In my ongoing preoccupation with turning the universal into the parochial, it wasn’t difficult to determine which historical eclipse had the biggest impact on Salem, which was just on the southwest border of the total blackout zone of the eclipse of August 31, 1932. This eclipse cut a diagonal swath through New England from Montreal to Provincetown, and people converged in the White Mountains, Cape Ann and Cape Cod for viewing: there were special eclipse “packages” and special eclipse trains, and more than one observer pointed out that the frenzy was serving as a distraction from the Depression. In Salem, the shops closed at 1:00 in the afternoon on the 31st (which was a Wednesday), as everyone departed for Gloucester–apparently not content to be in the 99% zone! The headlines leading up to the 1932 eclipse were not too different than those today: watch out for your eyes, watch out for your chickens (perhaps there was more emphasis on chickens then), the best viewing places, why the scientists are so excited. I do think there was more “eclipse ephemera” produced then, but it was a period of paper.
August 1932 headlines from the Boston Daily Globe: eclipse ephemera from the Cole Collection at the Hopkins Observatory at Williams College.
The viewing experience seems to have been uneven across New England on August 31, 1932: clouds and rain prevailed in some places, inspiring my favorite September 1 headlines: Long Awaited Eclipse is Partially Eclipsed (or some variation thereof). I have no doubt that people had fun on the New Haven Railroad’s special Eclipse Train, however, on which they could see night-time when it’s day in New England as you play. Strange things were reported for days afterwards: chickens (very sensitive to eclipses, apparently) laid eggs that bore an imprint of the corona, which appeared on several glass windows around the region as well. In my hometown of York Harbor, Maine, the artist Henry Russell Butler, who had traveled across the country in order to capture the previous three eclipses on canvas, was thrilled to see one appear in his backyard. Photography had long been able to capture eclipses, but paint still worked too.
North Adams Transcript and New York Times headlines, September 1, 1932; New Haven Railroad Eclipse Train poster by John Held Jr., Swann’s Auctions; Henry Russell Butler, Solar Eclipse, 1932, Princeton University Art Museum, gift of David H. McAlpin, Class of 1920.