A recent article about a beautiful garden in Litchfield, Connecticut in Traditional Home referred to that northwestern Connecticut town as the “birthplace” of the Colonial Revival movement in America, which struck me as a pretty bold claim. It is a pretty little town that seemed to deliberately tie itself to a fixed point in time about a century ago, but certainly lots of places could claim to be the birthplace of such a widespread cultural movement. We certainly had our share of Colonial Revivalists here in Salem in the guise of architects, photographers, artists and authors, many of whom I’ve already written about here, but one who I have not yet mentioned: Mary Saltonstall Parker (1856-1920), author and artist, but above all, someone who captured the myriad details of the past and the present.
For the last part of her life, Mrs. Parker lived across the street from our house on Chestnut Street in the beautiful brick Federal house you see below, the only house on the street whose facade does not face the sidewalk. Her Salem and Chestnut Street roots go way back: she was, in the words of her near-contemporary Mary Harrod Northend, “a descendant of Colonial dames”. She grew up at the other end (and other side) of the street, in a house built by her great-grandfather, Captain Thomas Saunders, for her grandmother and grandfather, Mary Elizabeth Saunders and Leverett Saltonstall, later the first Mayor of Salem and a member of Congress. This same house, 41 Chestnut, later became the home of her parents, Lucy (Saltonstall) Tuckerman and Dr. John Francis Tuckerman , and consequently her childhood home. She left upon her marriage to William Phineas Parker, a cousin of the Parker Brothers of game-fame, but she didn’t go far.
So Mary Saltonstall Parker grew up surrounded by the comfort of friends and family on a street lined with mansions which were filled with all the beautiful things that mercantile money could buy. She seems to have taken none of this for granted, and starting in the 1890s she started documenting her world–first the past, then the past and the present. Her first means of artistic documentation and expression was verse; her second, embroidery, a traditional colonial craft. There is a flurry of little books in that last decade of the nineteenth century: At the Squire’s in Old Salem, Salem Scrap Book, Rules for Salad, in Rhyme, A Baker’s Dozen of Charades, A Metrical Melody for the Months, and, my favorite, Small Things Antique. This last book is a charming discourse (in verse, of course) on all the little things she finds around the house, most of which no longer have any purpose but decoration: badges (the precursors of buttons, I suppose) from the 1840 and 1850 elections, warming pans (In old New England homes their use is ended, They hang with ribbon from the wall suspended. They stood for so much comfort in the days, When all our heating came from a log fire’s blaze), toasting forks, patch boxes, knee buckles, the pink lustre china on her shelves, the old jewelry in her top drawer.
The last item she observes in Small Things Antique is a sampler, and that schoolgirl craft would be her major form of expression for the last part of her life. With her needlecraft, however, I think you can see the difference between Colonial and Colonial Revival: Mary Saltonstall Tuckerman Parker’s samplers might have been produced with traditional techniques, but their themes were contemporary: war and uncertainty in the first decades of the twentieth century. The two samplers below, from the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, show a mother’s anxiety before and during World War One. There are biblical passages combined with very contemporary references and images above, and below, an amazing mixture of past and present: her own family warriors (her father, John Francis Tuckerman, a naval surgeon, and her two sons, Francis and William, presently in the service) along with an image from the Bayeaux Tapestry! A long–very long–tradition of wartime embroidery. The sampler has even more currency because of her “notation” that it was completed just after the November Armistice, the “Dawn of Peace”.
Mary Saltonstall Parker Samplers, from the Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum. These images were scanned from Painted with Thread: the Art of American Embroidery by Paula Bradstreet Richter, the Curator of Textiles and Costumes at the PEM. Painted with Thread is the companion catalog to the 2001 exhibition of the same name.
Mrs. Parker’s samplers gained national recognition during World War One, and one was commissioned for the cover of House Beautiful in 1916: a more traditional example, in both technique and imagery.
The last sampler completed by Mrs. Parker before her death in 1920 has an outwardly traditional appearance as well, with its house and garden and quotes (the Prior one at the top is particularly poignant) but it also reveals personal sentiments, for better or worse: the words Armistice and Victory put us in the time, and the nearly snuffed-out candles bracketing her name tell us that her time is nearing an end.
Mary Saltonstall Parker (1856-1920), Sampler, 1920, from Paula Bradstreet Richter, Painted with Thread, The Art of American Embroidery (Peabody Essex Museum, 2001).