Tag Archives: Current Events

The Great New England Eclipse of 1932

In my ongoing preoccupation with turning the universal into the parochial, it wasn’t difficult to determine which historical eclipse had the biggest impact on Salem, which was just on the southwest border of the total blackout zone of the eclipse of August 31, 1932. This eclipse cut a diagonal swath through New England from Montreal to Provincetown, and people converged in the White Mountains, Cape Ann and Cape Cod for viewing: there were special eclipse “packages” and special eclipse trains, and more than one observer pointed out that the frenzy was serving as a distraction from the Depression. In Salem, the shops closed at 1:00 in the afternoon on the 31st (which was a Wednesday), as everyone departed for Gloucester–apparently not content to be in the 99% zone! The headlines leading up to the 1932 eclipse were not too different than those today: watch out for your eyes, watch out for your chickens (perhaps there was more emphasis on chickens then), the best viewing places, why the scientists are so excited. I do think there was more “eclipse ephemera” produced then, but it was a period of paper.

Eclipse 1932 NE Map

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Eclipse 1932 Williams

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August 1932 headlines from the Boston Daily Globe: eclipse ephemera from the Cole Collection at the Hopkins Observatory at Williams College.

The viewing experience seems to have been uneven across New England on August 31, 1932: clouds and rain prevailed in some places, inspiring my favorite September 1 headlines: Long Awaited Eclipse is Partially Eclipsed (or some variation thereof). I have no doubt that people had fun on the New Haven Railroad’s special Eclipse Train, however, on which they could see night-time when it’s day in New England as you play. Strange things were reported for days afterwards: chickens (very sensitive to eclipses, apparently) laid eggs that bore an imprint of the corona, which appeared on several glass windows around the region as well. In my hometown of York Harbor, Maine, the artist Henry Russell Butler, who had traveled across the country in order to capture the previous three eclipses on canvas, was thrilled to see one appear in his backyard. Photography had long been able to capture eclipses, but paint still worked too.

Eclipse 1932 eclipsed

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Eclipse 1932 Henry Russell Butler

North Adams Transcript and New York Times headlines, September 1, 1932; New Haven Railroad Eclipse Train poster by John Held Jr., Swann’s Auctions; Henry Russell Butler, Solar Eclipse, 1932Princeton University Art Museum, gift of David H. McAlpin, Class of 1920.


Flame-Stitch

For antiques aficionados, August is all about Americana auctions (couldn’t resist all the alliteration!) and there are always Salem pieces to discover. Among the lots of Skinner’s upcoming Americana auction, a late eighteenth-century pole fire screen captured my attention immediately, not just because it was made in Salem, but also because of its flame-stitch embroidery. Flame-stitch is one of my favorite perennial patterns, characterized by its durability and adaptability: it spans the ages (from at least the Renaissance) and can be easily adapted by time and place. It’s somewhat obscure origins–according to the curators at the Victoria & Albert Museum, it is a technique also sometimes known as Irish stitch, Hungarian stitch, Florentine stitch and bargello stitch, the variety of names indicating the uncertainty of its origins–perhaps explains its mutability. It is one of those patterns that can appear both “antique” and “modern”: flame-stitch cushions, in particular, seem timeless.

Flame-stitch Pole Screen Skinner

flamestitch collage

Flamestitch garden pillow

Mahogany pole screen, late 18th century, Skinner Auctions/ Flame-stitch pincushion, late 17th century, Victoria and Albert Museum/ Flame-stitch “Jasper” pillow, Jayson Home/ 18th century flame-stitched pillow, 1stdibs/ a faux flame-stitch pillow in my backyard.

In its modern incarnations, flame-stitch doesn’t necessarily need to be a stitch: the zig-zag, chevron pattern seems to be sufficient for the more general identification. No needle required, pattern without technique. The vibrant contrasting colors of flame-stitch fabrics past have also given way to more tone-on-tone variations of the present. I’ve always wanted to upholstery one of my couches in a flame-stitch fabric, and I must admit that both the Federal-era embroidered version (on the left) and the more contemporary variation (on the right) both appeal to me (although I really love the 18th-century embroidery fabric from a Newport-made slip seat–which might have originated as a pocketbook–AND the early 19th-century French and Lee Jofa chartreuse fabrics below).

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Flame-stitch Winterthur

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Flamestitch Lee Jofa

American Country Federal Sofa, Northeast Auctions/ Southwood Mahogany Flame-Stitch Sofa, Chairish/ 18th-century slip seat upholstery, Winterthur Museum Collections/ Woven early 19th century French flame-stitch panel, 1stdibs/ Lee Jofa watersedge fabric.

Two historic flame-stitch items that often pop up at auctions are men’s pocketbooks or “wallets” and stools. An extraordinary example of the former is included in the upcoming Skinner auction: a later eighteenth-century Massachusetts wallet featuring African-American servants, or slaves, well-dressed but definitely in service. This was featured on Antiques Roadshow a while ago, and so I was not surprised to see it come up for auction (with an estimate of $10,000-$15,000). There are so many (somewhat less singular) examples in museum collections and auction archives that I imagine every late eighteenth-century man walking around with a flame-stitch wallet! For women, there were flame-stitch embroidered shoes, from earlier in the century. Obviously there are endless variations of both the historic technique and the modern pattern, but I think the form that captures the cherished quality of flame-stitch best are bible and book covers, which were also produced in great quantity in the eighteenth century.

Flamestitch wallet collage

Flame-stitch pocketbook bonhams

Flame-stitch purse CH

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Flamestitch Book Cover PMA

Rare flame-stitch Massachusetts wallet featuring African-American figures, Skinner Auctions/ American silver-mounted pocketbook inscribed “Thomas Stubbs”, 1798, Bonhams Auctions/ Flame-stitch pocketbook, late 18th century, Cooper Hewitt Museum, Gift of Mrs. Rollin Stickle/ Flame-stitch Latchet Shoes, c. 1700-1729, Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Early 18th century French fruitwood stool, Bonhams Auctions/ Folk art painted stool with flame-stitch seat, Northeast Auctions/ Pair of mid-century modern flame-stitch benches, 1stdibs/ Bible cover, 18th century, Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Presidents in Carriages & Cars

This week, with the Inauguration looming, I’ve been going to the Library of Congress’s site pretty regularly, as there is a nice compilation of images and documents relating to inaugurations past, with interesting little details noted for each and every president’s swearing-in ceremony (ies). It’s interesting to see the ritual evolve over time, and the establishment of traditions. I became fixated particularly on the more contentious inaugurations: my absolute favorite is James Monroe’s first inauguration in 1817, which was forced outdoors as a feud between the Senate and the House of Representatives over whose chairs would be used for the indoor ceremony threatened to disrupt the event! Several presidents (including both Adamses) refused to attend the swearings-in of their successors and rode off in a huff. Some of the inauguration addresses are interesting; some not very. At first I thought I would feature impromptu inaugurations–or rather swearing-in ceremonies–following the abrupt death of the previous president, but that seemed a little dark, and ultimately what drew me in more than anything were the images of presidents on their way to or from their inaugurations: more candid images of expectations, excitement and resolve, depending on the circumstances. Of course this privileges the presidents who were photographed, but such shots are so very revealing:  look, for example, at the two views of President Wilson: pretty joyful at his first inauguration in 1913, much more serious at his second in 1917.

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A century of Presidents in transit and transition: Franklin Pierce leaving the Willard Hotel for his Inauguration, 1853; Abraham Lincoln’s first Inaugural procession, 1861; Grover Cleveland and Adlai Stevenson in the Inaugural procession of 1883; Theodore Roosevelt in 1905; Mr. and Mrs. Taft in 1909; President Taft and President-Elect Wilson in 1913 and Mr. and Mrs. Wilson in 1917; President Hoover and President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933; President Eisenhower in 1957, all images from Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


Antique Apples

I was listening to the TED talk of biodiversity warrior Cory Fowler the other day when I suddenly became panicked about the dwindling variety of apples in our world. It must be the season, but immediately this issue resonated with me: we have apparently lost 86% of the varieties of apples we had a century ago: 86%! Of course I am very, very late to the party: Thoreau was wandering around the woods and fields of Massachusetts 150 years ago reveling in the sheer variety of pomological splendor before him while at that same time observing that “it is remarkable how closely the history of the apple-tree is with that of man” and “the era of the wild apple will soon be over”. He complains about the preponderance of Baldwins, now relatively rare, but it seems like all we have are boring McIntosh, Delicious, Gala, and Granny Smith apples in the grocery stores today. I looked through some agricultural books, journals, and catalogs from the middle of the nineteenth century, beginning with the several editions of Robert Manning’s Book of Fruits and proceeding through The Apple Culturist (1871), and came up with a list of about 150 apple varieties which were cultivated just in Massachusetts at that time, including the aforementioned Baldwin, along with Bellflower, Blue Permain, Canada Reinette, Duchess of Oldenberg, Early Joe, Fall Pippin, Fenouillet Jaune, Grimes’ Golden Pippin, Hawthorndean, Hubbardston’s Nonsuch (to which there is a monument dedicated in Wilmington, Massachusetts), Myers’s Nonpareil, Newtown Spitzenberg, Northern Spy, Pickman Pippin, Pick’s Pleasant, Pound Royal, Red Astrakhan, Rhode Island Greening, Roxbury Russet (very famous as “New England’s first pomological experiment”), and my very favorite, Westfield Seek-no-further. There are a few local growers still cultivating some of these varieties, but most of them are no more.

We can’t taste all of these antiquated apples (though some, it seems, we can!), be we can see them, thanks to a great visual source: the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection, which contains over 7000 images of fruit from 1886 to 1942.We used to have over 7000 apples, and now we have pictures.

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roxbury-russetA Baldwin apple, 1915, by Mary Daisy Arnold; Early Joe, 1898, by Deborah Griscom Passmore; Hubbardston, 1928, Mary Daisy Arnold; Northern Spy, 1905, by Elsie Lower; Roxbury Russet, 1905, by  Amanda Almira Newton:  all U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705. A real Roxbury Russet from Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, Massachusetts.


Pokémon and Public History

Public history is about engaging the public with the past and its public memory, often through places, so you would think that an augmented reality game that drives people to historical sites would be welcomed by museum professionals and heritage site managers. Their reaction to Pokémon Go, however, has been decidedly mixed.While park sites seem to embrace the game and its players, several museums and sacred sites have just said no to Pokémon Go. In Washington, D.C., the United States Holocaust Museum opted out after a photograph of a poisonous-gas-emitting Pokémon named Koffing in the museum elicited quite a response online. The museum’s communications director, Andrew Hollinger, issued a statement that “Playing Pokémon Go in a memorial dedicated to the victims of Nazism is extremely inappropriate. We are attempting to have the Museum removed from the game”. Likewise, Arlington National Cemetery tweeted the following statement on July 12: We do not consider playing “Pokemon Go” to be appropriate decorum on the grounds of ANC. We ask all visitors to refrain from such activity. Many cemeteries across the country have followed suit, but several museums have invited visitors to “catch ’em all” within their walls. I think that art museums can embrace Pokémon Go as perfomance art that brings in much-needed millenials, but history sites have a different mission and response, especially those charged with commemorating tragedy.

Pokemon PEM

Pokemon character 5Pokémon popping out in the vicinity of the Peabody Essex Museum and Salem Maritime National Historic Site Visitors Center downtown–I have no idea what their names are: they just appear and I “throw” balls at them and take their pictures. They’re everywhere–even in my backyard and office!

So that brings me to Salem, a real hotbed of Pokémon Go activity from the release, and especially last weekend when an event called SalemGo! Catch ‘Em All! PokéWalk organized by the always-inspired folks at Creative Salem brought hundreds of Pokémon players to downtown. With its compact urban streetscape and multitude of historic markers, sites, and museums (real and “experiential”), Salem is a perfect setting for Pokemon, so I followed these enthusiastic hunter-gatherers to see how they engaged with all of the above. To be honest, I didn’t see a lot of engagement: most people proceeded with eyes fixed on their phones from Pokésite to Pokésite, barely passing a glance at the actual building/ monument/ installation/entity. However, I did not see any historically-insensitive trespassing (even though both the Old Burying Point and the adjacent Witch Trials Memorial are Pokésites, as well as the Quaker Cemetery on Essex Street) and it was fun to see so many backpack-bearing players out there, on the streets of Salem: in teams, in pairs, entire families, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, grandfathers and granddaughters.

Pokemon Team

Pokemon Team 2

Pokemon Pair 2

Pokemon Pair

Pokemon Pair 4

Pokemon quartet

I soon realized I couldn’t make an evaluation of the impact of Pokémon Go on heritage sites during this event–it was a Pokéwalk not a Pokéstroll. I’d have to go out on my own and see just how the hunt for these virtual creatures could impact connections to both place and the past. So that’s what I did, as early in the morning as possible. I didn’t come to any great conclusions, but here are my thoughts, descending from nitpicky and Salem-specific to a bit more substantive and general.

  1. It’s Salem COMMON, not Commons!
  2. So happy that the Witch Museum is NOT a Pokéstop; but unfortunately the Witch Dungeon Museum and the Gallows Hill Museum/Theater and 13 Ghosts or whatever it is called are.
  3. BUT super excited that the ACTUAL site of the Salem Gaol is a Pokéstop (and not just the Witch Dungeon Museum–which appropriated the plaque of the actual site).
  4. Where oh where is the United States Lightship Museum? I thought it was on Nantucket, but Pokémon Go tells me it is a PokéGym here in Salem.
  5. I spoke to several Park Service rangers, all of whom told me they were excited to see hundreds of visitors on Derby Wharf. Pokémon Go could well be a boon to all of our National Parks, in this their centennial year.
  6. A Pokéstop is just that, a stop. But wild Pokémon can appear anywhere, at any time, and lure you anywhere. Strange creatures tried to lure me into both the Witch Trials Memorial and the Old Burying Point, but I resisted.
  7. So many churches and monuments!  You can definitely tell that Pokémon Go is based on the Historical Marker database, which includes sites both conventional and a bit more obscure–driving people to the latter, even if they’re not spending much time there–has got to be a benefit. Awareness is always a benefit.

That’s about it: I don’t really have any particularly penetrating insights into this phenomena, as you see. I would love to hear from some heritage professionals–particularly those who manage sites that are a bit more….sensitive. I must say that while I don’t particularly care about catching Pokémon in the context of the game, I love capturing them on my camera. There’s something about the juxtaposition of obviously unreal things in real settings that is quite captivating: I expect to see notice of some big exhibition soon! In the meantime, here are my own offerings, starting with the creature at the Witch Trials Memorial.A surreal site indeed: I really don’t want to see similar creatures getting any closer to those benches.

Pokemon character 4 WTM

More Pokémon in less sensitive settings below. There are a whole bunch on Federal Street, particularly in the vicinity of the Peirce-Nichols House., so heads up. ….

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Pokemon character 7

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This guy appeared in my office at Salem State, also a hotbed of activity.

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John Dee, Renaissance Man

The first ten or so years of my teaching career I would bring up John Dee (1527-1609) in one of my classes–he’s relevant to most of them really, whether it’s English history, or Atlantic history, or my courses on the early modern witch trials or the Scientific Revolution–and my students would look perplexed:  who? Once I told them a bit about the “Arch-Conjurer of England” they definitely wanted to know more, but they had no prior knowledge. That all changed about a decade ago when the first book in Michael Scott’s adolescent novel series The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel was published, which features John Dee as a central character (Joan of Arc, Machiavelli and Shakespeare also show up as the series unfolds): now I’ve got a generation of students who know all about John Dee, or at least they think they do: in any case, the stage has been set.

(c) Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Anonymous English Artist, John Dee, c. 1594. Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

For me, Dee represents one of the last generations of men who could pursue “magic” and “science” at the same time: his life’s work represents just how blurry the line was between these two endeavors in the sixteenth century. He’s also a great example of the multi-faceted Renaissance Man, or at least an English example thereof. It’s really difficult to confine Dee’s interests and activities to a short blog post, but I’ll try: he was first and foremost a mathematician, but this foundational field drew him into so many others: astrology, astronomy, alchemy, geography, cartography, linguistics, cryptography, optics. He started out his professional life, while still in his teens, as an academic, but clearly sought to be a courtier, and enjoyed a close relationship with Elizabeth I, who at one point called him “hyr philosopher”. This connection gave him security, prestige, and influence, which he used to advocate for a stronger imperial policy for England; indeed he is generally credited with coining the term “British Empire”. It must have enriched him too, as he spent considerable money (and time) amassing a huge library which he installed at his primary residence at Mortlake, just outside London. He was an avid manuscript-hunter, pursuing and collecting all written knowledge on “high” (learned) magic, predominately alchemy and cabalism. But written, human knowledge was never enough for Dee: he came to believe that all of his questions could be answered only by beings of a higher order: angels. His pursuit of communion with the angels ultimately drove him down a path that threatened both his livelihood and his reputation, as a Renaissance magus practicing learned, “white” magic had to be very careful not to cross the line into the “black” arts of divination and necromancy in this age of intensive witch-hunting. Dee died a natural death, but lost his fortune, and his complex character was reduced to that of Prospero and Dr. Faustus by his contemporaries Shakespeare and Marlow.

(c) Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Victorian View of Dee as Conjurer: Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852-1913), John Dee Performing an Experiment before Queen Elizabeth, c. 1880,Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. Apparently the skulls in the original painting were painted over at some point!

Modern scholars (as well as authors of adolescent fiction) love Dee and have restored much of his complexity, but it is a difficult task to reconcile the scientist and the spirtualist. And now there is a new exhibition of materials (and instruments) from his own library at the Royal College of Physicians Museum in London: Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee. Perhaps this is an opportunity for Dee to “speak for himself”: the RCP website states that: “Our exhibition explores Dee through his personal library. On display for the first time are Dee’s mathematical, astronomical and alchemical texts, many elaborately annotated and illustrated by Dee’s own hand. Now held in the collections of the Royal College of Physicians, they reveal tantalising glimpses into the ‘conjuror’s mind’.” I’m bringing students in my Tudor-Stuart class over to London during spring break this year, and this is on my itinerary–I think we can build on Nicholas Flamel a bit.

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John Dee’s own illustration of a page of the complete works of Cicero. (‘Opera,’ published Paris, 1539–1540) (© Royal College of Physicians / John Chase);  A horoscope chart scribbled in the lower margin of Claudius Ptolemy’s Quadriparti, Venice, 1519 (© Royal College of Physicians / John Chase); another great Dee doodle of three bearded faces in the margin of a treatise on alchemy (Arnaldus de Villanova, ‘Opera,’ published Venice, 1527) (© Royal College of Physicians / Mike Fear). You can see more items from the exhibition here.


Tunnel Vision

I have received so many emails from readers expressing both sympathy for, and interest in, our big snow that I’m going to take back the vow from my last post and focus on snow yet again today. We seem to be in the snow management phase here in Salem: the Mayor called in the National Guard, many (though not all) streets are clear, people are out and about, the snowbanks are stacked high, and the discussion seems focused on commuting and ice dams. Regarding the former, my perspective is that of a pedestrian, and its all about navigating the sidewalk tunnels that have been formed by the looming snowbanks, which are eye-level (my eyes, and I’m pretty short) at best and way, way above my head at worst. I like walking  the mile or so to work even in weather like this, and though I think of myself as a rugged New Englander because of this, yesterday I was put in my place by one of our visiting professors, whose commute includes riding a bicycle (thankfully she is Dutch) from Cambridge to Boston to get the train up to Salem! Now that’s a tough commute–the latter part might be even more difficult than the bike hike as our public transportation system (the MBTA, which we simply call the T) is in full-fledged operational crisis right now–a wake-up call for a city that wants to take on the Olympics, for sure! Certainly my tunnel commute is not so difficult, and I’m always easily distracted……..

Going to work in snowbound Salem: first I check all the leaks in the house before I leave…..this is a little one.

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Then I’m off….pretty wide paths downtown, which narrow once you get on Lafayette.

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I take little detours to check on my favorite houses, then back in the tunnel, as far as I can go:

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Interesting icicle formation…cute little white house, looks like no one is living there, hope they don’t have any ice dams….back on track and end in sight.

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Appendix: Design for T-shirt produced to reward heroic snow efforts and fund anti-measures, available through the Mayor’s Office. Of course, it is witchy but it doesn’t seem to bother me as much as usual.

Snowmageddon


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