Tag Archives: Commemoration

History is not a Spectator Sport

I was in several New Hampshire towns in the Monadnock region over the past weekend, and in each and every one of them there was a centrally-located History Center or Historical Society, open for business with timely exhibitions on view. These institutions were clearly both engaging and reflecting the collective curiosity of their respective communities, rather than just offering up a commodity or tablets (in whatever media form) of established facts that anyone can look up at any time. And once again I returned to Salem, a city that calls itself “Historic” but yet has no public history museum that is collecting, preserving, interpreting, and exhibiting its history and has experienced the removal of most of its archives by the Peabody Essex Museum, in an exasperated state. It’s not that there aren’t some great historical attractions and experiences in Salem: there are. But for the most part, Salem’s “history” is either siloed or for sale: there is no center, no apparent concern for the public record or the public memory, and an overwhelming emphasis on performance or presentation rather than participation.

WOrld War Jaffrey

World War Jaffrey 2

WOrld War HancockHistorical markers are everywhere in New Hampshire—and Salem’s Massachusetts Tercentenary markers are still among the missing; a Sunday afternoon exhibit/gathering at Hancock’s Historical Society.

I have two very specific cases in point to illustrate my assertions. We are in the midst of a national commemoration of World War I, inspired by the United States World War One Centennial Commission, of which all five living presidents serve as honorary co-chairs. All around me there are great local exhibitions on the Great War, from Hancock, New Hampshire in the north (see above) to Framingham and Lexington in the west, to Orleans on the Cape (where the only German attack on American soil occurred 100 years ago last week!) What’s happening here in Salem? Two very discreet digital exhibits, so discreet that I doubt very few people know about them. The Salem Public Library has several collections relating to individual Salem residents’ experiences during World War among their “Digital Heritage” items, including lovely silk postcards received by Anna Desjardins from soldiers stationed “somewhere in France”, and the Salem Veterans’ Services Department of the City of Salem actually has a “World War One Centennial Project” on the city website which I found while I was looking for something else entirely! Great resources here, including photographs of the two units in which Salem soldiers fought, individual biographies and obituaries, and newspaper clips, but where’s the engagement, and where’s the press? The introductory text references a collaboration with the Salem Public Library but I don’t see any links there, nor at the Salem Museum, Destination Salem, or anywhere else that keeps track of Salem events and initiatives, but I’m going to put it out there. This welcome but unheralded effort of 2018 contrasts dramatically with the reception the returning soldiers received a century ago when it seems like every parish and ward turned out for ceremonies and financed the monuments that still stand,  so “time will not dim the glory of their deeds”. I hate to disagree with a monument, but I do think the glory of past deeds is dimmed if awareness of such deeds is limited to a name on a plaque.

EPSON scanner image

World War 101stThe 101st Field Artillery in France, and just three of Salem’s World War I Memorials.

You can also find Salem’s City Seal on the city website, which is described as: a ship under full sail, approaching a coast designated by the costume of the person standing upon it and by the trees near him, as a portion of the East Indies; beneath the shield, this motto: “Divitis Indiae usque ad ultimum sinum,” signifying “To the farthest port of the rich east”; and above the shield, a dove, bearing an olive branch in her mouth. In the circumference encircling the shield, the words “Salem Condita A.D. 1626” “Civitatis Regimine Donata, A.D. 1836. Actually the costume very specifically identifies a native of Banda Aceh, the capital city of the Aceh province of Indonesia, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra. Salem’s monopoly of the pepper trade with this region initiated and defined its golden age in the first decades of the nineteenth century, and when the seal was designed in 1836 this connection was not just acknowledged, but sealed. And in the spirit of historical and cultural engagement, the Acehnese dance company Suang Budaya Dance will be performing the traditional “Dance of  the Thousand Hands” at the (30th!) annual Salem Maritime Festival this coming weekend—on the very wharf where Salem ships once departed for their native land and returned to discharge “Salem Pepper”. The folks at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site know how to pay tribute to the past by engaging the present and the City of Salem should take a lesson: though perhaps war and trade are simply not hip, funky or witchy enough to attract the attention of City Hall.

Active Sport Salem City Seal


Wordy Fourths

In recent years, Salem has put on an amazing fireworks display for the Fourth, before that it was BIG blazing bonfires, and before that it was LONG orations–sometime competing long orations. These speeches were always given by “notable” men, sometimes from Salem, and always from Massachusetts. I went through a succession of these speeches–which used to run to an hour and more by all accounts–to try to pick out some themes beyond a general patriotism. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, it’s all about competing visions for the country by the Jeffersonian Republicans and the Federalists, a more unified message emerges with the onset of war with Britain in the next decade, and then gradually we move towards abolitionism and nativism: sometimes together. We get occasional glimpses of other aspects of celebration/commemoration in the first half of the nineteenth century (see 1808 below), but mostly what is recorded are WORDS.

Fourth of July 1804 collage

Fourth of July 1805

Fourth of July 1808

July 4 1810

_Fourth 1812 collagePrinted Independence Day Orations from Salem, and the arrangements for the Federalists’ holiday in 1808, with dinner at the “new” Assembly House: Hamilton Hall. I am wondering if the Benjamin Peirce of 1812 is the Benjamin Peirce of 1775–he would have been 74 years old.

Fourth of July 1826 I found it surprising that there was STILL animosity towards Britain more than a decade after the War of 1812 was over–this must be a reflection of the damage the war caused to Salem’s trade and position. The Reverend Henry Colman tried to smooth feathers in his 1826 oration: I am aware of the extreme and bitter diversity of opinion which prevailed among her best citizens in regard to the recent war. But at this distance of time we can view the subject calmly and weigh its merits with justice, candid minds, whatever may be their views of its expedience or management, will find it difficult to doubt that the motives in which it originated with were patriotic…..And unsuccessful as it may be deemed by any in the attainment of its avowed objects, the country came out of it, bringing new trophies of an illustrious heroism, and of a devotion to what many might reasonably deem the cause of liberty and right, worthy of those who hold alliance to the heroes of the revolution”.

Nearly twenty years later—-looking backward from my privileged perspective— it looks like we are gearing up for yet another war with Anson Burlingame’s 1854 Salem oration. Burlingame was a Massachusetts politician who was fiercely patriotic, abolitionist, and anti-Catholic all at the same time. A few years after he gave this Salem speech, he called South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks “the vilest sort of coward” for his brutal assault on Senator Charles Sumner, after which Brooks challenged him to duel to which he himself failed to appear, thus proving Burlingame correct! His Fourth of July speech seems to be more passionately Nativist than Abolitionist, and it inspired an amazing satire, also published in 1854: Corporal Pitman’s Great Oration, Pronounced on Salem Common July 4, 1854, a speech that was never given.

Fourth 1854 collage

July 4 1854Anson Burlingame’s Salem speech, 1854, and his defense of Sumner and Massachusetts on the floor of the House of Representatives, 1856; a satire of the former by “Corporal Pitman”, which reads like it would be quite a performance.

I think the truly celebratory Fourth that we enjoy today is rooted in that of the Centennial–in which the whole city was festooned: speeches were certainly made, but the emphasis was more on actions: particularly a city-wide procession.

Fourth 1876 collage

Effusive Fourth1876 and this morning: when it was so hot we could barely stand to stay outside for the 7 (???) minutes or so it took to listen to the reading of the Declaration of Independence. I like how everyone is lining up in the shade, like soldiers.


Hawthorne Summer

Every single year I think about Nathaniel Hawthorne in the first week of July, as his birthday was on July 4, but this particular summer he—or his inspiration–is everywhere in Salem as this year marks the 350th anniversary of the house most closely associated with him: the House of the Seven Gables. In some ways, the Gables is as much of a creation as the story after which it was named, but it’s still a 350-year-old house overlooking the harbor, and therefore a standing symbol of Salem’s multifaceted past: in this year when so much of the city’s historic fabric has been removed by the Peabody Essex Museum I believe that its existence–and the role it plays in our city today–is more important than ever.

Gables PC Harvard

Gables Harvard 1910The newly-restored House of the Seven Gables, 1910, Harvard Fine Arts Library Postcard Collection

Not only does the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association serve as a solicitous steward of this iconic house, it maintains a packed schedule of programming, continues to fulfill the social welfare mission of its founder, Caroline Emmerton, and partners with other regional institutions to interpret and present Salem’s history and culture. Even though its focus is limited necessarily, in many ways it is as close to a historical society as we have in this “historic” city. Both the organization and the House stand as authentic and educational antidotes to Salem’s more sensationalistic offerings. And again–given what has happened to Salem over this past year, it’s more important than ever that the city’s existing historical organizations work together to shore up—and celebrate–our heritage. So I’m particularly happy to see the first big Hawthorne event of the summer: an ambitious and aptly-titled public reading called “Enduring Hawthorne: A Marathon Reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter”, a collaboration between the Gables, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Salem Athenaeum, and the Essex Heritage National Area on June 7 in front of the Custom House. The following weekend, Salem State University will screen the first film of a three-film series based on Hawthorne novels at Salem Maritime’s Regional Visitor Center, with a preceding symposium in which English faculty will discuss the historical context of The House of the Seven Gables. Then we will see the 1940 film, with The Scarlet Letter and Twice-Told Tales coming up on successive Wednesdays in July–with Q & A sessions after both. Scenes from The Scarlet Letter (1934) were apparently shot in then recently-constructed Pioneer Village, so I’m pretty excited to see that film in particular.

Summer at Salem State July 2018_Web Version

Scarlet Letter 3 Still from The Scarlet Letter, 1934. Pioneer Village?

With August comes Gables Fest: Celebrating 350 Years of Stories and Songs, a day-long event on the 4th which will take attendees on a musical “journey” through the history of the Gables (with food and drink) and a collaboration with another historic site celebrating a big anniversary this year: the Marblehead Museum’s Jeremiah Lee Mansion, built in 1768. Through “Architectural August” there will be architectural tours, visiting member events, and a comparative focus on these two structures built a century apart.

Interesting Houses collageFrom Burroughs & Company’s Interesting Houses of New England, 1915: with a photograph of the Gables before its restoration/recreation.

Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set. (Proverbs 22:28)


Arthur Miller in Salem

So this is where we are with the Phillips Library relocation, for lack of a better term: the Peabody Essex Museum, having made the reluctant admission that the collections will not be returning to Salem in December (after informing several parties this fact in the late spring of 2017), has agreed to keep the historic reading room in Salem open, but that’s about it: what will actually be in there is unspecified, except perhaps for volumes of the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute, a venerable journal that the PEM did away with almost as soon as it had absorbed the latter. There have been two pieces in the Boston Globe, and several meetings of both the Salem Historical Commission and the Mayor’s “Working Group”, which are charged with dealing with both the exterior and interior aspects of this PEM problem. Meanwhile, the Phillips collections are en route to the 1980s toy factory off Route One in Rowley, far removed from the context of their creation, and inaccessible by public transportation.

Books-on-Shelves-870x490 I am assuming that these are Phillips materials, from the website of Smith +St. John, a “real estate and development management” company that has been fulfilling a variety of functions for the PEM, including: “Administrative leadership – when the director of the Phillips Library retired in October 2014, Smith + St. John principal Gregor Smith was asked to serve as interim director while the Museum conducted a national search to fill the position with the right rare book scholar”. Unusual to have a real estate developer serve as director of a research library, no?

Throughout these 2+ months, I have never heard one admission from a PEM representative that what they were doing was in any way detrimental to Salem, the very crucible of their collections, despite the fact that they are always lauding themselves as the country’s oldest continuously operating museum based on the 1799 founding of the East India Marine Society of Salem. They remain very publicly and exclusively focused on the priority of preservation, but I see no acknowledgement that the Phillips is both a library and an archive: with public records therein, as well as materials that people will come specifically to Salem to see. There’s no better way to illustrate the symbiotic relationship between place and exploration than the example of one of the Phillips’ Library’s most famous researchers, Arthur Miller, who wrote about his trip to Salem for Crucible material and inspiration in several essays as well as his 1987 autobiography Timebends. He was drawn to Salem in the spring of 1952, but found it to be “a sidetracked town…with abandoned factories and vacant stores” according to his 1996 recollections in the New Yorker. No one wanted to talk about the trials then; it was the archives that first made the story come alive for him, the trial transcripts which he read in the “gloomy courthouse” and then other texts in a repository he identifies alternatively as the “museum” or the “historical society”: the Phillips Library.

archival collage 2

Salem's Museum NYT 1953 Feb 8.JPG

In his 1953 New York Times article “Journey to the Crucible”, Miller recalls a “silent” library/museum, in which an old man, looking like a retired professor, is reading a document. Two middle-aged couples come in from their automobile outside and ask to see the pins: the pins the spirits stuck the children with. The pins are in the courthouse, they are told. They look about at the books, the faded fragments of paper that once meant Proctor must hang tomorrow, paper that came through the farmhouse door in the hands of a friend who had a half-determined, half-ashamed look in his eyes. The tourists pass the books, the exhibits and no hint of danger reaches them from the quaint relics. I have a desire to tell them the significance of those relics. It is the desire to write. That’s a pretty good description of intellectual/creative inspiration! And he goes on, taking it outside, into the streets of Salem: the stroll down Essex Street I remember, and the empty spaces between the parking meters, the dark storefronts…but further down a lighted store, and noise. I take a look: a candy store. A mob of girls and boys in their teens running in and out, ganging around on the vacant street, a jalopy pulls up with two wet-haired boys, and a whispered consultation with a girl on the running boards; she runs into the store, comes out with a friend, and off they go into the night, the proud raccoon tail straightening from the radiator cap. And suddenly, from around a corner, two girls hopping with a broomstick between their legs, and general laughter going up at the specific joke. A broomstick. And riding it. And I remember the girls of Salem, the only Salem there ever was for me—the 1692 Salem–and how they purged their sins by embracing God and pointing out His enemies in the town. Salem girls. No researcher is going to find such archival ambiance, and such an illuminating juxtaposition between past and present, in the midst of an industrial development in Rowley. Arthur Miller returned to Salem in late 1991 for the announcement of the planned memorial for the Tercentenary in the coming year, expressing concern about the commercialization of the Trials (which “trivializes the agony of the victims”) but also appreciation for its historical resources. And with the removal of the latter, we are increasingly defenseless against the former.


Presidential Fabric

I always commemorate Presidents Day by remembering all (or many) of our presidents rather than just Washington and Lincoln: different themes each year have yielded interesting perspectives on both the institution and the individuals. This year, for instance, as I looked through several archives of textiles associated with presidential campaigns and commemoration, I was surprised to ascertain a certain focus on William Henry Harrison, not really one of our more notable presidents as he died only a month after swearing his oath. Not being an American historian, I was not aware of the coordinated tactics of the 1840 “Log Cabin Campaign” of Whig candidates Harrison and John Tyler, involving popular symbols (the log cabin and whiskey barrel), slogans (“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”) and silk banners, which dislodged incumbent Martin van Buren. The bulk of Presidential textiles are banners, ribbons, handkerchiefs and bandanas (along with flags, of course), but I also sought out bolts of fabric which could encourage campaign creativity on the part of the constituency, and which likely ended up in quilts in the nineteenth century and on all sorts of creations in the twentieth–when first Teddy Roosevelt and then Dwight Eisenhower dominated textile tactics. In the 1950s, I believe that you could dress yourself exclusively in “I like Ike” garments: I found hats, socks, dresses, underwear, and all manner of accessories for men, women and children so embellished.

Presidential Prints 11 Jackson Cornell

Pres Fab collage

Millard Fillmore Fabric

Presidential Prints 5 Cornell Grant

Presidential Prints 6 Cornell

Presidential Prints 3 Cornell

Presidential Prints TR Cornell

Presidential Prints Next President 10_Theodore Roosevelt Pillow Cover_web GWU

Calvin Coolidge Fabric

Presidential Prints Cornell 4

pres fabric collage2

All fabrics (Jackson, Harrison in three colorways, Grant, Cleveland fabric and bandana, TR bandana, and Eisenhower items) from Cornell University’s Collection of Political Memorabilia, except the TR pillow cover (from 1906–commemorating the signing of the Treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War, from the George Washington University/Textile Museum exhibition entitled Your Next President . .. ! The Campaign Art of Mark and Rosalind Shenkman) and the Millard Fillmore and Calvin Coolidge “swatches”, which I created myself via Spoonflower.


A Memorial Map of Olde Salem

The 1920s was a decade of intensive commemoration in Massachusetts, in recognition of the 300th anniversaries of the landing at Plymouth in 1620 and the arrival of John Winthrop here in Salem in 1630, bearing the royal charter that formally recognized the Massachusetts Bay Company. The commemoration culminated with the formation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Tercentennial Commission in 1929, which oversaw thousands of events, including processions, pageants, historical exercises, old home weeks, exhibitions and expositions, the publication of various commemorative materials like Massachusetts on the Sea and Pathways of the Puritans, and the erection of roadside historical markers across the Commonwealth (the Salem markers are all “missing”—I’m coming to the unfortunate conclusion that there has been a long cumulative campaign to remove as much of Salem’s tangible history as possible, with the relocation of the Phillips Library as the end game! Maybe we are cursed–or maybe I’ve lost my perspective).

Pictorial Stamp.jpg

Smithsonian/National Postal Museum

There was also some sort of map initiative: as I’ve found several pictorial/historical maps–of the commonwealth, various regions, and individual towns–published in this period, often by the Tudor Press and under the auspices (and with the approval) of the Tercentenary Conference of City and Town Committees. Elizabeth Shurtleff’s Map of Massachusetts. The Old Bay State (which is in the Phillips Library but fortunately also in David Rumsey’s vast digital collection) is one such map, and there are others representing Cape Cod, Cape Ann, Boston, and several other Massachusetts towns and cities. As you can see from the cropped images of James Fagan’s map of Shawmut/Boston 1630-1930 and Coulton Waugh’s map of Cape Ann and the North Shore, these maps were “historical” in an extremely subjective way, emphasizing achievements above all. As explicitly stated by Fagan, they pictorialize progress above all. I’m sure that this message was particularly important given the coincidental timing of the Massachusetts Tercentenary and the onset of the Great Depression.

Pictorial Map Shurtleff

Pictorial Map Boston

Pictorial MAP Cape Ann

So far, I’ve seen 1930 pictorial/historical maps of Ipswich, Concord, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Cambridge, and the other day, while looking for something altogether different in the digital collections of the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, I came across of one of Salem! Very exciting–I thought I had chased down every Salem map in existence but no, there was (is) The Port of Salem, Massachusetts by Warren H. Butler, published by the Tudor Press in 1930. This is a perfect Colonial Revival map really, focused on recreating a rather whimsical/historical “olde” Salem rather than tracing the path of progress. I love it, even though my own house seems to have been swallowed up by an extended Hamilton Hall on lower Chestnut Street. It’s hard to date this map: in the accompanying text, Butler says “here are the ancient streets of Salem”, but while the streets depicted seem to be vaguely Colonial, the buildings that line these streets are of varying periods. His Salem is a port city first and foremost, but while he includes ships in both the harbor and North River and Front Street is really Front Street, the massive Gothic Revival train station is here too. Samuel McIntire’s courthouse is located in its historic location on Washington Street, just a few steps from the Greek Revival courthouse that still stands, vacant, in Salem. All of the Derby houses are on the map, including the majestic–and ephemeral—McIntire mansion which once sat in the midst of present-day Derby Square. In fact all of my favorite Salem houses, still-standing and long gone, are on Butler’s map: it’s a historio-fantasy map of non-Witch City, and I want to go there!

Pictorial Port of Salem

Pictorial Salem 2

Pictorial Salem 1

Pictorial Salem 3

Pictorial Salem 4You can zoom in on Salem’s “ancient” streets yourself at the BPL’s Leventhal Map Center.


Bullet-ridden Bibles

I have been treating the digital remnants of the first and apparently-last PEM exhibition focused on the holdings of the Phillips Library as a requiem; when I first saw Unbound: Treasures from the Phillips Library of PEM back in 2011, the same year that the library closed in Salem with promises to return two years later, I enjoyed it immensely, but did not return multiple times because I believed I would see these items again. Now I fear I never will, so I go back, again and again, and again, in search of memento mori. One exhibition item that attracted a lot of attention then was a bible with a bullet embedded in its cover belonging to Private Charles W. Merrill of the 19th Massachusetts Regiment who nearly lost his life at the Battle of Fredericksburg after coming in the line of fire of two bullets: one entered near his right eye and was extracted from his left ear. Another ball would have entered a vital part of his body had it not been arrested by a Testament, in which it lodged. When this safeguard was shown the President, he sent to the hospital a handsome pocket Bible, in which, as an evidence of his warm regard, he caused to be inscribed: “Charles W. Merrill, Co. A., 19th Massachusetts, from A. Lincoln.”  [Devens, Pictorial Book of Anecdotes of the Rebellion, 1887] Unfortunately Private Merrill succumbed to his wounds in the next year, and his family placed the “safeguard” bible into the care of the Essex Institute, one of the progenitors of the Peabody Essex Museum.

Bullet-ridden bible Merrill PhillipsCharles William Merrill Papers, Fam. Mss. 611, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.

There’s a bit of (urban) mythology surround bullet-stopping bibles, tales of which predate and postdate the American Civil War. After the English Civil War some 200 years earlier, the Puritan preacher Richard Baxter, who briefly served as chaplain to the Parliamentary army, recounted an anecdote in which one of the Souldiers Pocket Bibles issued to Cromwell’s soldiers saved a man’s life, but these were 9-page pamphlets, so I’m wondering about the veracity of the claim. This little bible seems to have established the precedent for military pocket bibles, however, and there are many references to them on both sides of the Atlantic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They are much bigger in the nineteenth century–and presumably more bullet-proof: in addition to Merrill, I easily found references to seven Civil War soldiers whose lives were shielded by bulwark bibles—three union and four confederate—and I am sure there are more stories.

Bible collage

bible 2 collage

Bullet Bible Kelley

Bible Hall VT

The Souldiers Pocket Bible, 1643, British Museum; Francis Merrifield’s “Bunker Hill Bible”, Bonhams Auctions; the bibles of Corporal John Hicks Kelley of South Carolina (Darlington County Historical Commission) and Edwin Hall of Vermont, Heritage Auctions.

But it is in the twentieth century (ironically, as so many new weapons surpassed the rifle) that the bullet-proof bible became the bullet-proof bible. The onset of World War I centennial commemoration in 1914 has brought lots of interesting war stories and souvenirs to light, including several bullet-ridden bibles. The story of handsome British soldier Leonard Knight, who enlisted at 17 armed with a bible gifted to him by his Aunt Minnie, has been particularly resonant. There are more tales, including several harrowing ones involving ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli. And all of these bespoke bibles culminate with the steel-plated “heart-shield bibles” that were the preferred gift for every soldier shipping off to the fronts of World War II: May this keep you safe from harm.

Bible Knight

Heart-shield BibleBritish soldier Leonard Knight and the bullet-ridden bible that has been passed down to five generations of his family; a heart-shield bible from World War II.


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