Tag Archives: books

The Gardener’s Labyrinth

I’m having this really neat synchronicity of research, writing and life right now, as I’m working on Chapter Three of my book, which is focused on Elizabethan horticulture. So I get up, water my garden, and then go upstairs into my study and read and write about English gardening texts from the sixteenth century. Or there is the alternative day: I get up, drink coffee, read and write about English gardening texts, and then go downstairs for “cocktail watering” at the end of the day.  Regardless of when I sit down to immerse myself in this topic, it is obvious that there was a lot to write about then, and so I have a lot to write about now: new plants, coming from the Continent or the New World, how to feed the rapidly growing city of London, how to harness the power of plants for a variety of medicinal purposes. There were kitchen gardens, physic gardens, market gardens, and “summer gardens” for pleasure and relaxation. No matter what the purpose of the garden, the general belief was that it should be adjacent to the house and laid out in beds segregated by paths and walkways: the influences of the French parterre and medieval precedents encouraged the creation of a “knotted” or knot garden, which seems to have become a Tudor symbol. The pioneer of English gardening texts, Thomas Hyll (or Hill) published his first book, The Profitable arte of gardening in 1558: it was reprinted frequently thereafter and published in an amplified edition called The Gardeners Labyrinth posthumously in 1577. The Labyrinth was also very popular, due to the combination of Hyll’s “plain” instructions on how to lay out, enclose, plant, fertilize, irrigate, protect, and harvest a garden as well as its wonderful illustrations, the most reprinted of which are his images of watering the garden, something we all need to think about right now in the August doldrums (at least in New England). And true to its title, the Labyrinth also includes illustrations—templates really, for knot gardens, mazes, and labyrinths. Somehow I am more appreciative of his watering advice right now, in these 90-degree days!

Gardeners Collage First

Gardeners Labyrinth 1594 (2)

Gardeners Labyrinth Ch. 20 (3)

Gardeners Labyrinth 1594 watering through troughs (2)

Gardeners Labyrinth Watering (3)Tending to and ordering your garden in the Elizabethan era: Thomas Hyll’s Gardeners Labyrinth.

I am a bit confused by these two alternative watering techniques: “the maner of watering with a pumpe by troughes in the garden” and “the maner of watering with a pumpe in a tubbe” as Hyll is quite clear in the text that “water rotteth and killeth above ground.” So do we water from above or below?  I generally do both: aiming for the roots when I start watering and then just lazily arching it from above when I get tired and lazy—especially if I am watering with wine-in-hand. So many tools we use now were used then—rakes, hoes, shovels, watering “pottes”: and he calls his tin watering devices “great Squirtes”! August was hot in those Elizabethan summers as well: and Hyll instructs his readers to get out there and water in whatever way they can.

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20200810_070845Bad cocktail watering (?) and the garden in the morning.

There are several knot garden examples in The Gardener’s Labyrinth as well as mazes: Hyll had to appeal to the literary public, which was essentially a monied and aspirational one, and so his gardens had to have ornamental qualities as well as utilitarian ones. The knot or maze is a perfect and very literal example of man bending nature to his will, a key Renaissance preoccupation: man is at the center of everything. The perfectly-ordered gardens that appear in the backgrounds of English portraits from this era reflect very well on their individual subjects, as well as the society at large.

Gardeners Knot (2)

Gardeners Maze (3)

Lord Edward Russell

Gardening Young Man

Garden Lettice Newdigate 1606Knot & Maze designs from the Gardeners Labyrinth, 1577; Lord Edward Russell by George Perfect Harding, watercolor copy of a 1573 portrait after unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery; Isaac Oliver, a Young Man seated under a Tree, 1590-95, Royal Collection Trust; Lettice Newdigate, c. 1606, Private Collection: Arbury Hall, Warwickshire.


Eat, Drink & Be Merry

For the most part, I’ve managed to avoid dwelling on the pandemic and I must admit that I haven’t been that affected by it either, apart from the radical reconfiguration of my work environment! My struggle is to improve my online communication skills so that I can convey my passion for history through the screen—and that really isn’t much of a struggle, relatively speaking. I feel grateful as I’ve been fortunate: fortunate in my profession, which enables me to work in isolation reading and writing about a distant time and place, and fortunate in my residence—Massachusetts was hard hit in March and April but the steady leadership of our Governor and the responsible compliance of (most of) our citizens has enabled us to contain the spread of the Covid. Most days I am in a sixteenth-century fog writing my book, but headlines from the radio and the television intrude, and of course, the numbers of the infected and the dead keep climbing. I can’t believe that the President would hold rallies in this environment, and I am fearful of the maskless merrymakers I see whenever I do get outside and happen to find myself near a body of water, which is often, because I live on the coast. These “mask slackers” (a great term that comes from the last epic pandemic, when an Anti-Mask League formed in San Francisco) do not in any way remind me of a proverbial and patriotic “live free or die” movement but rather another, older, proverbial expression of selfishness: “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we shall die”. This is a biblical reference, of course, and as such it does not imply selfishness on the part of those partaking in the joys of daily life; rather it began to acquire its modern meaning at the time of the Black Death, or shortly thereafter. One of our best sources for the plague’s impact is the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, who set the scene for his tales of the Decameron by giving us a first-hand account of plague-time Florence, where

Some thought that moderate living and the avoidance of all superfluity would preserve them from the epidemic. They formed small communities, living entirely separate from everybody else. They shut themselves up in houses where there were no sick, eating the finest food and drinking the best wine very temperately, avoiding all excess, allowing no news or discussion of death and sickness, and passing the time in music and suchlike pleasures. Others thought just the opposite. They thought the sure cure for the plague was to drink and be merry, to go about singing and amusing themselves, satisfying every appetite they could, laughing and jesting at what happened. They put their words into practice, spent day and night going from tavern to tavern, drinking immoderately, or went into other people’s houses, doing only those things which pleased them. 

Boccaccio’s description echoed the late medieval Danse Macabre (“Dance of Death”) allegory, an expression of the egalitarian and universal nature of all-conquering Death found in poetry, music, and images both before, and especially after, the Black Death. Late medieval people heard (or saw) the message as a reminder to be ready for Death, which could strike at any time, in a spiritual sense, not just as a call to indulge. Over the next centuries the hoarding isolationists and the dancing fools converged and the focus on sinfulness and salvation was diminished and forgotten, leaving us only with self-centered indulgence in the face of things we can’t, or won’t control: eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).

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Screenshot_20200401-081302_TwitterAre we in a crisis? Death is just outside the door in The Feast of Dives, Master of James IV of Scotland, c. 1510-20, from the Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum; I took this screenshot of Governor Kevin Stitt’s tweet back in March because I could not quite believe it: it was later taken down. I’m sad to say that Governor Stitt has recently announced that he is the first Governor to test positive for Covid and I hope he makes a speedy recovery. He attended the President’s rally in Tulsa on June 20 (without wearing a mask) but does not believe that it was where he was infected.

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Detail of a photograph of  the Danse Macabre frieze at St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck painted by Bernt Notke in 1463; it was destroyed during World War II.  Ink & watercolor Dance of Death by anonymous German artist, 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art; inset of 17th century oil painting of the Dance of Death, Wellcome Library.


The First Crusader

One of the key themes emerging from my #SalemSuffrageSaturday posts is the activism and organization of women: there is a paper trail of organized advocacy for abolition, suffrage, temperance, and all sorts of reform and relief. The beginning of that trail might have begun in the 1820s with protests against the Federal government’s policy towards Native Americans: I don’t see a movement but I do see one fierce crusader in Salem. Elizabeth Elkins Sanders (1762-1851) is yet another woman about whom we never hear anything in Salem: she was born into privilege, lived a privileged life, but was aware of said privilege in an age when most of her contemporaries were not, and consequently became a fierce advocate for Native Americans and an equally fierce critic of American cultural imperialism from the 1820s on—expressing views that become much more current a century later. She was not just an armchair observer; she published Conversations, Principally on the Aborigines of North America (1828), the First Settlers of New England (1829), and the Tract on Missions (1844) as well as several literary essays and reviews. The intense presidential campaign of 1828, pitting notorious Indian fighter Andrew Jackson against Massachusetts’ native son John Quincy Adams, inspired her to pick up a pen in her sixties: the Tract on Missions was published when she was 82!

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Sanders Circular (3)

Sanders contextConversations, Principally on the Aborigines of North America, published by Elizabeth Elkins Sanders during the presidential campaign of 1828; Catherine Beecher’s Circular Addressed to Benevolent Ladies of the United States (from the Phillips Library, incorrectly attributed to Sanders), a call to action against the pending Indian Removal Act, 1829. Alisse Portnoy’s Their Right to Speak connects the anti-removal movement with the emerging abolitionist movement in the antebellum era.

Elizabeth Sanders (or Saunders) was a Salem representative of a larger movement against Indian removal which included the first national women’s petition campaign, organized by Connecticut educators Catherine Beecher (elder sister of Harriet) and Lydia Sigourney: in response to the Circular addressed to Benevolent Ladies of the United States nearly 1500 petitions were sent to Washington in 1830. I’m assuming Elizabeth sent hers, and wondering what other causes and organizations were the focus of her “expansive benevolence and strong mature intellect”.

Sanders Feb 22 1851

20200717_180254Salem Observer, February 22, 1851; 39 Chestnut Street, the home of Captain Thomas and Elizabeth E. Sanders.

 


Suffrage Stories

I apologize for my disappearance without a heads-up: the combination of computer problems and travel rendered me postless for a week! I am back with the first of what will be a series of reading lists for the summer, but first some big news: I’ve just received a book contract for the project I’ve been working intermittently but steadily on for the last couple of years, so expect The Practical Renaissance: Information Culture in Early Modern England out next year (or early in 2022) from Bloomsbury! This means that posts on early modern medicine, agriculture, mechanics, and navigation are going to turn up here occasionally, but the blog will also serve as a break from my more-scholarly endeavors: Salem history is still a rich minefield and I will still have a life! As these past few weeks have shown, history in general is as problematic, and public, and current as ever, and here I can indulge, and engage, and weigh in. And in matters more material, I still have my kitchen renovation to show you! (we are in a particularly messy and noisy stage right now).

Though the suffrage centennial has been drowned out by the pandemic and protests of this eventful year, it remains a focus for me. I’m sorry that this notable anniversary is getting lost— along with the bicentennial of my home state of Maine and the 400th anniversary of the passage of the Mayflower. As I am neither an American or modern historian, I really had to read up on the long struggle for suffrage–both in America and Europe–to get the context and perspective I wanted for my #SalemSuffrageSaturdays. The literature on the American and British suffrage movements has grown exponentially over the last few years, and I couldn’t read everything, so in typical academic fashion I started with some key primary sources, read a lot of reviews, narrowed down what I thought might be the essentials, and spread out from there. I was looking for a trans-Atlantic approach, which I didn’t really find, and also more personal stories—and the quest for the latter took me into fictional territory, so I do indeed have a few novels on my top ten (actually eleven) list. I wouldn’t consider these texts sources, of course (although they were certainly well-researched) but they fleshed things out for me. And I have some real suffragist stories too.

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Books Suffrage Kitty Marion

Books Broom

Books Collage

Books Picturing (2)

Books Lucy Stone Collage

Books Gilman (6)

Fictional Suffrage Collage (2)

How I learned about the Suffrage movements in the UK and US: 1) Emmeline Pankhurst’s My Own Story (1914), because you’ve got to start with the founders; 2) Diane Atkinson’s Rise Up, Women is my favorite British survey—focusing on personal stories (and from Bloomsbury!) 3) here is our trans-Atlantic activist, Kitty Marion, whose extraordinary life is explored in Fern Riddell’s Death in Ten Minutes; 4) images are so important to this movement—on both sides of the Atlantic—and I’m obsessed with the work of British photographer Christina Broom; 5) and 6) I didn’t really find the writings of the founders of the US movement very accessible or enjoyable, so I went for more recent interpretations: Lisa Tetrault’s Myth of Seneca Falls and Faye Dudden’s Fighting Chance were particularly helpful in explaining some of the divisions in the movement; 7) Allison K. Lange’s brand-new Picturing Political Power explores the very important visual projections of Suffragists in the US; 8) in Massachusetts, it’s all about Lucy Stone, who must have visited Salem 100 times: she is the subject of several works, but I found Sally McMillen’s Lucy Stone: an Unapologetic Life the most helpful; 9) Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Women and Economics (1898) provides classic context, and 10) and 11) two works of fiction in which Suffragettes and the Suffrage Movement play key roles: Tracy Chevalier’s Falling Angels and Lucy Ribchester’s The Hourglass Factory.

I couldn’t limit my list to 10 and I had to throw in some fiction: happy reading, everyone, and Happy Fourth!


Feeding Suffrage

Sorry I’m a bit late today with my #SalemSuffrageSaturday post: I’ve migrated up to Maine for several weeks and the wifi situation is a bit challenging! But I think I have it together now. I’m going to move into some national suffrage history for a few weeks and then go back to the parochial, because the long-term suffrage movement was successful ultimately because it operated at several levels: the national and the local, the exterior and the interior. I have been continually impressed, as I studied this movement this year, at how adept the marketing was, with every concern taken into consideration: messaging, branding. graphics, audience. Lately I’ve been reading some wonderful suffrage cookbooks, which in many ways were the perfect venue for the Suffrage message: not too radical, traditional really, but also containing themes of practicality, self-sufficiency, and above all, femininity. The first Suffragist cookbook, the Woman Suffrage Cookery Books, was edited and published by Mrs. Hattie Burr of Boston in 1886 with exactly that message in its forward:  Alarmists of both sexes will shrink back abashed before this cook-book, for at least two recipes, which she has tested with success, will be given over the signature of each fair suffragist who contributes to its pages. It will be a confession book, a proof that, even if they wish to vote, the suffragists cherish a feminine interest in culinary matters.

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First and Second Editions of Mrs. Hattie Burr’s Woman Suffrage Cookbook, 1886 & 1890: you can read the text here.

Indeed there was nothing at all alarming about this cookbook: no radical recipes! In addition to recipes for everything from soup to nuts, there are sections on the care and feeding of invalids and helpful household hints, followed by “Eminent Opinions on Woman Suffrage” (starting with Plato!) only at the very end: an appendix. I think the relative banality of this book must have helped the cause considerably, and it certainly inspired regional editions as well as the first British Suffrage cookbook in 1912. I also think it inspired valuable support, in the form of advertising, from commercial food producers, such as Fleishmann’s Yeast (referenced in several of the recipes) and Kellogg’s Cereals. All in all, it seems like the cookbook was a very nourishing genre for the Suffrage movement.

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Suffrage Pittsburg 1915

Suffrage British Cookbook 1912 (2)

Suffrage Ad Collage

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Suffrage cookbooks from Washington State (1908), western Pennsylvania (1915) and the UK (1912), from the Ann Lewis Women’s Suffrage Collection. Fleischmann’s Yeast and Kellogg’s advertisements from the 1890s and 1914. I bet that Laura Kumin’s All Stirred Up, which will be published in August, will have lots more details about the publication and impact of these cookbooks. 


A Feminine Focus in the Garden

It wasn’t just Memorial Day: I feel like I’ve finally come to the end of a long string of obligations and am ready to focus on house, garden, reading, wandering about. We’re finally renovating our kitchen, so that will be a major focus for the next few months: I’ll do a “before” post next week, before nearly everything is torn out of that space, and then we’ll be able to celebrate the “after” later. The garden is looking good, although I fear it will turn into a construction zone. I do have a few last presentations—on Zoom of course–to give to several women’s organizations about the history of Salem women and the quest for suffrage. It is unfortunate, but certainly understandable, that that big anniversary is being overwhelmed by the pandemic, but I want to mark it in the best way I possibly can. As I was thinking about women’s history—and gardening at the same time—-I realized that a big part of garden history is women’s history, in all periods, as women are always charged with provisioning in one way or another throughout history. Certainly this was not an original thought, but it nevertheless led me down various trails, and I ended up spending a rather blissful Memorial Day (after I gave a speech!) looking though the photographs of women photographers over the last century or so. This is just one small aspect of the intersection of women’s history/garden history: I’m going to explore more this summer.

When I’m interested in something, I’m generally interested in something in the past, and then I bring it forward, but this exploration started with two contemporary garden photographers whose work I had been admiring online and in a book I just received:  the Luxembourg photographer Marianne Majerus and the American photographer Stacy Bass. The former is almost like a painter in the garden; likewise the latter is a master (mistress) of light.

Garden Marianne Majerus

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Garden Marianne Majerus Garden Images

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Stacy Bass Gate (3)Photographs ©Marianne Majerus Garden Images and ©Stacy Bass: much, much more @ Marianne Majerus Garden Images and Stacy Bass Photography.

Is there a tradition of women’s garden photography? I had to go back, following English and American lines (even though Majerus is from the Continent she was trained in England and seems to photograph a lot of English gardens!). Though not strictly a garden photographer, I explored the wonderful work of still-life photographer Tessa Traeger, and through Traeger’s portrait rediscovered the AMAZING Valerie Finnis, whom I identified primarily as the namesake of variant of artemisia before I dug a bit deeper: what an extraordinary plantswoman and photographer! Even though she was a serious botanist, gardening seems like such a social activity for Finnis: she like to photograph people in their gardens, and she was also very, very fashionable, like her subject below, Rhoda, Lady Birley. I’ve just ordered Ursula Buchan’s collection of Finnis’s photographs, Garden People, and I can’t wait to receive it.

Garden Tessa Traeger

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Tessa Traeger Valerie FinnisFinnis CollagePhotographs by Tessa Traeger, including her marvelous portrait of Valerie Finnis in 2000, National Portrait Gallery. Garden People includes this amazing Valerie Finnis portrait of Rhoda, Lady Birley.

The Smithsonian and Library of Congress have several archival collections of women photographers, including those who specialized, or at least ventured into, garden photography: I love the dreamy mid-century images of Molly (Maida Babson) Adams (1918-2003) who photographed gardens up and down the Eastern Seaboard over her 40+ year career. I did not identify the pioneering photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) with gardens before this little visual journey of mine, but they certainly constituted a sizable percentage of her impressive output.

Gardens Maida Smithsonian

Garden Maida Buttrick Garden Concord MA Smithsonian

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Johnston CollagePhotographs by Molly Adams of gardens in Maine and Massachusetts, and Frances Benjamin Johnston of gardens in Virginia, Long Island, and Rhode Island, Smithsonian Institution and Library of Congress. 

And I ended up with the charming photographs taken by another pioneering woman photographer, Etheldreda Laing (1872-1960), who experimented with the first color photography process—autochrome—by taking wonderful photographs of her daughters Janet and Iris at their home, Bury Knowle House in Oxford, over a succession of summers between 1908 and 1914: before-the-deluge images indeed! And also, I think, the female gaze.

Garden Etheldra-Laing-autochrome-rose-arch Iris and Janet Laing 1910

Garden Etheldra-Laing-autochrome-blue-bonnet Iris L 1910

Garden Iris and Janet Laing c 1914The Laing daughters, Iris (younger) and Janet (older) in their mother’s photographs, 1908-14. More on autochromes here.


Mr. Berry’s Portfolio

The pen-in-hand sketching architect is one of my favorite perspectives of Salem’s material landscape, and there were quite a few, from the 1870s on. Salem was an important design source, from the Centennial through the height of the Colonial Revival in the 1920s. I recently discovered a slim volume of hand-drawn houses by a young architect from southern Maine, William E. Berry, which does not contain any Salem houses but is nonetheless so completely charming that I wanted to feature it: I love his drawings, which are much more impressionistic than measured, as well as his captions—even his chosen fonts! I was not surprised to learn that he was a friend and colleague of Arthur Little, another architect who sketched old buildings along the New England coast for inspiration: if you spend an hour or so looking at Little’s sketches in Early New England Interiors (1878) and Berry’s Pen Sketches of Old Houses (1874) you will be plunged into the world of the young New England architect of the era, engaging with the design details all around him (unfortunately I don’t think there are any similar volumes by her, although it would be interesting to compare if there were).

Barry 2

Barry 3The “OLD Mansion” above is the Sewall House or Coventry Hall in York, Maine, my hometown: growing up in a large shingle house in the Harbor, this was always my touchstone for what a “proper” house should look like.

Barry 4 (2)Can anyone tell me about this house in Saco, Maine?

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Grove HallWOW. This is (was) the “Dearborn House” in Grove Hall, in Boston. You can read more about this amazing house here, or at least the search for more information about this amazing house. The photograph is by A.H. Folsom, c. 1868, Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth.

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Barry 6 (2) The Tufts House in Medford, an unknown (???) Boston house, and some exterior and interior details, including amazing “portable paneling”. Mr. Berry also went down south, but I am not going with him.


New Deal Salem

A couple of years ago I complained about the lack of WPA murals in any of Salem’s public buildings: this struck me, as an impression and little else, as a lack of New Deal investment in Depression-era Salem. I’ve had time to survey the paper trail now and boy was I wrong: Salem benefited tremendously from the work of New Deal agencies, and not just in terms of its infrastructure but its culture as well. So this post will serve to set the record straight. I don’t think there is a Salem neighborhood that lacked a WPA project: there was work on different installations around Salem Harbor, at two Salem islands (Winter and Baker’s), downtown, in Forest River Park in South Salem and at Greenlawn Cemetery in North Salem. And so many agencies worked here, fanning out from a major field office in Barton Square with 300 Federal employees at first, and then a smaller office situated in a renovated Old Town Hall. Whether it mitigated the impact of the Great Depression effectively is another inquiry, but the Federal government certainly had a presence in Salem in the 1930s, and left its mark.

New Deal Building Collage

New Deal Greenlawn Collage

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New Deal Machine ShopNews clips from Works Progress Administration Bulletins, 1936-39, Boston Public Library; National Youth Administration Photos and Records, NARA.

Well of course parking lots, wharves, and cemetery plots were necessary and I think the timely renovation of Old Town Hall was key, but my favorite WPA agencies were those charged with more historical and cultural endeavors, most especially the Historical Records Survey (HRS) and the Historic Architectural Buildings Survey (HABS). Salem was fortunate in that it had a demonstrated commitment to the preservation of historic records and buildings, in the forms of the long-established Essex Institute and concurrent initiative to establish the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, but the HRS was instrumental at documenting essential records of American history across the US at their most endangered moment. It was originally part of the WPA’s Federal Writers Project, but it spun off on its own and then became a unit of the Research and Records Program in 1939, charged with compiling indexes to major genealogical sources such as vital statistics, cemetery internments, military records, and newspapers. The reports of the HRS are nothing short of heroic (Salem actually needs one now; I have no idea of the location or state of many of its public records) but little interesting items were also published in the 1930s, showing how historical research was interwoven into daily life. And as for HABS: is it impossible to underestimate the value of its photographs, measured drawings, and documented details of Salem’s built landscape, and with over 600 entries Salem was particularly favored by these dedicated professionals, working away in large field office in Boston.

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New Deal HRS Collage

HABS MAP

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WPA LastHABS records, Library of Congress.

Another WPA cultural agency that seems to have been very active in Salem during the later 1930s was the Federal Theatre Project, which staged a succession of productions at the Empire Theatre on Esssex Street and several benefits around town—several premieres, no less. I can’t discern similar activity on the part of the Federal Art Project in Salem, though I suppose Salem artists could have exhibited at the Federal Art Gallery on Newbury Street in Boston. As I was researching the FAP, I did learn that it was not the chief administrating agency of all of those lovely Post Office murals which started me off on my charge years ago, but rather the Fine Arts Department of the Treasury Department. Another cultural agency which was under the aegis of both the WPA and the Federal Art Project was the Index of American Design, which commissioned artists (over 400) to create watercolor illustrations (over 18,000) of intrinsically American decorative art objects, including several Salem items.

New Deal Theatre Collage

New Deal Theatre Now and Then LOC (2)

Federal Art Project collage

IAD Collage

Federal Theatre Project and Federal Art Project Posters from the Library of Congress; Salem Index of American Art renderings from the collection at the National Gallery of Art.

Finally, I don’t think I can conclude this survey of the New Deal’s contributions to Salem’s physical and cultural landscape without a brief mention of the Massachusetts volume in the American Guide Series produced by the Federal Writers Project:  Massachusetts: a Guide to its Places and People (1937). This book was a bit controversial in its time as it was one of the first American Guide books and it definitely revealed a pro-labor perspective in its first part, which introduces readers to the Massachusetts people and their institutions. It certainly reflects its time and its intent, but regardless, the second part of the book contains absolutely amazing walking and driving tours of Massachusetts cities and counties. I actually drive around with it in my car! There are several walking tours of Salem and they are much better than that stupid Red Line thing we have now; we should just arm all of our visitors with a copy of the WPA map to the city and they would be far better served.

Massachusetts Guide Collage


Molly Saunders

Though Salem is very much a foodie town today, I don’t think it has a historical culinary reputation, but there are four foodstuffs that do stand out in its long history: a daunting sour beer beverage called whistlebelly vengeancea “Salem” suet pudding, Gibralters, a hard candy invented and marketed by Mrs. Spencer–atop–her carriage, and Molly Saunders’ gingerbread, which came in two varieties: top-shelf and lower-shelf. The latter received acclaim even in mid-nineteenth-century Boston, which liked to lord over fading Salem at every opportunity. In her reminiscences of A Half Century in Salem, Mariane Silsbee gives us perhaps the best description of this storied item: Anybody who has never tasted “Molly Saunders’ gingerbread” has missed a pleasure. In a small shop on Central Street was a door, half wood, half glass, such as formerly were so universal, and the children could peep at the destined feast before lifting the latch, thereby tinkling a bell to give notice of a customer. The common name of this gingerbread was “upper shelf” and “lower shelf”. Upper shelf had butter in it, lower shelf had none; “upper shelf” was three cents a cake, “lower shelf” was two; and both were so delicious that whoever chose the one longed also for the other, but youthful funds were limited. It appeared and disappeared with the maker. Whether she was a Mrs. or a Miss is not now known; if she retired from business during life, or left it in dying, is a doubt not to be settled. The Bedneys were the next occupants of the shop; their election cake was good, but they were merely successors, not rivals, to the immortal Molly Saunders. There was a reappearance of Molly Saunders’ gingerbread in the twentieth century in the form of recipes in What Salem Dames Cooked (1910) and my favorite Hamilton Hall Cookbook (1947), but who knows which of these (variant) recipes are authentic—if either? (The Dames top shelf recipe doesn’t even have ginger in it, and contrary to what Mrs. Silsbee asserted, both varieties have butter as an ingredient). How were they passed down from the “immortal” though rather mysterious Molly Saunders?

Gingerbread collage

Gingerbread HH collage

Gingerbread 2 (3)Recipes & stories of Molly Saunders’ famous gingerbread were passed down in a variety of publications over the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries…..

I am no culinary detective but I don’t really trust any of those twentieth-century recipes. Instead, I decided to refer to a publication closer to Molly Saunders’ own time: Mrs. Putnam’s Receipt Book, and Housekeeper’s Assistant, first published in Boston in 1849. This is such a great book: it has such an air of confidence about it and also of tradition: Mrs. Putnam and Mrs/Miss Saunders were coming from the same place and time and so I think their gingerbread recipes would be similar. New England cooks in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries discerned between hard and soft sugar and molasses gingerbreads, and I think this might also be the distinction between Molly Saunders’ top- and lower-shelf varieties, but whether it’s the hard or the soft or the molasses or the sugar I do not know! In any case, here are Mrs. Putnam’s receipts, and it is perfectly clear that we are talking about cake gingerbread here, and not the snaps or cookies that were sold more on the fly, at musters and fairs. And in addition to all of these recipes, I’m also offering up a book recommendation in this post (or two, as I think I have recommended Mrs. Putnam as well): Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread, which also references a mysterious gingerbread recipe and started me on my little quest.

Gingerbread Putnam Collage

Screenshot_20200507-144659_Google


Sarah’s Spectacles

In my mission to ferret out lesser-known Salem women for my #salemsuffragesaturday posts I seem to be focusing on quite a few unmarried women, but they are not your typical “maiden aunts” known only to their families: some public activity has to have been documented or they would leave no mark other than personal memories. Today I am featuring the older sister of a very famous Salem family, described by none other than the New York Times as “eminent for genius and enterprise”: Sarah West Lander (1819-72). Sarah’s siblings included Civil War General Frederick W. Lander and sculptress Louisa Lander; they were the great-grandchildren of Elias Hasket Derby and the grandchildren of Elizabeth Derby and Captain Nathaniel West, whose spectacular divorce rocked Salem in 1806. I wanted to write about Sarah mostly because I’m envious of the amazing houses in which she lived throughout her life, no doubt in the midst of all that famous Derby furniture: a charming and long-gone Barton Square house, the famous McIntire creation Oak Hill in nearby Peabody (also long gone, but with interiors preserved at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and the brick townhouse that now houses the Salem Inn. But in her own time, I think she found considerable fame as the author of a series of juvenile travelogues titled Spectacles for Young Eyes: eight volumes were published in all during the 1860s, encompassing cities from Boston to New York to Berlin and St. Petersburg. It is through these spectacles that we come to see Sarah.

Lander Barton Square 1904 (2)

Lander Oak_Hill (2)

Oak Hill Parlor MFA

Lander Cousins (2)Five Barton Square, Sarah’s birthplace, in 1904 by Frank Cousins from his Colonial Architecture in Salem (1919); Oak Hill in the early twentieth century, Peabody Institute Library; Five Summer Street (left), Sarah’s home after 1850, in a 1890s photograph by Frank Cousins, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum via Digital Commonwealth.

Sarah didn’t begin writing her children’s books until the onset of the Civil War: the first one, originally titled Spectacles for Little Eyes and focused on nearby Boston, was published in 1862, the same year that her brother died from injuries sustained in battle and the onset of pneumonia. His Washington funeral was attended by President Lincoln and members of the Cabinet; crowds lined the streets of both the capital and Salem after his body was returned home for burial in the Broad Street Cemetery on March 8. It is impossible to know how Sarah processed all this: it is tempting to offer up escapism through travel writing but certainly that’s taking too many liberties!

Lander Funeral FOUR

Lander Funeral March New York Times, March 9, 1862; C. Mathias, “General Lander’s Funeral March”, Library of Congress

Seven more books followed Spectacle for Little Eyes, all issued in multiple illustrated editions with the revised series title Spectacles for Young Eyes. Contemporary trade journals refer to Miss Lander’s success at selling 50,000 plus copies per title: while the rest of the country was occupied with war and reconstruction, she was clearly focused on her writing, publishing poetry and translations from French and German as well as the Spectacles books. Obviously Sarah knew Boston, but I can’t find any evidence that she visited any of the other cities she wrote about, using the experiences of the wandering Hamilton family as her “spectacles”. Her younger sister Louisa was well-traveled, but Sarah was an armchair traveler, settled in a Salem which she describes as very pleasant, quiet, staid, [and] neat-looking—as if it were Sunday all the time. The spirit of the Puritans seems hanging over it still [very Hawthornesque!]. Hers was a quiet Salem, not a busy (though declining) port, a burgeoning industrial center or a cauldron of reformist activism.

Lander Collage

Spectacle2 (2)

Lander zurich 2 (2)

Lander Spectacles 3 (3) Spectacles: Boston, St. Petersburg, Zurich, “Pekin”.

Indeed, in her 1872 obituary, the Salem Gazette is pretty much in the same position to view Miss Lander as I am: it belongs to those who were favored with her intimate acquaintance, to speak of the attractions and virtues of her private character. But we may be permitted to refer to those productions through which she has become known to the public, i.e. the Spectacles, much praised for their great research, their moral tone, beauty of style, and great fidelity of description.


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