Tag Archives: Christmas

Split Scene Christmas

For the past couple of years, our family has split our Christmas holiday between Boston and Salem: we all want to be home for the holidays but also at the Copley Plaza! My husband and I started a Christmas Eve tradition at the Oak Room tradition a few years ago and now it has expanded to include spending the night at the hotel and attending the Christmas Eve service at Trinity Church in Copley Square. I’m not sure we’ll do this forever—it is a bit indulgent, but it’s been perfect over the last couple of years. I’m still struggling with the sciatica after-effects of my hamstring strain from nearly a month ago, so there was no twilight long walk across the Common and over Beacon Hill for me, but I still managed to eat, drink, and be merry within the gilded confines of the hotel, and then on Christmas morning we returned to Salem for presents and dinner.

Christmas Eve in Copley Square:

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Christmas in Salem: including my beautiful presents—-a pair of elephant planters with a lovely turquoise glaze from my husband, and an antique feather painting from my parents. Apparently the latter has been hanging around our family house forever, but I never noticed it, and it has been restored to reveal some really stunning artistry. I’m obsessed so prepare for more feathers! As you can see, bears are this year’s animal theme: I have absolutely no subtlety in my Christmas decorating (or any decorating really) so these are just a few on display. I’m hoping everyone had a wonderful Christmas, and am really looking forward to the New Year.

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Colonialesque Christmas

The twentieth-century American artist Walter Ernest Tittle (1883-1966) was sought after on both sides of the Atlantic for his etchings, illustrations, and contemporary portraits. Among his diverse works are magazine covers, presidential portraits, and a whole series of drypoint “international dignatories” rendered in the 1920s, but also two slim volumes—advertised as “gift books”— in which he merged both original and historical texts and images to create a “lost” world of colonial holidays:  The First Nantucket Tea Party (1907) and Colonial Holidays (1910).

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These books are gorgeous, even though the images inside are a bit…….overwrought. I’m willing to leaf past some of the colorful colonial “belles” just so I can see Tittle’s fonts and illuminations: everything works together. As its subtitle reveals, Colonial Holidays is a compilation of historical references to Christmas and other holidays, embedded in Tittle’s gilded pages. He wishes the Puritans were more joyous in their celebrations, but “time brings change” and William Pynchon’s diary reveals some holiday merrymaking in Salem during the Revolutionary War. The new Assembly Room seems to have been very busy during the extended Christmas season with concerts and dances; “the elders shake their heads with, What are we coming to?” And so many sleds in the streets of Salem!

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Tory that he is, Pynchon is not interested in George Washington’s Christmas, but patriot that he is, Tittle shows us Mount Vernon at Christmas—-no Valley Forge for his illuminated pages, but rather Christmas with the President and Mrs. Washington in 1795 and another reference to 1799–though Washington would have just died so certainly that was no festive occasion. The First Nantucket Tea Party does not have a Christmas setting per se but is also all about Colonial festivity, on the particular occasion of the return of Captain Nathaniel Starbuck Jr. from his “late long” voyage to China supplied with a chest of Chinese tea. Everyone is very excited about the tea, but for me it’s all about the amazing font used throughout the text. Merry Christmas!

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What I want for Christmas: Please Bring out the Diaries, PEM

We have certainly come a long way from the despair of Christmas 2017, when we were reeling from the announcement that the vast collections of the Phillips Library, constituting Salem’s primary historical archive, were to be moved permanently to an industrial Collection Center forty minutes away. So much for “historic” Salem! But this Christmas, we have a new Peabody Essex Museum, with a new Director, a new Head Librarian for the Phillips, a new wing, and a new attitude. The local is not necessarily the parochial under this new regime, and we’re starting to see the return of Salem items to the place of their original “deposit”, commencing with the anchor restored to the front of East India Hall. I don’t know what is going to happen to the Phillips Library in terms of its location: I still hope feverishly for its return, as I think that will be best for both the Library itself and for Salem, but its original buildings are still under renovation and sufficient storage space for its extensive collections has yet to be located nearby. In the meantime, I want it to flourish as an institution, and I think one of key ways for that to happen is the resumption of the publishing program of its predecessors, which broadcast the strength of their collections and disseminated local and maritime history to generations of scholars and buffs in the forms of the long-running Historical Collections of the Essex Institute (1859-1993) and the American Neptune of the Peabody Museum of Salem (1941-2002).

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pixlr-4Both the Historical Collections and the American Neptune are available at the Internet Archive thankfully, as they are treasure troves!

I’m grateful for these two periodicals, but I think their time is over: we have sufficient ways to disseminate scholarship now, but sources are a different matter. That’s why I think the Phillips Library should publish annotated versions of its more notable historical sources, and I would commence these publications with one of the more accessible and personal genres—diaries—of which the Phillips has an impressive collection. One of the most important sources for Salem’s history “got away”: the multi-volume, highly-detailed, excessively readable journal of the Reverend William Bentley of the East Church from 1784 to 1819 was left to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester along with half of the volumes in his impressive library and other papers. The gentlemen of Salem were blindsided  (I’m not sure why as apparently Bentley had always planned on leaving his diary and library to Harvard but they didn’t grant him his promised honorary degree until too late) and very quickly established the Essex Historical Society (one of the foundations of the Essex Institute) with a “cabinet” restricted to Salem. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was the Essex Institute which took the initiative to publish the Bentley Diary, and Salem historians have benefited from that decision ever since. It’s an invaluable source and a rabbit hole at the same time, encompassing political, social, and weather events, births, deaths, and marriages, long walks with attendant observations, philosophy and theology, shipping news, and a fair amount of gossip.

Diary 1 Bentley (3)A page from the original Bentley Diary at the American Antiquarian Society, @AAS.

Thomas G. Knoles, the former Librarian and Curator of Manuscripts at the AAS, is working on an updated and expanded version of the Bentley Diary, in collaboration with the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. This promises to be an even more invaluable resource, and it struck me that the Phillips Library could publish new editions of some key Salem diaries, with additional materials culled from current scholarship and its own collections: The Diary of William Pynchon, a prominent Loyalist stuck in Salem during the Revolutionary War, immediately comes to mind, as does The Diaries of Benjamin Lynde and Benjamin Lynde Jr. which were also published in the later nineteenth century. The Phillips also has diaries which have never seen the light of print and could be offered up in lovely annotated editions which I have no doubt would find a large readership: travel diaries, war diaries, “Sunday diaries” (primarily religious and not likely to be as popular as the previous two examples), work diaries, and those that simply chart daily life. I’d love to see the diary of Salem barber Benjamin Blanchard (DIA 22), maintained over the first two decades of the nineteenth century, referred to by contemporaries as the “famous record” in which Blanchard’s patrons made entries while awaiting their time in his chair”.  William Wetmore’s diary (DIA 232) covers the period just before: string them together and you essentially have a variant Bentley. I’d like to read the Civil War diary of William P. Shreve (DIA 171), who served with Company H, 2nd Regiment, U.S. Sharpshooters,  as well as the 3rd, 10th, and 25th Army Corps from 1861-64 or the Charles W. Brooks’ account (DIA 26) of his experiences with the 23rd Regiment. There are several illustrated artist’s diaries among the Phillips collections, including that of Harriet Francis Osborne (DIA 290), featuring her Salem etchings. There are also several diaries dealing with China: written by men and women, from the perspectives of trade, missionary work, or simply travel: I think Mary Elizabeth Andrews’ experience of the Boxer Rebellion (DIA 6) would be particularly resonant in an annotated edition—-or perhaps as just one western view in a composite volume. I find myself torn between other possible projects (which of course are being worked out only in my head!): an updated version of the Essex Institute’s Holyoke Diaries, introduced and annotated by George Francis Dow in 1911, seems overwhelming but a brand new volume of women’s private and public lives over the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries comprised from a series of individual diaries by Salem and Essex County women looks manageable. And nothing illustrates change better than personal experience.

Diary Gift CollageDiary William P. ShreveDiary Osborne Chestnut ST

diary-holyoke-house-d.-1895The “current” editions of the Pynchon (1890) and Lynde (1880) Diaries; William Price Shreve (photo courtesy Brian White); Chestnut Street etching by Harriet Francis Osborne; Dr. Holyoke’s house on Essex Street from The Holyoke Diaries (1911)—-demolished in 1895 for the construction of the Naumkeag Block.


Turkey Figs

I was researching the major tea importers and purveyors in Salem in light of the upcoming anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, but another commodity kept popping up in the sources: turkey figs. I didn’t look at any customs records, but newspaper adverts both before and after the Revolution provide evidence of large imports of Turkey figs in Salem, and presumably a corresponding demand. I’m wondering if this is a by-product of what we now know was a very vibrant trade in fish and wine between Salem and the Iberian peninsula? It’s clear that figs were used for both medicinal and culinary purposes, although some purveyors favored one utility over the other. The very entrepreneurial apothecary Philip Godfrid Kast, for example, who had prosperous businesses in Boston, Salem, and Haverhill, clearly marketed them as a medicine in the 1770s and 1780s (though it also looks like he is providing Salem cooks with many of the ingredients for a Christmas “figgy pudding”).  This was nothing new to me—I’ve spent the last year reading early modern medical manuals for the book I’m working on and figs are always listed as one of the few “useful” fruits by Elizabethan authors—and the prescription of figs for various cough syrups and digestive tonics continued into the twentieth century. I presume New Englanders were eating lots of figs too but I can’t find any recipes in the early American cookbooks, and apparently Thomas Jefferson brought back a cutting of this particular variety, now called Brown Turkey Figs, only when he returned from Paris in 1789.

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Fig Collage 1804 1829Philip Godfrid Kast’s advertisements for Turkey figs in the 1770s and his 1774 trade card, American Antiquarian Society; Figs for sale in Salem, 1804-1829.

Not only do I not know what is happening to all those cases of figs being sold in Salem in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; figs are also difficult to identify as a culinary commodity in English cooking before the twentieth century. The classic “figgy pudding” seldom has any figs in it as the word was just a synonym for “plum”, denoting any dried fruit. Figgy pudding originated as a steamed savory potage and evolved into its sweeter, more Dickensian ideal over the early modern era and into the nineteenth century. Of course the Victorians invented Christmas as we know it, and the recipe for figgy pudding of Queen Victoria’s own chef, Charles Francatelli, contains no figs at all. In America, fig cultivation seems to have become centered on the South and California (particularly the valley surrounding Fresno) and so growers marketed a variety of fig recipes, encompassing everything from ices to jams to whips to “pickles”, and the use of figs in syrups for coughs and constipation continued into the twentieth century.

Fig PicMonkey Collage

Figs WellcomeJ.C. Forkner Fig Garden recipes, 1919 & California Fig Syrup Co. advertisement, Wellcome Library.


Let There be Light

Maybe it was just me, but it seemed as if Halloween was spilling over into Christmas this year in Salem, with “Haunt the Halls” and “Grave Tidings” markets offering up dark wares and bats popping up in nearly every shop I entered: adorning jewelry, candles, and walls. Now I really do like bats, but they are not my creature of choice for this particular season; I would rather see deer, rabbits and sheep, squirrels and foxes—and fluffy fake stuffed versions of the latter rather than the taxidermy example I encountered at one downtown shop, right alongside a box of bones and more bats (real stuffed). Thankfully I was able to find light in several other shops with more cheery merchandise, the city’s bustling restaurants, and all along the streets, with so many houses lit up for the season: because we have quite enough darkness at this time of year, thank you very much. I have wanted to do more posts featuring Salem at night for quite some time, but my photographs never turn out very well. I took all the advice that was offered on the web, and began my photo safari at dusk as recommended, and I think I came up with some pretty good shots, but for every image you see below there are about six or seven blurrier examples. I felt a bit voyeurish sneaking up on all these Christmas trees but that’s why they are in the window, right? And all those lights are why Christmas is so great in the city–much more so than silver bells these days.

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And a blur of red: Lunch for Santas and Paxton’s penguins at dusk and later.Santa Lunch

Light RedMerry Christmas!


The Christmas Ball at Hamilton Hall

It is formally called the “Holiday Dance” now, but I always think of it as the Christmas Dance or better yet, the Christmas Ball, held next door at Hamilton Hall since whenever. I’ve been going for decades, and it really never gets old for me. I remember well my first attendance, clad in some old Laura Ashley velvet frock, when appeared before me a woman in the most elegant vintage black gown, from the 1930s I think, and I immediately thought: I must up my game. I’ve tried to do so every since, and this very same woman, clad in a very different–but equally elegant–gown from India, was one of the dance patronesses this year. Yes, there are patronesses (and for the last few years patrons) to whom we bow and curtsey, escorted before them by ushers. There’s an amazing traditional punch which led to the loss of several Sundays in my past, but now I’m too smart (experienced) to imbibe, and a rather loose “grand march” at the end of the evening. I was in bed by that time, so no pictures, sorry.

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HH Christms Dance

This is a very traditional event, but not an exclusive one. Anyone can go: well, as many as can fit into the Hall. In years past, I remember smaller crowds but last night was definitely a crush. This event, along with a lecture series on world affairs that began right after World War II, is one of two major fundraisers for the Hall, which is primarily maintained through revenues from weddings and a more recent membership initiative. As a next-door neighbor, I would rather that the Hall was a little less busy, frankly (although the weddings are limited to 25 per year and there are none in July and August), but I know that it has to work for its living. It was built by subscription and maintained by its “proprietors” until the 1980s, when it was transformed into a non-profit. Everyone turned in their shares, but these were just paper: not an endowment. I’m really interested in how the “Proprietors of the South Buildings” (which included not only the Hall but Samuel McIntire’s majestic South Church across the street, which burned down in 1903) conducted their business: all the corporation’s records, like those of every Salem organization, are in the collection of the Phillips Library but as the shares were held privately you often see them on ebay or at ephemera sales. There were various management companies that ran the Hall and employed caterers and that famous “conductor of affairs” John Remond, who is announcing some major redecorations in 1844 below. Just before Christmas in 1850, the gaslights were turned on at Hamilton Hall, the very same chandelier and sideburners that shone so brilliantly via electricity last night.

Hamilton Hall Certificates Collage

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Hamilton Hall Gas

Hamilton Hall SHeila FoleyI love this view of the Hamilton Hall ballroom, with its “Russian” mirrors and green chandelier, by artist Sheila Foley: see more of her live event paintings here


Joy and Remembrance

My husband was down south in the snow this past weekend while I was home alone for the bright and chilly December weekend. It was quite festive: with a dinner, drinks, an open house and an estate sale, although I missed one event due to an extended nap! When I wasn’t out I watched my favorite holiday movies on TCM, so Barbara Stanwyck was much in view as she is in most of them. I finished decorating all of my mantels, although we still don’t have our Christmas tree up yet: several years ago we had a dried-out tree well before the holiday, a traumatic experience which has led me to push it later and later ever since. I’m worried that I’ve pushed it too late this year as my favorite Christmas tree lot just sold out! For those of you who might be surprised that I have included an estate sale among these festivities, let me elaborate: I have found that local estate sales are often community events which not only provide people (Yankees, of course) to obtain a bargain but also an opportunity to remember–and celebrate–the deceased through admiration and remembrance of his or her items. They really are quite poignant occasions. As I walked through the adorable house of a recently-deceased lady among her cherished collections, I kept hearing the phrases I remember when and she loved that. This particular lady was obviously an enthusiastic keeper of Christmas, so the sale was even more festive—and she had great taste (I hope people will say that same about me as they sift through my things—I better purge a bit). The weekend ended on a high note when I was invited to attend an open house in the home of my “daguerreotype crush” from last week’s tour: his name is Benjamin Kendall, by the way.

The second week of December in Salem: at home

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Around the McIntire District:

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At the estate sale & a drink with Mr. Benjamin Kendall

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A Brief Christmas Break

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.

Christmas Eve in Boston:

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Christmas Day in Salem:

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Three Golden Balls

In Salem, December 5 has been celebrated as krampusnacht more often than St. Nicholas’s Eve over the past few years, but I’m following up on a post about the latter today. I want to connect the forerunner of Santa Klaus to pawnbrokers, through the symbolism of three golden balls. This is not an original association, but a reader referenced it several years ago, and I always wanted to connect the dots, so this day seems like a perfect time to do it! I think that the traditional pawnbrokers’ sign of three golden balls attached to a (straight or curved) bar is recognized universally in the west, or at least in Europe: here’s a John Crowther watercolor of Aldersgate Street in London in 1886 with both a traditional symbolic trade sign and a sign of the trade sign, and a photograph from Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York of an old pawnbroker’s sign that is apparently about to vanish—it might be already gone.

Three Golden Balls John Crowther

Pawnbroker sign NYC John Crowther, Aldersgate Street, London, 1886, Guildhall Library; the trade signs of the defunct S&G Gross Pawnbrokers in New York City from Vanishing New York.

Nearly everyone traces the origins of the three balls back to the Medici family for several reasons: the Medici crest features balls (palle) prominently, their financial roles in Renaissance Europe, which can somehow (not at all clear to me) serve as a predecessor for pawnbroking, and the fact that they were Italian, like the Lombards who became the first Christian moneylenders in medieval Europe, when usury (charging interest for a loan of money) was expressly against canon law. There is also an old yarn about a monster, Charlemagne, and the balls representing defensive dings in a shield, adopted by the Medici as proof of their valor, but I don’t think I need to delve too deeply into that tale. The Medici had as many as twelve balls on their crests before the fifteenth century, when they finally settled on six. Not three.

Three Golden Balls Medici MS 15th CThe Medici Crest with its distinctive six palle on the leaf of a 15th Century MS of Propertius, Elegies, Oxford University Bodleian Library MS Canon. Class. Lat 31.

Raymond de Roover, a prominent mid-century medieval economic historian, wrote a short article just after World War II in which he asserted a general connection between the heraldry of all of the moneylending families of late medieval Europe, each and every one featuring spheres on their crest to symbolize coins, and modern pawnbrokers’ signs. He discounts a distinct Medici connection, but also the St. Nicholas one that I favor, with the argument that such a marginal occupation as moneylending (and by association, pawnbroking) could not possibly be associated with as esteemed a saint as St. Nicholas of Bari (or more correctly, Myra), who was known, even beyond the expectations of your average saint, for his charity. But I believe that Professor de Roover is incorrect: perceptions of St. Nicholas clearly focus on the ball symbolism later associated with pawnbrokers, and one of the key links between these two disparate entities is the dowry, an absolute requirement for every Renaissance bride. The most famous example of St. Nicholas’s generosity, depicted time and time again by nearly every Renaissance artist, is the aid he gave to an impoverished family of three daughters of marriageable age: under cover of darkness he threw three purses (increasingly depicted as golden balls) through the window so that the girls would have dowries and avoid destitution or even worse, prostitution. From the mid-fourteenth century through the sixteenth, this scene is played out again and again on canvas: the paintings below represent the beginning and the end of this era–during which St. Nicholas was always pictured with his identifying attribute: the three golden balls.

Three Golden Balls SCALA_ARCHIVES_10310197649 1340s

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Three Golden Balls AGETTYIG_10313913291Crivelli 1469

Three Golden Balls ANGAIG_10313967631 Paolo Veneziano, The Charity of St. Nicholas, 1430-45, Galleria degli Uffizi; Girolamo Macchietti, The Charity of St. Nicholas of Bari, c. 1555-1560; National Gallery of Art, London; Taddeo Crivelli, St. Nicholas, 1469, J. Paul Getty Museum; Sebald Beham, Saint Nicholas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

This same period is also one in which public institutional charitable funds emerged, first the famous Monte delle doti, which enabled Florentine fathers to invest in the city’s public-funded debt and ensure a sufficient dowry when their daughters were of marriageable age, and later in the fifteenth century the Monte di pietà, a form of public-administered pawnbroking designed to provide an alternative to avaricious private moneylending. The Florentine state, and other states as well, were quite willing to engage in official lending, especially if it could finance its public debt and alleviate a pressing social concern at the same time. With its system of collateralized lending and low interest rates, the Monte di pietà, in particular, represented a beneficial Christian form of lending in contrast to the old Lombard system, inspired and reflected by all those images of the three-ball-bearing St. Nicholas, who eventually became the patron saint of pawnbrokers.

Three Golden Balls HGP 342650 (1) Canterbury

Three Golden Balls Boston Leslie JonesCoat of St. Nicholas on the Christ Church gate of Canterbury Cathedral, @Neil Holmes; Leslie Jones photograph of Boston pawn shop signs in the 1920s, Boston Public Library.


In Praise of Townhouses (and Small City Living)

This weekend will bring the (38th) annual Christmas in Salem house tour, centered on the “City Sidewalks” of downtown Salem, with decorated homes on Central, Crombie and Chestnut Streets open, along with a house on Hamilton Street. I love this tour: for me it highlights Salem at its best, showcasing the creative continuity of the city rather than exploiting one dark time, in stark contrast to that other big Salem event (yes, I’m referencing Haunted Happening, which I still can’t get out of my system). I’m not exactly sure what the “City Sidewalks” theme means, but for me it conjures up a streetscape of diverse buildings—large and small, residential, commercial and institutional–closely aligned together so to form a community characterized by the integration of all the activities of daily life: a city, and to be more precise, a small historic city like Salem. Maintaining the balance between all of these diverse structures is challenging: the materials, scale, and infrastructure of modern construction can be a constant threat. Consequently preservation and planning advocacy is absolutely paramount, and the proceeds from the annual Christmas in Salem tour go towards these efforts on the part of Historic Salem, Incorporated.

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Townhouses Crombie

Townhouses Chestnut2Central, Crombie & Chestnut Streets, Salem

I am certain that the tour committee also wanted to emphasize the diversity of residential structures in downtown Salem, as everything from an above-the-shop flat (in a Bulfinch building no less) to a sea captain’s mansion (designed by McIntire of course) will be on view. They are all townhouses in the general sense of the word, but the more specific designation—a multi-level, semi-detached structure–will be represented on the tour as well. The two 1906 covers of The House Beautiful below illustrate my vision of winter/Christmas in an urban village of townhouses–and the one on the right features the Chestnut Street mansion of Pickering Dodge, who commenced the construction of one of the tour’s featured townhouses–just next door– for his daughter and son-in-law in 1828. Since I acquired my own townhouse, which was built just the year before on the same street, I’ve bookmarked images of townhouses—semi-detached and freestanding, exteriors and interiors—that have enhanced my appreciation of their functionality and design: first and foremost the two “party” paintings of Boston artist Henry Sargent in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts. The Dinner Party (1821) and The Tea Party (1824). It might not be Christmastime, but it feels like it in these festive parlors. Another great townhouse interior painting is Robert Scott Tait’s A Chelsea Interior (1857-58) featuring the author Thomas Carlyle, along with his wife and dog in the parlor of their London townhouse:  again, likely not Christmastime, but the “shotgun” perspective is classic townhouse. The taller townhouses of the 1850s are featured in the wintry Street in Winter: Evening by an anonymous artist, who casts light on the city sidewalks from a shop window: in the next century all of those windows will be lit up, especially at Christmas time.

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Townhouse Dinner Party Sargent

Townhouse Tea Party Sargent

Townhouse Chelsea

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Townhouse paperHenry Sargent, The Dinner Party & The Tea Party, 1820s, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Robert Scott Tait, A Chelsea Interior, collections of the National Trust; A Street in Winter: Evening, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; I am very enamored of this townhouse wallpaper from the new Hearth & Hand/Magnolia collection at Target.

Christmas in Salem “City Sidewalks” Tour, December 1,2 & 3, 2017—more information and additional events here: http://salem.org/event/37th-annual-christmas-salem-house-tour-2/2017-12-02/.


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