House Cards

I’m in the midst of cleaning, painting, and rearranging in advance of the Holidays, and yesterday I took a dusty and hastily-constructed collage of cards off the wall: the thank-you notes and invitations that I have received from my friends and neighbors over the years, delivered in the form of ivory cards with their houses emblazoned on the front. I’ve kept them, ostensibly “collecting” them, but they definitely deserve a more curatorial presentation–I really regret all those thumbtack holes. Many people in Salem are house-proud, and justifiably so: the stewardship of old houses is an engaging and continual preoccupation. When I look at my collection of houses cards–now reduced to an undignified stack–I don’t just think about architecture, I think about people: the people that gave me the card, the various artists who rendered these houses so distinctly, including a lovely gentleman, now deceased, who was often seen with his easel on the sidewalks of Salem. These cards also remind me of the illustrations in several of the Salem guidebooks published in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries–most particularly my favorite, Streets & Homes in Old Salem, which I think was last issues in 1953: time for a new edition?

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houses-4 Some illustrations from Streets & Homes in Old Salem (1953) and a selection of my house cards, featuring homes on Chestnut, Summer, Flint, Essex, Federal, North and Broad Streets in the McIntire Historic District.


Imag(in)ing Authors

I don’t think that there is any doubt that we used to glorify authors much more in the past than in the present: while the written word is still alive and well (for now) its producers are not the focal points of our popular culture that Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald once were, except for those long-dead but seemingly eternal celebrity scribes like Will and Jane. There is so much material evidence of author adoration from a century and more ago : portraits, pilgrimages to literary “shrines”, biographies, the various Victorian “Authors” games–first produced right here in Salem— designed to develop literary familiarity and appreciation from an early age.But that is not the literary or the material culture that we live in now, so I was kind of surprised to encounter two “Odes to Authors” prints while I was browsing around the website of Anthropologie, of all places. These are the work of artist Valerie Suter, who is apparently a voracious reader of twentieth-century fiction.

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Odes to Authors Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes by Valerie Suter, available here.

I went over to Suter’s website and found lots more authors: clearly they are her primary inspiration at this point in her life/career. She works in various mediums (including animation and clothing) and portrays her literary subjects in accessible and whimsical ways, occasionally doing something or in each other’s company, like the familiar subjects of A Moveable Feast  and Mark Twain playing pool, below. Lots of color, patterned backgrounds, interesting scale, and an almost complete absence of any formality or pretense bring these authors to life. I really want Josephine Tey, author of one of my very favorite books, The Daughter of Time (1951).

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Paintings by Valerie Suter: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast; John Steinbeck among chrysanthemums, Mark Twain playing pool, E.B. White, Joan Didion & Josephine Tey; Penguin Classic cover of The Daughter of Time. 


You are what you do/like

I was in an antique shop several weeks ago when I spotted some framed prints published by J.N. Toy and W.R.Lucas in Baltimore in the early 1830s. They were that odd kind of anthropomorphic mixture of human, creature, plant and/or materials that always appeals to me, so they instantly captured my attention. I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to purchase them, so I snapped some pictures, but the combination of glass and lighting did not capture them very well–later I searched for some better images and fortunately found them, or most of them (The Botanist below is under glass). These lithographs are the products of a short-lived partnership between two Massachusetts-born printers, George Endicott and Moses Swett, both of whom had worked at the Pendleton Firm in Boston. I’ve admired Pendleton prints  for a while, so that’s probably another reason why these odd little prints appealed to me. Apparently these are political caricatures, illustrating an increasing (threatening) feminine presence in these endeavors, but I think this is lost in the translation of time. To me, they just look like ladies who are enthusiastic about their various pursuits (except for maybe the fish lady).

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Lithographs by George Endicott & Moses Swett, published by J.N. Toy and W.R. Lucas, Baltimore, 1831-33, Collections of Winterthur Library and the Library of Conress.


Memorial Markers

Look up: at many intersections of Salem streets, intensively but not exclusively in the center of the city, you will see bright black and gold markers with the names of veterans who sacrificed their lives in twentieth-century wars. I really don’t remember focusing on these plaques until late last spring, when all of the faded markers were replaced with new and shiny ones: just in time for Memorial Day, as I recall. Then suddenly they were very conspicuous to me–and hopefully to others. The markers are placed adjacent to the soldiers’ neighborhoods, so you can also ascertain the various ethnic neighborhoods of Salem in the last century, now not quite as distinct. They are as detailed as possible: name, rank, service, conflict, exact date and place of death: I immediately noticed how many young men died in the closing months of the Great War, just before Armistice Day.

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Squares of service in Salem, beginning with that dedicated to Private George C. Trask at the beginning of Chestnut Street. Nichols Square at Federal Street is dedicated to Captain Henry C. Nichols, who served in both world wars and Korea and was a “man about town” (and also the author of a popular little pamphlet titled Bewitched in Historic Salem). The distinct red marker designates veteran firefighter Raymond McSwiggin, killed in the line of duty in 1982. You can see a map of all of Salem’s Veterans’ Squares here: https://www.mapsonline.net/salemma/index.html.

 


Enduring Edifices

I’m really glad that I’ve made my blog relatively apolitical, and I’m equally grateful that I am not an American historian: I wouldn’t want to be in a position to explain what happened yesterday. Hopefully my words and images can serve as a distraction for some, as they do for me. Along with history in general, I’ve always found historical architecture comforting in times of stress: older buildings seem like testaments to both what we have achieved and what we can endure. Yesterday was a beautiful and bright election day, when anything seemed possible. After my husband and I voted in the parish hall of one Salem Catholic church (St. John the Baptist) we made our way down Federal Street (past the newly-refurbished Probate Court, which was quite literally shining in the sun) to another parish, St. James, where he is working on the restoration and conversion of the former rectory and convent into condominiums. The rectory building is unique in that it was built (in 1889) by the parish priest, the Reverend John. J. Gray, for his residence and then later donated to the archdiocese. As you can see it is a huge Italianate building which has been taken down to the studs: the banisters, mantles, and floors are all wrapped up in protective materials and the doors and windows are all being restored to their original condition. Lots of Eastlake details. The same developers have purchased the 1878 building across the street, which served as a convent for the Sisters of Notre Dame, an order that joined the parish in 1864. I could only explore the front foyer of this huge building, which appears to have been stripped of much of its interior detail (not to mention its radiators) as it was utilized in an institutional capacity in recent years. It is also Italianate (which must have been Father Gray’s favorite style–I certainly came away with a lot of admiration for his ability to expand his parish’s physical presence during his tenure), with a mansard roof.

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The newly-published Probate Court and Registry of Deeds building on Federal Street, and further down, nos. 161 (the Rectory) and 162 (the Convent).

Sometimes I worry that too many of Salem’s historic buildings have been carved up into condominiums, but not with these two structures, as they are very large in scale and physical space–much too big for one family or even two or three in the case of the rectory and four or more in the case of the convent–and quite neglected. The units built within both will be comparatively large, and through their conversion both buildings will (hopefully) endure for many more years to come.

Inside the Rectory: first, second, and third floor views, and an exterior side door to the basement.

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The Convent: front foyer, looking up–hope to get into the rest of the building at a later time. I love radiators.

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Bittersweet November

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

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

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

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Electoral Ephemera Euphoria/Escapism

I’m still very preoccupied with the large collection of nineteenth-century ballots at the American Antiquarian Society: if I had time I would drive down to Worcester and immerse myself in the real paper; because I do not, I have to settle for digital immersion. Every little slip/image fascinates me–I woke up at 4:00 the night before last thinking why is the image of an upside-down chained beast associated with the movement AGAINST the incorporation of Boston as a city in 1822? Would livestock no longer be able to roam freely on the Common? That was my 4:00 am thought, but in the light of morning I realized the image probably had a more metaphorical meaning.

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I still don’t know what the symbol of the chained beast means, but these particular ballot tickets represent the failing side: Boston did indeed become a city in 1822. So today, I’m going to focus on referenda, something we should all be familiar with as I believe nearly every state has ballot questions to decide on Election Day. Here in Massachusetts, our measures pertain to: 1) slot licenses; 2) charter schools; 3) the containment of farm animals (here we are, back to the chained beast!); and 4) recreational use of marijuana. In the nineteenth century, it was all about municipal incorporations, infrastructure, and above all, liquor. And taxation, of course: you know that old saying about death and taxes.

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Some of these private party tickets offered a public service by reminding voters when the polls were open–and where they where. Vote early [vote often?] and vote no.

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This last ticket obvious refers to the presidential election rather than a contemporary referendum, but I had to include it because it’s just so great: eminent historian George Bancroft weighing in on the [1864?] election. Imagine a world where an historian’s words could sway votes!

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All images courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society: their digitized collection of nineteenth-century electoral ballots and ephemera can be found here.


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