Our Christmas was Covid-impacted like everyone else’s, but it ended up being just lovely, with most of our time spent with my brother and brother-in-law in Salem eating, drinking, playing bad board games and watching movies. We went up to York Harbor for Boxing Day with my parents, but we’re not going down to New Jersey to see my husband’s family, so this is a rare holiday season without long-distance travel for me (with the exception of last year, of course), and I’m enjoying lounging around. Because we knew we would be primarily stationary on Christmas weekend, we snuck in a quick trip down to Newport to see the decorated mansions (the Elms, Marble House, and the Breakers) as well as the streets and streets of colonial houses of every color. So all in all, a convivial, colorful, and (so-far) Covid-free holiday! I feel very fortunate.
Christmas at Home (with swans this year—and lots of cats, our Trinity & Tuck, and my brother’s Clementine).
Newport! I really prefer the smaller colonial houses, but when you’re in Newport you’ve got to see some mansions, especially at Christmas time. We had a lovely dinner at the White Horse tavern, and just walked by and through so many houses. Perfect little break. I think I have the many, many Christmas trees and mantles in order of their location—-first The Elms, then Marble House, then the Breakers—but there were just so MANY I might have mixed some up.
The Elms, 1901.
Marble House, 1888-1892.
The Breakers, 1895.
As glittering as they are at this time of year in particular, these mansions are a bit over the top, so I’m ending with the simple themed trees in the basement kitchen of the Breakers (hedgehogs & mushrooms! I’ve been wanting to do those Christmas themes myself) above and my very favorite Newport house and the First Parish Church in my hometown of York, below. Happiest of holidays to everyone.
We’re just back from a quick trip to the Florida Keys and Miami, not really my ideal vacation location but my husband craved sun and sand and fishing and I had never been to Key West so it was good compromise destination. There was just enough architecture to keep me occupied and he indulged me with a visit to Vizcaya. I was a bit worried about Florida’s reputation for negligent masking, but everywhere we went people wore their masks inside. The highlights of the trip for me were: Key West cottages, with their myriad shutters, porches, and brightly painted doors, our Key West hotel, which was both very stylish and very comfortable, the shrimp and grits featured at the hotel’s restaurant, with the non-traditional, amazingly delicious additions of manchego cheese and bacon, Ernest Hemingway’s house and its resident cats, many lime-flavored drinks, learning all about the female keepers of Key West’s lighthouse and the construction of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad, and Vizcaya, of course. It was also very interesting to watch the coexistence of so many different vehicles on the streets of Key West, including cars, scooters, bicycles (which really rule the road) and skateboards. And because I cannot go to another tourist city without comparing its “interpretive infrastructure” to that of Salem, I must say that Key West’s signage (both wayfinding and historical) is more uniform, more aesthetic, and simply BETTER than that of Salem, although that’s not saying much as our signage is so bad.
Key West, including the interior and exterior of our hotel, the story of our marriage, and a Marathon sunset.
Lowlights? Only the heat, I would say. It was exhausting to do my characteristically energetic architectural walkabout in Key West, but as I write this bundled up in bed on a cold and wet New England spring morning, that warmth is a fond memory.
Miami & Miami Beach: Vizcaya exterior and interior, and just a few houses from a few decades later—all is turquoise and coral.
I can’t get through the 2020 Year of Blogging on #SalemSuffrageSaturdays, historic houses, and the occasional book-inspired post alone: the most important place for everyone this year was the home, and so I need to show you more of mine to be true to its spirit. There were also some big changes to my home this year: for better, for worse, and just change. Now that we’re in the final months of this challenging year, my overwhelming sentiment is one of gratitude: I feel fortunate to have a safe and secure home, full of lovely things, and more than sufficient space for work, sleep, play, and procrastinating. So here are my three domestic themes:
The year of three cats:
About a month ago, I lost my cat Darcy, who was nearly 20 years old. He had been sick with kidney disease for quite a while—so I knew this was coming, but I was quite determined that he should die at home. He lived his whole life in our house, and he was not a social cat: he really only tolerated me. Actually I think he liked me, as every time I walked into a room he was in he would turn up his nose and give me a little trill (the only word I can come up with to describe that sound—it wasn’t quite a meow). Because of the pandemic, and then my book contract, I had a lot of time with Darcy over these past seven months: we would sit together and I would work and he would sleep or stare at me. Despite eating and wanting to eat constantly, he grew thinner and thinner, but he seemed very comfortable and I just hoped he would drift off, at home. I had experienced the deaths of two previous cats—Flannery and Moneypenny—through disruptive seizures and I craved a peaceful death for Darcy, but my vet convinced me that a crisis was imminent, so we had to put him down. Our other cat Trinity came to us shortly after she had given birth to her litter outside, been rescued, and fixed–while all of her kittens were put up for adoption. She has been making “nests” and crying for them for five years, so I always thought after Darcy was gone we would adopt a kitten: I knew she would not recognize the kitten as her kitten, but I though it would be at least a better age match—so I moved pretty quickly to adopt and now we have Tuck! Trinity is not pleased with this addition: for a while she seemed to have lost her own personality and become stand-offish Darcy incarnate but she seems to be reverting to form now: hopefully she just had to establish her “ranking” status. We have a bit more to work out, here at home.
One of Darcy’s last photographs, Trinity, Tuck.
We’ve needed a kitchen remodel forever; I don’t know why we moved forward in this particular year but apparently renovations are a big trend in this home-focused year. Kitchens in older houses are generally just boxes added onto the back; our house’s original kitchen is in the basement, and it looks pretty original. Our “modern” kitchen looked like it was put in in the 1950s or 1960s, but we found the bones of a much older kitchen when we ripped everything out; the new kitchen is completely new, except for the floorboards, which we found under three layers of vinyl. Thank goodness for them, because my pet peeve is new kitchens that don’t have anything to do with the rest of the house. We put a lot of thought—and spent quite a lot of money—connecting the kitchen to the rest of the house through materials and details, because it really wasn’t before. We commissioned a big slab of mahogany for our island because we wanted to balance the mahogany staircase in the front, and more practical quartz for the other counters. I think we succeeded in making the “box out back” more connected to the main house, but it took all summer: another reason why Darcy and I got to spend so much time together up on the third floor away from the dust and the noise! Here’s the whole process: before, during, after:
Stripping down and building back layers: that wattle & daub look is called “backplastering” and look at the floor “before”! Cabinets everywhere on the first floor for six weeks or so. The general contractor was our neighbor across the street, Leon Kraunelis, of RedwineDevelopment, floors by DanLabrecque , and mahogany table top by AlpineWoodworks right here in Salem. I changed up my jadeite for ironstone from my friend Betsy at WindyHillAntiques.
Living and working all over the house:
So I received my book contract in early July and went right to work: primarily in my third-floor study, a third-floor bedroom (because it had a bed for Darcy) and a second floor bay-window room that we call the “Nosy Room” because the previous owners did and it looks out over all of Chestnut Street. I taught a summer class, and now I’m teaching four classes in addition to writing. I find that I need to change my surroundings to be productive—and I can’t really go anywhere: not to my office, not to the library. So I’m basically working all over the house. I’ve been zooming everywhere, just to change it up for my students: I decorated the double parlors this past weekend with the rationale that it was for them but it was really because I bought so much John Derian Halloween stuff at Target! The only room I haven’t taught in yet is the kitchen: moving into there this week.
Various “studies”, and one of my big scores of the summer: a Salem Marine Society certificate! I have never been able to resist John Derian, so off to Target I went as soon as his stuff hit the stores. I bought three of those black cats.
Looking through classified advertisements in eighteenth-century Salem newspapers is one of my favorite pastimes: I can’t think of a better way to gain insights into the public lives of people at that time, though their private lives are, of course, another story. The other day I was wandering around in 1769 and a particularly enticing notice caught my attention: with its large letters and array of goods it could not fail to do so. Priscilla Manning, in big bold letters, listed her worldly goods, encompassing all manner and colors of cloth, caps, hose, shoes and tea, of course, all available at “her shop in Salem, a little above Capt. West’s Corner, at the lowest prices for Cash.” First I had to figure out what all of these eighteenth-century fabrics were: taffeta, satin, lawn, cambric, and linen were familiar to me, but somehow I have made it to this advanced age without knowing what “calamanco” was. I assumed it was an alternative spelling for calico, but no—a very different, thicker, embossed woolen cloth, which has its own (tortoiseshell) cat association in some parts of this world. Not only was I ignorant about calamanco: I had no idea that our neighboring city to the South, Lynn, was a major producer of calamanco shoes in the eighteenth century, well before it became known as an industrial Shoe City. But there’s the reference right in Priscilla’s inventory: best Lynn-made calamanco and silk shoes. My friend and former colleague Kimberly Alexander, author of Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories of the Georgian Era, set me straight: calamanco shoes were the “everyday footwear of American life” and Lynn-made shoes had such a good reputation in the Boston area that merchants such as Priscilla “proudly trumpeted their origin”. Yes, that’s right: Priscilla Manning was a merchant; why is that occupational term reserved only for men?
My calico cat Trinity and some anonymous tortoiseshell I stole from the web, as apparently some parts of the word call torties “calamanco cats”; calamanco wedding shoes from c. 1765, collection of Historic Deerfield (object #HD 2004.26, photo by Penny Leveritt).
Priscilla continued to carry on her business until 1772 when she married a widower from Andover named George Abbot: he brought his two young girls to Salem, and if advertisements are any indication, took over her shop. Suddenly it is George Abbot who is offering all of theses splendid goods, from the same shop, with only a few slight changes, including cash given for empty snuff bottles. Priscilla disappears! Certainly the commercial contacts necessary to conduct such a cosmopolitan provisioning business were hers, and I bet she continued to work them, but she is no longer the public face of her business. Actually the newspapers give us few insights into the Abbots during the Revolution: George appears in a 1774 letter addressed to General Gage protesting the closing of the port of Boston, and then we don’t see another advertisement until 1783, when the shop has moved to “Main Street”. In the following year, he died at age 37, leaving Priscilla as the guardian of her two stepdaughters and their daughter, also named Priscilla.
So what does Priscilla do? She re-opened her shop, “just above the town pump”, and built a big new house—both in her name. I do wonder if she had more freedom of operation as a widow than a miss, but that conspicuous advertisement from 1769 indicates she was under no commercial constraints before her marriage. The papers carry notices of the marriages of her stepdaughters and, sadly, the death of her own daughter at the tender age of 16, but they can offer no other insights into the life of Priscilla Manning Abbot, until her own death in 1804. What she left behind, to be disposed of by her executrix Elizabeth Cogswell: her mansion house and barn, one-half of wall pew #6 in the “Rev. Dr. Barnard’s meeting-house” and of course, her stock in trade.
I think this plaque should read Priscilla Manning Abbot, Merchant.
Appendix: Priscilla Manning’s ad caught the attention of an expert in the field as well as wandering me: check out Carl Robert Keyes’ analysis at the Adverts 250 Project.
I’ve been meaning to do a post on embroidery for a while. Needlecraft hardly seems new, or current, but I have students knitting in class, I follow a great twitter account (#womensart & also a great blog) which features amazing textile artists regularly, and the instagram hashtags #slowstitching and #needlepainting yield an abundance of extraordinary examples of embroidery art nearly every day. I think we’re in the midst of another “golden age” of embroidery—although I also think I’m late to this party, as usual (as this 2016 My Modern Met post will confirm). Certainly embroidery is not as central a part of society, or women’s lives, as it was during the early modern era when the Water Poet John Taylor published The Needles Excellency or the Federal era when Salem girls crafted samplers at Sarah Stivour’s famous school, but it is clearly a popular practice and a vibrant art form which often mixes traditional artistry with contemporary themes, in creations that are quite literally bursting out of the hoop.
Embroidery by the book and bursting outside of the book—and the frame— by Peruvian artist Ana TeresaBarboza.
ABOVE:More traditional pieces from Chloe Giordano: a pine marten and a fox. The Swedish textile artist Britta Margareta–Labba explores Sámi culture–and wildlife–in her creations; Moscow artist Roza Andreeva’s pieces are a bit more domesticated but no less intricate, and Lithuanian embroiderer AušraMerkelytė (@velvetmeadow) works with the hoop…and tulle, and dandelions, and Queen Anne’s Lace.
BELOW: just two of Paulina Bartnik’s embroidered birds at embirdery.com: she has also created a beautiful world on Instagram (@paulina.bart). And let’s go up in the air for the “aerial embroidery” of British artist Victoria Richards, depicting her Devon countryside in thread (I could teach the history of enclosure with these works!)
And finally, a few pieces by the popular and prolific New York artist Richard Saja, who takes his inspiration from traditional toile and then embellishes through embroidery to create completely new scenes: check out his blog Historically Inaccurate for much, much more. Always current: Love is Blind and George Washington.
We finally broke free of Salem for the last weekend of Haunted Happenings—-in the nick of time! It’s just been such a busy month, but on Saturday we abandoned all of our responsibilities and drove west to the Connecticut River Valley to visit my husband’s cousins, who live in the delightful town of Montague. I have been driving through or by Montague for many years, but never really stopped to explore it—or so I thought: it turns out that Turners Falls, a semi- regular pit stop for when when driving west or back east, is actually a village of Montague, along with Montague Center, Montague “City”, Millers Falls, and Lake Pleasant. We spent most of our time in Montague Center, and never found the elusive Lake Pleasant. On a long walk through the countryside surrounding the Center, we came across a beautiful first-period house for sale, which once belong to a mutual acquaintance of all of us: while staring at its characteristic over-the-top (by Salem standards) Connecticut-River-Valley doorway, I briefly imagined life “out west”, away from the Witch City and its exploitative “attractions” and Halloween hordes but also (unfortunately) far from work, family, and the ocean—which my husband could not live without. Oh well.
A dreamy house—and former tavern—in Montague Center: listing here.
As you can see, Saturday was a beautiful day and we saw other wonderful houses (and many barns) as well, before lunching outdoors at a former mill and returning back to our cousins’ charming house—a former school and pocketbook factory— within which live FOUR cats (and a dog), and wonderful family heirlooms from Vienna arranged just so according to the wishes of their former owner. After indulging in cardamon-laced pastries on fine china (yes, we refugees were treated like royalty), we were off to Turners Falls, the largest of the Montague villages.
All around Montague Center: house & barns, the Book Mill, Valley cats, Viennese heirlooms, the Homestead.
I have stopped by Turners Falls over the years because it is unusual among Massachusetts towns (or villages, I should say), most of which have evolved organically. Turners Falls is a planned industrial settlement, the initiative of Fitchburg industrialist and railroad entrepreneur Alvah Crocker in the 1860s. Laid out on a grid, with harnessed hydropower, factory buildings and housing and very conspicuous tall-spired churches, Turners Falls has the look of an “ideal” industrial community, even as its factories are now vacant. It has a big broad Main Street, and most of its shops and restaurants seemed very much alive, but all I was interested in on this particular visit was the workers’ housing—mostly brick rowhouses in varied states of repair. They were all striking in their efficient design, but it was their conditions which were so curious, like those below with the boarded-up windows and their recently-painted red stoops!
Turners Falls, 1877, Digital Commonwealth ( I don’t think all of those streets were filled out!); the fast-flowing river after the Falls; workers’ housing. On the way home, the French King Bridge over the Connecticut River.
A brief Christmas break and then it’s right back to Save-the-Phillips-Library-for-Salem business! But I had a very visual Christmas so I wanted to post some pictures. We were a party of only 6 adults this year, and so we decided to divide our holiday into Christmas Eve in Boston and Christmas Day in Salem, spending the eve between at the Fairmount Copley Plaza, just to top off my year of heritage hotels. Lots of eating and drinking and walking in town, after which we went to the 11 pm services at Trinity Church and then fell into our king-size beds across the street. We woke up to a very snowy morning, and managed to navigate our way to Salem without mishap. Presents, (much) more food and drink and then it was over. So much preparation, so little time, every year, but let’s hope the Christmas spirit prevails for a while longer.
This is the only October weekend for which I didn’t have travel plans which would get me out of Salem for the entire time: consequently I found myself at home on what is usually one of the worst days of Haunted Happenings, when hundreds of motorcycles invade the city for the annual MDA Annual Witch Ride. It’s for charity so we are not supposed to complain, but of course I always do because it seems like insult to injury–but this year it didn’t seem as loud or annoying as usual while I was hunkered down at home. On Friday and Saturday we were in Provincetown where my husband and stepson fished (and swam!) at the very tip of Cape Cod; I hung out with them for a while but then went into the very busy downtown. When it got too busy for me I retreated onto the side streets and up into the Pilgrim Monument which overlooks everything. It always amuses me to see this Renaissance campanile overlooking the outer Cape: it seems so out of place and such an odd monument to the Pilgrims who must be the most anti-Renaissance people I can think of—but somehow everything works in Provincetown.
And speaking of the anti-Renaissance, on the way home we were compelled by the cosplay enthusiasm of my teenaged stepson to stop at King Richard’s Faire, an annual Renaissance fair held in the wilds of southeastern Massachusetts. I don’t really think I can explain this experience in sentences and the only words I can come up with are cleavage and capes.Clearly historians of the Renaissance—myself included—have done a terrible job at articulating even its basic chronology as everyone from the Vikings to Marie Antoinette seemed to be present at this affair! And it was raining….so we were all mucking about in the mud. The only retreat from this nightmare was the car, where I happily read a book about the Mitford sisters until the men appeared. Then it was back to Salem on Saturday night for buses and motorcycles and a stack of papers on the Crusades to correct on Sunday. I retreated to the garden, where there was both (relative) peace and (still) quite a few flowers, thanks to our very warm fall.
Provincetown above, including a colorful-yet-solemn “Silent Witnesses” installation beneath the Pilgrim Monument, bearing witness to victims of domestic violence; some 17th-century plague doctors at the Renaissance Faire in Carver below; that’s it for the Renaissance Faire pictures!
Home in Salem: a peaceful day in the garden with Trinity and a distant roar. The blog has helped me keep track of changes in the garden better than any journal I’ve ever (intermittently) kept–and there’s a lot more green out there than in previous Octobers.
My calendar version of the photographic “golden hour” is late August: everything seems warmer and softer, yet somehow more vivid. It’s not as hot and humid and you can feel a touch of fall in the evening breezes. Cotton-sweater-weather. The days seem precious because they are numbered, not so much by the end of summer (I firmly believe that the end of the summer comes in late September–especially now) but by the beginning of the fall semester, which I have experienced my entire life except for one year. It’s been such a busy summer for me that these last few slow days of August are especially welcome–I’m not doing much with them except for existing really: casual deadheading, aimless walks, leafing through magazines, cocktails. That’s about it. Because I was so busy this summer, fall is going to seem tame by comparison, so maybe the golden hour will be a bit longer than usual.
Late August in Salem:
My August garden is basically white at this time of year…Trinity outside and in….the peaking Ropes Garden……………
The real Golden Hour, out in Salem Harbor….and off Marblehead….
whimsical posters for the Salem Farmers’ Market by Jesse Ciarmataro of H5P Creative Studio….and one of Marice Prendergast’s Salem paintings, which capture the spirit of this time of year.
Farmers’ Market posters, Jesse Ciarmataro/ H5P Creative Studio: Maurice Prendergast, Salem Cove, 1916, National Gallery of Art.
Just back from a family vacation in the Dominican Republic, relishing the stark New England weather after so much bright sun! A beach resort is not my ideal destination, but I have family and friends who do enjoy all such amenities, so I suffered through it: drinking, reading, swimming, and sunbathing the days away. The particular resort at which we stayed is very popular with French tourists, and I was amused when one of the employees told me that activities were organized to appeal to two groups: the French and the “International” guests, which included Americans! I liked being classified that way, but still hung out in French territory for the most part, catching (or half-catching, as my French is very, very rusty) some interesting snippets about the upcoming election. I also became reaquainted with Europop and ashtrays. Resorts are funny little worlds, really. Since there was very little art or architecture to capture my attention (apart from the conspicuous “Madonna of the Resort” below), I became obsessed with the semi-feral cats that roamed the resort, all with very different personalities and very staked-out territories, so interspersed among my vacation pictures are those of my favorite Caribbean (resort) cats, on the job, so to speak.