  There is a nice display of placards providing an overview of Salem’s history called the Salem Museum at Old Town Hall and a Visitors Center with much more regular hours run by Salem Maritime in the drill shed of the former Salem Armory, but I think we need to consolidate these two services into one building and this former courthouse happens to be empty and in the possession of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA). I’m sure the SRA wants to develop it–and its adjacent courthouse next door–but this would be a great spot for Salem to really own its history. It’s right across from the train station and its parking lot. Salem needs permanent and professional exhibitions of its entire history, including the Witch Trials, which has always been its biggest draw. Doesn’t Salem Maritime have its own story to tell? Why does it bear the primary responsibility for visitor orientation in Salem? We know that the Peabody Essex Museum is not interested in historical interpretation, but they might be persuaded to loan some things, as would the Salem State Archives (I think!) which has been collecting quite a bit of local history over the past few years. 

20190511_124916Two empty courthouses downtown: can’t ONE play a key public role?

Why can the city of Salem regulate tour guides but not “museums”? Most historical interpretation in Salem is offered by private tour companies and private “museums” which are really not museums at all: they offer presentations and dioramas rather than collections and context. (This is not just my opinion! Check out reviews for the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, the Witch History Museum, and the Salem Witch Museum on Yelp or TripAdvisor: even the people that like these places say “this is not what you would think of as a museum.”) The City of Salem licenses tour guides, but anyone and everyone can open a museum. This seems like an inconsistent public policy regarding historical interpretation to me. The other issue with the “museums” and haunted houses is their seasonality: they can be absolutely deadening if situated in a central location, as is the case with the juxtaposition of the Witch History Museum, Count Orlock’s Nightmare Gallery and the delightful Witch Mansion or whatever it is called along central Essex Street. This is Salem’s main street and you can hear a pin drop on a Friday night as these places are shut up tight; I think the last two were open only in October even during the day–but as you will notice, the Red Line runs right by.

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20190508_153716Thank goodness for Wicked Good Books and the Hotel Salem, otherwise there’s not a lot going on on the Essex Street pedestrian mall, day or night. 

Why can’t we have consistent, attractive, and informative signage? And why do these private “museums” get to stick their signs on all over town on public utility poles?

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Look at these signs! Clearly the owners of the Salem Witch Museum and Witch Dungeon Museum can just place signs wherever they like. I’m assuming the numbers on this last sign refer to the Red Line and (obviously) the Salem Trolley tour, another private purveyor of history in Salem. I think we need some contrast here, so here’s just one of a succession of well-designed signs I spotted around North Adams last weekend.

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While I’m on the subject of signs, I would be remiss if I didn’t commend the City of Salem for putting up some lovely neighborhood and park signs—which they have—but the information presented on these signs has to be correct. I’m particularly concerned about the sign for the relatively new Remond Park adjacent to the Beverly Bridge. This is a memorial to the Remond family, a very successful free black family in mid-nineteenth-century Salem whose members advocated for school desegregation, abolition and myriad other social justice issues while operating several successful businesses. It’s great that they have a park! It’s great that this park is one of only two Salem sites on Tufts University’s acclaimed African American trail project. But the sign has the wrong information: Salem had a vibrant African-American population in the nineteenth century downtown; there was not “a large population of African Americans” who lived in this rather remote section of Bridge Street Neck. As if the location of this park wasn’t off the beaten path (Red Line) enough, Salem’s African-American population is marginalized geographically by this sign, just as they are marginalized (or omitted) from Salem’s history.

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20190511_132347Bridge Street Neck was not “home to a large population of African Americans” in the 19th century: just check the city directories!

Why can’t we protect Salem’s sacred sites? Salem’s downtown cemeteries, especially the Old Burying Point or Charter Street Cemetery, are besieged during October: why can’t the gates simply be shut? I have seen terrible things in Charter Street: many tourists don’t seem to realize that it is a real cemetery rather than some sort of stage set. The City of Salem has an obligation to protect this sacred site, and it could do so by simply locking its gates. Salem’s Quaker Cemetery on Essex Street is always locked up; why can’t Charter Street be locked up for the month of October? This is a question that people have been asking for years and there is never any answer.

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