Tag Archives: Chestnut Street

The Last Collector of the Custom House

The life of David Mason Little (1860-1923) began in Swampscott and ended in Boston, but most of it was led in Salem, and in the fullest way possible: he was an MIT-trained naval architect, an inventor, a photographer, a silversmith, a military officer, a historian, a bank director, a mayor, and the last Collector of the Salem Custom House. Born into the wealthy and accomplished Little family of Little’s Point, Swampscott fame, he had many, many advantages, but certainly made the most of them. He was a descendant of Revolutionary soldier and scientist Colonel David Mason, his siblings included the famous maritime artist Philip Little, who lived a few buildings down and across the way from his Chestnut Street mansion, the architect Arthur Little, and the biographer Grace Little Oliver, his wife was the granddaughter of Salem’s great philanthropist John Bertram, and his youngest son Bertram became an influential collector and the director of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), the forerunner of Historic New England. These bare biographical facts do not do justice to this man, who seems to have been that rare combination of civil servant and polymath.

Little Collage The Honorable David Mason Little, and a Boston Globe article dated July 17, 1904, shortly after his appointment as Salem’s last Collector of the Custom House.

Little’s service–as quartermaster of the Second Corps of Cadets and state ordinance officer during the Spanish-American War, as city councillor, school board member, and Mayor of Salem–is commendable of course, but his inventiveness and artistry are compelling, primarily because of his range of interests. Like his brothers, he traveled around Europe following his graduation and returned armed with a fascination for “instantaneous” photography (capturing movement) and new rapid dry-plate equipment designed to facilitate the technique. He tinkered with this for a bit, and designed a new camera shutter (patent # US 284645 A)) as well as a steam yacht “specially fitted for photographic work” which he took out into Salem and Marblehead harbors during regattas. The result was his pioneering portfolio of yacht photography, Instantaneous Marine Studies, published in 1883–with a cover designed by his brother Philip. Years later, after his term as Mayor of Salem was completed, Little turned to another craft: metalwork. Learning the art of silversmithing from Arts and Crafts smith George Gebelin (to whom he also became a patron), Little crafted housewares for the family home on Chestnut Street, as well as this beautiful teapot for his daughter Marguerite, two years before his death in 1923.

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Little ResidenceCover and plates from Little’s Instantaneous Marine Studies (1883), a Little silver teapot in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Little residence at 27 Chestnut Street Salem.


One Man’s War

Shifting to a more somber Caribbean story in commemoration of the beginning of the Spanish-American War, on this day in 1898. I thought I had the perfect source to draw upon for a puffy piece on Salem’s experience of this ten-week war: Harry Webber’s Greater Salem in the Spanish-American War (1901). After all, the author was a journalist for the Salem Evening News who traveled with the 8th Massachusetts Infantry to Cuba. But Webber was only interested in presenting the barest of outlines from a patriotic perspective: he did not dig deep and he also got a lot of thing wrong, including the name of Salem’s first and most celebrated casualty of the war, William Huntingdon Sanders. When I saw Sanders’ photograph captioned with the name Wellman H. Sanders, I promptly put Webber away and looked for some real primary sources.

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William H. Sanders grew up on Chestnut Street, at #43. He loved sports and science, and attended both MIT and Harvard, from which he graduated in 1897. I’m not quite sure what he was up to in the year between his graduation and the outbreak of war, but he enlisted a few days after the declaration along with several like-minded friends, forsaking the Massachusetts 8th for Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, which attracted a curious mix of southwestern cowboys and Ivy Leaguers like Sanders. Off they went to Texas for training, and then to Cuba, where Sanders saw action with Troop B, and served as Roosevelt’s orderly during the battle of San Juan Hill.  He is referenced by Roosevelt in his various regimental memoirs for his service, but also for his death, which came six weeks after San Juan on a hospital boat in Santiago Harbor.

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The Boston Sunday Herald’s special section on the war on April 28, 1898 included this “Map of the Seat of War”, Boston Public Library; the Rough Riders departing for Cuba on the Yucatan and Roosevelt’s serialized war memoirs in Scribner’s, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Roosevelt, along with all the short notices, reports that Sanders died of a “fever” but I wanted to know more, and it took some work to uncover the precise circumstances of his death. This is why I’m so angry with Webber, the “reporter”: he neglects to report one of the key aspects of the Spanish-American War and all of the wars before it: the fact that more casualties came from disease than from combat. Military historians, at least those that focus on the totality of war rather than just the reconstruction of battles, always stress the roles of environment and infection, generally dividing modern warfare into Eras of Disease (18th century–1918), during which infectious diseases were the major killer of armed forces, and Trauma (1941 to the present), in which combat-related fatalities prevailed. Sanders and his fellow soldiers were sent into combat armed for war, but defenseless against disease. The American casualties in both the Caribbean and Pacific theaters of the Spanish-American War numbered 3,289, of which nearly 3000 died from disease, including malaria, dysentery, typhoid and yellow fever. This was realized at the time: Major-General William Shafter famously referred to his “army of convalescents”, and the newspaper articles published daily in July and August of 1898 reported on both the high incidence of fever among the troops–as well as its mismanagement– with great conviction and regularity. My favorite headline, from the Boston Daily Globe, August 12, 1898: Neglect of Brave. Busiest Officer in Santiago is General Incompetence. That very same day, which happens to be the same day that William Sanders died, Harper’s Weekly published an equally scathing visual indictment on its cover.

Spanish-American War Headline

Spanish-American War Harpers

While the general story was well-reported, I could only get at Sanders’ personal story through Harvard, or the Harvard Crimson in particular, which told the stories of all the Harvard men who fought and died in the war in a slim volume issued in 1899. Each Harvard volunteer’s story is derived from first-hand accounts, and Sanders’ is particularly poignant (and infuriating!):  Sanders was in all the battles of his regiment. He had many narrow escapes but was never wounded. He was always exposed, especially in the assault of San Juan Hill, when he was Colonel Roosevelt’s orderly. On July 6, Sanders had a slight attack of malaria, and a second more severe one on July 23. He was ordered to the General Hospital at Santiago on July 30. But no ambulance was sent for him, and accordingly his tent-mate Dean mounted him on a horse and took him to Santiago. But they could not find the hospital. Dean therefore left Sanders in charge of the steward at the Marine Hospital with the latter’s promise to have him taken to a hospital boat in the Bay before sundown. But the promise was not kept. Sanders lay on the piazza of the Marine Hospital for two days, feeble, without remedies or care. He was then removed to the ship Los Angeles. But it was too late. He died August 12, and was buried in Salem with full military honors. Indeed he was, on September 15.

Sanders Collage

The story doesn’t end there, however, as William’s father, Mr. Charles Sanders, would not let it end: he obviously asked questions: what happened at the marine hospital? what happened on the hospital ship? I know this, because he received at least one answer, from an anonymous nurse on the Los Angeles, which was published in all the Boston- area newspapers under the title Rough Rider’s Life Sacrificed on October 29, 1898. In said nurse’s opinion, I feel sure that his death was due to the lack of proper stimulants to bring him over the chasm between the time of his fever’s leaving and the return of his natural vitality. I am not a trained nurse, and did not know at the time what he should have had, and because of the inefficiency or drunkenness (or both) of the attending physician, proper restoratives were not administered in time. Inefficiency or drunkenness, or both! Since I’ve tried to be a bit journalistic in this post, I searched for an official rejoinder, but came up short. There’s no way William Sander’s service and death can represent the totality of the American experience in the Spanish-American War, but they do open up one window, and provide a necessary corrective to contemporary reports like Greater Salem in the Spanish-American War.


Trudging Along

Yesterday was a beautiful winter day with everyone out and about cleaning up after the Saturday snowstorm, which was not as bad north of Boston as it was to the south.The streets of Salem were clear by mid-morning, if not before (I was sleeping in), and people were engaged in their regular Sunday activities. There were Sunday street-hockey players out my front windows, and hungry birds out back.

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I suddenly became curious about snow removal in the past–mostly because I didn’t want to go out and engage in my own snow removal in the present. I have–and have seen–quite a few historic photographs of winter scenes in Salem in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but none of them feature snow carts, snow plows, or snow removal. Salem has always been quite urban, and people needed to get around, how did they manage? What was the system then that so preoccupies us now? Both the New York Public Library and the Boston Public Library have quite a few photographs of various methods of snow removal in their collections, from simple shovel brigades to “snow rollers”–I’ve never seen anything like that for Salem: anyone out there have anything?

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Chestnut and Lafayette Streets in the 1870s in stereoviews by Charles G. Fogg. Carriages on the snow—not even sleighs! But it’s not too deep here.

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Chestnut Street in the 1890s, deeper snow, no signs of plowing–but these carriages do look like they are on blades. I’ve shown these before; they are from a family archive in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard.

My problem is that I don’t have any winter scenes of Washington or Essex Streets with tracks that needed to be cleared: Chestnut was and remains strictly residential. I still think people trudged around a lot more than we do now, however. Look at these two wonderful photographs of students from the Horace Mann “Training School” associated with the Salem State Normal School (now Salem State University, where I teach) and their teacher, visiting historic sites downtown in the snow.Look at her skirt: she’s not troubled by a little snow.

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E.G. Merrill photographs of Horace Mann students, 1904, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections

Like everything else, our toleration for snow in the streets changed with the automobile: we won’t settle for anything less than black the day after a snowstorm now. The wonderful book by Marblehead artist, photographer, and author Samuel ChamberlainSalem in Four Seasons (1938) shows winter streets cleared for cars and pedestrians. And he agrees with me: some of Salem’s most beautiful moments are in winter, when few visitors see it (though a lot more now, fortunately).

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Plowing Chestnut Street in the 1930s, from Samuel Chamberlain’s Salem in Four Seasons (1938).


Snowy Salem Saturday

A welcome snow day today, imposing calm on everyone–or at least me! I’ve always enjoyed winter, but the SuperWinter of two years ago, in which something like 11 feet of snow was dumped on us in February, tempered my appreciation for this particular season considerably. The snow was all around the house, the snow was in the house, and I plodded to work every day in tunnels of yellow snow. I felt a little vulnerable, especially when I woke up in the morning to see the latest damage inflicted on my plaster ceilings by ice dams. But all of that is fixed now, and we spent last year, with its relatively light winter, rebuilding our chimneys, sealing our windows, and putting on a new roof. Now I feel impenetrable, at least for this first snow storm. I’m sure hardly anyone agrees with me, but I think winter is Salem’s best season actually–I like to see the city return to a car-less state: it’s as close as you can come to seeing it in its glorious past. There’s a timeless quality to a snowy day, and the contrast of nature and structure is never more apparent. Here’s a few photographs I took as I walked around a very calm city this afternoon.

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Chestnut Street, Essex Street, and the Common.

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Two notable Salem houses in varying stages of restoration.

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Gambrel roofs embellished by snow.

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Some contrast; Trinity does not really care for snow.


Through Brown-colored Glasses

I can’t manage escapist day trips in the middle of the week so I was stuck in Salem, but life was not too rough on Chestnut Street, with beautiful, sunny weather, decorations on nearly every stoop, and a film crew present all day on Wednesday. I also wanted to play with an app (Vignette) on my phone and pretend that I was my very favorite turn-of-the-last century photographer Frank Cousins, so I shot my neighborhood, house, garden, and cats in sepia. Perhaps this was another form of escapism? In any case, it was interesting to see which architectural styles were actually accentuated  in brown, and which were not. I also experimented with a few other filters, just for comparison’s sake, but my favorite is definitely sepia. After all, the very first header of my blog was the sepia shot of the street below, taken in the 1890s by an unknown photographer.

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And here are some of my pictures from the last few days: some things definitely look better in sepia (Halloween decorations, Greek Revival houses, architectural details)–others, I’m not so sure–but it definitely brings out the shadows so evident at this time of year.filtered

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The filming at #12 (below) definitely looks better in color, but I like one of the old cars hired for the shoot in sepia, even though it was bright, blazing red. After everyone left, I managed to customize the filter and get a bit of both.

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I love Chestnut Street Park–sometimes called McIntire Park–in sepia, as well as my own garden, as it has no color at this time of year anyway: it kind of accentuates the fading. Inside, I only like my mirrors in sepia–and definitely not my cat Trinity, who is a very colorful calico. She looks uncharacteristically depressed in this tone.

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Hildegarde Hawthorne Hits Salem

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s granddaughter Hildegarde (1871-1952), a prolific author of ghost stories, garden books, biographies and travel narratives as well as an ardent feminist and suffragist, returned to her ancestral city the year after its great fire (which she mistakenly dates to 1913 rather than 1914) so that she might gather material for her forthcoming book, Old Seaport Towns of New England. With “Sister” in tow, she disembarks into a bustling city which she clearly does not find as charming as Newburyport to the north or Newport to the south. The “insistent present” is bothersome in Salem, and she feels much closer to the spirit of her illustrious grandfather when she looks at the “tenements” of Union Street than the new House of the Seven Gables, “which used to belong to some relatives of ours”. She does, of course, love Chestnut Street.

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Chestnut Street and the Beverly Bridge, Salem Side, by John Albert Seaford, from Old Seaport Towns of New England (1916)

And there’s lots more to see obviously, BUT (it seems like there is a but hanging over every sentence) new Salem or invented Salem seems to be intruding on old Salem too much:  You can easily spend a couple of days looking up the houses where famous men were born in this solid old city (for a feminist, she doesn’t seem to care about the house of famous Salem women). They seem to have had had an extraordinary hankering for the place. Not but what Salem must have been a particularly beautiful place in the days when these notable births were most common. It is now, in many spots, though it has lost much of its looks with advancing age.  For, oddly enough,as it becomes older it becomes younger, and the youth is not an improvement. After two days in town, Hildegarde left Salem at sunset, over the Beverly Bridge, vaguely disturbed by the conflicting impressions of her noisy, commercial present, that will not let you be, and the obstinate power of her past, equally insistent. It seems to me as if these last lines could have been written in 2016 as easily as 1916.

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Two of Hildegarde’s other titles; Hildegarde, second from left, at the New York Womens’ Suffrage Parade, 1913, ©Paul Thompson, Getty Images.


Ephemeral Elms

Every day, I’m thankful to live on my street because of its amazing architecture: I wake up in the morning, look out the window, and feel both wowed and grateful. But I’m also thankful because about halfway down Chestnut Street there is an elm tree: a graceful survivor, one of a handful in Salem. I walk down and touch it every day. Elm trees are touchstones for us now because they are so rare, of course, but I think it is useful to remember that even before the dreaded Dutch Elm Disease elms were always BIG: majestic, legendary, historical. I have a particular Massachusetts point of view here–the American elm is our state tree–but elms seem to have been held in high esteem wherever they have flourished and perished. Massachusetts had several George Washington elms and an assortment of “Great” elms and it was duly noted whenever they came down—in storms of 1876, 1923 or 1938–well before the tree plague came to our shores. The archives are full of stories about these trees, as well as prints and photographs: I particularly like those captured by international plant hunter Ernest Wilson on his Sanderson camera in the 1920s, part of the collection of the Arnold Arboretum. The first picture below is relatively rare; Wilson preferred to take pictures in the late fall or winter to reveal the trees’ “architecture”, and often posed his wife and/or car–or some nearby boy–in proximity so we can see their great scale.

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Great Elms in Lancaster, Holliston, Hingham (+sign) and Framingham, Ernest Wilson, Arnold Arboretum Collection.

There were two notable “George Washington Elms” in Massachusetts, one in Cambridge and the other in Palmer. Both were captured by Wilson as well as many other photographers: these were famous trees, even though there does not seem to be much verifiable truth behind their legends (particularly the Cambridge tree–whose remains or “relics” were scattered about after its death in 1923: you can read much more about it here). The Palmer tree came down in the Hurricane of 1938.

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“George Washington” elm trees in Palmer and Cambridge by Ernest Wilson; the remains of the latter, Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library.

An elm tree didn’t have to have Washington or Revolutionary connections to become “great” in Massachusetts: every town seems to have its beloved tree with an “ancient” name or association: the great “Queen Elm” in Lancaster (a town famous for its elms), the “Gulliver Elm” in Milton, the “Winning Elm” in Chelmsford and many “big” and “old” elms, like the stately elm on Boston Common which came down in 1876. In Salem we had the old “Bertram Elm” in front of the Salem Public Library (the former home of John Bertram) and many, many, more–now sadly gone, except for a few singular survivors, like our Chestnut Street tree. I believe there were a few new elms planted this summer, though–so things are looking up.

Elm Boston Common DC card 1876

Elm Salem Bertram postcard

Chestnut Street Elm


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