Tag Archives: Antiques and Collectibles

Bring Back Bicycle Wheels….and Wooden Teeth

One of my favorite photographs of a Salem street shows a block of Essex adjacent to North in the 1890s: the three buildings in the picture are vastly preferable to those that occupy the space now, but what I really admire are the signs, particularly that single bicycle wheel sign in front of Whitten’s Bicycle Shop. Signs were just so much better then; I don’t know what happened. Well, probably cars, along with plastic and neon.

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Signs Essex Street Ugh.

Actually I kind of like that Bonchon building, and if you can see (it’s pretty small), this business features not only the standard facade or wall sign but also a small projecting blade sign—an absolutely necessity in the “walking city” that Salem claims to be. Salem does have some really nice blade signs, commissioned by creative and civic-minded business owners who are investing in the look and feel of the city as well as their own enterprises. But there are also too many plastic facade and sandwich board signs scattered about, projecting the message: we’re just here for the Halloween season. Washington Street is lined with blade signs, as is Front, but ye olde Essex—the ancient “highway” of Salem– could do a lot better, in my humble opinion.

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I suppose I am a sign snob: trade signs from a century or more ago just seem more creative to me in both their typography and their imagery. I particularly like symbolic signs in which bicycle wheels, keys, watches, boots, glasses, hats, and mortars & pestles advertise bicycle shops, locksmiths, jewelers, shoemakers, opticians, hatters and apothecaries. Key signs seem to be in every antique shop I go into, so they must have been a universal sign for that profession. I’ve seen lots of double-sided clock signs too, but the one below is particularly stunning.

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Wouldn’t a big white wooden tooth look great hanging from or instead of this Essex Street Dentist’s sign? (maybe the one of the left is a bit scary).

Sign collage 1Nineteenth-century trade signs from Skinner Auctions (key, bicycle wheel, smaller tooth); Architectural Anarchy at 1st Dibs (clock); Northeast Auctions (Hat and “We Defy Competition sign); and the American Folk Art Museum (large tooth).


It began with a Fan

The story of my great-grandparents’ courtship could be more accurately titled “it began in East Boston”, but my point of entry into their relationship is a fan given by Joseph W. McIntyre to Katherine G. Wall in 1896. Their daughter, my grandmother, died a few months ago at age 104 and I came into possession of some of her personal effects, including a box labeled “A. Stowell, 24 Winter Street, Boston” containing a silk and ivory fan with gold accents. Written in the very recognizable script of her sister, my great aunt Margaret (the family historian), is a note indicating that the enclosed was a courtship gift from their father to their mother. I’m sure it was packed away years before Margaret wrote this note, and years afterward. And now here it is in the light of day.

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There’s just one tear in the middle–no telling how that happened–otherwise the fan is in perfect, clean condition. I put it right back in its box after I took these photographs. The cursive script on the box is almost abstract, so at first I thought it read A. Powell, but a little digging revealed that the name of the business was in fact A. Stowell, a prominent jeweler in downtown Boston, which issued a series of trade cards in the shape of a fan advertising its stock of an “elegant variety of fans, constantly on hand and arriving by every steamer from Europe”. every steamer: apparently this was the place to buy a fan in Boston in the 1890s.

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It is not noted by Margaret on which exact day my great-grandfather gave my great-grandmother her fan (Valentine’s Day?) but on October 26, 1896 (the date my grandmother chose for her own wedding) they were married at East Boston’s stately Church of the Most Holy Redeemer. At the time of Joseph’s and Katherine’s marriage, the streets on which they grew up (both named for European ports : Liverpool for her, Bremen for him) were home not only to the predominantly Irish families with whom they were raised but also to more recently-arrived Canadians, Italians and Eastern Europeans. Joseph and Katherine were both born in the United States, but their parents, John McIntyre and Anne Harkins, and John Wall and Margaret Murphy, had all emigrated from Ireland individually and married in East Boston in the 1850s. I like to think of them all hobnobbing with the Eastie great-grandparents of John F. Kennedy, Patrick and Bridget, but I’m sure they were all too busy working (and I’m not sure this image would have pleased my Republican grandmother).

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East Boston in 1838, after it was assimilated into Boston, and before its explosive growth in the later nineteenth century.

While his father John was a “laborer”, Joseph McIntyre was a bookkeeper for a wholesale grocery in Boston at the time of his marriage to Katherine in 1896: within the next decade he would own his own wholesale business. Katherine and he made the move out of the old neighborhood slightly north to the coastal town of Winthrop, where they would raise four children: Margaret (at left), Joseph Jr., Katherine Jr., and my grandmother Anne (the baby): all pictured below in 1914.

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The McIntyre Family of Winthrop, Massachusetts, 1914.


The Broomstick Brand Emerges

I was working on two things concurrently yesterday and they merged (sort of): a presentation on emerging civic identity in Renaissance Florence for my grad class and a post on yet-another batch of Salem trade cards from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. A lot of time-traveling, but a common theme of projection. Actually the post was supposed to be about candy; I thought I might be able to parlay one lovely colonial trade card into a whole series of Salem-made confections for Valentine’s Day. But no, not enough chocolate and Salem gibraltars are not particularly romantic. So instead I just looked at the emblems on my run of cards and saw an emerging brand and identity for Salem: from a maritime center in the nineteenth century to Witch City in the twentieth, with a few horses interspersed among the ships and broomsticks. This is much too selective a sample to prove anything, but at the very least it illustrates two hypotheses I have about the development of “Witch City” as Salem’s primary civic identity: it came about because of commercial factors more than cultural (or historical) ones, and it really intensified in the 1890s, coincidentally with the commemoration of the bicentennial of the Witch Trials in 1892. Apart from ascribing any wider meaning to this ephemera, I just love to look at it; there’s something about the inclusion of such artistic images and lettering on such everyday items as trade cards and billheads that impresses me: if only our disposable, digital age was interested in leaving as lasting an impression.

A century and a half of Salem commercial ephemera: from seaport to Witch City.

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Salem trade cards and billheads via American Broadsides and Ephemera and Salem State Archives and Special Collections.


Salem Interiors, 1896

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

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

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


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. 


Perennial Patterns

There were several Christmas gifts that I gave to people that I wanted for myself–all books. It was very frustrating to me that two of these particular books were shrink-wrapped, so I couldn’t even leaf through them before I wrapped them up! One was even in its own impenetrable (without leaving a trace of attempts at opening) box. On Christmas Day, as soon as I saw my brother-in-law open up a beautiful book by Peter Koepke entitled Patterns. Inside the Design Library I knew I had to have one for myself–and now I do.

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This stunning book is an exploration of a small fraction of the vast collection of The Design Library, a collection which includes seven million samples and fragments of pattern design embellishing fabrics, embroideries, yarns and wallpaper, all stored (appropriately) in a converted fabric mill in Wappingers Falls, New York. The book features a representative sampling of patterns and a very interesting concluding section on how design professionals, including designers at such diverse companies as Calvin Klein, Colefax and Fowler,and Pottery Barn, have used the library for inspiration. This is probably just a coffee-table book for my brother-in-law, who has long worked with textiles, but for me, it’s almost like a beautiful textbook, as each pattern is classified according to four main families of design–Floral, Geometric, Ethnic, and Conversational–and myriad subcategories under these categories. I quickly learned that I’m not crazy about abstract, chaos, exotica, jazzy, jungle, kaleidoscope, or modernist patterns (much less “x-rated” or “yummy”), but I LOVE distressed, gothic, and quotidian ones, and REALLY love feathers and insects. This was not a surprise to me, but I love finding classifications for my preferences.

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From Patterns: Inside the Design Library: French hand-painted feather paper, mid- to late-20th century; French hand-painted insect paper, early 20th century; French distressed woodblock-printed wallpaper, 1770 & “gothic” printed fabric, also from France, late 19th century (these look like the characters in a 17th-century witch trial!).

I also like the patterns labelled “Oberkampf”, after the eighteenth-century textile manufacturing company Oberkampt & Cie, which produced fabrics with a revolutionary “rolling block press”. They seem timeless, somehow, as did several of the samples in the book–patterns that looked old, but were in fact quite modern, and that looked modern, but were in fact rather old. Those old sayings that “nothing is every really new” and “everything comes back again” are not always true, but they often are, a point that was really driven home in the last section of the book, “The Creatives”, in which designers reworked Design Library-sourced patterns for products as diverse as Lulemon leggings, Clinique packaging, and the chartreuse velvet coat which Mrs. Obama wore to accompany the President to Norway to receive his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

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Eighteenth-century Oberkampf designs from Patterns; the development of  Mrs. Obama’s coat by Francisco Costa, then creative director for Calvin Klein, based on velvets he found in the Design Library. 


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