I am very, very anxious about the election and can think of little else. I have enough of a historian’s sensibility, of a human’s sensibility, to know that this is the most momentous election of my life. Of course there is little that I can do–other than donate and vote–so I have been appeasing my anxieties in my usual way: by reading about elections past. It has also helped me to read and listen to Boston College history professor HeatherCoxRichardson, who has been putting the current situation in a comprehensive historical context for months now: talk about commitment! I have learned a lot about American history during this whole blogging experience, but I think I’ve learned more in the last 6 months than the past ten years: the problem is, I’ve been looking for the comfort of we’ve been here before but I seem to be surmising that many aspects of our current situation are truly aberrant! Apart from the search for context, there is just something very interesting about the logistics and detritus of elections past: in this digital age, we don’t have enough electoral texture. So here are just a few items that caught by eye.
Early Election Ballots:I love browsing through the early election ballots at the AmericanAntiquarianSociety: if you don’t understand the Electoral College—they are rather clear illustrations: also of the evolving concept of the ticket. Plus it’s interesting to see the emergence and disappearance of various political parties.
Mass Appeal: I love this flyer for Nathaniel Prentice Banks (also from the American Antiquarian Society), who was running for a Massachusetts congressional seat in the election of 1852. I don’t know if you can read it all, but he is appealing to all different sorts of men—mechanics, young men, middle-aged men and veterans! Plus he courts the ladies, and exhorts them to “stir up” their men!
Voting by Mail: since 1864. Very American. Poll Book from the Smithsonian Institution.
Poll Taxes! Who knew?I associated poll taxes with the segregated South, but in fact, people had to pay them right here in Massachusetts, and in other states as well, right up to the ratification of the 24th amendment in 1964! Imagine paying to vote. Imagine being an active suffragist, working your whole life for the voting rights of women, all women, and even after enfranchisement this barrier is still there! There were a few snarky articles published in the Boston papers right after the ratification of the 19th amendment in which the theory was put out there that perhaps women wouldn’t want to vote as they would have to tell the poll tax assessor their true ages! Unbelievable!
A Salem Parade Flag.Just because it must have been fun to see election parades, which I assume must have brought people together, but perhaps not. 13-star flag used in 1896 Salem parade, Cowan’s Auctions.
Pinback Buttons! Never can get enough of these: most are Roosevelt and McKinley, 1900 & 1904, from the Smithsonian; the Citizen pin is from 1915-20 and the Ann Lewis Suffrage Collection. I love the sentiment of Vote as you please but please vote.
A flyer from Margaret Chase Smith’s presidential campaign, 1964 (Smithsonian Collection). Because Margaret Chase Smith. And that’s as close as I am getting to our present time.
The other day I came upon another beautiful dress which was once worn by Elizabeth Goodhue Millett Fenollosa (1858-1920), a Salem girl who had a very interesting life, mostly because of her marriage: to fellow Salem native Ernest Fenollosa, who became a famous art historian/curator/professor and aficionado/advocate of all things traditional Japanese. They traveled together to Japan in their twenties in order for him to take up the post as the first professor of political economy at the newly established Tokyo University upon the recommendation of their fellow Salemite Edward Sylvester Morse. The westernization policies of the Meiji Restoration gave them both an unusual opportunity to expand their own horizons exponentially: Fenollosa became submerged in Japanese culture but we have fewer insights into Lizzie’s (as everyone seems to call her) intellectual life. But her material life is more accessible: through photographs among the Fenollosa collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library and items like her amazing dresses, donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by her family. Lizzie was the daughter of a Salem apothecary who grew up in a lovely, but quite simple, house on Buffum Street in North Salem: it’s so amazing to think of her plunge into such a new, exotic, and sumptuous culture in her twenties. I wish she kept a diary!
From Salem to Tokyo: Advertisement for Elizabeth Goodhue Millett’s father’s business, Salem Register, 1851; Her two silk dresses from the late 1880s donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by her daughter, Brenda Fenollosa Biddle (the bottom one is a Worth, which I also featured in this post); Two photographs of the Fenollosa’s Tokyo home, c. 1886, Houghton Library.
The Fenollosas remained in Japan from 1878 until 1890: his university contracts were renewed successively and in 1884 he was appointed Professor of Philosophy and Logic. Their two children, Ernest Kano and Brenda, were born in Tokyo in 1880 and 1883 respectively. Young Ernest died in the spring of 1887 in Salem and is buried in Harmony Grove Cemetery; Brenda is one of the key memorialists of her parents’ life in Japan, and we can only get glimpses of Lizzie’s life through her. Recalling her childhood in Tokyo, she remembered the Fenollosa house (called KagaYashiki) as “a large establishment” with “two butlers; a cook, with his two assistants; two laundresses; a seamstress; two gardeners; a night watchman; three jin–rikisha men; the bath boy; mother’s maid; as well as my Chinese nurse and Japanese maid.”* Large indeed! Again, the contrast between Lizzie’s lives in Salem and Tokyo seems dramatic. When the Fenollosas returned to the United States in 1890 upon his appointment as the first curator of Oriental Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Boston papers were a bit feverish in their reporting on the glamorous couple: the Boston Daily Globe reported that “he has a manner of much refinement to match his mental cultivation,” while “Mrs. Fenollosa is a pretty woman, who dresses stylishly and has been heard to compare Boston’s gowns and prices with those of Paris in a way not complimentary to local talent and conscience.” [ouch] Their residence, the “White house” on Commonwealth Avenue, was “most artistic, almost a museum of oriental furnishings.” But all came tumbling down several years later when the Fenollosas divorced in very public fashion: he had taken up with assistant at the museum, Mary McNeil, and she went to Minneapolis (the Reno of their day?] for an uncontested divorce. The late fall of 1895 was definitely a readallaboutit moment for them, and I can imagine that this was absolutely devastating for Lizzie, but I really don’t know.
The divorce headlines and stories have common themes: a childhood romance, her beauty, his intellect: “Miss Millett had been for years an acknowledged belle of Salem, being a perfect blonde, with a real peach-blown complexion, and the union of one so brilliant intellectually with one so beautiful in face and form, and possessing so sweet a disposition was looked upon as portending a future of marital happiness beyond a doubt.” But alas, it was not to last. Fenollosa married his assistant Mary McNeil, and they took off for New York and Japan, while Lizzie remained in Massachusetts. Every summer she was up north in some society location, chiefly North Conway and Bar Harbor, always well-dressed. Again, we seem to be able to get to her only through her beloved daughter Brenda, and longer stories surface coincidentally with the latter’s marriage in 1913 to Moncure Biddle of Philadelphia. It is revealed that Brenda suffered the misfortune of a runaway husband in her first marriage, and I can only think of Lizzie, who endured the death of her young son, a very public betrayal and divorce, and then Brenda’s own betrayal. A strong woman, for sure, and also a beautiful and well-dressed one! I wish I knew more about her.
Boston Sunday Globe: Brenda appears to have found happiness at last. She and Moncure were married until his death in 1959; she died three years later.
* As cited in Felice Fischer, “Meiji Painting from the Fenollosa Collection,” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 88, No. 375 (Autumn, 1992): 1-24.
I can’t get through the 2020 Year of Blogging on #SalemSuffrageSaturdays, historic houses, and the occasional book-inspired post alone: the most important place for everyone this year was the home, and so I need to show you more of mine to be true to its spirit. There were also some big changes to my home this year: for better, for worse, and just change. Now that we’re in the final months of this challenging year, my overwhelming sentiment is one of gratitude: I feel fortunate to have a safe and secure home, full of lovely things, and more than sufficient space for work, sleep, play, and procrastinating. So here are my three domestic themes:
The year of three cats:
About a month ago, I lost my cat Darcy, who was nearly 20 years old. He had been sick with kidney disease for quite a while—so I knew this was coming, but I was quite determined that he should die at home. He lived his whole life in our house, and he was not a social cat: he really only tolerated me. Actually I think he liked me, as every time I walked into a room he was in he would turn up his nose and give me a little trill (the only word I can come up with to describe that sound—it wasn’t quite a meow). Because of the pandemic, and then my book contract, I had a lot of time with Darcy over these past seven months: we would sit together and I would work and he would sleep or stare at me. Despite eating and wanting to eat constantly, he grew thinner and thinner, but he seemed very comfortable and I just hoped he would drift off, at home. I had experienced the deaths of two previous cats—Flannery and Moneypenny—through disruptive seizures and I craved a peaceful death for Darcy, but my vet convinced me that a crisis was imminent, so we had to put him down. Our other cat Trinity came to us shortly after she had given birth to her litter outside, been rescued, and fixed–while all of her kittens were put up for adoption. She has been making “nests” and crying for them for five years, so I always thought after Darcy was gone we would adopt a kitten: I knew she would not recognize the kitten as her kitten, but I though it would be at least a better age match—so I moved pretty quickly to adopt and now we have Tuck! Trinity is not pleased with this addition: for a while she seemed to have lost her own personality and become stand-offish Darcy incarnate but she seems to be reverting to form now: hopefully she just had to establish her “ranking” status. We have a bit more to work out, here at home.
One of Darcy’s last photographs, Trinity, Tuck.
We’ve needed a kitchen remodel forever; I don’t know why we moved forward in this particular year but apparently renovations are a big trend in this home-focused year. Kitchens in older houses are generally just boxes added onto the back; our house’s original kitchen is in the basement, and it looks pretty original. Our “modern” kitchen looked like it was put in in the 1950s or 1960s, but we found the bones of a much older kitchen when we ripped everything out; the new kitchen is completely new, except for the floorboards, which we found under three layers of vinyl. Thank goodness for them, because my pet peeve is new kitchens that don’t have anything to do with the rest of the house. We put a lot of thought—and spent quite a lot of money—connecting the kitchen to the rest of the house through materials and details, because it really wasn’t before. We commissioned a big slab of mahogany for our island because we wanted to balance the mahogany staircase in the front, and more practical quartz for the other counters. I think we succeeded in making the “box out back” more connected to the main house, but it took all summer: another reason why Darcy and I got to spend so much time together up on the third floor away from the dust and the noise! Here’s the whole process: before, during, after:
Stripping down and building back layers: that wattle & daub look is called “backplastering” and look at the floor “before”! Cabinets everywhere on the first floor for six weeks or so. The general contractor was our neighbor across the street, Leon Kraunelis, of RedwineDevelopment, floors by DanLabrecque , and mahogany table top by AlpineWoodworks right here in Salem. I changed up my jadeite for ironstone from my friend Betsy at WindyHillAntiques.
Living and working all over the house:
So I received my book contract in early July and went right to work: primarily in my third-floor study, a third-floor bedroom (because it had a bed for Darcy) and a second floor bay-window room that we call the “Nosy Room” because the previous owners did and it looks out over all of Chestnut Street. I taught a summer class, and now I’m teaching four classes in addition to writing. I find that I need to change my surroundings to be productive—and I can’t really go anywhere: not to my office, not to the library. So I’m basically working all over the house. I’ve been zooming everywhere, just to change it up for my students: I decorated the double parlors this past weekend with the rationale that it was for them but it was really because I bought so much John Derian Halloween stuff at Target! The only room I haven’t taught in yet is the kitchen: moving into there this week.
Various “studies”, and one of my big scores of the summer: a Salem Marine Society certificate! I have never been able to resist John Derian, so off to Target I went as soon as his stuff hit the stores. I bought three of those black cats.
It seems ridiculous, but when I moved to Salem I remember being surprised at the extent of Halloween hoopla and kitsch in the city: it seemed really tacky to me but not particularly concerning. It was the early 1990s, I was still in graduate school, and frankly more wrapped up in the literature and discussion surrounding the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing than the 300th anniversary of the Salem witch trials. I was also much more familiar with the European witch trials, an extended crisis by which over 100,000 people were accused of witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so the Salem trials seemed like a much smaller event to me: in terms of size, extent, impact. I had visited Trier and Bamberg at the center of the witch-trial-storm in Germany, where hundreds had been executed for the “exceptional crime” in the 1580s and the 1620s: neither had transformed themselves in Witch Cities; I had spent considerable time in Essex, the county which was the most impacted by the less-intense English witch trials: no Witch Cities to be found there either. So I was surprised by Salem, even though I grew up only an hour away and had visited the Salem Witch “Museum” on a school trip (when I swear I saw the same “performance” that is playing there now). I suspect I was so bewitched by the architecture that I looked the other way!
18th century Witch Trial relief sculpture in Düsseldorf: Horst Ossinger dpa/lnw
After several years in residence, I lost my naiveté and came to realize just how insidious witchcraft tourism was in Salem and how powerful were its purveyors. Halloween just got bigger and longer, as the city’s identity, as well as the experience of residential life, were fused with a holiday that had a very tenuous connection to the 1692 trials, whose victims were not witches. One of the effects–an unintended consequence, I’m sure– of the 1992 commemoration was to provide a rationale for the continued commercial exploitation of the trials, under the label of toleration: Salem has risen above its moment of extreme intolerance so it is perfectly ok for us to profit from it! We are not profiting we are educating! This message facilitated the Halloween steamroller perfectly and kept it rolling; it is still rolling. Salem’s children are not in schools during this pandemic, but tourists fill our streets: priorities. So obviously, I’m not a fan, but even more so than the exploitative nature of Salem’s Halloween I am bothered (and actually a little bewildered) by the lack of any public dialogue about it. There is simply no procedural opportunity for any person—resident, victim descendant, whomever—to say Hey this is wrong, or even ask to tone it down. The city puts out a questionnaire to Salem residents after every Halloween season, but all the questions are about logistics (traffic, parking, carnival): it is either assumed that everyone buys into the hellish Halloween, or the city government just doesn’t care what its residents think about it. When I look back over my long residence in Salem, I think there were only two eventful opportunities to discuss the way the city was selling itself: a brief moment prior to the placement of the Bewitched statue in Town House Square in the Spring of 2005, and the first screening of the documentary Witch City in the Spring of 1997. The more recent opportunity was extremely limited, as the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) moved fairly quickly to grant permission for the statue’s placement in Salem’s most historic square in time for TV Land, its sponsor, to reap the benefits of cross-promotional advertising for the film Bewitched in June of 2005. The city of Salem was unmoved by the fact that the statue of a fictional witch would stand in close proximity to the location at which the very real victims of 1692 were condemned as witches or the appeals of those victims’ descendants in 2005, and it remains so. There was controversy over Samantha in 2005, but I remember more controversy about the debut of Witch City in 1997, but that might be just because I had a more invested view.
City of Salem advertising in the 1990s: a still from the 1997 documentary WitchCity. City of Salem advertising today.
Whew! That was a long preamble to the central topic of this post: the documentary itself, and its Salem debut, prompted by its recent availability (for the first time) here. Witch City is a fast-moving, often-funny, always spot-on documentary about Salem’s escalating Halloween in the 1990s, a place and a time when “American history encounters American capitalism” (I think the latter won). It was made by several local filmmakers, Joe Cultrera, Henry Ferrini, Philip Lamy, Bob Quinn and John Stanton, and in classic documentary fashion it lets most of the participants speak for themselves: Arthur Miller and Elie Wiesel at Tercentenary events, the- then Mayor of Salem, Neil Harrington, the “official witch of Salem”, Laurie Cabot, and the owner of the Salem Witch “Museum”, Bif Michaud, among others. Mr. Michaud, of Marblehead, made an unfortunate and perplexing comment equating the Witch Trials and the Holocaust (you’ll have to hear it for yourself) in the film which leaked out, causing considerable discussion in town and the Peabody Essex Museum to cancel the Salem premiere so not to offend its neighbor. Somehow, my colleague Tad Baker and I came up with the idea that our Department might sponsor the premiere: we were new to Salem State, untenured and unconnected, but we had the encouragement and support of our senior colleague John Fox, who had worked with Joe Cultrera on an earlier film, Leather Soul. And so that’s what happened: the History Department sponsored the Salem premiere of Witch City at Hamilton Hall of all places: I remember the tech people laying wires all day long in the Hall but I can’t recall why we didn’t have it at the university! The show was sold out, the Hall was packed, and we had a great panel featuring Tad and Danvers Archivist Richard Trask, now both acknowledged as THE authorities on the Trials. There was lively discussion, and I remember thinking: we can talk about this, we will talk about this when it was over. Witch City went on to be screened at the Immaculate Conception church and eventually on our local PBS station, WGBH, but unfortunately the Hamilton Hall premiere was not the beginning of a sustained public dialogue about Halloween in Salem, but rather just one brief shining moment.
Boston Globepiece on the premiere by Anne Driscoll, a Salem Award winner 20 years later.
You can rent, stream, or download Witch City here.
A well-interpreted house museum can offer up multiple perspectives, encouraging visitors to explore what interests them. I’ve been on some less-inspired tours of historic houses, believe me: too many family stories without any context whatsoever and too much plastic fruit are my own particular aversions. But a good house tour is a veritable–and personal–window into the past, and if it’s a particularly old house, many windows. One of Salem’s oldest houses, the PickeringHouse (c. 1664), been part of my life for a long time, but the other day I realized I had never taken a formal tour of it, or written a post! So I decided to rectify both slights this past weekend. I should lay all my cards on the table: the Pickering House was notable for having Pickering family inhabitants for decades but now is home to two good friends of mine, both energetic stewards who have hired in succession two stellar graduates of the History Department at Salem State as research docents: so I am a bit biased for sure. However, it seems objectively true that graduate #1, Jeff Swartz, really expanded the interpretation of the Pickering House during his tenure, and graduate #2, Amanda Eddy, is clearly following his example.
As Amanda told me, the Pickering House was always owned by John Pickerings, from the 17th century to the 20th, but the most conspicuous Pickering was Colonel Timothy Pickering, Adjutant-General and Quartermaster General of the Continental Army, Washington-appointed Postmaster General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and Representative, negotiator of Indian treaties, including one (miraculously) still standing, farmer. He himself was a multi-dimensional man, so if you’re going to tell the story around him, you’re going to have many stories. But the other Pickerings are interesting too: I could tell that Amanda was particularly fascinated with the John Pickering VI, who oversaw the trim transformation of the house’s front façade in1841, in the midst of a Gothic Revival craze in Salem driven largely by Colonel Francis Peabody of Kernwood and Harmony Grove fame. Mary Harrod Northend believed that Mr. Pickering was inspired by famous Peacock Inn in Rowsley, Derbyshire, but I’m not so sure.
Colonel Tim presiding over the Dining Room, Amanda Eddy showing us the evolution of the house; the Peacock Inn, UK National Archives.
So if it’s architectural history you’re after you have a wealth of styles to explore in the Pickering House: First Period craftsmanship of the seventeenth century, Gothic Revival style of the nineteenth, Colonial Revival elements added in the twentieth. If you’re more focused on material or visual culture, there are wonderful examples of needlework, portraits of Pickerings by Joseph Badger, and lots of little things to see. I love curio cabinets, and Amanda opened up the Pickering cabinet for us and took out: a piece of Old Ironsides, a pair of old eyeglasses, and the skeleton key to the front door. If your interest is more textual, there is a fabulous family library in the east room, a fragment of Timothy Pickering’s and Rebecca White’s wedding banns in the west, and a manuscript cookbook in the dining room. As Amanda is working with the family archives in the attic, she brought down several of John VI’s handwritten topical pieces for us to see, touch, and read.
Western parlor with portrait of Mary Pickering Leavitt (1733-1805) and her daughter Sarah by Joseph Badger; Hessians!; wonderful portrait by Mary, restored by textile conservator Elizabeth Lahikainen in 2017; the Pickering family arms; from the curio cabinet; LOVE this china pattern but forgot to ask what it is—please inform, someone; family books and one of John VI’s essays.
These are the kind of fabled places which should thrive during this pandemic as we all strive for connections: personal, cultural, social, historical. No crowds: just careful and curious people. There were just five of us, inside yes, but keeping our social distance with masks in place. We signed the register: proper procedure but also contract tracing. And yes, there were even a few witches.
Gender wars of the medical kind for this week’s #SalemSuffrageSaturday post, although I am uncertain of how much of a battle was waged here in Salem. Commencing in the seventeenth century with the efforts of the emigre Chamberlen brothers, armed with their supposed expertise and trade/family secret forceps, male physicians began to move into the lucrative practice of midwifery and consequently push women practitioners out in England. London’s midwives, licensed (first by the Church and later by the Royal College of Physicians), well-established and -esteemed, fought back with petitions, asserting that Neither can Dr Chamberlane teach the art of midwifery in most births because he hath no experience in itt but by reading and it must bee continuall practise in this kind that will bringe experience, and those women that desire to learn must be present at the deliv’y of many women and see the worke and behavious of such as be skilfull midwifes who will shew and direct them and resolve their doubts. These sentiments were expressed more fully in the first book about midwifery written by an English woman, Jane Sharp’s Midwives Book: or The Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered, first published in 1671 and in print until 1725.
Gonville and Caius Library, Cambridge University.
The encroachment of male physicians on an endeavor that had always been confined to women continued and accelerated in England over the eighteenth century, as an “obstetrics revolution” unfolded, but midwives continued to defend their territory with both pen and practice, and satirical artists joined the fray, with images of fumbling and grabbing doctors in wide circulation. The most arresting one by far was Isaac Cruikshank’s Man-Midwife (1793), a strange beast indeed. By the end of the century, midwives had lost about half of their market, as the wealthy and fashionable demanded the services—not quite so suspect as a century before—of educated physicians.
The same scenario seems to have played itself out on this side of the Atlantic, although over a more constricted time period and with less organized opposition by American midwives, who did not have the numbers and public presence of their English counterparts. Midwives were very clearly held in high esteem in the new world as well: the adjectives used in their newspaper obituaries (after the hundreds and in some cases thousands of births they facilitated were noted) were: “godly”, “skillful”, “excellent” and “expert”. It is clear that their communities revered them. According to my survey of Boston and Salem newspapers, however, their advertisements get fewer and fewer after the Revolution and then suddenly, around 1795, the man-midwives arrive. That very year, as Mrs. Mary Wardilloe died in the charity hospital, Alexander Hunt, physician, surgeon and man-midwife (always a triple threat) set up shop in Salem.
Wellcome Library +Salem Gazette
After the turn of the nineteenth century, there are few references to professional midwives in the Salem papers, with the exception of death notices. In an effort to revive and professionalize the practice, Dr. Samuel Gregory founded the Boston Female Medical School to train midwives in 1848. Gregory’s motivations seem more moral than feminist, echoing the opinions raised in London a century before in his 1848 tract Man-Midwifery: Exposed and Corrected: “the employment of men in midwifery practice is always grossly indelicate, often immoral, and always constitutes a serious temptation to immorality.” The school was later assimilated into the Boston University School of Medicine, as midwifery was sidelined by the development of obstetrics, the emergence of nursing as a medical career choice for women, and the removal of childbirth from the home to the hospital.
The medical establishment of Boston, represented by The Boston Medical Journal, responded to Dr. Gregory with an opinion that “the transfer of the responsibilities of the lying-in chamber from the midwife to the educated accoucheur, resulted in a diminution of the mortality incident to childbirth, in the course of half a century, to half the former—and that physicians are more moral than clergymen.” Boston Post, April 4, 1856.
Appendix: yes, I have written this post about London and Salem midwives without mentioning witchcraft, because that connection is largely mythical. There’s an excellent discussion of how the connection was created at Dig: A History Podcast: “Doctor, Healer, Midwife, Witch: How the Women’s Health Movement Created the Myth of the Midwife-Witch”.
Two very different tourist towns during the Pandemic of 2020: at the beginning of the summer, I was up in my hometown of York, Maine, so I wrote about its opening in the midst of Covid with every intention of writing a comparative “bookend” post on Salem. I am only getting to this now, with summer over and Salem’s Halloween season, 2020 version, gearing up. Yes: Halloween has arrived in Salem: apparently nothing can stop it, even a pandemic! The traffic and the crowds have increased noticeably over the last few weeks, and on Saturday I went for a walk to see to see what was up: I turned around after 5 minutes, it was simply too crowded for me to feel safe, after so many months of relative isolation. Then I went back on Sunday, and it was much better: less crowded, masks much in evidence, enough space away from the restaurants. I am wondering if social distancing downtown will be possible on October weekends: shops, restaurants, and attractions have limited capacity under the Covid conditions, so lines will form—and grow longer with each weekend until Halloween I expect.
Sunday 9/27/20: Salem downtown: not too bad! Most people had on masks, as the whole downtown is a mandatory mask zone. Mask ambassadors out and about. Longer lines at restaurants than the museums, with the exception of the Witch “Museum”, of course—which is not really a museum. This year, it finally gets some stiff competition from the Peabody Essex Museum with TWO Salem exhibitions on view: “Salem Stories” and the “Salem Witch Trials, 1692” (with authentic artifacts, expert curatorship and current historiography, as opposed to mannequins, narrative, and interpretation from circa 1968).
So I was originally going to title this post “City of Mixed Messages”, but after walking around, reading, and thinking a bit, I decided that wasn’t fair: I don’t think the City is putting out mixed messages. All the official events are canceled: people are just coming. There are attractions of course, like the traditional schlocky ones and the new PEM exhibitions, as well as a new Destination Salem app and a Frankenstein-esque HamptonInn, but apart from the specific draws, I just think people like to come to Salem for (a very extended) Halloween. Witch City has been built with a very solid foundation, and they will come. Away from Essex Street, all was pretty quiet even in the city center: the Charter Street Cemetery has been closed for repairs for quite some time, and I saw only respectful wanderers at the adjacent Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Memorial: certainly a far cry from this. The City’s message this year seems to be come with a mask and a plan (like voting!) and hopefully that’s what people will do.
Six feet apart was possible at the Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Memorial this past weekend.
But it’s still September. I am wondering how state protocols can be observed with more crowds. I saw lots of out-of-state license plates downtown: have these people quarantined for 14 days before they descended upon Salem? Last week when I visited the Beverly Historic Society, there were contact-tracing questions before I could enter the exhibition: is this happening in Salem? What’s going to happen on Halloween night, which is (of course, 2020) on a Saturday this year? No candy from me, kids; I’m sorry, I’ll double up next year.
As you can see, all was pretty quiet in the McIntire Historic District this past weekend, even in the Ropes Mansion garden, which is just GORGEOUS now—it’s the ultimate late-summer garden. The owners of this beautiful Italianate never do anything in half measures, but I suspect they must be part of Historic Salem’s Halloween event: HalloweeninSalem, a “festive virtual house tour” which will go live on October 9. A great idea and a safe way to experience Halloween in Salem.
I’ve learned a lot about Salem women, both as individuals and collectively, during this year of #salemsuffragesaturday posts, but there remain some gaps I’m looking to fill in the next few months. Of course I don’t have to stop posting about women when this commemorative year comes to a close, and I won’t, but when you focus over a period of time things become apparent. I gave a Zoom talk about “400 Years of Notable Salem Women” (kind of a ridiculous old-fashioned title, but I couldn’t come up with anything better) last week, and and afterward I was asked a question about church affiliations/religious life, and I thought: wow I have really skipped over that this year! This is a bias of mine in my teaching too: most of my scholarly and teaching focus is on the medieval and early modern periods, when religious identity was everything, and so whenever I get up into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries I’m like “people are not religious now”. Of course nothing could be rather than the truth: religion just becomes more separate and less public, but by comparison with the earlier eras religious affiliations and institutions seem subsumed by the secular. It’s very apparent that Salem’s churches served at the center of many women’s lives in the nineteenth and twentieth century, however, so that is something I need to address. I’m also interested in the social life of Salem women: their leisure activities, amusements, and associations. So far my collective view has been focused on advocacy and reform—the political life of women—but when they just wanted to hang out, what did they do? There were so many clubs and societies: very public and reform-minded, very secret and social, everything from the little-known Female Religious and Biographical Reading Society to the well-known Thought and Work Society, but what did Salem women do for fun?
This guy’s recommendations seem more prescriptive than descriptive…….
One activity came up again and again and again, in memoirs, personal histories, and newspaper accounts, in the early nineteenth century, the later nineteenth century, and the early 20th century: whist, a card game that dates back to the seventeenth century. Because of the Puritan disdain for cards, you don’t see any references to whist in the earlier century, but by the early nineteenth century it is clear that this was a popular pastime for Salem women (and men) and it grows more popular: looking back at the “gay” 1890s, James Duncan Phillips recalled that:
It took something more permanent than dances and parties to organize the society of Salem of the Nineties, and there were social organizations of the most firmly established character. At their head stood “Our Whist,” as it was always proudly referred to by its members. You had to be at least a Silsbee, or a Phillips, a Rantoul or a Gardner, or related to one, to belong to it, and before you could possibly join you must have been asked to “fill in” at least a dozen times…..This was good old-fashioned Whist—-none of the new-fangled varieties of bridge or contract, but the ladies took it just as seriously, and they were all old, very, very old friends….Whist night was a sacred appointment, and the loyal members were not supposed to break it or go elsewhere, nor was the night changed without serious consideration, or for any frivolous reason.” James Duncan Phillips, “Salem in the Nineties”, Essex Institute Historical Collections 89. (October 1953).
I am quite done with Phillips as a historian, having come across several letters of his in an archive which can only be described as racist, but sadly I can’t resist his remembrances, which are full of chatty details you don’t read elsewhere. He takes us right into the Chestnut Street parlor with this one, and goes on to report that the games were played in complete silence, but after the last hand the socialization began. I assume that sherry was in the hands of these genteel women (as in Boston) but he only refers to peppermints and “vulgar” chocolate bonbons as refreshments. Writing from the perspective of the mid-twentieth century, he does give us a valuable insight into the evolution—and end—of this venerable game: so many “new-fangled” variations emerged over the nineteenth century, and eventually several evolved into bridge.
So many different variations of whist—-trophy, progressive, duplicate, Boston, and more—and so much whist STUFF: markers, cards, chests, books. It’s a game that can be recounted through both literary and material culture.
If it was just a few Chestnut Street ladies I don’t think I would have bothered with whist, but I kept finding more references to it, indications that its popularity was more egalitarian and extensive. A case in point is this wonderful news item from the winter of 1900: Six Salem Willows Who Dug Out Snow-Blocked Street Railway After Employees Had Refused to Aid. Apparently the February 22 meeting of Juniper Point Whist Club in Salem Willows was imperiled by the snow drifts which covered the tracks of the Lynn & Boston railroad, so a “shovelling brigade” of six of the Willows’ “leading ladies” (Mrs. Harry Esbach, Mrs. John Swasey, Mrs. Joseph Brown, Mrs. Charles S. Brown, Mrs. John Dunn and Miss Louisa Choate) was formed, enabling to meeting to go on! The Boston Daily Globe goes on to report that the ladies cleared 150 feet of track in two hours: they were determined. You start to see some subtle (and not-so-subtle) criticisms of whist-playing women in the next few decades, like this “vinegar valentine” portraying a masculine-dress Suffragette torn between her whist/bridge meeting and voting Election Day.
Determined Salem Willows whist women: Boston Daily Globe, February 22, 1900; “vinegar” valentine, Kenneth Florey Suffrage Collection.
Moving back a bit, I have to admit that my interest in whist was really sparked by another memory of James Duncan Phillips: of a “living whist” game/performance held in Salem in 1892. This was a “famous” party, held at the Cadet Armory on Essex Street for the benefit of the Salem Hospital as he recalled, and “directed by a Madam Arcan.” Indeed, Madame Arcan directed living whist in over 25 American cities in 1892 and 1893, and the Salem event is prominently featured in several national newspaper stories. No pictures, unfortunately! Living whist seems to have been spin-off of the living chess “movement”, originating in Britain and spreading to the rest of the empire (and the US) over the 1890s, yet another expression of that very dynamic decade.
Living whist performances in Australia & San Francisco (right): the latter was directed by the famous Mme. Arcan, who also oversaw the Salem event in early 1892.
Certainly one of the most romanticized women in Salem’s history is Lady Arbella Johnson, who died here in the late summer of 1630, not long after she arrived on these shores in the flagstaff ship of the Winthrop fleet named after her, thus remaining ever young and beautiful. She was a Puritan martyr to Cotton Mather, “Coming from a paradise of plenty and pleasure in the family of a noble Earl into a wilderness of want, and unable to stem the tide of these many adversities of her outward condition, she died at Salem……and took New England on her way to heaven.” Her nobility is always noted: she was the daughter Thomas Fiennes-Clinton, the third Earl of Lincoln, and sister of Theophilus, the fourth earl. So there is a strong sense of sacrifice attached to her, as Mather’s assessment illustrates. Then there is her husband, Isaac Johnson, young, articulate, wealthy, committed to the cause, and apparently very much in love with the fair Arbella: he followed her to the grave a month later. They were both snuffed out before they could make their mark, leaving the field to their shipmates and fellow Lincolnshire Puritans: John Winthrop, Samuel Skelton, Anne Bradstreet, Simon Bradstreet.
Two prints by Moseley Isaac Danforth based on a painting by Charles Robert Leslie, 1837, British Museum and Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts.
After Mather, I don’t think anyone really cared about Lady Arbella, until she was resurrected in the nineteenth century: of course Hawthorne had to write about her, as he was always mining Salem’s colonial past and her story was right up his alley. She is the tragic first owner of Grandfather’s Chair, which bore the Lincoln arms and in which she sat in the summer of 1630, “fading away, like a pale English flower, in the shadow of the forest” which her husband away in Boston and her growing realization that “none should be here but those who can struggle with the wild beasts and wild men, and can toil in the heat or cold, and can keep their hearts firm against all difficulties and dangers.” This new world was not for her. The less-deft Romantic author Lydia Sigourney went even further in the tragic direction with Arbella, who is plucked right out of the Lincoln castle, Tattershall (where she never lived) and set upon a difficult voyage towards an inevitable death.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Grandfather’s Chair. A History for Youth, first published in Boston in 1840; Lydia Huntley Sigourney, Myrtis: With other etchings and sketchings. New York, 1846.
Lady Arbella remained a subject of interest after the Centennial: the Johnson’s short landing in Salem provided a tragic counterpart to the happier story of John and Priscilla Alden’s foothold on the South Shore. There is a particular emphasis in the later nineteenth-century stories on the graveless Arbella, a wandering ghost as she was buried in some unmarked “Potter’s Field” off present-day Bridge Street (near the present-day Arbella Street) in Salem: this angle makes her even more tragic, of course, and even more interesting. With the “recreation” of Pioneer Village and the Arbella for the Massachusetts Tercentenary of 1930, Lady Arbella gained a twentieth-century notoriety which is still (somewhat) alive today: the ship is no longer with us, but the Village is, though there are plans to move it to Salem Willows, perhaps in time for Salem’s 400th anniversary.
Postcards from the 1930s-1950s of the Arbella and what was originally called The Pioneer’s Village at the time, including a very healthy-looking Lady Arbella in front of “her” house.
Lady Arbella was one of eighteen children, and consequently her mother was considered an expert on childbirth: she was actually the first English woman author of an instructive book for women, The Countess of Lincoln’s Nursery, published in 1622. (I was just writing about this book for my book when I began this post!) A brother and two sisters also made it to the New World, and former Lincoln steward (and father of Anne Bradstreet) Thomas Dudley’s letter to Bridget, the Fourth Countess of Lincoln, remains an absolutely essential source for the early settlement of Massachusetts. The Sempringham-Salem connection consisted of multiple strands, and is best viewed in an Atlantic perspective, as this was the lived experience of both those who made the crossing, and those who stayed behind.
Appendix #2: I’m giving a lecture on ALL (or most) of my #SalemSuffrageSaturday ladies for the Pickering House tomorrow (September 20) at 5pm on Zoom: more details here.
I LOVE Diaries: they offer such personal perspectives into the past, encompassing both “big” events and everyday occurrences. I read diaries, teach with diaries, and think about diaries often. I even like books about diaries, such as Kate O’Brien’s volume in my favorite Britain in Pictures series. So it is rather odd that I have omitted one of the most important diaries of a Salem woman in this year of #SalemSuffrageSaturdays until now: that of Mary Vial Holyoke (1737-1802), the second wife of Salem’s most eminent physician, Edward Augustus Holyoke (1728-1829). Mary’s diary was published in a compiled volume of Holyoke diaries published by the Essex Institute in 1911, after having been in the possession of several collectors, including the famed Salem numismatist Matthew Stickney.
Photograph of a Greenwood Portrait of Mary Simpson Vial before her Marriage.
1771 Portraits of Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke and Mary Vial Holyoke by Salem artist Benjamin Blyth, referred to in Mary’s diary: Dr. Holyoke’s portrait, which descended in the Osgood family, is from the Northeast Auctions archive; Mary’s portrait, which descended in the Nichols family, appears to be lost at present.
Last week’s list of “notable Salem women” from the perspective of 1939 included Mary and drew me back to her diary, a record of 40 years of her rather enclosed life in Salem from 1760 to 1799. I had read it several times before but found it………….. unpleasant is the word I think I want to use. At first reading, the impression that I formed was of a superficial woman who gave birth to babies annually—most of which died within days—and resumed her social activities and household duties without missing a beat. None of this was unfamiliar to me as an early modernist: infant mortality hovered between 15 and 20% while 60% of all children born died before the age of 16 in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and childbirth was the leading cause of death for women, who were not especially introspective when they took pen to paper. But both Mary’s losses (8 of her 12 children) and her diary’s quickfire mix of the mundane and the sorrowful are comparatively extreme. Just one page of entries from the summer of 1767 contains entries about gardening, polishing or “scouring” furniture brasses, hanging bed curtains, attending “turtle” feasts and hosting the regular Monday assembly. Then on September 5 she was “brought to bed” at 2:00 in the morning, and gave birth to a daughter baptized Mary on the next day. On September 7 she reports that “The Baby very well till ten o’clock in the evening & then taken with fits.” Two days later, “It Died about 8:00 in the morning.” On the next day, we read simply “was buried” without even a pronoun.
A child’s shoe last from the first half of the nineteenth century, Historic New England
As I read the diary again over this past week more carefully, Mary emerged as a more thoughtful, caring, and substantive person. She was among a circle of women in Salem who were not just drinking tea and attending “turtles” (I love this name for social gatherings and think we should resume it) with great regularity, but also attending all those were brought to bed: for birth, for illness, for death: they were always “watching”. Mary was watched, her dying children were watched, and she herself watched. The entry above seems cold to be sure, but Mary generally referred to “my dear child” while noting the burials of her infants. And then there was the particularly poignant entry after the death of yet another of her newborns in 1770: the same as all the others. You almost can’t blame her for getting right back to the business of household work, which she does with great relish after she and the Dr. (this is how she refers to her husband) move into their permanent house on Essex Steet: this becomes “our house” and there’s a lot of work to do to maintain it: scouring, provisioning, ironing, soap-making, bottling, sewing, cooking, gardening, preserving (preserved damsons, a week too late! exclamation mine) and other tasks are all noted in detail. I think I dismissed the diary previously because Mary had little to say about the Revolution, but she does take note of the repeal of the Stamp Act and the “setting off” of a “feathered man” before the Revolution, and as it proceeds she gradually refers to the Americans as “our people”, perhaps reflecting her husband’s transition from Tory to Patriot. Dr. Holyoke was an early adopter of smallpox inoculation, and she records the constant outbreaks as well as the incremental inoculations. Earthquakes also appear with surprising regularity in the diary: I had no idea Salem was subject to so many tremors in the later eighteenth century. Extreme weather was also notable: Salem experienced some very hot summers and several “great” snows during Mary’s lifetime she elaborates on the former and is quite succinct about the latter. There’s more to learn about and from Mary Vial Holyoke, to be sure: you’ve just got to read carefully, between the lines and with careful attention to the personal pronouns, as she brings us into her world.
The Bowditch-Holyoke House at the corner of Essex & Central Streets in Salem, presently the site of the Naumkeag Block