Category Archives: Paper

Rewards of Merit

This is graduation week, when we celebrate achievement and completion with pieces of paper, as we have for hundreds of years. No one wants a digital diploma! Even that avatar of online higher education, Southern New Hampshire University, has a television commercial showing university representatives traveling across the country presenting diplomas to graduates: their educational experience can be impersonal but not its culmination, apparently. Despite a lifetime spent in education, as a student and teacher, I am a late bloomer when it comes to commencements: I skipped both my undergraduate and graduate ceremonies, much to my regret, and once I became a professor I continued to avoid what I perceived as a long, boring, and formulaic ritual. But when I became chair of my department five years ago, I decided that it was my responsibility to attend, and so I dusted off the unused (and very expensive) gown I had purchased years ago and marched out there. I thought I was going for my colleagues—to be with those that went, to be an example to those that didn’t—but it was all about the students. As soon as the (yes, long and boring) ceremony was over, we ran out into the fresh air, and our students ran to us, sometimes even before their parents. Together, we had reached a destination–a place–after completing a long journey. And you really have to show up to realize that you’ve arrived.

I like nineteenth-century American “rewards of merit”, given by teachers to their students in recognition of certain qualities (diligence and deportment above all) as historical expressions of both the personal and the professional relationships that exist in any educational environment. They look formulaic, like a diploma, but they also represent an individual relationship—and achievement. As an ephemeral genre, they can testify to the evolution of printing and production techniques as well as educational objectives. Rewards of merit were produced in Great Britain too, but they really flourished in the United States, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century. I prefer the earlier forms from the first part of the century: written or sparsely printed, just a few images, some “colored in” with watercolors by teachers who wanted to add a more personal touch. Once you get into the later era of polychromatic cards, you lose a lot of the personal connection, and it seems as if they did too.

Reward of Merit 18th century A very early American Reward of Merit, or “conferment of honor” from William Arms to his student Amos Hamilton in Deerfield, Massachusetts, 1795 © Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield MA. In the larger towns and cities of Massachusetts, printed reward of merit forms were used right from the beginning of the nineteenth-century, but hand-written citations continued in the country: below, Tirza Lampson’s “diligence and virtue” is rewarded in Charlton, Massachusetts, and Azubah Clark is “presented with this honorary emblem, for her being a good scholar and hereby is recommended for her studious attention laudable improvements, and admirable behavior in school, for which, she merits the sincere thanks of her instructress Rebecca Walton Temple”, both in 1811. 

Reward of Merit 1811 Charlton

Reward of Merit 1811 2And then there were the forms, which were personalized by notes and watercoloring by the instructors and “instructresses”.

Reward of Merit ABA3 1815

Reward of Merit Salem 1818

Reward of Merit ABA4 1819

Reward of Merit ABE 6 1828

Reward of Merit collage

Reward of Merit 1842

Reward of Merit East Bridgewater 1851

Reward of Merit 1868 Methuen

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Reward of Merit 1878Rewards of merit for Philip Harman in Boston (1815); Martha Page in Danvers (1818); Martha Barker in Boston (1819); Marietta Bailey in Newburyport (1828); the Misses Fairbanks and Prebble in Taunton (1934); Nancy Fairbanks in Boston (1842); Grace Cobb in East Bridgewater (1851); Leuella Mills in Methuen (1868), and two certificates received by Master Abner Bow in 1876.  All from the American Broadsides and Ephemera database of collections of the American Antiquarian Society.

These last two rewards are charming but they’re getting a bit busy for me (what is that “sea horse”?): the imagery is overwhelming the student-instructor relationship. From this point on, these little slips of paper become more colorful, flowery, sentimental and generic, with one notable–and striking exception, the monotonal, monographic MERIT “badge” of the later nineteenth century. What other sentiment do you need? Well, maybe ONWARD and UPWARD.

Merit Orange

Reward of Merit HNERewards of Merit cards 1880-1993, Historic New England.


March On

The first of March: a notable historical day from my own geographical perspective, as it marks the anniversaries of both the incorporation of the first English “city” in North America, my hometown of York, Maine (in 1642), and the commencement of the most dominant event (unfortunately) in the history of my adopted hometown of Salem, Massachusetts: the Witch Trials of 1692. March is also one of my favorite months, so I always wake up happy on its first day. I am sure that this is a minority opinion among my fellow New Englanders, for whom March is generally perceived as the muddiest monthIt certainly can be muddy here, and cold, snowy, rainy, dark, windy, and raw. But it can also be bright (like today) with a brilliant sun that seems to highlight the material world in stark detail. It is the month of all weather, and also a month of transition. That’s what I like about it:  you are heading somewhere in March (towards spring); you are not already there (like winter or summer). I like to be en route, in transition, looking forward, in the process—and March feels like that to me, all month long. If you look at magazine covers from their turn-of-the-last-century Golden Age, advertising artistry rather than celebrity, many seem to convey that movement, if only to depict the wind. At least those that don’t feature rabbits.

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March Harpers 1895

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March Inland Printer 1896

March Black Cat

March 1897

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March Scribners 1905

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March covers from 1895 (2); 1896 (3);1897; 1900; 1905 & 1907; Swann Auction Galleries, Boston Public Library, and Library of Congress.


A Memorial Map of Olde Salem

The 1920s was a decade of intensive commemoration in Massachusetts, in recognition of the 300th anniversaries of the landing at Plymouth in 1620 and the arrival of John Winthrop here in Salem in 1630, bearing the royal charter that formally recognized the Massachusetts Bay Company. The commemoration culminated with the formation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Tercentennial Commission in 1929, which oversaw thousands of events, including processions, pageants, historical exercises, old home weeks, exhibitions and expositions, the publication of various commemorative materials like Massachusetts on the Sea and Pathways of the Puritans, and the erection of roadside historical markers across the Commonwealth (the Salem markers are all “missing”—I’m coming to the unfortunate conclusion that there has been a long cumulative campaign to remove as much of Salem’s tangible history as possible, with the relocation of the Phillips Library as the end game! Maybe we are cursed–or maybe I’ve lost my perspective).

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Smithsonian/National Postal Museum

There was also some sort of map initiative: as I’ve found several pictorial/historical maps–of the commonwealth, various regions, and individual towns–published in this period, often by the Tudor Press and under the auspices (and with the approval) of the Tercentenary Conference of City and Town Committees. Elizabeth Shurtleff’s Map of Massachusetts. The Old Bay State (which is in the Phillips Library but fortunately also in David Rumsey’s vast digital collection) is one such map, and there are others representing Cape Cod, Cape Ann, Boston, and several other Massachusetts towns and cities. As you can see from the cropped images of James Fagan’s map of Shawmut/Boston 1630-1930 and Coulton Waugh’s map of Cape Ann and the North Shore, these maps were “historical” in an extremely subjective way, emphasizing achievements above all. As explicitly stated by Fagan, they pictorialize progress above all. I’m sure that this message was particularly important given the coincidental timing of the Massachusetts Tercentenary and the onset of the Great Depression.

Pictorial Map Shurtleff

Pictorial Map Boston

Pictorial MAP Cape Ann

So far, I’ve seen 1930 pictorial/historical maps of Ipswich, Concord, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Cambridge, and the other day, while looking for something altogether different in the digital collections of the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, I came across of one of Salem! Very exciting–I thought I had chased down every Salem map in existence but no, there was (is) The Port of Salem, Massachusetts by Warren H. Butler, published by the Tudor Press in 1930. This is a perfect Colonial Revival map really, focused on recreating a rather whimsical/historical “olde” Salem rather than tracing the path of progress. I love it, even though my own house seems to have been swallowed up by an extended Hamilton Hall on lower Chestnut Street. It’s hard to date this map: in the accompanying text, Butler says “here are the ancient streets of Salem”, but while the streets depicted seem to be vaguely Colonial, the buildings that line these streets are of varying periods. His Salem is a port city first and foremost, but while he includes ships in both the harbor and North River and Front Street is really Front Street, the massive Gothic Revival train station is here too. Samuel McIntire’s courthouse is located in its historic location on Washington Street, just a few steps from the Greek Revival courthouse that still stands, vacant, in Salem. All of the Derby houses are on the map, including the majestic–and ephemeral—McIntire mansion which once sat in the midst of present-day Derby Square. In fact all of my favorite Salem houses, still-standing and long gone, are on Butler’s map: it’s a historio-fantasy map of non-Witch City, and I want to go there!

Pictorial Port of Salem

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Pictorial Salem 1

Pictorial Salem 3

Pictorial Salem 4You can zoom in on Salem’s “ancient” streets yourself at the BPL’s Leventhal Map Center.


Curtain Lectures

It was Burns Night at Hamilton Hall last night, and my husband and I were charged with giving the Toast to the Lassies and Reply. After a week steeped in the Ploughman Poet, both of us were a bit uncomfortable with the very bawdy Burns in this year of #metoo, so he went with the more inspiring Rights of Woman as the basis of his toast, which meant I had to go for the uplifting too. But I kind of wish he had gone with one of my favorite Burns poems, The Henpecked Husband. I don’t like it for its overall sentiment, of course, but because of just one phrase, curtain lecture, an idiom which I’ve used in class time and time again, because it always provokes a conversation!

The Henpecked Husband

Curs’d be the man, the poorest wretch in life, The crouching vassal to a tyrant wife!  Who has no will but by her high permission, What has not sixpence but in her possession; Who must to he, his dear friend’s secrets tell, Who dreads a curtain lecture worse than hell. Were such the wife had fallen to my part, I’d break her spirit or I’d break her heart; I’d charm her with the magic of a switch. I’d kiss her maids, and kick the perverse bitch.

Burns certainly didn’t coin this phrase; it had been around for quite a while. In my courses, I use the frontispieces from Thomas Heywood’s Curtaine Lecture (1637) and Richard Brathwaite’s Art Asleep, Husband? (1640) but I think the expression predates these works as well. It seems very Shakespearian to me, but the heavily-curtained seventeenth-century bed provides the perfect “frame” for wifely “advice”.

Curtain Lecture collage

If you pop these images up before a class of 19-year-olds you are immediately rewarded with their focused engagement in the history of women, marriage, gender relationships, satirical discourse, and material culture (inevitably their attention strays to the “alarm clock” on the table in the Heywood illustration). Lots of comments, lots of questions, all of which can be contextualized and connected to other timely trends. Obviously the notion had a wide appeal—or recognition–in the seventeenth century and after, which is why it survived up until Burns’ time. In an earlier post, I showed the Richard Newton caricature that dates from around the time of The Henpecked Husband, and it is one of many variations on the theme published in this era, give or take a few decades. As the era of curtained-beds closed, the curtain lecture continued, and was revived quite dramatically by the publication of Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures by Douglas Jerrold in Punch in 1845. These 37 illustrated lectures were published in book form that same year, and reissued frequently thereafter, inspiring a wave of  variant visual expressions in all sorts of mediums: stereoviews, postcards, even a board game. Now it is a general rule of mine that once animals (or birds) take the place of people a concept has jumped the shark (with a few exceptions), and it’s hard to conceive the curtain lecture could have lasted through the twentieth century in any case, but nevertheless it survives as an effective teaching tool.

Curtain Lecture J. Lewis Marks 1824

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Caudle 3 John Leech

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Curtain Lecture 1907 LOC

Curtain Lectures PC 1905

Curtain Lectures Chickens

Curtain DucksA Curtain Lecture pub. by J. Lewis Marks, 1824, British Museum; illustrations by John Leech for the first edition of Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures, 1845; Mrs. Caudle Card (with real hair!), Victoria & Albert Museum; 1907 stereoview from the Library of Congress; postcards, c. 1900-1910.


Salem Tokens, and my appreciation

Periodically, but continually, I get tokens from readers of my blog—scanned pictures or stories from old magazines, little pamphlets, scraps of Salem history—which I place in a file for safekeeping with the intent that I will devote one post to each item at some point. This file has grown pretty full, so I wanted to expose some of these items to the light of day. I’ve reserved some pieces for their own special posts, but I’m not sure I can contextualize all of these treasures so better just to get them out there as maybe someone else can! I’m so appreciative of all these gifts, and will be donating them to a public repository in due time, but for now I’m holding on to them, because I never know when inspiration will strike, or some other little piece of paper will come along to amplify something I already have. So here we go, perhaps the first of what may become a series of “tales from the files” posts, beginning with a lovely fundraising pamphlet issued by the Essex Institute in 1929, when its directors were seeking to raise the grand amount of $400,000. The focus is on preservation, accessibility, and “remembrance of things past” throughout the pamphlet, which features silhouettes of famous Salemites in the margins and highlights of the collections on every other page. I sense some emerging sentimentality around the old Essex Institute these days, with the prolonged absence of the Phillips Library: I’ve received several items in just the past few months.

Tokens first

Tokens Collage 2

Tokens Nurse

I have quite a collection of little books, souvenirs I suppose, including several of Fred Gannon’s compilations from the 1940s published by Salem Books Co., guidebooks such as the Streets & Homes in Old Salem, published from 1930 to 1953, and leather industry newsletters: I love the photograph of the old tanneries (on Goodhue Street???) which is in the Leather in Salem and Peabody newsletter below, sourced (of course) from the Essex Institute.

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Tokens 4

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Salem Tokens

Tokens Leather Collage

Token Tannery

My own postcard collection has been supplemented by gifts from readers, encompassing cards from all eras, undivided and divided backs, dignified black-and-white and cheerful chromes, depicting mostly Salem buildings—people don’t send me witches, except for very close friends! Last but far from least, I have been privileged to receive quite a few family photographs–scans of course–including one of my very favorites below: some lovely ladies and the bride at a Ropes Family wedding in 1898.

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Salem Tokens Lucia Ropes Wedding Day 1890s


Nuts-and-Bolts Bankers

I love everything about this little pamphlet I picked up the other day commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Merchant’s National Bank of Salem in 1911: In the Year 1811. The graphics, the format, the paper, the fonts. The whole point of the pamphlet is to show how much changed from 1811 to 1911, and how integral the Merchants National Bank was to that change. Everything is so much better in the latter year, everything is so modern, and to illustrate this modernization, in both words and pictures, the pamphlet privileges the practical side of life over the big political events that shaped the century: transportation, heating, cooking, lighting, clothing, and commerce, of course. There is one sentence referencing the wars of the century, and presidents are referenced only by their age at the time of the incorporation of the bank. 

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There are several references to Salem’s notable architecture, but again, it’s really all about the bank, which showcases its new headquarters on Essex Street, “colonial in architecture and absolutely fire-proof in construction. The walls are of brick; roof and floors of concrete. There is nothing to burn; the city might be swept by a conflagration, and the building of the Merchants Bank would still stand”. Of course this strikes one as a very prescient statement, as Salem would  be “swept by a conflagration” in only three short years: the Great Salem Fire of 1914. The new bank building stood tall, but primarily because the fire did not reach downtown. Samuel McIntire is not mentioned in the pamphlet, despite the fact that 1811 was the year of his death.

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The new bank building on Essex Street, the Old Witch House, and a representative Salem porch.

I think the illustrator of most (certainly not all) of the charming sketches in the pamphlet are the work of Salem-born artist George Elmer Browne, based on the illustration of Salem’s first Eastern Railroad depot, which is attributed to Browne elsewhere. Everyone is familiar with the great Gothic Revival structure that was built in the 1840s and unceremoniously demolished in the 1950s, but this was its less imposing predecessor. Now that was a big change!

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train-station-pikes

Browne’s illustrations of the First E.R. Depot in Salem, in Francis B.C. Bradlee’s The Eastern Railroad: A Historical Account of Early Railroading in Eastern New England (1917) and the second depot in 1911-12 Report of the Salem Plans Commission.


Toasts and Toadstools

There are myriad good luck charms associated with the New Year, and I’ve featured many of them already, including the Scottish “First Footing” ritual and the pig and chimney sweep traditions of continental Europe. I really can’t speak to the southern traditions of eating Hoppin’ John and collard greens, and horseshoes and clover seem to be universally lucky at all times of the year, so I think I’m going to go with toadstools this particular New Year. Very prominently featured on the New Year’s postcards produced and disseminated in large quantities a century or so ago are red-and-white-capped toadstools scattered about—these are “red fly” mushrooms called Fliegenpilze in Germany (which produced most of these same postcards) and they are very lucky indeed. If you’ve ever seen one of these (the proper Latin name is amanita muscaria) out in the wild, you would understand why it is such a storied plant: it looks not quite real, wondrous, and is said to have both insecticide and hallucinogenic qualities. Despite the fact that one of my favorite King Penguin books classifies this mushroom as poisonous, it was apparently a stroke of luck to encounter one: in doing so you becomes a Glückspilz (literally a lucky mushroom; metaphorically a lucky person).  It is no wonder these ‘shrooms ended up in both Alice and Wonderland and on all those New Years’ postcards, and on this particular year, on the mantle in my front parlor: I am taking no chances with 2017!

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An assortment of New Year’s postcards from my own collection and the Digital Collections of the New York Public Library; the holly and the……..mushrooms on a Mela Koehler Christmas card from the Lauder Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Amanita muscaria in John Ramsbottom’s Poisonous Fungi (1945).

I was just down in Rhinebeck, New York for Christmas at my brother’s house, and I had about twenty minutes in one of my favorite stores anywhere: Paper Trail. There were mushrooms in the window, and the most beautiful toadstool/mushroom (I must admit that I don’t know the difference) ornaments. So inspired, I switched up my own mushrooms (+ some hourglasses–very subtle) for the deer on the front mantle almost as soon as I got home. I think I have a pig somewhere in the basement so I might pop him on there too. And a horseshoe.

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