Category Archives: Salem

Why are there no WPA Murals in Salem?

The various initiatives of the Works Progress Administration made their mark on Salem during the Depression: substantive work on Greenlawn Cemetery and the Salem Armory was completed, Olde Salem Greens was carved out of Highland Park, and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site was created along Derby Street. Many historic structures in Salem were measured and photographed under the aegis of the Historic American Building Survey, for which I am grateful nearly every day. I’m sure there were more infrastructural improvements implemented with federal funds in Salem in the 1930s, but I don’t have the time or the inclination to lose myself in the massive archives of the New Deal!  There is a conspicuous absence of federally-funded art in Salem however: no murals in the Post Office or City Hall illustrating the city’s dynamic and dramatic history. This absence is conspicuous because Massachusetts in general, and the North Shore in particular, is home to some notable New Deal murals, commissioned by various Federal cultural agencies to embellish public spaces with uplifting, patriotic, accessible American scenes while simultaneously providing unemployement for artists. There are amazing murals in Boston, Worcester and Springfield, and in Natick, Lexington, and Arlington, and here in Essex County, in Gloucester City Hall, Abbot Hall in Marblehead, the Topsfield Public Library, and the Ipswich Post Office. Moreover, there were several Salem artists who painted murals for the WPA elsewhere–but not in the city of their birth or residence. Why?

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Umberto Romano, “Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield”, Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Office Building, formerly the US Post Office, Springfield, Massachusetts, photograph by David Stansbury, and Hollis Holbrook,” John Eliot Speaks to the Natick Indians”, US Post Office, Natick, photograph by Thomas Cortue, both part of the joint Smithsonian National Postal Museum and National Museum of the American Indian exhibition, “Indians at the Post Office: New Deal-Era Murals”; Aiden Lassell Ripley, “Paul Revere’s Ride”, US Post Office, Lexington; and Charles Allen Winter’s “Protection of the Fisheries”,  and “Education” , two of 6 murals in Gloucester City Hall that have been recently restored.

I’ve been wondering about this for a while, but this weekend I was engaging in my semi-regular weekend fantasy-shopping-on-1stdibs session and I came across a study painting by Dunbar Beck for a mural entitled The Return of Timothy Pickering which eventually embellished the interior of the Danvers Post Office, where it remains to this day. And I thought to myself: why the hell was the mural commissioned for DANVERSWhy didn’t it come to Salem? Timothy Pickering is one of the most famous native sons of Salem, his house is here, and his mural should be here too. Danvers is the former Salem Village, and was long part of Salem, but still this mural clearly portrays Salem Town and harbor.

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Dunbar Beck, Study Painting for the Danvers Post Office mural “The Return of Timothy Pickering”, currently available from Renaissance Man Antiques on 1stdibs.

So, why no murals of Salem’s earliest settlements, famous vessels, lively port, sea captains’ mansions, or Witch Trials on the walls of public building downtown?  Well there would have had to be some visual reference to 1692, and that was hardly an uplifting American episode that could be used to raise spirits during the Depression. That’s the curse of 1692, which manifests itself time and time again. Or maybe there was no place for one in Salem’s relatively new Post Office or venerable City Hall. But I for one would like to see a simplistic scene of North America’s first elephant stepping on Salem soil somewhere around town.


Pope and Pagan; or Nativist Fun

Salem holds almost as prominent a place in the history of board games as it does in the origins of American maritime commerce and Federal architecture, due in overwhelming part to Monopoly, but before the Parker Brothers there were the Ives Brothers, the true pioneers of card-and board-game production. The publishing firm of W. and S.B. Ives was founded in 1823 by William and Stephen Ives, and operated through the mid-1850s, producing the Mansion of Happiness, generally acknowledged as the first American board game, as well as the widely-popular Improved and Illustrated Game of Dr. Busby. The success of the Ives Brothers, (or really William Ives as Stephen seems to have left the partnership relatively early) in effect created an industry by sparking imitation and competition from their fellow Massachusetts manufacturer, Milton Bradley, the McLoughlin Brothers in New York, and ultimately Parker Brothers. The American Antiquarian Society has a large collection of nineteenth-century board games, including many produced by the Ives firm, and while I was browsing around its digital collections the other day (looking for something altogether different) I encountered a rather provocative Ives board game called The Game of Pope and Pagan, or Siege of the stronghold of Satan, by the Christian army which was published in 1844. It’s a simple game, a variant of the perennial Fox and Geese, in which players constituting the “Christian” army lay siege to the “stronghold of Satan” which is occupied by the Pope and pagans: in the words of the game, “this simple amusement exhibits a band of devoted missionaries, attacking the strong-hold of Satan, defended by papal and pagan Antichrist”. I spend a lot of time in seventeenth-century England (I’m assuming the game’s title is derived from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) so I’m pretty familiar with strident anti-Catholicism but the more “modern” American offshoot in the nineteenth century shocks me every time I encounter it: what a cauldron Salem must have been at this time with its heady mixture of abolitionists and nativists (with a dash of temperance thrown in)! Apparently there were intersections among these groups but you wouldn’t know it from this game, in which “the white figures represent the missionaries, as white is they symbol of innocence, temperance, and hope…..as heraldic sable denotes grief after a loss, Pope and Pagan are in black, both denote gloom of error, and their grief at the daily loss of empire”.

 

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W. and S.B. Ives, The Game of Pope and Pagan, or Siege of the stronghold of Satan by the Christian army, Salem, Massachusetts, 1844, © American Antiquarian Society. 


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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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.


Trudging Along

Yesterday was a beautiful winter day with everyone out and about cleaning up after the Saturday snowstorm, which was not as bad north of Boston as it was to the south.The streets of Salem were clear by mid-morning, if not before (I was sleeping in), and people were engaged in their regular Sunday activities. There were Sunday street-hockey players out my front windows, and hungry birds out back.

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I suddenly became curious about snow removal in the past–mostly because I didn’t want to go out and engage in my own snow removal in the present. I have–and have seen–quite a few historic photographs of winter scenes in Salem in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but none of them feature snow carts, snow plows, or snow removal. Salem has always been quite urban, and people needed to get around, how did they manage? What was the system then that so preoccupies us now? Both the New York Public Library and the Boston Public Library have quite a few photographs of various methods of snow removal in their collections, from simple shovel brigades to “snow rollers”–I’ve never seen anything like that for Salem: anyone out there have anything?

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Chestnut and Lafayette Streets in the 1870s in stereoviews by Charles G. Fogg. Carriages on the snow—not even sleighs! But it’s not too deep here.

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Chestnut Street in the 1890s, deeper snow, no signs of plowing–but these carriages do look like they are on blades. I’ve shown these before; they are from a family archive in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard.

My problem is that I don’t have any winter scenes of Washington or Essex Streets with tracks that needed to be cleared: Chestnut was and remains strictly residential. I still think people trudged around a lot more than we do now, however. Look at these two wonderful photographs of students from the Horace Mann “Training School” associated with the Salem State Normal School (now Salem State University, where I teach) and their teacher, visiting historic sites downtown in the snow.Look at her skirt: she’s not troubled by a little snow.

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E.G. Merrill photographs of Horace Mann students, 1904, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections

Like everything else, our toleration for snow in the streets changed with the automobile: we won’t settle for anything less than black the day after a snowstorm now. The wonderful book by Marblehead artist, photographer, and author Samuel ChamberlainSalem in Four Seasons (1938) shows winter streets cleared for cars and pedestrians. And he agrees with me: some of Salem’s most beautiful moments are in winter, when few visitors see it (though a lot more now, fortunately).

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Plowing Chestnut Street in the 1930s, from Samuel Chamberlain’s Salem in Four Seasons (1938).


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.


The House with Nine Lives

One of the projects that my husband’s architectural firm has been working on is coming to a close, so I took advantage of a holiday open house to go in and see how the much-altered former Home for Aged Men/Sons of Poland/ Emmerton Hall of the House of the Seven Gables was being transformed into six condominiums. I like my title, so I’m keeping it–but it is incorrect: 114 Derby Street is actually a building on the cusp of leading ten lives (if you count all the new units individually). It was built in 1806 for Salem sea Captain Joseph Waters, and remained a single-family residence until 1877 when the great philanthropist John Bertram purchased it for his newly-established Home for Aged Men. After the Bertram Home moved to the Common (where it remains), the Sons of Poland transformed 114 Derby Street into a fraternal headquarters and social club, and it continued to serve in the latter function, essentially, when the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association purchased it in 1966 and renamed it after its founder, Caroline O. Emmerton. As envisioned by Emmerton, the Gables was an institution that was founded to realize the joint goals of preservation and settlement, and its social activities had outgrown the constraints main campus across the street. Everyone in Salem consequently refers to this building as the “Settlement House”, though that identity was relatively short-lived in the context of its entire history. The Frank Cousins photograph below, taken in the early twentieth century when the house was the Bertram Home for Aged Men, shows some semblance of its original Federal appearance.

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The Waters House c. 1912 (Urban Landscape Collection, Duke University Library) and today. Third-floor ghost windows on both the main house and the 1983 addition of 114 Derby Street are reminiscent of the house’s Federal past.

Every “life” brought major architectural changes to the old Waters House, but it appears that the twentieth-century alterations were particularly extensive: the building’s exterior and interior were completely transformed by the Sons of Poland in the 1930s, and the Gables added the present addition to the back and side in 1983 (which everyone I know disdains but now looks pretty cool). The mission of the Gables has evolved over the last decade or so, and consequently its trustees made the decision to sell the building last year.This last (maybe!) evolution of 114 Derby Street has been pretty speedy, and the six (sold-out) residences should be ready for occupancy this spring.

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The addition s) and all those institutional uses mean that the new condominiums all (I think all!) have their own entrances.

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Old stairwells and New spaces being carved out of the Waters/Settlement House: as you can see, the units are quite large (1-3 bedrooms with expansive living/dining spaces) and include parking out back. 


Keeping Christmas

Well, after all that immersion into Puritan anti-Christmas tracts I was doubting my own Christmas observances–powerful stuff! I’m pretty Protestant in my religious sentiments (though raised Episcopalian—on the fence) so there is something there that resonates with me, plus I’ve been teaching Reformation history for 20+ years! So I thought I would go back to the ultimate source (well, after the bible), Martin Luther, and see what he thought about Christmas. Next year, coming fast, is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the commencement of the Reformation, so I have a stack of timely publications by my bedside to consult, but the best source by far was an older compilation, Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, edited by the eminent Reformation historian Ronald Bainton. It is very clear from this collection of Luther’s sermons that he was no Puritan, and some of his most inspiring words were written about the Nativity. Luther does not tell us how to celebrate this event, but given his exuberance at Christmas time, combined with his natural hospitality (offered through his wife Katharina, who regularly had visitors at her table in addition to their six children and assorted hangers-on), we can imagine that he would not condemn a festive observance of the holiday. Three centuries later, the German artist and illustrator Carl Schwerdtgeburth created an image of Luther and his family with a Christmas tree in their midst, an image that went viral just at the time that the Christmas we know and love was created. There is no historical basis for this image, but it was disseminated so far and widely in its time–and even more so in ours–that the legend of Luther’s Christmas tree will never die.

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The nineteenth century interprets the sixteenth: Carl Schwerdtgeburth’s popular print of Luther and his (lit) Christmas tree, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

While all Protestants sought to reduce the power of the saints by disdaining the observance of traditional Feast Days, Christmas was an exception for Luther (and even for Calvin, though not for all Calvinists–the Puritans a notable case in point) who clearly perceived it not only as a day that rightly focused on Christ but also as a social holiday. There is a liberation and a joyousness in Lutheran theology–attained only through God’s gift of grace in return solely for faith–that can support all sorts of festivity: for if you possess faith your heart cannot do otherwise than laugh for joy in God, and grow free, confident and courageous. For how can the heart remain sorrowful and dejected when it entertains no doubt of God’s kindness to it, and of his attitude as a good friend with whom it may unreservedly and freely enjoy all things. Such joy and pleasure must follow faith; if they are not ours, certainly something is wrong with our faith (2nd Christmas sermon, 1522). This is only one small passage of a much longer sermon, but I think it’s representative–and a great antidote to all those dour Puritan tracts!

I’ve always been a bit concerned that the joy and pleasure that I experience during the Christmas season is too materialistic–not focused on gifts per se but rather on the “trimmings” of the season: lights, decorations, trees, wreaths, food, drink, stuff.  But this year I’m given myself license to “unreservedly and freely enjoy all things”. Luther’s Christmas tree might be the stuff of lore and legend, but I don’t think he would have any problem with decking the halls.

“Keeping Christmas” in Salem, 2016–my favorite trimmings:  a beautiful Italianate house (which has been going through an extensive restoration) all dressed up for the season, wreaths, wreaths, wreaths, downtown lights, and Paxton’s perfect window.

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I’m not hosting Christmas this year, so I instead of the usual HUGE tree I went for two smaller potted ones, because I hate seeing trees die. The mantles and bookcases have the usual creature compositions, including mice, deer, foxes, elephants, rabbits, and a lone giraffe.

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And hedgehogs from medieval manuscripts for my gift tags: they supposedly rolled on the ground to collect grapes for their young, making them look quite Christmassy. Merry Christmas, everyone!


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