Tag Archives: Commemorations

The Spring of Presentism and the Salem Witch Trials

My department has been co-sponsoring topical symposia for the past few years, first on the Great Salem Fire of 1914, and last year on northern slavery. These are day-long events, very much open to a very participatory public. This year, we are focusing on the Salem Witch Trials, in recognition and commemoration of its 325th anniversary, as well as the imminent dedication of the Proctor’s Ledge execution site. The Trials are a rather intimidating topic to take on, especially as we are attempting to focus not only on the well-established narrative of events but also on their comprehensive impact on Salem’s own history and identity: time and place. The symposium, entitled Salem’s Trials: Lessons and Legacy of 1692, is jointly sponsored with the Salem Award Foundation and the Essex National Heritage Area, and will be held on June 10: the registration will be live in a few weeks and I’ll post a link here.

Salem's Trials Card Cover Mockup Framed

The symposium committee has been meeting for a year and I think we have a great program: presentations and panels on the trials themselves, teaching the trials (a key challenge for educators in our region), some European comparisons and context, a panel on the making of Witch City, an opportunity for descendants of the victims to record their “testimonies”, the attendant expertise of Salem experts Emerson Baker, Margo Burns and Marilynne K. Roach, and a keynote address by Dr. Kenneth Foote of the University of Connecticut, author of Shadowed Ground. America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. It’s rather late in the game to add anything, but I keep thinking we’re missing something, something about the dreaded “pit of presentism” into which the discourse of 1692 always seems to fall. I suspect presentism will pop up in several places, however, and most definitely in the discussion on the development of the “Witch City” identity.  We had hoped to keep this discussion centered on a relatively distant past–the 1890s in particular–when you start seeing witches on everything coincidentally with the 200th anniversary of the Trials–but I’m realizing that we can’t stop there: we must proceed to the 1950s, when the solid foundation of witchcraft–presentism was laid with the sequential publication of Marian Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts. A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials (1949) and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). From that point on, psychological diagnoses, allegories, and moral judgements flow, and flourish. The 1890s Witch City projections are coming from inside Salem, and are strictly commercial, taking the form of logos and trinkets for the most part, but the 1950s projections are external and national, even international, derived from the massive popular reception of Starkey’s and Miller’s works–and all the publicity they both received. Just look at this lavish spread of photographs by Nina Leen taken for a feature article on The Devil in Massachusetts in the September 26, 1949 issue of Life magazine: Starkey with her cat and wandering around Gallows Hill, “the girls”, a Putnam descendant posing, the newly-restored Witch House. Salem as set piece.

Starkey 5

Starkey Gallows Hill

Starkey collage

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Starkey 10 Photographs by Nina Leen taken on August 8, 1949 for the September 26 issue of Life magazine, ©Time, Inc.

And onto this set strode Arthur Miller (who strangely does not credit Starkey), inspired to write the play that is continuously on stage and in print and is as much or more about his time as their time. The past as present for all time, it seems.


A Scalping in Salem

As today is “Salem Women’s History Day” as proclaimed by our mayor, I thought I should write about a “notable” Salem woman. I’ve certainly featured lots of Salem women here, including accomplished authors, artists, and activists, some prominent socialites, a few domestic heroines, and even an accused murderess, but there are lots more stories to tell. When considering my options, one particular woman kept popping up in my mind, or rather I couldn’t get her out of my mind: Hannah E. Leary of Cross Street, a carding machine operator at the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company in the late nineteenth century. To my knowledge, Hannah did not write anything, or paint anything, or organize anything of note, but she did suffer a tragic, terrible accident in the summer of 1894 which is perhaps representative of the challenges of daily working life for many Salem women at this time. And that makes her notable. On a hot day in late July, Miss Leary’s hair was caught in a carding machine, effectively “scalping” her: the suffering that she experienced on that day and over the next week was chronicled daily in the pages of the Boston Post, giving her a notability that her fellow workers, both male and female but all un-maimed, lacked.

Leary Collage

Naumkeag Steam Cotton Co 1890s Cousins First reports on the scalping of Hannah Leary, Boston Post, July 27, 1894; the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company, popularly known as Pequot Mills, in the 1890s, Frank Cousins.

The reporting is very detailed, and thus hard to forget. Hannah never lost consciousness although many around her fainted. Her bloodied scalp was retrieved from the machinery and she was conveyed to the Salem Hospital on Charter Street (after a considerable time, as the hospital’s one and only ambulance was in Swampscott). There the doctors began the delicate task of re-attaching her scalp to her head with the hopes that it would “knit”. We are informed that Hannah is one of the oldest women workers at the Mill, at age 43, and that her employment began when she was 15. We are also informed that she normally wore her long hair braided and pinned, but that on this particular day she did not. Reaching down to pick up something under the machine, she was caught in its mechanical death grip, an occurrence that has happened many times before, the paper tells us. Every day over the next week the Post checked in on her condition: things look bleak as we read one lurid headline after the next, and then we read that “she may live”, and no more—I guess she ceased being news.

Leary Collage 2 Daily Reports on Hannah’s condition in the Boston Post, August 1-5, 1894.

Some context: these industrial accidents happened all the time. I went through all the regional newspapers trying to determine Hannah’s fate and read about worker after worker falling, losing fingers, being scalded or burned or blown up. The “scalping” reports definitely receive the biggest headlines. Hannah’s doctors are almost blasé about her injury (it happened to a girl last year), and she had suffered another mangling earlier in her career. Everyone knows about the big industrial tragedies, like the Pemberton Mill collapse of 1860 or the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 or the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, but the daily toll on individual workers seems relentless. I am also struck by how neglected Salem’s industrial and labor history is: it’s as if we’re caught in a colonial Groundhog Day where we have to repeat the same stories again and again and again. My colleague at SSU, Avi Chomsky, has focused on industrial relations in this era for both a book chapter (in Salem: Myth, Place and Memory by my other colleagues, Dane Morrison and Nancy Lusignan Schultz) and an exhibition  on the Pequot Mills Strike of 1933, and more recently, Jacob Remes has examined workers’ organization in the aftermath of the Great Salem Fire of 1914 in Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era. There is a lot more work to be done, however, to put Hannah’s story in a more comprehensive context: the “mill girls” of Salem stare out at us in the photographs of Lewis Wickes Hine but we don’t know much more about them than their names.

Scalping collage

Factory Women Lawrence More:  reports in the North Adams Transcript and  Fitchburg Sentinel, 1899, 1903 & 1913; Factory women photographed in the Workforce Washington Factory in Lawrence, MA, March 27, 1903, Lawrence History Center.

And what of Hannah? Because of her tragic accident she does emerge from the pack of “typical old-maid workers” in the words of pioneering photographer Frances Benjamin Johnson, but only in bare outline. The newspapers abandoned her as soon as it appeared that she would recover. She returned to her sister’s house on Cross Street, but not to work. She died four months later of a “tumor in the uterus”, still only forty-three years old.


Re-engaging with Leslie’s Retreat

Salem is gearing up for a multi-event, multi-venue commemoration of a key event in its history and American history: Leslie’s Retreat, whereby a crowd of civilians compelled the 250-strong 64th Regiment of the Foot under the command of Colonel Alexander Leslie to retreat to Boston on February 26, 1775. The Redcoats came in search of rumored cannon and military stores and left with nothing: a week later the Essex Gazette brazenly reported that twenty-seven pieces of cannon were removed out of this town [neighboring Danvers], to be out of the way of the robbers. No shots were fired and no one was (really) hurt, but a stand was taken that would lead to more standing, most dramatically at Lexington and Concord, several weeks later. The significance of this stand-off was recognized in both the colonial and British papers at the time, and for several months thereafter: passages from the London Public Advertiser (May 2, 1775) and the Gazette (March 7, 1775) are representative of the not-too divergent perspectives.

leslies-retreat-public-advertiser-may-2-1775

leslies-retreat-essex-gazette-march-7-1775

The British view: REBELS enough to have eaten them up.      

And the American: not less than 12 or 15,000 men would have been assembled in this town within twenty-four hours after the alarm, had not the precipitate retreat of the troops from the Draw-Bridge prevented it.

Press accounts on both sides of the Atlantic generally portrayed the Salem event (along with the colonial capture of Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth Harbor in December 1774) as a prelude to the larger opening acts of the Revolution: Lexington and Concord. And that’s pretty much the standard view for the next 200+ years, with occasional moments (like this one!) in which the event’s significance is recognized for its own merits. I’ve written a more detailed post on the actual event before; now I’m more interested in the history of its commemoration, which was shaped by two key factors: its name and its anniversaries. Events generally become “historic” when they are named, and remembered in some form or fashion on anniversaries, and Leslie’s Retreat was no exception. The first reference that I can find to the name dates from 1840, but after the publication of Charles Moses Endicott’s Account of Leslie’s retreat at the North bridge in Salem in 1856 it really stuck, leading to a commemorative “oration”in 1862, a major Centennial commemoration in 1875, the dedication of a memorial stone in 1886, and anniversary services in 1896, 1902, 1925, and finally (long gap here), 1975. Leslie’s Retreat was also an “act” in the elaborate Salem Pageant of 1913, during which several scenarios of Salem history were reenacted by local notables to reinforce proper American values and benefit the House of the Seven Gables. The Centennial was marked with bell-ringing throughout the city at morning, noon and night, a 100-gun salute, flags unfurled everywhere, and a ceremony filled with addresses and hymns, while the Bicentennial featured a reenactment and a ball–just like this year–and inspired national headlines (The Shot Not Heard around the World).

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The 1875 Memorial Arch and Program; Colonial dress-up for act #4 of the Salem Pageant, 1913; 1975 reenactment.

I can’t find any big splashy commemorations between 1925 and 1975, with the exception of the Salem and Marblehead tercentenaries in 1926 and 1929, but that doesn’t mean Leslie’s Retreat was forgotten: it became part of the civic curriculum, so much so that I found repeated references in the local papers along the lines of the story of Leslie’s Retreat is too well-know to be recounted here. A commenter on my earlier post noted that in the 1950s “Leslie’s Retreat was something every 8th grader had to do a project on” in Salem. The event received national attention again in 1960-61, when an American Heritage article by Eric W. Barnes (All the King’s Horses…and All the King’s Men, with charming illustrations by Edward –see below ) was reprinted in all of the major dailies. Still, I can’t help but think that the rise of Witch City overwhelmed Salem’s revolutionary reputation.

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leslies-retreat-color

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Edward Sorel’s illustrations for American Heritage, October 1960.

leslies-retreat-2017

(Re-) engaging with Leslie’s Retreat in 2017:  A community reenactment this coming Sunday, on its 242nd anniversary, at the First Church on Essex Street from 11:00 to 1:00; a talk by Dr. Peter Charles Hoffer, author of Prelude to Revolution. The Salem Gunpowder Raid of 1775 on March 26 at the Pickering House; a talk by J.L. Bell, author and super-blogger at Boston 1775 on “The Salem Connection” on April 7 at the Salem Athenaeum; a March to Revolution walking tour through Marblehead on April 8; and a “Salem Resistance Ball” at Hamilton Hall, also on April 8. 


Luther, the Great Disruptor

Was it just me or was the word disruption used intensively in the closing months of 2016? It seems like every time I turned on the radio or picked up the newspaper I was confronted with that word. Now that the year has turned to 2017, my attention has definitely turned to the ultimate change agent, Martin Luther, who sparked a religious/political/social/cultural disruption that divided western Christendom with the “publication” of his Ninety-five Theses in October of 1517. I’m trying to work my way through a stack of recent Luther publications so that I can update the content of both the undergraduate and graduate courses on the Reformation that I’m teaching this semester, and taking breaks to check out (digitally, because I don’t think I’m going to make it in reality) the several American exhibitions that are ending this month: Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation at the Morgan Library & Museum, Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Law and Grace 2016Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach, and the Promise of Salvation at the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University in Atlanta.These three concurrent exhibitions are connected through German sponsorship and the Here I Stand: Luther Exhibitions USA 2016 project website and catalogs, which will be useful resources for both myself and my students, though the former is oriented more towards the secondary-school level I think (and oddly fails to acknowledge or even reference Luther’s anti-semitism). There have already been some notable Luther exhibitions in German institutions as we are in the midst of a Luther anniversary decade, but everything shifts back to the homeland for this anniversary year under the aegis of the In the Beginning was the Word: Luther 2017 project.

luther-collage

Luther on the cover of Time for his last big anniversary, in 1967, and this year’s anniversary logos.

I haven’t made it through all of these materials yet, but there seems to be a strong emphasis on the dissemination of Luther’s critique of church teachings and practice, through the means of both words, particularly printed words, and images.The connection between the new medium of printing and the success of the Reformation has long been acknowledged by historians, but the focus on Reformation art is a more recent development. I’m using two books in my courses that represent both approaches well: Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther and Steven Ozment’s Serpent and the Lamb, which explores the creative and mutually-beneficial relationship of Luther and Philip Cranach the Elder. The latter furthered the Reformation cause with both painted and printed images, while still, remarkably, maintaining his Catholic patrons! The Morgan exhibition features two beautiful contrasting Cranach paintings of the Virgin and Child/ Jesus and Mary: one very traditional the other strikingly humanistic in which we encounter Christ in a completely unmediated way, a reformed perspective that was also the product of the Renaissance.

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ozment-serpent-and-lamb

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Lucas Cranach the Elder, Virgin and Child with St. John as a Boy, about 1514. Oil and tempera on panel. Federal Republic of Germany (on permanent loan to Veste Coburg Kunstsammlungen) & Christ and Mary, ca. 1516–1520. Oil on parchment on panel. Foundation Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha.

One review of the Morgan exhibit asked if Luther was history’s first “tweeter”, sending out cheap flugschriften (“flying pamphlets) to the masses. If we want to push the social media comparison farther, then Cranach ran the Lutheran Instagram account, by providing his friend with a steady supply of anti-papal illustrations for these pamphlets. When you gaze upon Cranach’s famous “papal-ass”, which went viral, you can appreciate the disruption that Luther made.

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luther-print

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Lutheran disruption via Cranach’s cartoons: the “papal-ass” and clerical wolves, devouring their prey (the sheep=Christian believers), Heimatmuseum Osterwieck, British Museum and Universitätsbibliothek Bern, Zentralbibliothek , Switzerland, Call No. ZB AD 357.


The Salem “Heritage” Trail needs more…..Heritage

It is pretty well-known here in Salem that the Red Line that runs though downtown, the official “Heritage Trail”, is more representative of commerce than history. It encompasses heritage sites like the House of the Seven Gables, the Corwin (“Witch”) House and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, but also more dubious enterprises like the Salem Witch Museum, the Salem Witch History Museum, and the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, with no discernment. There are no standards along the Heritage Trail: the Peabody Essex Museum with its vast collections, blockbuster exhibitions, and professional staff and the Witch History Museum, a storefront shop which lacks collections, curators, and content, have equal status in terms of their roles as provisioners of “heritage”.  According to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), a museum is a nonprofit institution, which maintains, interprets, and exhibits its collections for the public good. As Salem’s witch museums are for-profit enterprises, which maintain no collections and offer their performances and “exhibits’ exclusively for their private gain, I don’t think they qualify as museums under the professional definition: I prefer to refer to them as “experiences”.

Museum Collage A Tale of Two Museums; Alvin Fisher’s View of Salem from Gallows Hill, 1818, Peabody Essex Museum, and the Gallows Hill exhibit at the Witch History Museum (Of course now we know that the victims of 1692 were hanged at Procter’s Ledge rather than Gallows Hill).

Of course, people are free to choose whatever experiences they would like, but if tourists stick to the Red Line they are going to be missing out on much of Salem’s heritage. And they do stick to the Red Line, believe me: I followed several groups of tourists the other day (on the hottest day of the year) as they walked along it with great dedication, all the way from the Salem Witch Museum to the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, bypassing several sites which are related to the real history of the Witch Trials: St. Peter’s Church, under which the body of Philip English lays, the Howard Street Cemetery, adjacent to where Giles Corey was pressed to death, the former sites of Bridget Bishop’s house and orchard, the Salem Jail and Court House where the accused witches were held and tried. The Salem Witch Dungeon Museum removed the plaque which marked the spot of the original jail and affixed it to their building, so now they “own” that history. The imprimatur of the Red Line makes it official.

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Plaque on the Witch Dungeon Museum along the Red Line; the second, smaller plaque was added a decade later than the first.

The problem with the existing Red Line/Heritage Trail is not just its presentation of an incomplete and often-shoddy history of Salem. Because it is so obviously inadequate, it has led to a form of cultural “segregation”: other organizations, chiefly the National Park Service in collaboration with local groups, developed alternative walking trails to fill the gaps: architecture tours, a maritime tour, a tour featuring sites related to Salem’s African-American history, and a Hawthorne tour (you can download all the brochures here). There are also a wide range of commercial tours, which seem to have multiplied dramatically over the past few years. Visitors to Salem can have quite a different experiences depending on their degrees of preparation, resourcefulness, and curiosity. I also think that Salem’s reputation has suffered by comparison with the other Red Line (what I have often heard called the real Red Line), Boston’s Freedom Trail, which does not include commercial sites.

Salem has been a tourist destination for a long time, over a century, and we could learn from our past projections. The map included in my favorite old guidebook, What to see in Salem (1915) projects a route that is not dissimilar from today’s Heritage Trail in terms of geography, but exhibiting very different priorities: public places rather than private enterprises, an integrated city of real museums, sites associated with Hawthorne and the Revolutionary War as well as the Witch Trials, colonial and Federal houses and gardens. The problem with the 1915 route is immediately apparent, however, especially if you compare it with the current Heritage Trail map: no one stood to make any money.

What to see in Salem map 1915

What to see in Salem text 1915

Red Line Map 2016

Map and Key from What to see in Salem (1915) and current Heritage Trail Map, available here–all the numbers refer to local businesses and the museums, real and faux, are in text. Judging by font size, the Gallows Hill Museum/Theatre looks like the place to go! (But it’s never open, except in October).


Ranking the Royals

Another week of anniversaries, as each and every week is. For followers of the British monarchy, it was the week of Elizabeths, with Queen Elizabeth I’s birthday (September 7) and Queen Elizabeth II assuming her well-deserved title of longest-reigning British monarch on September 9. In my day-job capacity as an English history professor, I thought I would make up a list of BEST British Monarchs and contrast it with the longest-reigning ones to see just what the overlap might be. Of course this is a ridiculous exercise, as the first list is completely subjective and the second one completely objective. But I was waiting for my car to be serviced at the dealer and bored with all the other administrative tasks before me. Let’s start with the longest-reigning kings and queens, and the amazing picture of Her Majesty that Buckingham Palace released to mark the occasion. I just love it! The (royal) red briefcase!!

Elizabeth II

So here is the list of longest-reigning monarchs of either Great Britain or England: 1) Elizabeth II (1952-; 63 years, 218 days and counting); 2) Victoria (1837-1901; 63 years, 216 days); 3) George III (1760-1820; 59 years); 4) James VI of Scotland and I of England (1567-1625; 57 years); 5) Henry III (1216-1272; 56 years); 6) Edward III (1327-1377; 50 years); 7) Elizabeth I (1558-1603; 44 years); 8) Henry VI (1422-1471, with a break, 38 years); 9) Aethelred II (978-1016, with a break, 37 years); 10) Henry VIII (1509-1547; 37 years).

British Monarchs

In very random order, the longest-reigning British and English monarchs.

And now is my list of “best” monarchs according to my completely subjective opinion–I invite you to offer up your own candidates. I must state a very big qualification, a result of my training and expertise: all my monarchs reigned before 1688: the “revolution” and constitutional documents of that year and the next dramatically limited the powers of the monarchy and so I don’t think post-1688 monarchs rate. Just my opinion: obviously the British monarchy has a role to play that is extra-political.

My top ten: 1) Henry VII (1485-1509–the first Tudor and the first modern king, in my opinion. Courageous and clever. I’ve definitely bought into the “Tudor Myth”); 2) Elizabeth I (1558-1603–need I say anything? Just accept countless words of praise); 3) Alfred the Great (871-899–warrior, scholar, the first English king); 4) William I “the Conqueror” (1066-1087–another militant unifier, through conquest, but he gave us the greatest primary source in medieval history); 5) Henry II (1154-1189–I know, Becket, but his legal reforms were important; 6) Henry V (1413-1422–it’s hard for me to see him apart from Shakespeare (and Kenneth Branagh) but still, he won it all, and then died, which makes him tragic and interesting); 7) Edward I (1272-1307–I’m giving him credit for all those castles); 8) James VI and I (1567-1625–a rather wasteful king but an interesting man, and anyone who could condemn smoking in the early seventeenth century is worthy of note); 9) Edgar “the Peaceable” (959-975–another builder); 10) Charles II (1660-1685–a lovely personality that reunited England after the long Civil War; a page-turner.

Best British Monarchs

The best? Only according to me.

So there is not much overlap between longest-reigning monarchs and my best monarchs: only Elizabeth and James. No doubt this is partly due to my exclusion of monarchs who ruled after Charles II. No Henry VIII for me: too much waste, too much squandering of the considerable legacy left to him by my favorite king, Henry VII, as well as his own talents. Despite the English Reformation, which he bought into for selfish reasons, I would rank him near the bottom. But that is a list for another day.

Henry VIIIs Nightmare

Buckingham Palace by Assaf Frank

Henry VIII’s worst nightmare and Buckingham Palace © Assaf Frank.


Labor through the Lens

Before we get to the bittersweet pictures of closing summer, we need to acknowledge that this is Labor Day weekend. I know that this holiday came about because of labor organization, particularly manifest in the 1880s when workers marched “to show their numerical strength in order to satisfy the politicians [of this City] that they might not be trifled with” (The New York Times, September 4, 1882), but I prefer to simply celebrate work. There is strength in numbers but you can more accurately gauge the intensity of effort when you gaze into the eyes of the worker. We have an iconic photograph in our family of my Italian great-great-grandfather, Gaetano, standing next to my great-grandfather, Anthony, who stands next to my grandfather Thomas and my father, also Thomas, as a little boy. They all wear dark suits and hats (even little Thomas) and are standing against a background of marsh and buildings that I assume is Winthrop, Massachusetts, where Anthony eventually settled after Gaetano put him on an American-bound ship when he was 13 years old. When I look at these men, the very first thing I think about is what they did: Gaetano was a fisherman in Campania, his son Anthony was a gifted tailor who evolved into a sought-after coat designer who made enough money to bring his Italian family to Winthrop and send all four of his children, including the two girls, to college. My grandfather was a physician, my father a college professor, like myself. So there’s a lot of effort, a lot of labor, in the picture, the labor that built our family, and I’m not even including that of the women, who also, of course, worked in their homes. For this Labor Day weekend, I have selected several pictures of Salem workers and their settings from the later nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries which reflect this same individual commitment, at least to me. I must admit that the two ladies of Pequot Mills don’t appear to be working all that hard–especially when one is dancing–but they still illustrate the more personal experience I am always seeking (and I just love these photographs!)

Labor Day 8

Labor Day Pequot Mills Buffer

Labor Day Pequot Mills

Labor Day Pequot Mills 2

Labor Day Shelby Shoe Co 1942

Stunning stereoview of workers by J.W. and J.S. Moulton Photographers of Salem, who operated from 1873-1881, from Jeffrey Knaus Antique Photography; Man operating the buffing machine and workers on the floor of Naumkeag’s Pequot Mills, 1930s-1940s? and workers at the Shelby Shoe Company in Salem, 1942, all from the Nelson Dionne Collection of Salem Images at Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.


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