Since the beginning of the corona quarantine, I’ve been contributing to an initiative called #salemtogether which has focused on past episodes of challenge and adversity in Salem’s history in an effort to kindle some context, and perhaps even resilience. There has been a flurry of social media posts on the great Salem Fire of 1914, the Flu Epidemic of 1918-1919, and this week it’s all about World War I. I wish we could go back farther, but I do have to say that I have developed great respect for the people that lived in Salem in the second decade of the twentieth century: through fire and flu and war. They really got going, without too much whining (that I can detect). I’m at a bit of a disadvantage compared to my partners in this project as they are the keepers of archives and I’m just armed with a few digital databases, so I have to be a bit creative in my search for portals into the past. Just reading contemporary newspapers made it very clear that the primary responsibilities of citizens during 1917-1918 were to: 1)produce; 2)conserve and 3)buy liberty bonds. As the first two obligations were focused on FOOD first of all, I then browsed through as many gardening publications as I could find, as I don’t have access to the records of the Salem Public Safety Committee on Food Production and Conservation (wherever they are!) and settled in for a delightful afternoon with TheGarden magazine, which was issued between 1905 and 1924. This magazine was entitled Farming before it became The Garden so it’s a bit more practical than some of its contemporary sister publications, but still, before the war it was far more focused on aesthetics than produce. Then comes a stark change in the spring of 1917: from flowers to vegetables, from conservatories to cold frames, from sundials to tools, from the “hospitable garden” to the “patriotic garden”. And then back again, when the garden can be “demobilized” after the Armistice of November 1918, and attention can return to perennials and pergolas.
Garden Magazine Covers 1916-1919
I’m not sure that this national publication can capture the Salem scene but at least these covers can (decoratively) symbolize contemporary attitudes. As you can see, the messaging gets increasingly strident until the Kaiser ends up canned! The more I read about the homefront during the First World War, the more I realize just how important canning was: “turn the reserves into preserves”!
I imagine Salem must be like your town or city at this time: quiet and closed. As it is a compact and walkable city full of architectural treasures (still), the quiet more than compensates for the closure, but you are all too aware of the hardship that both are causing. It’s not a singular holiday that is allowing you to walk or bike freely with few cars in your path but rather a prolonged period of anxiety through stoppage for the freelancers and entrepreneurs among us, many in a city like Salem. I’m grateful for my security: there’s no stoppage for me, either of work or of income. I find that remote teaching takes more time than classes which actually meet in person: and while the latter invigorates you (or me) the former drains, so out in the streets of Salem I go to try to get some energy back. But again, I’m grateful for my security and have no complaints.
This week’s weather is so much better than that of last week, when the sun failed to appear for days. I am determined to: 1) put on real pants, with zippers; 2) observe proper meal times; 3) drink more tea; 4) turn off the computer for one full day; 5) avoid the daily presidential briefings; and 6) try to play board games with my husband (I am a terrible game-player but he loves them). This is not a very challenging list, obviously. In addition to all these tasks and working, I take my daily walks, noting new architectural details but also new orders of business around town: restaurants which are still open for take-out, or have transformed themselves into makeshift grocery stores which deliver, shops whose owners will meet you at the curb with your online purchases. The signs for canceled events are the other conspicuous markers of Corona time, like those for Salem Restaurant Weeks (March 15-26) and the annual Salem Film Fest (March 20-29) in the reflective windows of the Chamber of Commerce.
But there are other signs too: of support for health-care workers and grocery clerks, teddy bears and other animals for children’s scavenger hunts. And signs of Spring, of course.
I’m pretty familiar with the origins of the quarantine, having taught classes on or in the era of the Black Death for twenty years: quaranta (40) days that ships were required to anchor in the harbor off Venice before they could unload their passengers and cargoes to prevent the passage of plague in the fourteenth century.The Black Death came to Europe by sea, in ships: it was external. The circumstances in which we find ourselves prompted me to look at Salem’s quarantines, as Salem was a mini-Venice in its day, an entrepôt for worldly goods coming from far, far away. And by the time of Salem’s heyday, everyone knew that deadly germs could accompany those precious commodities. The plague was over (until its reappearance in the later nineteenth century) but other plagues persisted: smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, influenza, scarlet fever.
Puck Magazine drawing from 1883, showing the NYC Board of Health attempting to ward off the arrival of Cholera.
Disease operates like war in history: it dramatically intensifies the size, scale and power of the government in reaction. Quarantines are evidence of the government’s powers and/or ability in the face of crisis, and they leave a record. Massachusetts experienced several smallpox epidemics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, provoking both quarantine measures and medical relief in the form of inoculation. In Salem, smallpox was still considered threatening enough to provoke the establishment of a designated hospital and committee to deal with it in the eighteenth century, but it was by no means as frightful as the disease which was often simply referred to as the “pestilence”: yellow fever. Maybe I’m wrong, but the public discourse at the time seems to imply that smallpox is containable, yellow fever, not at all.
Strict maritime quarantines were implemented as soon as any news of yellow fever was reported, particularly after the dreadful epidemics in Philadelphia in 1793 and New York in 1795, and the concurrent epidemics in both cities and Boston in 1798. The last two years of the eighteenth century marked a turning point in Salem’s public health history, with the appointment of a new inspector of police: apothecary Jonathan Waldo. In several long articles in the Salem Gazette, Waldo asserted that the dreadful pestilence was not only an external threat, but one that was festering right in Salem, and thus a series of quarantine and hygiene regulations must be implemented as soon as possible. Salem needed to clean up its act.
First, a new Board of Health, the Overseers of the Poor, or some other body should be empowered with the mandate to enforce the necessary regulations, which included: confiscation of “corrupted” properties for the “public good”, with compensation to the owners, the establishment of a “pest house”(another one: Salem already had two by mycount), “suitable” privies, “so situated as to incommodate their next neighbor as little as possible”, proper cisterns for butchers, docks and flats to be kept clean, no dead animals are to be thrown into the streets or the river, no storage of hides, fish, and beef for prolonged periods of time, and “the public streets, wharves and enclosures should be kept in a good wholesome state of cleanliness, especially during the hot season.” And so you see, we can learn a lot about societies in the midst of, or facing, a contagion! Once the hot season arrived, the city imposed a maritime quarantine on all incoming vessels. Another apothecary (who interests were even more wide-ranging than those of Waldo), Scottish exile James Tytler,published his Treatise on the Plague and Yellow Fever in Salem in this same, fevered, year of 1799.
Library of Congress
As the map above (from Alexander Keith Johnston’s Physical Atlas: a Series of Maps & Notes Illustrating the Geographical Distribution of Natural Phenomena) depicts, I always associated yellow fever with the south: the Caribbean, and New Orleans, in particular. But this was not strictly the case. I have no access to the City of Salem archives—some seem to be up in the Phillips Library up in Rowley; some remain here in Salem, in City Hall I presume—but fortunately a predecessor of mine from the Salem State History Department, Charles Kiefer, created an inventory and finding aids for the municipal records from 1681-1832 in the 1970s which is preserved in the Salem State Archives. According to Kiefer’s notes, most of Waldo’s recommendations went into effect in the first decade of the nineteenth century, with the additional improvement of paved streets. These notes also reference the first outbreak of what would be the new threatening disease of the nineteenth century, cholera, with a very early outbreak for Salem in 1812. I was surprised to read of the implementation of a maritime quarantine against cholera by the Salem Board of Health as late as 1885: I thought it was all about railroads at this point. There were influenza alerts (but not quarantines as far as I can tell) in 1890 and (of course) 1918, a late smallpox scare in 1912 which brought out police guards, and several scarlet fever quarantines in the twentieth century. Despite the fact that it was revealed to be contagious in the 1880s, I don’t see any quarantine measures used by Salem authorities to combat the most endemic of nineteenth- and early-twentieth century diseases: tuberculosis. There was clearly increasing concern and focus on preventative public health, hygiene, and housing, an updated Waldo regimen if you will, but no extreme measures.
So I have just finished converting my lecture courses into online formats: difficult to do midstream. A well-designed online course is a beautiful thing, but if a course is based on a more personal form of delivery and has to become virtual overnight there are going to be challenges. Fortunately, I teach history, and not a discipline that requires a lab or a studio: I can’t imagine what those professors are going through! And I also feel very fortunate to be able to depend on a variety of institutions—libraries and museums—which have made so much of their collections accessible AND provided road maps and guides to these same texts and images in the form of interpretive essays, questions for consideration, and extra-special digital features. I’ve had digital content in my courses for the last decade or so, but again, a course based on all-digital content is another thing entirely. I could not have accomplished such a thing—in such a short time— a decade or so ago; I can now, thanks to the diligent and creative efforts of these institutions, which take the “education” and “engagement” directives in their missions seriously. So here’s my top 10 list, with one qualifier and one comment: 1) I teach medieval and early modern European history and world history, so this is not going to be a US-centric list; and; 2) these institutions are focused on general education, not just formal education: they have made their collections accessible to those who have more casual or independent interests as well as those working within a curricular framework. (oh, and this list is in no particular order and is by no means exhaustive).
1. The Newberry Library, Chicago: For an American library, the Newberry has very rich European collections and it has created online exhibitions and curated primary source sets that I find invaluable for my courses: its librarians and fellows are very attuned to key curricular and historiographical trends. The Newberry is also a leader in American history and culture in general and local history in particular: it just won the top prize for “Oustanding Public History Project” at the National Council on Public History’s virtual conference for “Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots”.DigitalNewberry offers about a million high-resolution texts and images: this is a small fraction of the library’s collection but still quite a lot to see.
Theodor de Bry’s famous 1594 engraving showing Amerindians pouring molten gold into the mouths of Spaniards driven by insatiable lust for the stuff.
2. The HeilbrunnTimeline ofArt History at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: is a timeline which pairs works of art from all eras and regions of the world with curatorial essays. You can search by region, by period, or by theme, and there are many thematic essays to explore: one leads to another and before you know it, hours have gone by. I teach with images, so this is the first place to I go to find perfect visuals for my presentations, but I also encourage my students to explore this resource themselves. And they do.
Jan Steen, The Dissolute Household, 1663-64.
3. Speaking of timelines, check out the British Museum’s History Connected: A Museum of the World, in which objects can be explored across time and place while visualizing connections, the essential links of world history, and listening to curators share their expertise and perspectives. This is the result of a partnership between the Museum and Google: Google Arts and Culture can provide a engaging platform for a cultural institution to broaden their reach in more ways than one, but there needs to be some intent in terms of design and curation. Some institutions just share images of their objects and leave it at that (I’m looking at you, Peabody EssexMuseum: 323 objects; 2 stories, but what BIG story is being told? And could we possibly have some more Salem objects?): this is parking, not driving engagement.
It’s all about connections at the British Museum (above) and the Rijksmuseum (below).
4. Another exemplary Google partner is the Rijksmuseum: which offers up 164,511 objects, 11 stories, and 8 museum views, taking us right into the building. We can “walk” around the galleries, focus on particular paintings, examine them in “street” or catalog views, organize them in chronological order, discover connections to other works. The collection is so comprehensive (though again, only a fraction of the museum’s 8 million objects), and the connections go on and on, in all sorts of directions.
5. This semester I really need to get my students into the Vatican, as I’m teaching the Renaissance and the Reformation, and that particular place is a powerful connecting link between the two eras and movements: while a succession of Renaissance popes reveled in its creation and majesty, Martin Luther was repulsed by it. The Vatican Museums‘ website features 360-degree tours of many rooms and a more virtual experience with headsets, but just getting us into those spaces will be fine.
6. Anniversary Digital Exhibitions: Both private and university research libraries characteristically observe historical anniversaries by putting together digital exhibitions of images and texts. 2017 was the anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the beginning of the Reformation, so there were many such exhibitions which are now archived: two of my favorites are Cambridge University Library’s Remembering theReformation and the University of Arizona’s Special Collections Library’s After500 Years: theProtestant Reformation. This year, digital exhibitions on the anniversary of Woman suffrage abound: see my previous round-up here.
7. DigitalBodleian: 914,832 images and counting at the digital portal of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, through which you can do your own curation and share “collections” with students (or friends!). A very diverse and visual database, including some great ephemera, which I also love to teach with: I’ve got to cover both the “old imperialism” and the New in my European and World History courses, and I think some educational ephemera will illustrate the transition.
8. The BritishLibrary, of course, because it has everything. I like the smaller, more curated collections, the “Turning the Pages” feature for complete texts, and when I am teaching medieval history (not this semester), the digitized illuminated manuscripts collection is indispensable. This is my favorite image of Henry VIII: from another anniversary exhibition and his own personal psalter: in the bedroom!
9. HarvardDigitalCollections, of course, because they have everything: 6 million objects assembled from all of Harvard’s libraries, which you can search through with purpose or browse through an array of diverse topic collections. Because Salem is so source-challenged, I’ve come to rely on the Colonial North America collection quite a bit for this blog, but I use several of the other collections regularly for teaching. Then I just jump in from time to time: another rabbit hole: tread with caution!
10. IDEA: Isabella D’Este Archive at the University of North Carolina: I wanted to include one specialized site which demonstrates the full potential of what digital learning can encompass, and this is it. IDEA is an open-access digital “environment” dedicated to the life and letters of Isabella D’Este, the marchesa of Mantua (1490-1539). Isabella was by no means a “representative” Renaissance woman, but she left a blazing multi-disciplinary, interdisciplinary trail, which is explored here in creative ways, including a wonderful, truly virtual, replication of her personal studiolo. I love to go here/there, and I bet you will too.
The incomparable Isabella D’Este and a site worthy of her.