Tag Archives: books

An Array of Amazing Caterer-Abolitionists!

I’m starting to work on the proposal for a book on Salem history to be published for the city’s 400th anniversary in 2026. This would be a joint enterprise: I have a colleague (and collegial) co-editor, Brad Austin, and we hope to have contributions from as many members of Salem State’s History Department as possible. Brad came up with the tentative title, Salem’s Centuries: 400 Years of Culture, Conflict, and Contributions, and we already have chapter proposals on topics ranging from the material culture of witchcraft in the seventeenth century to Catholic women in the nineteenth century to initiatives in support of Jewish refugees in the twentieth. As usual, I’m kind of in an odd spot: I’m not an American historian and my academic expertise is winding down just when Salem’s history is beginning! But I do think I have learned some things here, and so I’ve committed to chapters on the Remond family in the nineteenth century and urban development/preservation in the twentieth. I’m going to trust my co-editor and my colleagues who have more authority in these eras to prevent me from embarassing myself! For the Remond chapter, I want to use the family’s hospitality and provisioning roles as avenues into civic life in Salem during the early Republic. I’m fascinated with the idea that John and Nancy Remond, in particular, were catering events for institutions which excluded them. I always thought they were exemplary (and I still do, in many ways), but it turns out that there were actually many African-American caterers working up and down the Atlantic seaboard under similar conditions, pursuing their professional careers in civic settings while at the same time working to advance their civil rights. Despite the identification of African-American caterers in Philadelphia as “as remarkable a trade guild as ever ruled in a medieval city… [who] took complete leadership of the bewildered group of Negroes, and led them steadily to a degree of affluence, culture and respect such as has probably never been surpassed in the history of the Negro in America” by no less than W.E.B. Du Bois in his Negro in Philadelphia: A Social Study (1899), I know very little about these powerful purveyors. This is a perfect exemple of the potential pitfalls I am confronting with this project: I know a lot about the Remonds and their Salem world, but very little about the national context in which they lived and worked.

The Remond menu for the 200th Anniversary of the Settlement of Salem Dinner at Hamilton Hall in September of 1828 (I’m not sure why this was not held in 1826?), Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

Clearly I’ve got to up my game, but this effort will not be a hardship if I get to learn about people like these amazing caterer-abolitionists:

Joshua Bowen Smith (1813-1879): a Pennsylvania native who became a prominent Boston caterer and abolitionist, and later a Massachusetts state senator. Smith catered for Harvard University and many prominent Boston families including that of Robert Gould Shaw, with whom he was reportedly quite close. He was also a close friend of Massachusetts Senator Senator Charles Sumner (along with George T. Downing, below). Smith employed African-American refugees from the South in his business, and aided them in numerous ways through his membership in Boston’s Vigilance Committee, his participation in the Underground Railroad, and his foundation of the New England Freedom Association. Neither his abolitionist activism or his connections aided him when he was stiffed by his fellow abolitionist Governor John Andrew, who refused to pay a $40,000 bill submitted for catering services for the 12th Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers. Andrew claimed that the legislature had not appropriated the funds, but managed to pay other provisioners without appropriations. Smith was consequently in a financially-vulnerable situation for the rest of his career, but this did not stop his public service.

Joshua Bowen Smith, Massachusetts Historical Society; Bill of Fare for the 75th Anniversary of the American Revolution Dinner for the Boston City Council, 1851. Boston Athenaeum Digital Collections.

Thomas Downing (1791-1866): I think I’ve called John Remond an “oyster king” a few times, and he certainly earned that title in Salem, but his contemporary Thomas Downing was the original Oyster King of a bigger kingdom: New York City. Downing was a native of Chincoteague Island off Virginia (one of my favorite places as a child because of my love for Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague: my pony’s name was Chinka), the son of enslaved and then freed parents. He made his way north as a young man, spending some time in that foodie mecca Philadelphia, and then came to New York where his skills as both an oysterman and an entrepreneur enabled him to open the ultimate oyster establishment in 1825. By all accounts, Thomas Downing’s Oyster House was a cut (or several) above all the other oyster “cellars” in New York City, and so it attracted a more genteel, monied, and political crowd. Downing expanded the scale of both his establishment and his business over the next decade, filling mail orders for an international clientele (including Queen Victoria!). Just like John Remond in Salem and Joshua Bowen Smith in Boston, he was also very active in several abolitionist efforts: he founded the Anti-Slavery Society of New York as well as the refuge aid Committee of Thirteen, and worked for both school and transportation desegregation. I’m sure he and John Remond would have heard OF each other, but I’m really curious if they knew each other: they seem to be moving forward on tandem tracks. Downing was definitely the king of PICKLED oysters, which Remond also offered, but I don’t think the New Yorker moved into the latter’s lobster territory.

A stoneware pickled oyster jar from Thomas Downing’s Oyster House (New York City Historical Society) and a handbill for John Remond’s pickled oysters (Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum).

George T. Downing (1813-1903): followed in his father’s footsteps in both his profession and his activism, though primarily in a different setting: Newport, Rhode Island. It’s difficult to discern the difference between a restauranteur and a caterer in this period, but Downing Jr. seems to have operated as both with his establishments in Newport and his role as manager of the Members’ Dining Room at the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington from 1865 to 1877. This position was preceded by a long struggle to desegregate the Newport schools: the Remonds had removed to Newport during their own struggle for school desegregation in Salem in the later 1830s, so I’m pretty certain there is a connection here. Both before and after the Civil War, Downing Jr. was active in all of the abolitionist and equal rights organizations which his father and circle supported, always striving for more equality, more access, and more opportunities for African-Americans.

George Thomas Downing and his family, Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. What I would give for a photograph of all of the Remonds!

Robert Bogle (1774-1848): the first of the emerging Philadelphia African-American “caterers’ guild” referred to by Du Bois above; in fact, Bogle is often credited as not just the first African-American caterer but the first caterer, period (although the term was not used until after his death). He merged the professions of caterer and funeral director in Philadelphia for several decades, inspiring Nicholas Biddle to pay tribute to Boggle in 1830 as one whose “reign extends oe’r nature’s wide domain begins before our earliest breath nor ceases with the hour of death.” Bogle’s Blue Bell Tavern opened in 1813, and soon became famous for its meat pies and terrapin creations as well as a gathering place for Philadelphia’s political leaders: this is the hospitality entrée that accomplished caterers of any color could obtain, but perhaps one of the few avenues of access for African-Americans in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the wonderful digital exhibition on the life and work of an enslaved Charleston cook presented by the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative at the College of Charleston observes that the multi-faceted role of caterer was “one of the few, and most lucrative, prominent public positions that could be acceptably filled by an African American during slavery.”

Nat Fuller (1812-1866): It must have been difficult enough to be an African-American caterer in the North during this period, just imagine what that role would entail in the south! Fortunately we don’t have to imagine because we have this great digital exhibition: Nat Fuller’s Feast: the Life and Legacy of an Enslaved Cook in Charleston. As an enslaved teenager in Charleston in the 1820s, Nat Fuller was apprenticed to a remarkable free African-American couple who seem to be playing the same culinary and catering roles in Charleston that John and Nancy Remond were occupying in Salem, at the exact same time: John and Eliza Seymour Lee. Charleston John was the event manager for several venues; his wife Eliza the famous cook and pastry chef. After Nat Fuller completed his culinary training under Eliza, he worked as an enslaved cook for his slaveholder William C. Gatewood, an ambitious man who entertained frequently, for the next three decades under “evolving” conditions: in 1852 Gatewood agreed to let Fuller live outside of his household with his wife Diana (another famous pastry chef) under the so-called “self-hire” system. The Fullers began to operate independent provisioning and catering businesses in Charleston, paying Gatewood a percentage of their profits. By the later 1850s, though still enslaved, Fuller was Charleston’s “well known” and go-to caterer, staging elaborate events like the Jubilee of Southern Union dinner celebrating the completion of a railway between Memphis and Charleston in May of 1857 for 600 guests. In the fall of 1860, though still enslaved, Fuller opened his famous restaurant, the Bachelor’s Retreat, operating it throughout the war except for a few periods of illness and relocation, and at which, as a newly-free man, he hosted a dinner celebrating the end of the war and slavery in the spring of 1865. Abby Louisa Porcher, a white Charleston lady, documented this momentous event in a letter soon afterwards: “Nat Fuller, a Negro caterer, provided munificently for a miscegenation dinner, at which blacks and whites sat on an equality and gave toasts and sang songs for Lincoln and freedom.” Perhaps Fuller could not operate as a caterer-abolitionist like his colleagues in the North, but he emerged as an advocate for racial equality as soon as he was enabled. He died in the next year.

 

Appendix: you can read all about the “reenactment” of Nat Fuller’s Feast on the occasion of its 150th anniversary in 2015 here; Invitation below. Another prominent southern African-American caterer, John Dabney of Richmond, was born into slavery, is the subject of a beautiful documentary, The Hail-Storm. John Dabney in Virginia, which you can watch here.


Books for Women’s History Month 2022

Next week is Spring Break and I haven’t decided if I’m going to get away or get reading a large stack of bedside books. A lot of said books are about later medieval/early modern trade and agriculture in preparation for my new project on saffron, but many are about women’s history over a succession of periods so I thought I’d share some titles for this Women’s History Month. As you will see, there is no rhyme or reason or unifying theme around these titles other than women: all sorts of women in a succession of chronological contexts. I’m always interested in English women of the medieval and early modern eras, lately I’ve become quite interested in the entrepreneurial Salem women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I find rich and/or powerful women of all eras endlessly fascinating. It was not always this way: I almost didn’t get the position I currently hold now because I protested the name of a course which my interviewers wanted me to take on: “Herstory in History.” I proclaimed, with all the confidence of a twenty-something, that that was a ridiculous title for a course as women were PEOPLE and all history is about PEOPLE. But the past decades have taught me that a feminine focus in enlightening: it’s another gaze, another perspective, another open window on the past. I still don’t teach a course exclusively on women’s history but I certainly have incorporated a lot of women’s stories into my courses, because of books like these.

So I’ve read all of the books above and am recommending them to you for the following reasons. Judith Herrin is a wonderful historian whose Formation of Christendom got me through the first few years of teaching medieval history. While I teach mostly western medieval history, knowledge of the Byzantine Empire is pretty essential to understanding everything in this era, and Herrin’s book is really substantive and ambitious (and also very academic). Helen Castor’s She-Wolves: the Women who Ruled England before Elizabeth is a more accessible book which presents contextual biographies of four powerful medieval queens: I’m showcasing the Folio edition published in 2017 but there are more affordable options. Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer and Brewsters is a classic examination of women’s work in late medieval England which I consult regularly, and Monuments and Maidens and The Pocket. A Hidden History of Women’s Lives are two very creative books which examine longer eras from cultural and economic perspectives.

Vast uncharted territory above, but all these books have been recommended to me by colleagues and friends, beginning with Malcolm Gaskill’s The Ruin of Witches, a very welcome microhistory of a non-Salem American witch trial. Salem has become so boring: let’s look west to Springfield, Massachusetts! While not strictly women’s history, I don’t really think any history is strictly women’s history. I’m interested in Material Lives, To Her Credit, The Ties that Buy because I keep encountering entrepreneurial Salem women in that later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for whom I want to create more context and They Were Her Property appears to be an absolutely groundbreaking work. Jumping up about a century to the late nineteenth century and beyond, The Man Who Hated Women examines anti-vice activist Anthony Comstock’s campaigns against pretty much every everything and The Season and Double Lives looks at a broad spectrum of British women’s experiences in the twentieth century. And so we have progressed (chronologically) from empresses to socialites and “superwomen”!


John Remond’s Struggle for Citizenship

I’ve written about the Remonds, the African-American family who lived, worked, and strove for a succession of causes in nineteenth-century Salem quite a bit, but I think there is more to write, and more to learn. I live right next to Hamilton Hall, which was the center of many of their activities, and it’s really difficult for me NOT to think of it as their hall, their place. Rather intimate spaces in our home, including my study, the kitchen, and our dressing room (I know, who has a dressing room? Well, we live in a town house with interconnected bedrooms so that’s what we call the room adjacent to our bedroom as that’s pretty much all we do in there), look out to the Hall and so I feel like I am constantly in its presence or their presence. Charles Lenox and Sarah Parker Remond are the famous Remonds, as they were both very active speakers for the Abolitionist movement here in America and also (in the case of Sarah) in England, but it is their father, John Remond (1788-1874), who captivates me. He was an incredible man in so many ways and I am constantly trying to understand the historical landscape which he navigated so successfully. He arrived in Massachusetts from Curaçao in 1798 as a lone ten-year-old and over the next decade established himself in several occupations, married Nancy Lenox of Newton, and became settled in Salem’s newest assembly house, Hamilton Hall. During the following decades, his primary occupational identity as caterer and manager of the Hall was supplemented by a succession of provisioning roles: restauranter, grocer, wholesaler. He acquired properties in Salem and supported the various entrepreneurial and activist pursuits of his eight children. “Venerable” and “famous” are the adjectives employed in his 1874 obituaries, indicating that he attained a high level of respect for the accomplishments of his long life. In retrospect, his career looks like the proverbial American success story, unencumbered by race (I’m sure this is not true, but it looks that way from afar). Those most “American” of commemorators, the Daughters of the American Revolution, even included several items associated with John Remond items in their 1897 exhibition at Copley Hall in Boston , including the bottle of Schiedam gin given to him by his mother, Marytelia, on the day he disembarked for the United States.

Undated photograph of John Remond, Collection of Hamilton Hall; advertisement in The Salem Literary & Commercial Observer, 1827 January 13; Catalogue of a Loan Exhibition of Ancient and Historical Articles, Daughters of the American Revolution, 1897; John Remond’s gin bottle on display in the “Salem Stories” exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum.

I saw John Remond’s gin bottle—his sole childhood possession!—at the Peabody Essex Museum the other day, where it is featured in the “Salem Stories” exhibition (see above): I think he would be pleased with its display both in Copley Hall at the end of the nineteenth century and here in Salem in the twenty-first. While his professional struggles are not immediately apparent and overwhelmed by his achievements, his personal struggles to claim the identity and rights of an American citizen are manifest, so I think he would have been particularly pleased by his inclusion in the DAR exhibition. There were several moments during his life where we can see his strong desire for citizenship: his naturalization in 1811, his son John Lenox’s acquisition of a Seaman’s Protection Certificate in 1839 (even though he was not, to my knowledge, a seaman), his own acquisition of an American passport in 1854, and his obvious frustration with his daughter Sarah’s inability to leave Britain five years later when the U.S. Department of State failed to recognize the passport that it had issued her in 1858! In the interim the Dred Scott decision had invalidated the paper trail of citizenship he had so carefully crafted for himself and his children, placing them all in a terrible limbo.

The paper trail records the paper trail: The National Era, The New York Times, and the Salem Register cover the passport paradox, 1858-1860. Sarah’s middle name was incorrectly presented as Lenox rather than Parker in the rather haughty Times!

Sarah Remond ultimately obtained a visa which enabled her to travel to Italy and back home for brief periods: she became a British citizen in 1865. From the vantage point of 1860 however, her father was in evident distress. In a long article published in the Salem Register in July of that year, he asked the reporter, or the readers, or the government: if we cannot be citizens either home or abroad, what is going to become of us?

 

Transportation segregation was another issue confronted by the eldest Remond son, Charles Lenox Remond: Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor’s Colored Travelers. Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War presents essential context for the restricted mobility of African-Americans both home and abroad. School segregation was an issue for all the Remonds, who moved to Newport for a lengthy period of time in 1835 after Sarah and her sister Caroline were expelled from Salem High School, only to keep fighting and return once the public schools were desegregated. This struggle will be the focus of an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum later this spring!


Sidney Perley’s Houses

Sidney Perley (1858-1928) exemplified that exhausting mix of endeavors—historical, genealogical, archaeological, architectural, legal, literary—which in his time was represented by the occupational identity of an “antiquarian.” It was a title he proudly bore, and one which had primarily positive associations a century ago. Now it is itself an antiquated term and I don’t know any historian who would refer to themselves as such. I’ve read pretty much everything Perley wrote about Salem, including the multi-volume History of Salem he published just before he died, and while I wish his work had a bit more context and interpretation, I still value it and think of him as a historian, primarily because he was so very focused on making early public documents public. His meticulous research and publication of probate records, deeds, and town documents was service-oriented; he was very much a public historian in his own time. And more than that: there is a famous dual characterization/division of historians by the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who observed that they fell into one of two camps, either that of truffle hunters, “their noses buried in the details,” or of “parachutists, hanging high in the air and looking for general patterns in the countryside far below them.” Perley was the ultimate truffle hunter, and I’m grateful for all of the detailed information he dug out for me. Because he was trained as a lawyer, Perley’s publications on local history are overwhelmingly based on deed research, and this focus made him somewhat of an architectural historian as well: he sought to portray the built environment, not just land grants and transfers. His wonderful little series of “Parts of Salem in 1700” (and other Essex County towns too), first published in the periodical Essex Antiquarian and/or the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute and later incorporated in the the History of Salem, always included charming illustrations of houses, both on his hand-drawn maps and in the text. Now while I trust Sidney Perley completely in his dates for the construction, transfer, and demolition of these houses, sometimes I think he displays a little artistic license in their depiction. But maybe not: I’m just not sure.

The Essex Antiquarian Volume III (1899).

I’m not sure because sometimes he is a bit vague about the sources for his house illustrations. I would say that I have complete confidence in the depictions of about three-quarters of his illustrations: they were still standing in his time, or had been recently demolished, or had been sketched or photographed before demolition. But with some houses, he is relying on the memory of an anonymous elderly gentleman who gazed at the house early in his life, or on an undated sketch by an anonymous artist found in the depths of the Essex Institute. I’m always interested in the early days of historic preservation, or the first stirrings of some kind of preservation consciousness, so the depictions of these first period houses by Perley and his fellow antiquarians are just fascinating to me: their visions created houses that are still showcased in Salem, most notably the House of the Seven Gables and the Witch (Jonathan Corwin) House. Their visions shaped our visions of the seventeenth century. I like to imagine Perley’s houses still standing, and the best way to do that is to map them: my progress in the acquisition of digital mapping skills stopped as soon as I got my book contract in the summer of 2020, and as I am now working on another book it will stay stalled for a while, but I can cut and paste with the best of them! I am using Jonathan Saunder’s 1820 map of Salem from the Boston Public Library as the background for an evolving Perley map here, but later maps, with more crowded streets, really make these structures stand out too: they must have been so very conspicuous in Perley’s time. I find it interesting that in Europe, very old and very modern structures can coexist, side by side, but we seldom see that in America.

Jonathan P[eele?] Saunders / Engraved by Annin & Smith, Plan of the TOWN OF SALEM IN THE Commonwealth of Massachusetts from actual Surveys made in the years 1796 & 1804; with the improvements and alterations since that period as Surveyed by Jonathan P. Saunders. Boston, 1820. Proceeding clockwise rather haphazardly from the Epes House, on the corner of the present-day Church and Washington Streets, to the Lewis Hunt House, which was photographed before its demolition.

 

The MacCarter and Bishop Houses: the latter burned down in the 1860s but was fortunately sketched a few years before.

 

Some survivors in this bunch! The John Day House survived until Frank Cousins could photograph it in the 1890s (Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum), I’m not sure if Perley’s “John Beckett” house on Becket Court is the “Retire Becket” House on the House of the Seven Gables’ campus? Half of the Christopher Babbidge house survives to this day, though it moved to the parking lot of the 20th century building which replaced it.


Salem’s Spider Man

Obviously I am shamelessly exploiting both popular culture and alliteration with my title, but nevertheless James Henry Emerton (1847-1931), one of Salem’s most successful commercial artists, did indeed love spiders. He was a self-proclaimed “zoological and botanical draughtsman” who illustrated some of the most popular natural history publications of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Emerton was of that generation of Salem boys (and maybe Salem girls, I’m just not sure) who could and would flourish in the natural history network of the city, where and when both the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum (which was the Peabody Academy of Science until 1915) had missions of advancing scientific understanding as much as cultural appreciation. The son of a prominent Salem apothecary, he was a self-taught artist and naturalist, beginning his collection of his favorite object of study, spiders, in his teens and expanding it right up until his death. He was not university-educated, though he did spend a year in Germany at several universities, at the same time as his younger brother Ephraim, who became a very prominent medieval historian and professor at Harvard. James returned to Salem in 1876, and was employed as a curator and instructor in natural history at the Peabody Academy, all the while collecting his spiders and illustrating the natural world around him. Throughout his career, he seemed to operate in three different intersecting worlds, working with prominent naturalists to illustrate their research in publications and exhibitions, as a creative artist, and as an active arachnologist. The illustrations in one of the most beautiful and authoritative botanical books of the later nineteenth century, Daniel Cady Eaton’s Ferns of North America, first published in Salem in 1879 by the prolific Samuel E. Cassino, placed him very confidently on the first path.

Emerton had several productive and lengthy academic collaborations which inspired him to expand his creative and reproductive skills from illustration to modeling with papier mache and plaster: consequently he is sometimes referred to as both a sculptor and an illustrator. Following the Ferns book, he began to work with Yale professor Addison Verrill, who was also employed by the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries and the Smithsonian. After some hardy Newfoundland fisherman hauled up a giant squid in 1873, Verrill and Emerton worked together to produce the first illustrated scientific study of that wondrous creature, and the latter produced a 40-foot-long model that was displayed with great fanfare at the International Fisheries Exhibition in 1883. A decade later, Emerton made a life-sized model of a giant octopus for the World’s Fair in Chicago, and both creatures were showcased in the Smithsonian afterwards.

Emerton’s giant squid on paper and at the London International Fisheries Exhibition, 1883; The giant octopus at the World’s Fair in 1893 (from Photographs of the World’s Fair, 1893), in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building and the Field Museum, Chicago (present); Crab and lobster from George Brown Good’s Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States: Section I, Natural History of Useful Aquatic Animals, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

I’m not sure if the marine modeling took Emerton away from his preferred entomological illustration, but while working with Verrill in New Haven he met his wife, Mary, and they moved to Boston in 1885: this remained his residence for the rest of his life, though he traveled continuously and of course I’m still claiming him for Salem! In the 1890s he branched out, yet again, to produce anatomical models for Harvard Medical School Parkman Professor of Anatomy Thomas Dwight: apparently these models were used at the school throughout the twentieth century. Throughout this busy period Emerton was still collecting spider specimens and also engaging in some pastime painting, mostly of coastal landscapes. He supplemented his first spider book, The Structures and Habits of Spiders (1878) with numerous academic papers and also a more general (and obviously more popular) book entitled The Common Spiders of the United States (1902) and also turned his attention to butterflies and wasps. Both before and after his death in 1931, James H. Emerton received the highest honors for any naturalist: several taxa are named after him, including Agelenopsis emertoni, Emerton’s Funnelweb Spider.

Emerton’s Common Spiders, and illustrations from Wasps Social and Solitary by George W. and Elizabeth G. Peckham (1905); the great naturalist on one of his many travels.


Books for Christmas/Break

Classes have just ended and after grading I will attack the big pile of books by my bedside: I’ve already dipped into one or two but I have a full month with very few obligations ahead of me to really indulge. As I’ve been consumed with writing my own book (out in February) over the past few years, along with teaching and everything else, I haven’t had much time to read generally and broadly, so I’m really looking forward to the next few weeks. My list below is about as general and broad as I get: when I don’t have to read history for scholarship or teaching I tend to read histories of periods and places which I do not write or teach about. I’d love to read more fiction over the next month, but nothing has caught my attention except for the sole work of historical fiction below—and only because it’s related tangentially to my next project.

So here we go, beginning with two books that fall into the category of personal history:

Mr. Atkinson’s Rum Contract is an amazing personal history of Richard Atkinson’s own family, including his namesake forebear, a British merchant with considerable interests in the West Indies in the late 18th century who acquired the lucrative contract to supply the British army in North America with rum and other essentials during the American Revolution. This is a “warts and all” family history, as the family fortune was based as much on slavery as it was on sugar and land, of course, and one told in a truly captivating manner. Lotharingia is the last of Simon Winder’s surveys of central European travelogue history, following Germania and Danubia. I liked both of these books: they are rather breezy but still engaging and it’s easy to skip over the occasional boring bits. Lotharingia is the “land in between” established by the terms of the Treaty of Verdun in 843, which divided Charlemagne’s empire between his three grandsons: younger brothers Louis the German and Charles the Bald received lands east of the Rhone River and West Francia, respectively, while the eldest brother Lothar received the imperial title and “Francia Media”, a long strip of territory encompassing the Low Countries, parts of modern Germany and France, Switzerland, and much of northern Italy. A place of shifting boundaries and perspectives, for sure.

Since we are back in the early middle ages, I must admit that I have to do some work over the break: I’m teaching our early world civilization survey for the first time in a decade or so, so I must delve into some global history: Silk Road scholar Valerie Hansen’s The Year 1000 will be very helpful, and I’m hoping that Gary Paul Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels and Caravans, written from a more personal and cultural perspective, will provide me with some great “spicy” anecdotes.

And speaking of spices, I also want to use this break between semesters to do some background reading on my next project: a history of saffron in medieval and early modern England. A storied spice, a wonder drug, used in medical and culinary recipes and as a dyestuff, saffron has many threads to follow—through economic, social, cultural and even political history. I’m going to start with its most obvious attribute, its color, and then expand into some textile history. I’m not sure whether or not Atlantic sericulture will have much bearing on my understanding of saffron cultivation, but I’ve met Ben Marsh so I want to read his magisterial book (and you might know him too, from his family’s viral pandemic rendition of “One Day More”—he’s a Renaissance Man!) And then there is A Net for Small Fishes, Lucy Rago’s fictional account of the “Overbury Affair” in which Mrs. Anne Turner, she of the conspicuous yellow ruff, was implicated in the murder by poisoning of courtier Thomas Overbury and executed in 1615. There’s even a fictional Salem connection, as Nathaniel Hawthorne includes Anne Turner in The Scarlet Letter as a friend of suspected witch Mistress Hibbins, even teaching her how to color her ruffs yellow. Anne Somerset’s Unnatural Murder is a more straightforward account of the murder of Overbury set against the backdrop of poisonous Jacobean court culture.

I think I always include books about gardening on my lists, and this one is no exception. I like whimsical, personal books about gardening as an activity, but also cultural histories of evolving landscapes and horticulture: The Morville Hours is a perfect example of the former, and The Acadian Friends of the latter. It would be nice if someone would buy me the forthcoming Architects of the American Landscape and Nature and its Symbols, a reference book from Lucia Impelluso and the Getty Museum.

Finally, two texts focused on the interpretation of history for the general public, a constant concern and interest of mine. The United States is in the midst of a real reckoning (as opposed to a pandering PEM-esque reckoning) about its history and understanding of slavery, and Clint Smith’s bestselling How the Word is Passed is the very next book I want to read about this important process. Here in Salem, there’s very little reckoning; just an increasing amount of ghosts! All summer long, I was hearing ghost stories on the streets of Salem and I feel like I’m surrounded by their professional proponents. This fall, I went to a talk by a very prominent head of interpretation at a very prominent New England heritage organization and in the Q and A I asked him about ghost stories as history and he replied that ghost stories are history. While I understand and agree with that statement to a point, I’ve gone beyond my comfort level and so want to read up a bit more on dark or “paranormal tourism”: Haunted Heritage is about the scene in York, known as Great Britain’s most “haunted” city, so it should be just the ticket.


What I’m Reading this Summer

I haven’t done a reading list in a while and I have really been reading, so it’s time. It’s been a voracious reading summer for me: it’s as if I was emptied out by writing my own book and I need to fill myself up! There are the usual random categories you will be familiar with if you’ve been following me for a while: history, architecture, decorative arts, design, a marked preference for nonfiction over fiction. This summer I seem to be more interested in the public aspects of all these things: public history, urban planning, media. History has become so very contentious in our time, and I feel my deficiencies in American history knowledge very keenly. I’m also troubled by the constant tide of development here in Salem, and looking for new urban ideas, strategies and policies that lend themselves towards unification rather than division. My major collecting focus has always been pottery, but for some reason I’ve become obsessed with fabric this year, not so much as an objection of consumption but of production. And I have read some fiction, though not much. So here’s a working list of what I have read or am planning to read before I go back to school.

History is very, very, very public in general and Texas history in particular: 

Well the top three books are not only public histories but also personal histories, and that makes them very compelling, although a bit uneven in places. Denmark Vesey’s Garden is magisterial (thus I had to amplify or “quadrify”? it); it’s one of the best history books I’ve ever read, examining the very complex story of “how slavery has been remembered in Charleston, South Carolina from 1865 to the present” in the words of its married historian authors. I’m finally realizing now, probably long after most American historians, that slavery really has to be examined historically at both the macro and the micro levels to fully grasp both its existence and its impact.

But BIG history is also important and interesting (and very useful for teaching):

I don’t really understand the modern world so I try to read as many books with the subtitle “the making of the modern world” as possible. This is actually a pretty large genre: you would be surprised at just how many books claim that their subjects “made” the modern world, beginning with a study of Genghis Khan. These are this year’s “making” books: I read everything by Linda Colley and my understand of the 18th century is basically based on her interpretation, so I would have read this even without its “making” subtitle, but I certainly would not have picked The Butterfly Effect without its making claim: Melillo makes a pretty good argument for the centrality of insects.

I’m particularly interested in material history this year: just loved these two books—they are big history too.

These histories of fabric are a bit more than the standard commodity global histories that we have seen over the past several decades (oysters, alcohol, drugs) in that they are about production as much as consumption, and like food, fabric is pretty essential.

Two books with Napoleon in the title, which are not necessarily about Napoleon:

Actually the first book is about Napoleon, but more about the painting he stole from a Venetian monastery, Paolo Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana, which ended up, and still remains at the Louvre. I believe that it is hanging right across from the Mona Lisa, another Italian painting that ended up in Paris. I’m always looking for works at the intersection of art and history, especially stories that involve theft, and Saltzman’s work was perfect. The center figure of Ben Macintyre’s The Napoleon of Crime, was an art thief, but much more: apparently master (and short) thief Adam Worth was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Moriarty.

Insights into vexing problems:

Besides the changing environment, on which I think I can have minimal impact beyond my personal and household habits, the two pressing issues which concern me the most are deliberate ignorance and disinformation and ugly architecture. Information literacy has become a much more important focus of my teaching over the past few years, but deliberate, willful ignorance and disinformation still confounds me. I’m looking for some historical context with Ovenden’s book, which I haven’t read yet. On a more local level, Salem has been experiencing a building boom over the past few years with the construction of steady stream of really ugly—or even worse, generic—buildings. Despite the fact that nearly everyone I talk to in town is wondering how we are getting all these monstrosities, there seems to be no opportunity for public discourse. Expectations are very low: why don’t we want beauty in our lives? Sometimes critics are labeled busybodies, but I believe that architecture is public, and so I was particularly struck by the title of Timothy Hyde’s book, Ugliness and Judgement. I’m looking for ways to be a more educated and effective critic: Hyde was helpful as was Charles Montgomery’s Happy City.

And finally fiction!

Well, I read Station Eleven because it seemed timely: it’s about a post-pandemic world! And it is a wonderful book, but not for me: I am not a future-dweller. It drove me back to a comfortable period, and some classic works of historical fiction which I never read, never even considered reading before this odd year. Norah Lofts was an amazingly prolific author of historical fiction and mysteries, and the second volume of her “House” trilogy, which follows the history of a Suffolk house and the residents who lived in it from the fourteenth century to the twentieth, is a Tudor-Stuart treat. In the same vein and tradition, Hilda Lewis’s Mortal Malice is more focused on one of the major scandals of the Jacobean era: the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury while a royal prisoner in the Tower of London, a scandal that involved not only poison but also affairs, plots, and Sir Francis Bacon. It even attracted the attention of Nathaniel Hawthorne centuries later. It’s hard to turn this scandal into a bad book, and Lewis does not disappoint.


Riding with Edwin Whitefield

This was supposed to be the summer of LONG road trips but various things keep tethering me to Salem, so I’m taking lots of short ones. My companion over the last few trips has been Edwin Whitefield, a nineteenth-century English expat artist who loved old New England houses, and presented them in a series of portfolios entitled Homes of Our Forefathers published between 1879-1889. I’ve been an admirer of Whitefield for years, primarily because I admire his pioneering preservation perspective: he sketched obscure houses in small towns shorn of their modern additions and “improvements” to reveal their beauty and craftsmanship so that an ever-“improving” society might actually stop and see them and/or to document them, fearing that they were not long for this world. Whitefield had a successful career as a landscape and botanical artist, engraver, and lithographer from about 1840, with a specialty in color lithographs of North American city views. His Homes portfolios represent the last stage of his career as he died in 1892, and the portrayals of these old houses seem not only charming, but also poignant to me, with his little notes about their history and the precariousness of their present conditions. I imagine him walking around with his sketchbook, and now I’m driving around with my camera—and his books in the backseat. I fear that many of the houses which Whitefield preserved on paper will no longer exist in materiality.

The “Whitefield Project” started last week when I decided to drive over to Medford, an old city just outside of Boston which is home to Tufts University and the oldest brick house in New England, once called the Craddock House and now called the Peter Tufts House. There are so many photographs of this structure, but I wanted to see it as it might have been built, and so I pulled out one of my Whitefield volumes, and decided to take it (him) along. The Tufts House was so spectacularly preserved, and it was such a nice day, that I decided to keep going west along Route 16 (through Cambridge, which deserves its own Whitefield post), in search of a house which shares its page in my 1880 edition, the Abraham Browne House in Watertown, now one of Historic New England’s properties. As the Tufts House is a private residences and the Browne house is closed indefinitely, that was about the extent of my trail for that day.

This past Saturday, I had to go down to Plymouth, so I decided to bring Whitefield along. The South Shore was “Pilgrim country” to him: he clearly wanted to trace the tracks and document the efforts and experiences of his fellow countrymen. He sketched lots of houses in this region but I decided to follow Route 53 and focus on Hingham, Pembroke, and Kingston on this trip. I do not need an excuse to visit the Old Ship Meeting House in Hingham, one of the most important structures in New England. It is in amazing condition (but there seems to some kind of issue with its Federal-esque Rectory across the street), and Hingham is one of the prettiest towns in Massachusetts. Then it was off in search of the famous Barker House in Pembroke, which Whitefield believed was the oldest house in New England, built in 1628. Alas, Pembroke has a lovely old Quaker Meeting House, and a seventeenth-century house which serves as the headquarters of its historical society, but the Barker House is long gone: a genealogy of the Barker family informed me that it was likely built in 1650 and “fell to pieces” after the last of its members died without issue in 1883. Whitefield must have been heartbroken.

Heading south to Kingston, Whitefield led me to the Bradford House, another seventeenth-century structure maintained in immaculate condition (although with an altered roofline if we are to believe Whitefield) by the Jones River Historical Society, complete with a period garden. It was still closed for the pandemic, but the gentleman gardener watering on a hot afternoon told me all about the activities that generally went on there, including weekly breakfasts in the summer and the annual Lobster Boil. He admitted that he had added a few modern varieties among the period plants “for a spot of color” and left me to wander the grounds. And so I had a perfect seventeenth-century stroll, at the end of a long hot day.


A Tory-Loving Town?

Salem has a bit of a reputation as a “Tory-loving town” due to the sentiments of some of its more conspicuous residents on the eve of the Revolution: prominent judges, merchants and lawyers could not reconcile their local and imperial loyalties and thus became exiles for the duration of the Revolution, or for the rest of their lives. The Banishment Act of the State of Massachusetts, issued in 1778 “to prevent the return to this state of certain persons therein named and others who have left this state or either of the United States, and joined the enemies thereof” named only four Salem Loyalists, William Browne, Benjamin Pickman, Samuel Porter and John Sargeant, but this is only a fraction of those who were identified as Tories by their own words or those of their contemporaries. The British archives, family genealogies, and contemporary newspapers point to a lot more: I did a very cursory search and came up with: Henry Gardner, merchant and shipowner, Captain Thomas Poynton, apothecary Nathaniel Danby, physician John Prince, Customs official Jonathan Dowse, merchant George Deblois, schoolmistress Mehitabel Higginson, John Fisher and Samuel Cottnam, as well as the well-known gentlemen Andrew Oliver, Samuel Curwin, the Honorable Benjamin Lynde, and William Pynchon, and I’m sure that this is not an exhaustive list. Most of these names are featured on the very warm address offered to General Gage upon his removal of the provincial capital from Boston to Salem in the late Spring of 1774, and I suspect the remaining signatories had similar sympathies.¹ Timothy Pickering’s father was a Tory! Despite the pretty dynamic historiography of New England Loyalists, and some very accessible accessible primary sources, I don’t think we know enough about Salem’s Tories and their stories.

Just a few monographs and primary sources for the further study of Salem’s Loyalists; Congratulations to General Gage.

Some of the more interesting Tory anecdotes focus on houses. In Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Tory Lover (1901) a character expresses her concern for the potential consequences of her friend’s entanglement: “I could not pass the great window on the stairs without looking out in fear that Madam’s house would be all ablaze…..There have been such dreadful things done against the Tories in Salem and Boston!” The “dreadful” acts against Salem Tories included a mob attack on the Ropes Mansion in March of 1774 while Judge Nathaniel Ropes lay inside dying (of smallpox) and the shattering of windows at William Pynchon’s Summer Street house. The cause of the mob attack on the Ropes house might have been the judge’s high judicial salary or contagious disease; nevertheless he died the day after it happened. Salem’s nineteenth-century historians recounted a “family tradition” that Thomas Poynton’s house, with its distinctive gilded pineapple over the doorway, was also attacked: he fled in 1775 and died in England in 1791. William Pynchon boarded up his windows and remained in Salem, documenting its revolutionary social life in his famous diary. Other Tories remained and appear to have suffered few consequences for their views (Andrew Oliver) while several were welcomed back after 1783 (Benjamin Pickman; Henry Gardner). Diaries and letters reveal some of their stories, but I think a more collective and integrative approach would yield more insights. It was all so very personal: there were obviously family and friendship connections among Salem’s Loyalists, but some families were divided by the Revolution as well. Salem has no Tory Row like Cambridge because the site of many Loyalist residences was the ever-evolving Essex Street, but a primitive (sorry! still working on my digital skills here; the book interrupted my progress) mapping can mark the Tory presence and/or absence.

Tory Houses: several survive but most are long gone. The Ropes Mansion in its original location, right on Essex Street (Old-Time New England, 1902); The Salem Chamber of Commerce is located in Dr. John Prince’s much-altered house on Essex Street, and Historic Salem, Inc. is located in the much-altered Curwen House, which used to be situated on Essex Street.

Only William Browne’s mansion, firmly and conspicuously located in the center of Salem, was confiscated: it would be replaced by the grand (but short-lived) Derby Mansion after the Revolution. The transition of power and influence from the Brownes to the Derbys seems rather revolutionary in many ways. When I look at the last Salem advertisements of two Tory shopkeepers, I wonder about all their stuff: for them, leaving was not just a matter of turning a key and leaving some associate (or their wives) to look after their property. (I also wonder if Nathaniel Dabney’s “Head of Hippocrates” sign was quite as big as depicted). Henry Gardner apparently paid taxes to the Town of Salem during his period of exile: perhaps that preserved whatever property he left behind. By contrast, Samuel Porter was clearly missing things upon his return. And what of Salem’s African-American residents, especially those who were enslaved: a 1777 petition by a “Great Number of Blackes” stated their case for freedom with revolutionary rhetoric, but were others enticed by British offers of liberty? Clearly there is lots to learn about Loyalists.

Essex Gazette, June, 1774; Salem Mercury, June 20, 1788.

¹James Stark, in his Loyalists of Massachusetts and the Other Side of the American Revolution (1910) states that “The importance of the following addressers is out of all proportion to their apparent significance. They are an indispensable genesis to the history of the Loyalists. For the next seven years the Addressers were held up to their countrymen as traitors and enemies to their country. In the arraignments, which soon began, the Loyalists were convicted not out of their mouths, but out of their addresses. The ink was hardly dry upon the parchment before the persecution begain against all those who would not recant, and throughout the long year of the war, the crime of an addresser grew in its enormity, and they were exposed to the perils of tarring and feathering, the horrors of Simbury mines, a gaol or a gallows.” but I think this is a bit of an overstatement.


Paper Houses

My manuscript is completed and has been dispatched to London, so last night I actually started reading a non-academic book, the first in a year or more. I didn’t last long, between the covers and between the sheets, because I’m tired, but it was novel. The book in question was almost-academic, so it was a good transition: Novel Houses by Christina Hardyment, featuring 20 “famous fictional dwellings,” including everything from Horace Walpole to Hogwarts. This morning I read it right through: a very pleasant read with great illustrations, so I thought I would showcase some of them here. Hardyment chose novels in which the plot is dominated by a structure, so much so that the latter is almost like a character: Walpole’s Castle of Otronto, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables (of course, but is this a fictional house?), Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton, John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, E.M. Forster’s Howards End, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando & Vita Sackville West’s The Edwardians, Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. 

In no particular order: Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, Jane Austen’s ancestral home Chawton, inspiration for many of her novels, 1913 edition of The House of the Seven Gables, an advertisement for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1949 edition of I Capture the Castle, Knole, inspiration for Woolf’s Orlando, Galsworthy’s drawing of the fictional “Robin Hill” in The Forsyte Saga, the first edition of Rebecca, cool cover for Cold Comfort Farm, Hobbit houses, Beacon Towers on Long Island Sound, which might have inspired Gatsby’s mansion in West Egg.

Some chapters worked better than others for me in terms of inspirational houses: I haven’t read Peake or Conan Doyle, or The Spoils of Poynton. I think perhaps Manderley and Brideshead are the strongest house-characters. It’s difficult for me to think of the Gables as simply a fictional house, because it actually exists, but it bears remembering that it did not in Hawthorne’s time.

I would love to get some more suggestions for novels in which houses play a major role in the plot, not just the setting.


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