Category Archives: Houses

Out of the Closet

This is actually a post on Salem wallpaper, but there are so many anecdotes about long-forgotten patches of paper found in closets and cupboards by vintage wallpaper hunters/reproducers like Dorothy Waterhouse and Nancy McClelland that I thought I could get away with a more provocative title. A great example is “The Creamer” pattern manufactured by Thomas Strahan & Company in the 1930s after its discovery in the upstairs closet of a house (still very much standing) on Essex Street which belonged to the Salem stationer Benjamin Creamer. Before his untimely death in the early 1850s, Benjamin and his brother George were major stationers in Salem, supplying both writing papers and “room-papers” to their customers; George carried on alone from that date.

Salem Wallpaper Creamer

Salem Wallpaper 361 Essex

Salem Wallpaper Creamer Ad

“The Creamer”, manufactured by Thomas Strahan & Co., after a fragment found in the Nicholas Crosby House on Essex Street, home of the Benjamin Creamer family in the mid-nineteenth century; a trade card for Creamer Stationers.

I’ve checked in all (12) of my closets and found no remnants of rare French wallpaper, sadly: just dull old paint befitting a house that was once home to boarders and one very large family. But there are lots of other places to look for Salem wallpapers: Historic New England has digitized its extensive collection, the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum of the Smithsonian maintains a treasure trove of wallpaper images online, and both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, also have wallpaper samples among their digitized collections. And if you can’t find the original paper, images and descriptions of colonial reproductions in trade catalogs can also offer impressions of what once was, as well as verification of the importance of Salem as source. I love to look for and at old wallpaper for both aesthetic and historical reasons: it gives you the ability to imagine existing houses in earlier incarnations, and verifies the existence of houses that no longer exist. First the former.

Salem Wallpaper collage

Salem Wallpaper Capt Farlen House

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Salem Wallpaper Nathaniel Hawthorne 1920

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French block-printed paper, c. 1820-25, manufactured by Jacquemart & Bénard, originally in the Lindall-Gibbs-Osgood House on Essex Street, Cooper-Hewitt Collection; A fragment of paper taken from the upstairs chamber of the Capt. Thomas Farless House at 120 Derby Street, 1862, Cooper-Hewitt Collection; Two wallpapers associated with the Gardner-Pingree house: Zuber et Cie’s “Grinling Gibbons” and Nancy McClelland’s “Pingree House”, Cooper-Hewitt Collection and Hannah’s Treasures on Etsy;  “Nathaniel Hawthorne” wallpaper, c. 1920, once installed in the House of the Seven Gables, Cooper-Hewitt Collection; a Nancy McClelland catalog from 1941.

The wallpaper samples below were taken from houses that no longer exist: I had no knowledge of most of them so now I’ll have to go down another rabbit hole and find out everything I can about them! Just look at the first fragment below, from the Louisa Rhodes house on Essex Street (where was that?) and the collection of Historic New England: stunning. There are three Salem reproduction wallpapers manufactured by the venerable firm M.H. Birge & Co. in the collection of Cooper-Hewitt, all from houses that are no longer standing. One pattern (the last below), simply called “Old Salem” is also in the Historic New England archive, which includes the extraordinarily detailed notationan old colonial paper……laid by J.W. Everill on Dr. Cook’s house in Norman St., Salem, Mass., Oct. 22nd and 25th, 1852. A notation on the old paper from which this was taken established its age in this country as 63 years. Yet, the fact that this sample was made in sections or black, and fastened together, offers evidence that it was many years older. No papers being produced in rolls or continuous strips until after the year 1790. This Louis XV paper with its Swiss influence comprises a vista of romantic scenes, medieval castles and crags above a river. The author gets a bit more fanciful here, but his observations are still interesting: In picturing Dr. Cook’s house, as it was in the old days when the Halls echoed with laughter, and wax tapers were in vogue, the customs of dress with the men in knee breeches with silver buckles and gold lace, women in trailing brocades and rare laces, not to overlook the powdered puffs, and the negro servants coming and going on household errands, all tend to show why the charm of coloring, as well as the decorative character and excellent drawing of this design prompted its appropriate use. But I thought it was laid in 1852, hardly the setting described above: maybe it was stuck in a closet until that time?

Salem Wallpaper Rhode House HNE

Salem Wallpaper Sible Hancock ST

Salem Wallpaper Elm and Charter

Salem Wallpaper Old Salem

Wallpapers from the lost Salem houses of Louisa Rhodes (Historic New England); Mr. Sibble of Hancock Street (Birge, Cooper-Hewitt); Mr. Holbrook’s house at the corner of Elm and Charter Streets (Birge, Cooper-Hewitt), and Dr. Cook on Norman Street (Birge’s “Old Salem”, Cooper-Hewitt and Historic New England collections).


Is Purity Possible?

Architectural purity, I mean: there’s no philosophical, spiritual or political rumination going on here. My house is such an assemblage of Federal, Greek Revival and eclectic Victorian styles that I often find myself craving architectural purity: it was “transitional” when it was built in 1827 and it became even more so as it was expanded and remodeled over the next century. A whole rear elbow ell of outbuildings was attached and then shorn off. Inside straightforward Federal mouldings were replaced with rounded Italianate ones; a simple staircase was replaced with one much more detailed and made of mahogany, and 1920s etched glass was inserted into the original doors. Even its “classic” exterior with flushboard facade was altered: with the customary bay window that pops out nearly everywhere in the later nineteenth century and an elaborate doorway below, and some curvy trim attached to the first-floor windows, now long disappeared. I like my house, but occasionally I think I might want to live in the perfect First Period house, the perfect Georgian house, or the perfect Greek Revival house. However, I’m just not sure any of these houses exist, and if they do, whether they are the products of recreation or preservation. More likely than either is the organic and utilitarian evolution that most houses experience which robs them of their untouched purity but enhances both their livability and their accessibility (and occasionally their charm).Arch Purity 1

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My house features a “progression” of nineteenth-century interior mouldings, but even the all-First Period William Murray House on Essex Street in Salem experienced some evolution. 

Two cases in point are some houses I am currently “realestalking”: another 1827 house which just came on the market in Salem, and a First Period house in Ipswich which I’ve had my eye on for a while. I’ve always admired the Samuel Roberts House on Winter Street, but it’s hardly “pure” with its modified entry, addition (s), and twentieth-century garage. Yet somehow it all works (I would probably sacrifice the garage for more garden, but I think those mid-century garages are protected). The Ipswich house was built in 1696 and expanded considerably in 1803; I imagine the window came a bit later.

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arch Purity 3

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I am always thinking about the evolution of houses, but this particular thread started when I was researching yet another lost seventeenth-century Salem structure: the Benjamin Marston House, which was built in the later seventeenth century and demolished around 1870. Unfortunately it was not photographed before its demolition (to my knowledge, and I looked everywhere) but the ever-dependable Sidney Perley made a drawing for one of his Essex Antiquarian articles. Through his deed research, he was also able to trace the ownership of the house as well as its increasing size, and what emerges is an image of a true hybrid house, with a First-period back and a Federal front! I wish I could see this house, even in photographic form, and I imagine the streets of Salem were full of these composite structures in the nineteenth century. The Marston house was replaced with a more imposing structure that remains pretty “pure” today: the imposing Second Empire Balch-Putnam House, sometimes known as “Greymoor”.

Benjamin Marston House, Salem, Massachusetts

Salem Map 1851

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Sidney Perley’s c. 1900 illustration of the Benjamin Marston House; the location of the house (*) on Henry McIntire’s 1851 map of Salem, and the house on that site today.


A Tudor House in Salem

How did I miss it? Here I am, a sixteenth-century English historian living in Salem, and I never knew about a reproduction sixteenth-century house built right here in 1927 by a mason named James H. Boulger. I’ve posted on “English” houses in Salem before, and often lamented the lack of Tudors in town, all the while blind to the existence of this interesting little house in South Salem. While I was researching the “Electrical Home” in this same neighborhood (with streets named for U.S. Presidents), I came across a story entitled “Salem Home and Garage Built in 16th Century English Style” in the November 21, 1927 edition of the Boston Globe. Yesterday I walked down from my office at Salem State to see this very house, hoping that it was still standing and bore some semblance of its sixteenth-century self and had not been turned into a ranch, or even worse, a “Colonial”. But as I walked down Cleveland Road and saw its pitched roof approaching, I got more excited, and there it was: an adorable, obviously well-maintained and well-loved, Tudor cottage.

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Tudor third

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Tudor Sixth

My only basis of comparison is the grainy newspaper photograph, but it looks like the major alteration to Boulger’s original house is the integration of the originally-freestanding garage. I’m not sure my photographs capture the scale of the house and the interesting pitch of its roof: to me, (and again, for the thousandth time, I’m just an architecture buff) the house looks more Tudor than Tudor Revival. According to the article, all plans were by Mr. Boulger, who is a native of Manchester Eng, and a mason by trade. In designing the building, he was aided by a picture printed in a magazine showing a farmhouse in England during the 16th century. Like many English architects of centuries back, the designer has secured the typical English charm that marked the early, simple, unpretentious homes in England. 

Tudor in Salem

I made a limited search for the precise photograph that might have been Mr. Boulger’s inspiration, but contemporary periodicals in America are full of Tudor Revivals and those in Britain tend to feature either “great” Tudor structures or townhouses, like the famous Seven Stars pub in Mr. Boulger’s native Manchester, now sadly long gone. He seems to have invested as much effort into the interior as the exterior, as the Globe article goes into considerable detail about the “outstanding features” of the new/old house: an ‘English box seat’ window, a combination dining room and parlor, natural finished woods, low, wide arches leading to the various rooms, low situated windows and the ‘cold box’, so-called, where vegetables and wines were kept by the English farmer….. Mr. Boulger plans to install old-fashioned furniture in keeping with the exterior of the building. And no doubt he did.

Seven Stars Manchester

Tudor 1

I’m sure that the Seven Stars, widely heralded as one of England’s oldest pubs in its day, was not Mr. Boulger’s inspiration, but wanted to inject a bit of old Manchester here!


Wired for “Effortless Living”

There is a well-maintained Colonial Revival house on Loring Avenue in South Salem for sale right now: it looks unassuming, but when it was built in 1924 it was famous, surpassing, very briefly, Salem’s other notable structures. This house was one of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of model “electrical homes” built across the country in the 1920s and 1930s, and people lined up outside to see just how bright their domestic futures were going to be.

Wired House

The Salem Electrical Home was actually one of the first “Modern Homes” in the Boston region, joined in the next decade by equally popular electrical homes in Needham, Reading, Jamaica Plain, Lynnfield and Marblehead. Lines were long everywhere, with the Boston Globe reporting that 150,000 people visited the Marblehead home in 1935: Women are largely attracted to the displays of electrical homes, although there is a good proportion of men among them. Kitchen appliances and the kitchen arrangement is as attractive to women as a mile of shop windows. The electrical kitchen preserves the food, cooks the meals, disp0ses of the garbage and attends to numerous of the household tasks. It really does seem to be all about the kitchen, which assumes the character of an autonomous entity, “saving” time, energy, and ultimately money (spent on all those servants no longer needed): there’s no mention of the increase in disposable income necessary to purchase all these miraculous gadgets, of course.

Wired collage

Wired Kitchen NY 1930s

Wired Kitchen NY Worlds Fair NYPLDG

Wired 1911

Newspaper headlines about electrical homes around the country, 1920s; photographs of the Electrical Kitchen at the New York World’s Fair in 1939; Philip Atkinson’s Electricity for Everybody, 1911, New York Public Library Digital Collections.


Salem Interiors, 1896

I came across a book I had never seen before the other day at the wonderful Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture (beware, serious rabbit-hole potential here) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison: Newton Elwell’s Colonial Furniture and Interiors, published in 1896. I was doing something rather tedious so of course I put that aside and dug in. The book is not great in terms of information, and there were some pretty serious flaws that even an mere buff such as myself could spot immediately (such as referring to Samuel McIntire as James) but it is a treasure trove of plates, including many photographs of Salem interiors I had never seen before. These photographs are fascinating to me because many of them feature rooms decorated in a mishmash style that preceded the pure period room. Look at the east parlor of the Peirce-Nichols house below, for example: looking quite cluttered and Victorian rather than serenely Federal, with the exception of that beautiful fireside chair. Elwell wants to focus on the period furniture, but his photographs can’t always hide all the contemporary details of its setting.

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The sheer (and quite casual) display of Salem furniture from the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is a little overwhelming: some of the pictures seem to be taking us into attics (or the storage area of the Essex Institute) where tables and sideboards are lined up in a random fashion. The chair that is featured in the second photograph above, of the mantel of the west parlor of the Peirce-Nichols house, is one from a set of eight crafted by McIntire, one of which sold at a Christie’s auction last week for $15,000 (which seems like a bargain to me, no?) But the 1890s was a key decade in the development of a Colonial Revival consciousness that was both very national and very local: a key decade for the identification of  “Olde Salem”. Consequently along with the eclectic vignettes which mix periods and styles, there are also some “typical colonial” Salem rooms in Elwell’s book, forerunners of the period rooms of the next decades.

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salem-interiors-1896-typical-colonial-chamber

Plates from Newton Elwell’s Colonial Furniture and Interiors, 1896.


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.


Christmas Covers

I really like the visual aesthetic of early twentieth-century Christmases, as represented by shelter magazines from that era: cozy, warm and stylish–not so commercial. Colorful, but not glittery. People (or their servants) are making Christmas rather than buying it. House & Garden is probably the most stylish, but it was an evolution, as you will see below. I looked through 10+ years of Christmas covers from 1912 through the 1920s and saw the transformation of the Christmas home from somewhat-realistic refuge to a more idealistic showplace, a transition that seems to coincide with the coming of the First World War and is exemplified in the illustrations of Ethel Franklin Betts. The post-war Christmas spirit is a little bit more romantic and curatorial: the house is presented to us through a series of vignettes. It’s all a bit less accessible, except through all those beautifully-draped windows that allow us to peep inside, drawn by the light.

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housegarden24greeuoft_0363-1913

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housegarden28greeuoft_0321-1915

housegarden30greeuoft_0299-1916

housegarden33greeuoft_0351-1917

housegarden34greeuoft_0279-1918

housegarden36greeuoft_0369-1919

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House & Garden Christmas covers from 1912-1922 (except the canopy bed, which is a November 1921 issue–I just loved it) accessed via the Online Books page at the University of Pennsylvania. Below is my very favorite cover, from 1925, and the inspiration for this post–a special “storybook” house in Salem, all lit up for Christmas.

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