Category Archives: History

Pinnace in Port

The highlight of this year’s annual Salem Maritime Festival, hosted by the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, was the Kalmar Nyckel, a reproduction seventeenth-century full-rigged pinnace built by the state of Delaware as a tribute to the Scandinavian founders of New Sweden, who were transported across the Atlantic on such a ship. While we’re all happy to have our own reproduction East Indiaman, the Friendship, back in Salem Harbor after a long spell away, the two ships called to mind a cardinalesque comparison with the brown and still-mastless Friendship looking like the drab female, and the colorful Kalmar Nyckel as the dashing male. Just to push the bird analogy a bit further, my husband referred to the latter as a “peacock” of a ship. And it is.

Pinnace CM

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I thought I knew what the word “pinnace” meant: a small ship’s boat, used for landing and other purposes which required a smaller size and more flexibility. Apparently the Dutch, the most innovative and productive shipbuilders of the seventeenth century, adapted the pinnace design to create a larger full-rigged version for war and trade, and the original Kalmar Nyckel and many of the ships you can see in all of those golden-age Dutch seascapes represent this innovation. The English built larger pinnaces as well: the first of many ships named The Defiance went head to head with Spanish galleons during the attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and Governor Winthrop reported that several daring Salem men took pinnaces all the way to Sable Island off Nova Scotia in search of “sea horses” (walruses) in the later 1630s.

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Pinnace Playing Card Collage

Pinnace RiggedCornelis Verbeeck, A Dutch Pinnace in Rough Seas, National Maritime Museum of the Netherlands; Armada cards from the later 17th century, Royal Museums Greenwich, Wenceslaus Hollar, view of the Tower with pinnace-rigged ships, 1637, British Museum.

So it was great to see a pinnace in Salem Harbor again, along with a reproduction Viking ship, and booths representing (and reproducing) all the traditional maritime crafts and various local organizations, along with myriad performers, on shore. Salem is very fortunate to have the constant institutional presence of Salem Maritime, whose staff operate all of its venues and initiatives (including the Salem Regional Visitor Center) in such a professional and engaging manner. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Custom House, and no building—-certainly not the Witch “Museum” or even a creation of Samuel McIntire— represents Salem’s multi-layered past better.

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Covered Bridges & Hearse Houses

I took a very long way home from and through New Hampshire on Sunday, in pursuit of covered bridges and hearse houses. I’ve seen a lot of the former, but I saw my first hearse house on Saturday morning and knew instantly that I needed to see more. I’ve been obsessed with old sheds recently, as I want one for my garden, but this was such a super-specialized shed, just sitting there on the side of the road in Marlow, New Hampshire, locked up with (I assume?) its special carriage still inside, serving no purpose other than to remind us of a public responsibility of the past.

20190727_100654The Hearse House in Marlow, New Hampshire.

Any form of historic preservation is impressive to me, but there’s something about the consideration given to these simple and obviously-anachronistic structures that I find particularly endearing. I stumbled across the hearse house in Marlowe: there was no sign and it is obviously not a historical “attraction”. The covered bridges are more so: New Hampshire’s 55 preserved bridges (out of around 400 built) all have signs, numbers, plaques, and are included in a guide with which you can plot your own scenic drive.

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20190728_115632The McDermott Covered Bridge in Langdon (1864); the Meriden Bridge in Plainfield (1880); the Cilleyville (or Bog) Bridge in Andover (1887); the Keniston Bridge, also in Andover (1882); just two of Cornish’s FOUR covered bridges: somehow I missed the “Blow Me Down” Bridge and the Cornish-Windsor Bridge over the Connecticut River is here.

My focus was much more on the more elusive prey of hearse houses that afternoon; these bridges came into view along the way. After Marlow, I assumed that many New Hampshire towns would have preserved hearse houses, but this was not the case: near the end of the day, dejected and heading home to Salem,  I found only two more in Salisbury and Fremont. In Salisbury (which also has some great Federal houses), the town historian told me that their hearse house also served as a storage shed for the town’s snow roller, and Fremont’s wonderful meeting-house compound featured an informative marker.

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20190728_185821Salisbury & Fremont, New Hampshire.

Of course now I want to search out hearse houses closer to home: it looks like the town of Essex has a great example, with a very interesting story attached. There’s no surviving hearse house in Salem (for which I am actually grateful, because I dread to think how it would be utilized in Witch City), but it looks like there were actually two at one time, according to this 1841 account in the Salem Register. There is a small stone house in Harmony Grove which I thought was a tomb, but maybe not………..

Hearse House Salem_Register_1841-08-19Salem Register, August 19, 1841.


Historical Habitation

A couple of months ago, I decided that this would be the Summer of The Secretary: I’ve been wanting to purchase an antique secretary for my front parlor for quite some time, and as “brown furniture” seems positioned for a revival after the mid-century modern mania we’ve been in for a while I think that prices will start to climb back to the level where they were when I first started to furnish my home. I have the perfect, slightly-recessed spot and I think a secretary will really complete that room, which I can never seem to get right. So I’ve been looking at all of the auction listings, and the other day I saw a piece that looked vaguely familiar in a Skinner Country Americana Auction. The description confirmed my suspicion: this secretary, along with several other pieces in the same auction, came from the colonial house in South Berwick, Maine which serves as the subject of Paula Bennett’s book Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America through History, Food, and a Georgian House.

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Imagining Ichabod Secretary

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Bennett and her husband owned the Goodwin house in South Berwick for over a decade, during which time she pursued every possible avenue to create an ambiance as historical as possible in their home: research into the textures, furnishings, food and events of the era in which the two Ichabod Goodwins lived (1740-1829), through primary and secondary sources, archaeology, and what I like to call “shopping research” ( in which I indulge often) via period houses, auctions, and antique shops. Imagining Ichabod details this very personal and material journey in words, pictures, and recipes, as Bennett is an enthusiastic cook—indeed, one gets the impression that she is enthusiastic about everything! After this complete immersion, it was off to a Boston condo for the Bennetts, which is why their Georgian furnishings ended up at Skinner.

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Imagining Ichabod Table Skinner

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Imagining Ichabod Entrance Table

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Imagining Ichabod Marble Table

The cumulative and intensive effort to create a perfect eighteenth-century (-esque) house, only to dismantle and leave it after a relatively short period, is interesting to me, as I wonder about the constraints of “period living”, and by that I mean aesthetic constraints rather than practical ones, as even the most passionate antiquarians have indoor plumbing! Everyone I know in Salem lives in an old house, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but no one furnishes their homes in an exclusively period style: it’s generally a melange of old and new, with some nods to the era in which the house was built and a lot more comfortable furniture. When I first purchased my current house, which was built in 1827, I went about it much like Paula Bennett: I wanted period furniture, period drapes, period plates, period lighting, period wallpaper, and period hardware; I was particularly obsessed with finding the correct switch plates, but of course no switch plate is “correct” in an 1827 house. After about a decade of that design philosophy, I grew tired of the constraints and loosened up considerably, and now my house is a mix of past and present, as it no doubt appeared in 1927, 1877, and even the year it was built. But I still want a secretary—and the Bennett’s Georgian one is too early.

Sandy Agrafiotis photographs in Paula Bennett’s Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America Through its History, Food, and a Georgian House (Bauer and Dean, 2016). I never attempted period cooking like Paula Bennett, but I’m always on the lookout for a good rum punch, and the idea of roasted oysters intrigues, as both my father and husband are oyster aficionados.


Lit Up

The streetlight right near my house has been out since January, so lower Chestnut Street is bathed in darkness every night. There are some benefits to this, as this light shines right into my bedroom window when operational, but I still hope it gets fixed soon: the residents of our street purchased period-esque streetlights over a decade ago and I like my light. Because it’s been so dark–and I can see walking-tour leaders walking by with lanterns—I’ve been thinking about both historical darkness and the coming of light onto the streets of Salem, and then the other day I found a cache of cool photographs illuminating the latter era from the General Electric Company archive at the Museum of Innovation and Science (MiSci) via Google Arts & Culture. Salem definitely has electrical credentials: Moses Farmer illuminated a room in his Pearl Street house every July night of 1859, an early “All-Electric” home on Loring Avenue drew headlines and crowds when it was first opened in 1924, and just down the street, the GTE-Sylvania plant employed hundreds of workers during its heyday (1936-1989). The source of these photographs, however, is the even larger General Electric River works plant in nearby Lynn, which featured a large street lighting department. A 1916 GE catalog titled The Splendor of Well Lighted Streets showcases the company’s latest streetlights and observes that in the vicinity of Lynn are sections of streets and roads lighted in every different fashion to demonstrate in actual practice the differences in units and types of lighting: Salem clearly provided an effective demonstration setting, offering all sorts of opportunities to showcase GE’s newest lighting and traffic-signal products. The photographs below date from 1916 to 1931.

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Salem 1916 electrified General Electric Co archives

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Electric City HH 1926

Electric City BridgeEssex Street, 1918-1927(including a new Novalux light decorating for Christmas), the Hawthorne Hotel, 1926 (showcasing streetlight AND stoplight) and Bridge Street, General Electric Company Archives, MiSci: the Museum of Innovation and Science.

Electrical Lafayette

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Electric City Not Sure.Lafayette Street, the intersection at West, Loring, and Lafayette, and (I think???) the road to Marblehead.

Electric City Almys 1916

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Electric City William WebberInterior Lighting at the Almy, Bigelow & Washburn and William G. Webber stores on Essex Street.

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Electrical ShootWashington Street during World War I: the new Masonic Temple building and the illuminated war chest; floodlights at a trapshooting competition somewhere in Salem.


Now I feel even worse for the Romanovs

I’ve had this dreadful summer chest cold over the last week or so; it’s taking forever to go away. I have tried to go about business as usual, but it persists, so on Monday I just laid in bed all day determined to vanquish it with as much liquids, honey, throat lozenges, and rest as possible. I was too miserable to read, so television was the only option. I turned on my reliable Turner Classic Movies only to find that forgettable 1930s caper movies were the order of the day, and so surfed around on Netflix for a bit and chose one of their new offerings called The Last Czars, and once it was on, streaming and streaming, I found that I could not look away, simply because it was so awful. I was aghast; I remain aghast. If this is where history dramatizations are going, it’s over for us a civilization. Let me just start with one illustration of the series’ sloppiness: a screenshot supposedly representing “Moscow in 1905” with Lenin’s Mausoleum (which assumed its present form around 1930) clearly visible! Everything is fluid, right; Russian Empire, Soviet Union, what’s the difference?

Last Czars screenshot

I’m certainly not the first to point this error out: the series has received scathing reviews both in the West and in Russia (this particularly essay is great). And I’m also no Russian history expert, but even I noticed all sorts of little “discrepancies” and much chronological confusion: without sufficient context, the Russo-Japanese War seems to morph right into the First World War. But these are not the primary sins of The Last Czars (why “czars” and not “tsars”; and why plural?): its most glaring fault is its format, a weird, even bizarre, hybrid of talking-head commentary and very intimate drama. One minute we’re hearing that the Nicholas and Alexandra had a rare royal loving relationship and the next minute we’re seeing them rolling around on the bed and the floor with very little left to our imaginations. These transitions are far from seamless: when it first happened I thought (in my cold-medicine-induced haze) that I had somehow changed the channel. There’s nothing particularly new about the docudrama, but the contrast between the drama and the commentary is heightened to an unwatchable degree by the intense focus on the personal in the scripted scenes of The Last Czars, so that both parts of the production do not add up to something whole or greater, but something far less. It is neither feast nor fowl.

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It’s all so personal and so sexual: perish the thought that an idea, a consideration, or even a well-articulated sentiment existed in the realm of the Romanovs. Even before the inevitable arrival of Rasputin there is gratuitous sex and once he is in the picture there is of course more, much more. No doubt the producers of The Last Czars have rationalized the inclusion of so much sex as a way to uncover their subjects’ humanity but instead they have robbed them of their dignity, particularly the Tsar and Tsarina, and their daughter Maria, often described as innocently flirtatious but ready to go all the way with a Bolshevik guard in the series’ last episode. Obviously there’s nothing fresh or new about the focus on Rasputin or the continuous thread of the Anastasia impostor, which serves no purpose that I could see. The sole redeeming features I could find in this soulless series are the contemporary film clips and anti-Rasputin ephemera (though I have since learned that the latter date from after the mad monk’s death in 1916) but even they add to the confusion of the presentation. After watching as much of The Last Czars as I could take, I felt worse, both for myself and for the Romanovs, who died very early on this very day one hundred and one years ago.

Last Czar Last PictureThe last photograph of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family, at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, where they were executed in the early hours of July 17, 1918.


Cousins Comparisons

It’s been really wonderful to see people in Salem respond to the large collection of Frank Cousins glass plate negatives which were digitized and uploaded to the Digital Commonwealth by the Peabody Essex Museum just last week. It was verified that columns from Mechanic Hall, which burned down in 1905, had been situated in a River Street garden for quite some time, we all saw how connected the city was a century ago with tracks running everywhere, and people are zooming in on all sorts of details we could never possibly grasp without these visual “windows” to the past. Sometimes I’m a bit wary about historical photographs: people do tend to get focused on the details rather than look for the bigger picture. But it is impossible to deny their instant accessibility and capacity for driving historical engagement, especially by enabling comparisons of the past and the present. That’s what I have been doing all week, whenever I could find or make the time: walking around with the Cousins collection and placing myself in the spot (or vicinity) where he took the picture a century and more ago. So much is revealed when you look at the city through a historical lens: some places have hardly changed, others are unrecognizable, everything is illuminated. Before I get to the details, some big picture observations: the city appears much cleaner in Cousins’ day (most of these photos are from the 1890s) than ours, and much less crowded (although he is not showing us Salem’s working-class neighborhoods), and the impact of cars is obvious. I do wonder about the pristine streets in Cousins’ photographs as this was a world of horses: did Cousins bring his own broom or helper to sweep the streets before he took his photographs? But there was no food-and-drink detritus then: Salem is awash in coffee cups, paper plates, and nip bottles now.

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pixlr-1The John P. Felt House on Federal Court past and present: despite a rough last half-century or so, the house is still standing in good form, lacking only its widow’s walk and shutters.

pixlr-2Barton Square has been pretty much annihilated.

pixlr-3Change and continuity on Bott’s Court: old house on the left, newer (both 1890s) houses on the right. Cousins is showing us the demolition of the former house on the right with his preservationist eye.

pixlr-5Kimball Court present and past: Cousins is showing us the birthplace of Nathaniel Bowditch below: this house is in the top right corner above. In front of it today is a house that was brought over from Church Street during urban renewal in the 1960s when that street was wiped out.

pixlr-618 Lynde Street: this appears to be the same house, with major doorway changes.

pixlr_20190705142016939The house on Mall Street where Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the Scarlet Letter: there was an addition attached to the house at some point in the 1980s or thereabouts.

pixlr-7134 Bridge Street: As a major entrance corridor–then and now—Bridge Street has impacted by car traffic pretty dramatically over the twentieth century; Cousins portrays a sleepier street with some great houses, many of which are still standing—hopefully the progressive sweep of vinyl along this street will stop soon.

pixlr-817 Pickman Street seems to have acquired a more distinguished entrance; this was the former Mack Industrial School (Cousins’ caption reads “Hack” incorrectly).

pixlr-9Great view of lower Daniels Street–leading down to Salem Harbor–and the house built for Captain Nathaniel Silsbee (Senior) in 1783. You can’t tell because of the trees, but the roofline of this house has been much altered, along with its entrance.

pixlr-10Hardy Street, 1890s and today: with the “mansion house” of Captain Edward Allen still standing proudly on Derby Street though somewhat obstructed by this particular view. You can read a very comprehensive history of this house here, drawn from literary sources in the Phillips Library’s collections.


Sweeping through Beauport

Historic New England offers comprehensive “nooks and crannies” tours through several of its properties occasionally, and I was fortunate to go on one of these basement-to-attic-and-all-the-closets-in-between tours of Beauport, the rambling Queen Anne “cottage” on Eastern Point in Gloucester, the beneficiary of a generous friend’s conflict! Beauport was built and decorated in great detail by Henry Davis Sleeper, one of America’s first professional decorators, over several decades beginning in 1907: it is an incremental construction driven by Sleeper’s evolving vision and career. The former was preserved by Helena Woolworth McCann, who purchased Beauport after Sleeper’s death in 1934, following the advice of Henry Francis DuPont: “the minute you take things out of this house, or change them about, the value of the collection does not exist, as really the arrangement is 90%. I have no feeling whatsoever about the Chinese room, as I think it is distinctly bad; but the rest of the house really is a succession of fascinating pictures and color schemes.”  Mrs. McCann had Sleeper’s pagoda removed from the China Trade room and made it her own, and likely packed away some of Sleeper’s stuff while she and her family were inhabiting the house over successive summers, but seems to have understood DuPont’s assertion that the house was the sum of its parts–and her family donated the intact property to Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) in 1942. So when you go to Beauport today, you are stepping into Henry Davis Sleeper’s house, the way he wanted it, and you know that this is a man who admired arrangement above all, incorporating the contrast of light and dark, all color of glass, green, anything and everything that projected the spirit of idealized and romanticized pre-industrial American and English material culture, depictions of great men (George Washington above all, but also Benjamin Franklin, Lafayette, and Lords Nelson and Byron, among others), and a fair amount of whimsy. Beauport is a lot to take in, even on a standard tour much less this exhaustive one, so I’ve divided my photographs into room views and details—but they represent only a small measure of both! You’ve really got to see Beauport for yourself: several times.

The bigger picture: it’s really difficult to photograph the entirety of this house, except from above or the ocean! I focused on inside, but there’s some lovely photographs of both the interior and exterior taken by T.E. Marr & Son c. 1910-1915 here.  

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20190628_142353The China Trade Room from Sleeper’s “Minstrel’s Gallery” above, within the Book Tower, the Octagon Room, where it’s all about eight, the Golden Step dining room, the South Gallery,  the Master Mariner’s Room, the “Red Indian” Room with its ships-cabin overlook of Gloucester Harbor, the Strawberry Hill room which became Sleeper’s bedroom, the Belfry Chamber—my favorite room in the house—-the Jacobean Room, the Chapel Chamber Room, and the Franklin Game Room.

Every salvaged discovery provoked an aesthetic reaction from Sleeper, and his design sense was so strong that it lives on well after his death in Beauport. Despite its size (it grew to 56 rooms by Sleeper’s “reactions”) the house remains very personal. It certainly reflects Sleeper’s personality, but as his collection of objects was so vast and varied it is possible to have a personal reaction to what you are seeing. That certainly happened for me, so my more detailed focus below reflects my own taste, in reaction to what I was seeing. And you will notice many other things that I missed.

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20190628_135742Details, Details: marble mantle and 18th century hand-painted wallpaper from China in the China Trade room (it was purchased by Philadelphia financier Robert Morris in 1784 and discovered, still rolled up, in the attic of the Eldridge Gerry House in Marblehead in 1923), wooden “drapes” in the book tower room, a portrait by Matthew Prior (c. 1845) in the Blue Willow room, fishermen’s floats ( I think Sleeper was the original high-low decorator!), beehive pull, memorial to the death of a former slave, majolica hedgehog or porcupine (?) Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Belfry Chamber, Green glass urn in the Chapel Chamber, plate commemorating the visit of Hungarian nationalist Louis Kossuth to Boston in 1852 & window shade commemorating the American victory in the Spanish-American War in the Pine Kitchen or Pembroke Room, my favorite of Sleeper’s many hooked rugs, and the portrait of a dapper anonymous man.

♠ A more comprehensive history of both the house and the man can be found here.


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