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Snowy Salem Saturday

A welcome snow day today, imposing calm on everyone–or at least me! I’ve always enjoyed winter, but the SuperWinter of two years ago, in which something like 11 feet of snow was dumped on us in February, tempered my appreciation for this particular season considerably. The snow was all around the house, the snow was in the house, and I plodded to work every day in tunnels of yellow snow. I felt a little vulnerable, especially when I woke up in the morning to see the latest damage inflicted on my plaster ceilings by ice dams. But all of that is fixed now, and we spent last year, with its relatively light winter, rebuilding our chimneys, sealing our windows, and putting on a new roof. Now I feel impenetrable, at least for this first snow storm. I’m sure hardly anyone agrees with me, but I think winter is Salem’s best season actually–I like to see the city return to a car-less state: it’s as close as you can come to seeing it in its glorious past. There’s a timeless quality to a snowy day, and the contrast of nature and structure is never more apparent. Here’s a few photographs I took as I walked around a very calm city this afternoon.

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Chestnut Street, Essex Street, and the Common.

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Two notable Salem houses in varying stages of restoration.

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Gambrel roofs embellished by snow.

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Some contrast; Trinity does not really care for snow.


Pomanders and the Plague

Early December is busy for any academic, so just about the only handcrafted Christmas decoration/gift I can manage is the humble pomander. I wrap rubber bands and ribbons around oranges and lemons as Martha Stewart advises, and then stick in the cloves. But it doesn’t matter how many beautiful photographs of Martha’s Christmas vignettes I peruse for pomander-inspiration, I’m always going to think about the plague when I make these things. Given the contemporary belief in the spread of the pestilence through a fog-like miasma of foul air, a corollary faith in the preventative pomander was equally long-held over the late medieval and early modern eras. If you could not smell the plague, you could not contract it. Sweet-smelling herbs, encased in little silver balls which were also called pomanders if you were rather rich, never left your side, indoors or out. Paintings of patrons with pomander in hand became almost conventional–these little balls were the symbol of an infectious age.

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Hanneman, Adriaen, c.1601-1671; John Evelyn (1620-1706)

Perfect Pomanders present and past: the portrait of seventeenth-century diarist John Evelyn (©Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) by a follower of Adriaen Hanneman features one of the most modern pomanders I have ever seen!

The Evelyn portrait above is very unusual: I suspect this was a hollowed-out orange filled with the usual plague herbs but it looks like one of my little pomanders! Much more common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were images of sitters with silver and gold pomanders in hand, chained, ever-present: a display of wealth and fortitude. The Flemish sitters below were far more typical in their presentation: the plague was endemic, it could strike at any time, so you must be ever ready with your “preservatives”. They might as well be encased in a spectacular piece of jewelry.

de Vos, Cornelis, c.1584-1651; Portrait of a Lady

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Cornelis de Vos, Portrait of a Lady, ©The Wallace Collection; Heinrich vom Rhein zum Mohren, a Copy after Conrad Faber von Creuznach, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

So what was inside those little chalices (or “swete” bags if you were less wealthy)? There are lots of “recipes”, with many constants and some variation. Here are a couple of concoctions from the Certain Necessary Directions ; As well for the Cure of the Plague As for Preventing the Infection approved and offered up by the College of Physicians in 1665, a terrible plague year. For the common sort: angelica, rue, zedoary (a type of tumeric), myrrh, camphor, labdanum (most of these don’t actually sound very common–I think most people just grabbed some rue when they went outside). For the “richer sort”: “citron pilles”, angelica, zedoary, red rose petals, sandlewood, lignum aloes, gallic moschat, stozar benzoin, camphor, labdanum, gum tragacanth, and rosewater.

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Pomander recipes with a seventeenth-century skull pomander, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Well, of course, none of these things actually worked to preserve the body from plague. Yet despite their ineffectiveness, the major plague “preservatives” survived through evolution into much less serious substances: vinegar–a major plague fighter–evolves into vinaigrette, theriac, the most powerful supposed plague antidote, into sweet treacle, and pomanders into perfume and sachets and various forms of aromatherapy, as well as Christmas decorations.

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Diptyque Paris Pomander Candle.


Happy Thanksgiving

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

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Courtesy Winterthur Museum Collections.

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


Bittersweet November

I don’t really have a theme or subject for today’s post: it is primarily comprised of photos I took here in Salem and up in York Harbor where I spent most of the weekend. But as I was walking along the Harbor cliff walk–a childhood path of mine that was allowed to be taken over by new home owners/builders along the way in past years but now seems to be in the process of being reclaimed by the public–I thought of how appropriate the bittersweet “decoration” that lined the walk was: contrasting and colorful, a last blast of bright before things get darker, so somehow all the more sweet. I’ve always thought November is one of our most beautiful months: the light is so clear, the earth not yet muddy brown or white. Of course since I’ve lived in Salem November has become particularly cherished as it marks Salem’s liberation from its Witch City identity, but I think everywhere that I have lived I have enjoyed November: in Vermont, and Maine, and Maryland, and Britain. I think it must be my second-favorite month, just behind May.

The first week of November in Salem: a blazing tree on Essex Street, the new Little Free Library on the Ropes Mansion Grounds, a house coming back to life, white shows the light, old tracks, a strange seating area at Harmony Grove cemetery (I think it is the pillows that I find somewhat odd), THE WITCH IS DEAD, one last fall photograph of my cat Trinity for a while, I promise!

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In York Harbor, the first weekend of November:  along the Cliff Walk: fortifications (several estates along the walk have castle-esque architectural attributes and CANNONS–who are they guarding against, the New York Yacht Club?), bittersweet, and a secret gate; fall back.

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Liberation Day

November 1 is Liberation Day in Salem: the long Halloween is over, quite suddenly it always seems, and the city is returned to its residents. I’m in much better spirits than last year because of my boyc0tt of downtown Salem: the image of the Witch Trials Memorial turned into a food hall is somewhat faded from my mind. It’s comforting to know that in this month, and the months leading up to next September and October, civic resources and energies will be liberated from propping up the seasonal Halloween industry and thus enabled to focus on promoting Salem’s less-ephemeral attributes. As usual trick-or-treating generally mollifies my feelings about Halloween as the kids are so cute, but still, I’m glad it’s over (again).

My favorite trick-or-treaters (or costumed people who walked past my door–sorry, the pictures of an entire Game of Thrones crew and the Swiss Family Robinson (I think?) did not come out well).

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My feelings today, illustrated : “Liberty Triumphant” (against oppression) in the Revolutionary war and World War I (Library of Congress) , joyful skipping by Harold Edgerton (© Harold & Esther Edgerton Foundation, courtesy of Palm Press, Inc., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), My cat Trinity at peace.

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Through Brown-colored Glasses

I can’t manage escapist day trips in the middle of the week so I was stuck in Salem, but life was not too rough on Chestnut Street, with beautiful, sunny weather, decorations on nearly every stoop, and a film crew present all day on Wednesday. I also wanted to play with an app (Vignette) on my phone and pretend that I was my very favorite turn-of-the-last century photographer Frank Cousins, so I shot my neighborhood, house, garden, and cats in sepia. Perhaps this was another form of escapism? In any case, it was interesting to see which architectural styles were actually accentuated  in brown, and which were not. I also experimented with a few other filters, just for comparison’s sake, but my favorite is definitely sepia. After all, the very first header of my blog was the sepia shot of the street below, taken in the 1890s by an unknown photographer.

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And here are some of my pictures from the last few days: some things definitely look better in sepia (Halloween decorations, Greek Revival houses, architectural details)–others, I’m not so sure–but it definitely brings out the shadows so evident at this time of year.filtered

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The filming at #12 (below) definitely looks better in color, but I like one of the old cars hired for the shoot in sepia, even though it was bright, blazing red. After everyone left, I managed to customize the filter and get a bit of both.

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I love Chestnut Street Park–sometimes called McIntire Park–in sepia, as well as my own garden, as it has no color at this time of year anyway: it kind of accentuates the fading. Inside, I only like my mirrors in sepia–and definitely not my cat Trinity, who is a very colorful calico. She looks uncharacteristically depressed in this tone.

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Perroquet Plates

At this time of year I’m in back-to-school mode and absolutely exhausted by keeping up with the garden, so my focus shifts to the inside. I think I’ll get back outside when it gets cooler in September, as I want to rearrange some things and prolong life and time in my garden as long as I can, but right now I’m focused on interior adornment and projects (this is one way to ignore all of the academic duties that are piling on about now). Leafing through a bunch of magazines this past weekend, I found some objects of adoration in, of all places, WSJthe magazine of the Wall Street Journal: plates adorned with colorful parrots, infused with old-world elegance through a hand-painted process involving sixteen layers. The 12-piece collection is the collaboration of Gucci Creative Director Alexandro Michele and porcelain manufacturer Richard Ginori. I want them all, but at $295 a plate, it will be difficult to justify just one, I’m afraid! The article identifies Michele’s inspiration as “one rare French volume from 1801 on specimen birds”, which was all the cue I needed to identify Jacques Barraband (1767-1809), a French zoological and botanical illustrator whose work inspired imitators even in his own day. While Barraband’s work must have struck his contemporaries as “new” in their colorful realism, Michele was inspired by their antiquated aesthetic, as am I.

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Original Jacques Barraband parrot prints from Levaillant’s “Histoire Naturelle des Perroquets” , Ursus Books & Prints, and Shapero Rare Books. The Michele/Ginori plates from designboom (image ©designboom) and the WSJ magazine (photographs by Martyn Thompson). John Derian has ample antique-inspired parrots among his offerings too, including a 12-piece set of wall trays (works and photographs © John Derian).


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