Tag Archives: Antiques and Collectibles

Rewards of Merit

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

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

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

Reward of Merit 1811 Charlton

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

Reward of Merit ABA3 1815

Reward of Merit Salem 1818

Reward of Merit ABA4 1819

Reward of Merit ABE 6 1828

Reward of Merit collage

Reward of Merit 1842

Reward of Merit East Bridgewater 1851

Reward of Merit 1868 Methuen

Reward of Merit 1876 2

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

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

Merit Orange

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


First-Period Fantasy

I’ve been obsessed with the Downing-Bradstreet house (which once occupied the site of another current obsession, the Phillips Library) for quite some time: consequently I took advantage of some extra time during this past spring break to dig a little deeper into its history. Actually, the history is easy: it’s the projection that is difficult. We know that this “mansion house” was built by 1640 and demolished more than a century later, but our only image of it was created by a man who was born after its demolition and whose source is unknown:  did it really look like this?

Oldest House Bradstreet-Downing

Wow: that’s a big house with a lot of windows, gables, glass, and finials. What in the world are those “flanking towers reminiscent of feudal days”, in the words of Frank Cousins? Are they made of glass? Indeed they were according to Robert Rantoul’s 1888 essay on the “New Domain” of the Essex Institute, which describes what preceded its buildings on “Downing Block”: it had two massive sets of chimneys and also two transparent, hollow columns of lead sash and diamond glass, great lanthorns (?????), one of either side of the front door, for lighting up the ample grounds in front, and these rose from the foundation to the roof and contained a cupboard-door at each floor of the house for inserting candles or other illuminating appliances on occasion of festivity or other need of light. Wow again. All of this illumination, combined with the scale and detail of the house, makes it appear more like a romantic fantasy of a seventeenth-century house than an actual seventeenth-century structure, especially as it was situated in frontier Salem. This “grate” house, either real or embellished, was built by London barrister Emmanuel Downing, the brother-in-law of Governor John Winthrop, who eventually returned to England leaving the mansion to his daughter Ann as part of the dowry for her marriage to Captain Joseph Gardner, who was killed in the Great Swamp Fight of King Philip’s War in December of 1675. In the following year, the Widow Gardner married Simon Bradstreet, the last Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, whose first wife Anne, America’s first published poet, had died in 1672. Bradstreet returned to Salem (his port of entry to the New World) and took up residence in the Mansion until his death in 1697. Both he and Ann are buried in the Old Burying Ground on Charter Street. The now-Bradstreet House was passed down in the Ropes family for a few generations, but ultimately it was transformed into a tavern (the Globe), divided, and demolished in 1753. The artist of its iconic image, Marblehead painter and muralist Samuel Bartoll (1765-1835) created both the painting above and a similar one of the Corwin (Roger William House in the 19th century; “Witch House” in the 20th) in 1819-1820: what was the basis of his conception?

Bradstreet collage

Bradstreet Witch House BartollFrank Cousins photograph of the Bartoll painting; 1930 Port of Salem map, Boston Public Library & illustration from Lossing’s History of the United States of America (1913); Samuel Bartoll’s Corwin House, Peabody Essex Museum.

I have no answers to the questions I am asking, but it’s still important to ask them, as these idealized (?) images guided so many restoration projects later on. Nathaniel Hawthorne likely saw the Bartoll paintings in Salem: they influenced his vision in the House of the Seven Gables, which later inspired the material transformation of the Turner-Ingersoll mansion into the more “picturesque” House of the Seven Gables by Caroline Emmerton and Joseph Everett Chandler in 1908-1910. Later in the twentieth century, the Corwin House underwent a similar transformation—back (or forward) to the Bartoll vision, with a few less finials.

Bradstreet Bartoll Chairs Julia Auctions

Bartoll Landing of the Pilgrims 1825More idealized American imagery from Samuel Bartoll: Painted Hitchcock Chairs, James D. Julia Auctions; and a Fireboard Depicting the Landing of the Pilgrims, 1825, Peabody Essex Museum.


Small Business Saturday in Salem

There were lots of shoppers out and about in Salem yesterday for Small Business Saturday, a warm and sunny day which encouraged the pedestrian procurement that the city offers. Front Street is clearly the hub of Salem shopping, even though (or because) Essex Street is a pedestrian mall, but there were quite a few people at Pickering Wharf and in several other spots around the city as well. I try to buy all of my Christmas presents in Salem, which is getting easier with every year, as new shops like Mark Your Spot on Lafayette and Oak + Moss on the corner of Washington and Front (the very latest venture of the power duo who brought Roost to Salem years ago) open up. There’s been an interesting movement of Etsy and Instagram shops like Witch City Wicks and Hauswitch into brick-and-mortar buildings in Salem, and I find the two “institutional” shops, Waite & Pierce at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Peabody Essex Museum’s shop to be extremely reliable sources of gift-giving. And as Salem is a foodie town, with more restaurants than I can count at present and more coming, it makes sense that it’s also a great place to buy food and drink gifts: at the Cheese Shop of Salem, the venerable Pamplemousse and even more venerable Harbor Sweets, among other purveyors.

Just a few Salem shops and wares: the newly-opened Oak + Moss which is full of gorgeous housewares, Salem “maps” at Hauswitch, pigs at Roost (+ a Thank You sign), ornaments at Curtsy, Mark Your Spot on lower Lafayette, packed with an eclectic variety of vintage merchandise, books at the Marble Faun, which has moved to Pickering Wharf from Essex Street, a PEM window and silhouettes, mead at Pamplemousse, absinthe set-ups at Emporium 32 on Central Street, candles and cards at Witch City Wicks, and a very local pillow at Grace & Diggs on Artists Row.

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Small Shopping 16

Small Shopping 18

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Small Shopping 13

Small Shopping 12

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Small Shopping

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Salem Tokens, and my appreciation

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

Tokens first

Tokens Collage 2

Tokens Nurse

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

Tokens 5

Tokens 4

Tokens9

Salem Tokens

Tokens Leather Collage

Token Tannery

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

Tokens 6

Salem Tokens Lucia Ropes Wedding Day 1890s


Porcelain Propaganda

I’m thinking about Russia this week for two reasons. In a year of big historical anniversaries, we have now arrived at the centenary of the Russian Revolution–which I must say is not getting much play here, or even in Russia apparently! Regardless of how it turned out in the end, this was an extremely consequential event, almost right up there with Luther’s revolutionary Reformation, which has received some serious commemoration across the globe. It is always interesting to me what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. I’m also thinking about Russia now, because of an event this week sponsored by the Pickering House featuring Ambassador Emeritus Thomas R. Pickering, former US Ambassador to the United Nations (under President George H.W. Bush) and Russia (under President Clinton). The title of Ambassador Pickering’s Thursday night talk is Russia and the United States: Marriage, Separation, Divorce? , which sounds very timely indeed. I have to admit that I’m thinking about Russia for a third, much more materialistic reason too: I recently came upon a trove of porcelain propaganda plates from the first decade of the Soviet Union, and I’m obsessed with both the images and the idea of these “vessels”. The idea is so contradictory: porcelain and propaganda? Porcelain is for the elite, propaganda for the masses: why should these two things ever come together? Apparently there is a utilitarian reason: in the years after the Revolution and Civil War, shortages were great and opportunities for projection were few, but when the new government took over the famous Imperial Porcelain Factory it found a ready supply of blank porcelain plates. Russian artists were mobilized to adorn these “canvases” with revolutionary symbols and slogans, a dramatic departure from the Factory’s previous designs: hammers and sickles rather than gilded flowers. The designs are all so striking: some are symbolic, some folkloric, some futuristic, all vivid. Here are a few examples from the Hermitage, which is opening an exhibition next month titled The Voice of the Time. Soviet Porcelain: Art and Propaganda.

PP Red Man Hermitage

PP Red Genius “Red Man” with “All Power to the Soviets” banner, Mikhail Adamovich and Maria Kirillova, 1921; “Red Genius” with the slogan “We will Emblazon the World with the Third International”, Alisa Golenkina, 1920.

PP Star

PP Large Star with a Shief

PP Eat“The Star”, Mikhail Adamovich, 1921; “Large Star with Sheaf “, Nina Zander, Sergey Chekhonin and L.Vychegzhanin, 1921; “Who Does Not Work, Neither Will He Eat”, Maria Lebedeva, 1920.

PP Stir

PP Cup and Saucer
“Stir” Cup & Saucer, Alexandra Shchekotikhina-Pototskaya, 1920;  “A Hammer, Sickle, and Gear Wheel” Cup & Saucer, Victor Rilde, 1921-22.

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Flame-Stitch

For antiques aficionados, August is all about Americana auctions (couldn’t resist all the alliteration!) and there are always Salem pieces to discover. Among the lots of Skinner’s upcoming Americana auction, a late eighteenth-century pole fire screen captured my attention immediately, not just because it was made in Salem, but also because of its flame-stitch embroidery. Flame-stitch is one of my favorite perennial patterns, characterized by its durability and adaptability: it spans the ages (from at least the Renaissance) and can be easily adapted by time and place. It’s somewhat obscure origins–according to the curators at the Victoria & Albert Museum, it is a technique also sometimes known as Irish stitch, Hungarian stitch, Florentine stitch and bargello stitch, the variety of names indicating the uncertainty of its origins–perhaps explains its mutability. It is one of those patterns that can appear both “antique” and “modern”: flame-stitch cushions, in particular, seem timeless.

Flame-stitch Pole Screen Skinner

flamestitch collage

Flamestitch garden pillow

Mahogany pole screen, late 18th century, Skinner Auctions/ Flame-stitch pincushion, late 17th century, Victoria and Albert Museum/ Flame-stitch “Jasper” pillow, Jayson Home/ 18th century flame-stitched pillow, 1stdibs/ a faux flame-stitch pillow in my backyard.

In its modern incarnations, flame-stitch doesn’t necessarily need to be a stitch: the zig-zag, chevron pattern seems to be sufficient for the more general identification. No needle required, pattern without technique. The vibrant contrasting colors of flame-stitch fabrics past have also given way to more tone-on-tone variations of the present. I’ve always wanted to upholstery one of my couches in a flame-stitch fabric, and I must admit that both the Federal-era embroidered version (on the left) and the more contemporary variation (on the right) both appeal to me (although I really love the 18th-century embroidery fabric from a Newport-made slip seat–which might have originated as a pocketbook–AND the early 19th-century French and Lee Jofa chartreuse fabrics below).

flamestitch collage2

Flame-stitch Winterthur

a-woven-flamestitch-panel

Flamestitch Lee Jofa

American Country Federal Sofa, Northeast Auctions/ Southwood Mahogany Flame-Stitch Sofa, Chairish/ 18th-century slip seat upholstery, Winterthur Museum Collections/ Woven early 19th century French flame-stitch panel, 1stdibs/ Lee Jofa watersedge fabric.

Two historic flame-stitch items that often pop up at auctions are men’s pocketbooks or “wallets” and stools. An extraordinary example of the former is included in the upcoming Skinner auction: a later eighteenth-century Massachusetts wallet featuring African-American servants, or slaves, well-dressed but definitely in service. This was featured on Antiques Roadshow a while ago, and so I was not surprised to see it come up for auction (with an estimate of $10,000-$15,000). There are so many (somewhat less singular) examples in museum collections and auction archives that I imagine every late eighteenth-century man walking around with a flame-stitch wallet! For women, there were flame-stitch embroidered shoes, from earlier in the century. Obviously there are endless variations of both the historic technique and the modern pattern, but I think the form that captures the cherished quality of flame-stitch best are bible and book covers, which were also produced in great quantity in the eighteenth century.

Flamestitch wallet collage

Flame-stitch pocketbook bonhams

Flame-stitch purse CH

28.102.17a-b 0002

FS stool collage

Flamestitch Book Cover PMA

Rare flame-stitch Massachusetts wallet featuring African-American figures, Skinner Auctions/ American silver-mounted pocketbook inscribed “Thomas Stubbs”, 1798, Bonhams Auctions/ Flame-stitch pocketbook, late 18th century, Cooper Hewitt Museum, Gift of Mrs. Rollin Stickle/ Flame-stitch Latchet Shoes, c. 1700-1729, Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Early 18th century French fruitwood stool, Bonhams Auctions/ Folk art painted stool with flame-stitch seat, Northeast Auctions/ Pair of mid-century modern flame-stitch benches, 1stdibs/ Bible cover, 18th century, Philadelphia Museum of Art.


A Grandmother’s Gift

I’m almost done with a long stretch of rather intense work, obligations, and events, and feeling grateful to the friends and family who supported me while I was in the midst of it. I should feel grateful more often I think, and so I was trying to expand my present state this morning as I was considering my various “debts” in my third-floor study: and there, sitting on an old family desk (a gift from my aunt for which I am very grateful), alongside some ribbon embroidered with elephants and a hand-carved elephant head (gifts from a very good friend and a former student, to both of whom I am also grateful) lay the most notable benefit of blogging I have received to date: a hand-written manuscript memoir written by Mary Jane Derby Peabody for her grandchildren in 1880 given to me by a lovely lady from Maine who enjoyed my post on the Salem native and artist. It’s a beautiful book: a precious gift to the grandchildren, and also to me.

Old Times

Old Times for Young Eyes is a charming memoir of a Salem childhood, full of family, houses, furnishings, servants, teachers, teas, flowers, gardens, schoolgirl maps, and the fright we were in when there was alarm at night that the British has landed at Marblehead during the War of 1812! She wants her grandchildren to know all about the Derby family, and includes reproductions of her own painting of her childhood home on Washington Street (formerly on the site of the Masonic Temple) as well as the grand but short-lived Derby Mansion overlooking Salem Harbor. With her teenaged years, the setting moves to Boston, and Mary Jane describes that city in the 1820s in both words and pictures–it looks unrecognizable in the latter. I love everything about this book: the cover, the binding, the writing, the personal perspective and point-of-view, the details and the purpose.

Old Times 3

Old Times 4

Old Times Dedication

Old Times Botany

Old Times 2

Old Times Images

Old Times Images 3

Old Times Text

Old Times Images 2 Cover details and dedication…developing her love of botany…..gathering flowers for pressing on Gallows Hill…..Mary Jane Derby Peabody and the Washington Street House of her childhood….the Derby Mansion, “built by Elias Hasket Derby, your great-great-grandfather, in 1780”, Boston notes and drawings.

I’m not quite sure why I’ve waited so long to post on this book; I’ve certainly been grateful since the moment I received it! I suppose it may be because of a note that Mary Jane included on the memoir’s title page: Privately written for the family only by M.J. Peabody AELXXIV 1881. “Privately” gave me pause, as does only, but the book had already left the family’s possession and was acquired by my benefactress at a yard sale. I intend to pass it on to a Salem archive–not sure which one yet–because both its story and its lessons (this is a grandmother’s memoir after all) should be preserved. I particularly like her assertion that it is important for young people to have beautiful things around them, which her life story illustrates.

Old Times Private Publishing

Old Times precious thingsWise words from Mary Jane Derby Peabody (1807-1892).


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