Tag Archives: Derby Family

A Grandmother’s Gift

I’m almost done with a long stretch of rather intense work, obligations, and events, and feeling grateful to the friends and family who supported me while I was in the midst of it. I should feel grateful more often I think, and so I was trying to expand my present state this morning as I was considering my various “debts” in my third-floor study: and there, sitting on an old family desk (a gift from my aunt for which I am very grateful), alongside some ribbon embroidered with elephants and a hand-carved elephant head (gifts from a very good friend and a former student, to both of whom I am also grateful) lay the most notable benefit of blogging I have received to date: a hand-written manuscript memoir written by Mary Jane Derby Peabody for her grandchildren in 1880 given to me by a lovely lady from Maine who enjoyed my post on the Salem native and artist. It’s a beautiful book: a precious gift to the grandchildren, and also to me.

Old Times

Old Times for Young Eyes is a charming memoir of a Salem childhood, full of family, houses, furnishings, servants, teachers, teas, flowers, gardens, schoolgirl maps, and the fright we were in when there was alarm at night that the British has landed at Marblehead during the War of 1812! She wants her grandchildren to know all about the Derby family, and includes reproductions of her own painting of her childhood home on Washington Street (formerly on the site of the Masonic Temple) as well as the grand but short-lived Derby Mansion overlooking Salem Harbor. With her teenaged years, the setting moves to Boston, and Mary Jane describes that city in the 1820s in both words and pictures–it looks unrecognizable in the latter. I love everything about this book: the cover, the binding, the writing, the personal perspective and point-of-view, the details and the purpose.

Old Times 3

Old Times 4

Old Times Dedication

Old Times Botany

Old Times 2

Old Times Images

Old Times Images 3

Old Times Text

Old Times Images 2 Cover details and dedication…developing her love of botany…..gathering flowers for pressing on Gallows Hill…..Mary Jane Derby Peabody and the Washington Street House of her childhood….the Derby Mansion, “built by Elias Hasket Derby, your great-great-grandfather, in 1780”, Boston notes and drawings.

I’m not quite sure why I’ve waited so long to post on this book; I’ve certainly been grateful since the moment I received it! I suppose it may be because of a note that Mary Jane included on the memoir’s title page: Privately written for the family only by M.J. Peabody AELXXIV 1881. “Privately” gave me pause, as does only, but the book had already left the family’s possession and was acquired by my benefactress at a yard sale. I intend to pass it on to a Salem archive–not sure which one yet–because both its story and its lessons (this is a grandmother’s memoir after all) should be preserved. I particularly like her assertion that it is important for young people to have beautiful things around them, which her life story illustrates.

Old Times Private Publishing

Old Times precious thingsWise words from Mary Jane Derby Peabody (1807-1892).


A Hidden House with quite a History

Hidden behind a four-story brick apartment block built in the early twentieth century on lower Essex Street is a much older, much-altered house which has the appearance of a Georgian cottage. It’s not quite that, but close. The Christopher Babbidge House has been through quite a……..metamorphosis; I’m not sure if I have it completely straight or correct but here goes. According to Frank Cousins’ Colonial Architecture in Salem, the house is first period, built by tailor Babbidge as early as the 1660s on Derby Street. It descended in the Babbidge family until the mid-eighteenth century, at which time is was acquired by Richard Derby, patriarch of the famous Salem merchant family. Cousins is the only source of the original Derby Street location and seventeenth-century origins, but all the other sources (Sidney Perley, Historic Salem Inc., plaque research, and MACRIS seem to agree that it acquired its Georgian appearance and was considerably enlarged (and presumably moved to Essex Street if you follow Cousins) at this time or shortly thereafter, as Mr. Derby transferred it to his daughter Mary and her new husband George Crowninshield as a wedding gift. So by the 1760s we have a large (five-bay) Georgian house with a gambrel roof located directly on Essex Street. This was the house in which several of the famous Crowninshield sons (George Jr., Jacob, and Benjamin) were born.The wealthy Crowninshields had many Salem houses, so this one was eventually sold to a succession of owners, and in 1859 it was cut in half by current owner Phineas Weston, who wanted to build a new (Italianate) structure on the eastern end of the lot. The eastern half of the house was removed to Kosciusko Street while the western half remained on Essex, presumably shored up. The house seems to have flourished under the ownership of the Bowker family in the later nineteenth century, when Cousins took some lovely pictures, but in 1914 it was moved (again, according to Cousins) to the rear of its lot to make way for the brick buildings in front. So there we have it: a house that was moved, remodeled, expanded, cut in half, remodeled, and moved again. A true survivor on (or just slightly off) the streets of Salem!

Babbidge House Essex Street Cousins

Hidden House 2

Hidden House Babbidge

Babbidge House Stairways

Derby House Stairway HABS

The Babbidge-Crowninshield-Bowker House on Essex Street by Frank Cousins, 1890s, and today; drawing by Sidney Perley from the Essex Antiquarianits celebrated stairway by Cousins and Perley, and detail of the newel post at the Richard Derby House on Derby Street (HABS, Library of Congress, 1958)–so you can see the Derby connection.


Trees for Lafayette

This is not to complain–I know lots of good Salem people are working on this–but rather to offer some perspective: Salem’s grand boulevard Lafayette Street needs some trees (and some love). This is the route on which I walk to work nearly every day, and I crave the protective canopy it once had. I’m also tired of picking up trash, and hoping that the commitment to the future that tree plantings represent would also instill a bit more stewardship for this once-grand street. Lafayette Street was laid out a bit later than the rest of Salem: over the course of the nineteenth century following the erection of a bridge to Marblehead and the partition of the vast farm of Ezekiel Hersey Derby. The earliest photographs I have seen are from the 1870s: they show a boulevard of mansions, and trees: elms of course, but also other varieties. We have very precise dating for the planting of the elms of upper Lafayette Street from a wonderful book, John Robinson’s Our Trees. A Popular Account of the Trees in the Streets and Gardens of Salem, and of the Native Trees of Essex County, Massachusetts, with the Locations of Trees, and Historical and Botanical Notes (1891):  It has been said that the trees on the upper portion of Lafayette Street were planted within the line of the Derby estate, on account of some opposition to placing them in the street itself. The street was laid out in its present magnificent width at the suggestion of Mr. E. Hersey Derby in 1808. Mr. David Waters informs me that his father, but a short time before his death, while passing these trees, said that when a boy he was called by Mr. Derby to assist at planting them, holding the samplings while the workers filled the earth in about them. Mr. Waters, Senior, was born in 1796 and would have been twelve years of age when the street was laid out. The date of the planting of these elms, thus corroborated, may, therefore, safely be placed at 1808. In addition to a few images of the entire tree-lined street, we also have several photographs of the “wooded estates and pleasure gardens” (a phrase from an 1873 guidebook to greater Boston) of Lafayette Street before the Great Salem Fire of 1914. When you compare these lush images with those taken in the days after the Fire, it’s painful.

Lafayette_Street,_Salem,_MA 1910

Lafayette Street Cousins cropped 1891

Lafayette Street Cousins Derby Mansion 1891

Lafayette Houses Collage

Lafayette Church 1880s

Shades of pre-fire Lafayette Street: a very popular postcard c. 1910; Frank Cousins’ photographs of the very verdant street (1876) and the Old Derby Mansion (1891), demolished in 1898, Duke University Library; Gothic Revival and Victorian houses on upper Lafayette, still standing, while the McIntire-designed Josiah Dow House (built 1809) in the lower-right hand corner is gone (Smithsonian Institution collections and Cornell University Library); rendering for the Lafayette Street Methodist Church, American Architecture and Building News, 1884.

The Fire laid waste to half of the street (from Derby to Holly and Leach Streets), and later on many of the surviving mansions of the other half–rather massive Victorians, Queen Annes, and Italianates–became subdivided and commercialized. After the replacement of some of these structures by some truly terrible mid-century apartment buildings, the Lafayette Street Historic District was created in 1985. Trees will really help Lafayette Street, but other challenges remain: chiefly the constant traffic which seems to grow worse and worse with every passing year and the incremental though persistent expansion of Salem State University (my employer) at its upper end. Students and staff have turned this end of Lafayette into one big parking lot, a trend that has not been mediated by the construction of a large campus parking lot in my estimation. I think a new South Salem train stop would help with the parking, but I’m not sure about the traffic: I watch it every day on my way to and from work and the majority of it does not seem to be university-related: this is also the only route to Marblehead, after all.

Traffic is tough, but more trees will shield and shade Lafayette Streets residents…and walkers. And as I said at the top, there are plans for more trees, and better maintenance of existing trees, throughout Salem. Just last week the City Council formed the Leaf-oriented Resiliency and Arboricultural Expansion Taskforce with its associated acronym, LORAX, for just that purpose (yes, you read that correctly: LORAX). The plans for the major new development at the corner of Lafayette and Loring Streets also have lots of provisions for trees. I’m not really a fan of the new building (which will totally dominate the view from my office) but I’m really happy to see plans for all these new trees, including some disease-resistant elms (there is one Elm still alive on Lafayette–I think? See below!)

Lafayette Street 1908 Final

Lafayette today

Lafayette after the Fire pc

Lafayette 1917 SRCR Final

Lafayette Tree

Upper Lafayette in 1908 and today; the 1914 fire was so devastating, in so many ways, and all of the reports reference the lost trees almost as much as the lost buildings: the Rebuilding Commission Report specified many trees–some of which are visible in the 1917 photograph above: if trees were a priority then, they should be a priority now! Lafayette’s surviving Elm, near the corner of Fairfield Street.


Searching for Castle Hill

When I do not walk to work down Lafayette Street, I drive down Jefferson Avenue through a neighborhood called Castle Hill, which has neither a castle or a hill. I’m not sure it ever had a castle–nineteenth-century antiquarians assert that the great Nanapashemet, majestic leader of the Pawtucket confederation of tribes before the arrival of the Old Planters, maintained some sort of “castle” in this area, but I don’t know if this can ever be verified or if it is the source of the place-name. Much later, this land was owned by the (almost) equally royal Derby family of Salem, who maintained a vast farm to sustain and complement their city properties.The great diarist (and gossip) the Reverend William Bentley tells us about a walk in early June of 1809 in which he passed to Castle Hill upon which Mr. E. H. Derby has erected a small summer house of two small square stories, the upper of smaller dimensions, in the Italian style. It wants the grandeur of the former house which occupied this space [was this the castle? It didn’t last long in any case–destroyed in the “Great September Gale” of 1815]. He has shut up the old road by Forest river road & opened a new road, over a New Bridge finished last year, leading to the Mansion House upon the road to Marblehead. The Garden is extensive and well arranged, without any unnatural or useless ornaments. The old Farm House at the foot of Castle Hill is in a state of decay. At this season the hill & fields are alive…….So castle or not, there was certainly a hill, surrounded by Derby farmland and pastures, including the “Great Pasture”, bounded by Mill Pond, over which one could look north to Salem the town, almost a separate town altogether. This perspective is illustrated by two great steroeviews from the 1870s and 1880s, both taken from Castle Hill.

Castle Hill Collage

Castle Hill Farms

Stereoviews by Moulton and Fogg from the 1870s and 1880s; paintings of Pickman and Derby farms (Corné) from the early 19th century; Northeast Auctions and Historic New England.

Castle Hill is referred alternatively to the “Great Pasture” or the “Salem Pastures” all the way up to the turn of the twentieth century (and even after) but changes are coming, ushered in by the Boston and Maine Railroad, the filling-in of Mill Pond, and the leveling of the hill by the Massachusetts Broken Stone Company, which also maintained a quarry in this pastoral realm for a while. In his 1894 article entitled “Some Localities around Salem” Henry Mason Brooks of the Essex Institute opined that I dislike to see these old localities disappear, but change will come and we must make the best of it. If you compare the Salem Atlases of 1874, 1897, and 1911 you do see a changing landscape and streetscape in Castle Hill, as members of the growing French Canadian population of Salem moved into the area with the foundation of Sainte-Anne Parish in 1901: this church, which burned down in 1982 and was rebuilt over the next few years, remains the center of Castle Hill. A decade later, the 1912 annual report of Salem’s first planning commission identified Castle Hill as the future of Salem: The great area comprising the Salem Pastures may be made into splendid home sites with magnificent views, and winding roads with good grade can readily be built when the proper time comes. It is here that Salem must develop if it is to have the future which we believe its traditions justify, and the business demands. Much more housing did indeed follow, but large parts of the pasture and woodland were preserved later in the form of Highland Park/ Salem Woods and Olde Salem Greens. And if you drive off Jefferson Avenue just a few feet, you can see the rocky remains of the hill anywhere and everywhere.

Castle Hill Map 1897

Castle Hill 4

Castle Hill 1

Castle Hill 3

Castle Hill 5


Handsome Heifers and Copious Carrots

Harvest time is Fair time, and in our region that means the Topsfield Fair, which advertises itself as the country’s oldest and dates its origins to a cattle show sponsored by the newly-formed Essex Agricultural Society in 1820. I found an interesting pamphlet (An Address Delivered Before the Essex Agricultural Society: at the Agricultural Exhibition in Danvers [and]  The Trustees’ Account of the Agricultural Exhibition at Danvers, October 16 and 17, 1821) about the fair’s second occasion that lists its award-winning cultivators, crafters, and exhibitors and was surprised to see quite a few Salem names among them. Then as now, Salem was pretty urban in comparison to the surrounding communities, but its northern and southern jurisdictions were still “fields”, so I suppose there was still sufficient acreage to compete with farmers from the more rural communities of Essex County.  Here are the big Salem prizewinners of 1821:

Animals:

Breeding Sows: Mr. Elias Putnam of Danvers won best ($8) but Mr. Jonathan Osborne of Salem won second best ($5).

Bulls: Mr. Ezekiel Hersey Derby, Esq. awarded first prize ($15) for his “deep red bull of two years old”. Noted also are his “very handsome” heifers.

Cows: Mr. John Barr, Esq. awarded first prize ($15) for his seven-year-old “bright red cow”; Mr. Aaron Waitt, Esq. awarded third prize ($5) for his six-year-old “light red cow”.

Domestic Manufactures: (Salem residents dominated in this category, I must say, although it seems to have been an exhibition rather than a competition).

Imitation Beaver Hats: from Major Samuel Mansfield’s Factory, Salem: water-proof, highly recommended for beauty and economy:  “they exhibit an admirable imitation, formed by the skillful use of cheap materials–the nap of muskrat is laid upon lambswool bodies, which are stiffened with gum shellac”.

Imitation Merino Shawls: by Mrs. Thompson of Salem. Cotton and wool carded together, rich colors, exhibiting “great taste and skill”.

Imitation Leghorn Bonnets: from Miss Mary Raymond of Salem “the happiest imitation in point of color”.

Beautiful specimens of Vitriol and Alum” : from the Salem Laboratory (must research this).

Carpeting: “a well-executed piece of Venitian carpeting” from Mrs. Dwinnel of Salem and “Gobelin-worked Crickets” by the young Misses Page of Danvers are praised–what are Gobelin-worked Crickets????????????

The Ploughing Competition: this seems to have been the highlight of the exhibition, but the root vegetables (see below) received much commentary as well. Benjamin Savory of Newbury won, but Mr. Ezekiel Hersey Derby came in second, with his team of oxen driven by Henry Barrich, ploughman, who ploughed 36 furrows, 6 inches deep, in 70 minutes, “very handsomely”.

Crops: here the Salem farmers seem to be disadvantaged, but John Barr won the barley competition, and Salem dominated the exciting carrot competition:

First Prize ($15) to Mr. John Dwinnel of Salem: 360 bushels raised on a half-acre. Mr. Dwinnel also received second prize for his potatoes.

Second Prize ($10) to Mr. James S. Cate of Salem: 276 bushels raised on a half-acre.

Fourth Prize ($5) to Mr. Ezekiel H. Derby, Esq. of Salem: 256 bushels raised on a half-acre.

There seems to have been intense interest in root and fodder crops at this time, so there were also “claims” or documented harvests of certain crops including rutabaga and “mangel wurtzel”, a kind of beet. Mr. Derby submitted a claim for the latter: reaping 287 bushels of the crop from a half-acre of land, “twice-ploughed and received a slight dressing of manure”, along with Russian radishes and Swedish turnips. The seed was sown on May 23, 1821, and the crop harvested between October 27 and November 3rd. The Salem surveyor came out to verify the claim.

Such information in this report! It makes me want to abandon my ongoing exploration of cultural and social history and become an old-fashioned agricultural historian! It’s no surprise to any Salem historian to see Ezekiel Hersey Derby so oft-mentioned in this account, however, as there is an amazing painting of his family farm in South Salem by the Salem émigré artist Michele Felice Corné dated from about 20 years earlier in the collection of Historic New England. I walk by the former site of this farm (basically Lafayette and Ocean Streets) on my way to work, and generally I think about what it looked like before the Great Salem Fire of 1914, but now I have an entirely new pastoral perspective.

Corne Derby Farm 1800

Cornè, Michele Felice (1752-1845) Ezekiel Hersey Derby Farm, c. 1800, Cogswell’s Grant, Historic New England. This painting is also notable as it represents the artist and his friend, Salem’s famed architect and woodcarver Samuel McIntire, in the lower left-hand corner adjacent to the fence.

Mansion of the Moment

The Derby Family were Salem’s golden-age “royalty”, bequeathing their name to a major street, a long wharf, and many, many houses–some which have survived, and others long lost. Of all the Derby houses, the most legendary is the most fleeting: the Derby Mansion designed successively (and somewhat collaboratively, I think) by the new nation’s most prominent architects Charles Bulfinch and Samuel McIntire for “King” Elias Hasket Derby and his wife Elizabeth Crowninshield Derby. Elias and Elizabeth both died within a year of its completion in 1799, and given its prime location between Salem’s main street and the waterfront, it was torn down less than two decades later, to be replaced by the new (now old) Town Hall in the midst of what came to be known (and still is) as Derby Square. The Derby Mansion lives on in legend (and in the form of the furnishings that were made for it) but survives only on paper: narrative descriptions, book illustrations, and most importantly, architectural drawings.

The most influential image of the idealized house in the nineteenth century seems to have been based on a 1795 Bulfinch perspective drawing produced for the Derbys before they handed the commission over to McIntire. This is preserved in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, and it was reproduced in two popular histories of Salem’s commercial heyday as well as Fiske Kimball’s Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and of the Early Republic (1922).

Lost Derby Mansion Bulfinch

Lost Derby Mansion Old Naumkeag

Lost Mansion Old Shipmasters of Salem

Charles Bulfinch’s perspective drawing of the Derby Mansion, 1795, via Hugh Howard’s Dr. Kimball and Mr. Jefferson: Rediscovering the Founding Fathers of American Architecture  (2006) and the Peabody Essex Museum; illustrations from C.H. Webber and W.S. Nevins, Old Naumkeag. A Historical Sketch of the City of Salem, etc.. (1877) and Charles E. Trow, Old Shipmasters of Salem (1905).

But the Bulfinch drawing does not represent the completed McIntire structure: for that we have to turn to archival evidence. Fortunately, the Essex Institute (now incorporated into the international art and culture museum that is the Peabody Essex Museum, but previously the zealous historical society for Essex County in general and Salem in particular) acquired a portfolio of Samuel McIntire’s plans and papers in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, including drawings of the Derby Mansion. Even more fortunately, the PEM is digitizing some of the McIntire materials:  what a pleasure and a privilege to see these annotated elevations of the mansion and its outbuildings–I especially love the drawings for a wrought iron fence, even though I have no idea if it ended up encircling this momentary mansion.

Lost Derby Mansion

Lost Mansion Derby Outbuildings

Lost Mansion Derby Greenhouse

Lost Mansion Derby Ironwork

PEM Phillips Library MSS 264: Samuel McIntire Papers 1749-1822; below, Derby Square today.

Lost Derby Square sketch


Merchant Princesses

I recently found another Salem painting in the Christie’s Auctions archive that captured my attention and fancy: “Portrait possibly of a Girl of the Derby Family” by C.L. Carter, early nineteenth century (she actually looks more eighteenth-century to me). She’s a lovely girl, but I think she entranced me not only because of her Salem connection, but because she reminds me of another “merchant princess” from long ago and far away: Bia Medici, the illegitimate daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, as envisioned by Bronzino.  I say “envisioned” because while the portrait of the Salem girl captured the fullness of life (I think), the Bronzino portrait is a memorial image of the recently deceased girl. In life and death and in these paintings, both girls represent the privileged positions their respective families held in two mercantile oligarchies, centuries and an ocean apart.

Merchant Princess CL Carter Christies

Merchant Princesses  Bronzino

C.L. Carter, Portrait Possibly of a Girl of the Derby Family, Christie‘s; Angelo Bronzino, Untitled, known as Portrait of Bia Medici, Daughter of Cosimo I or Portrait of Bia, illegitimate daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Bronzino’s Medici princess has become iconic I think; I use her in my Renaissance classes to illustrate contemporary themes of family, death and remembrance, and Medici power and the students are always very taken with her, perhaps because of the angelic quality Bronzino (working from a death mask) gave her. Joseph Cornell was apparently taken with her as well, as she is the featured image of his 1948 collage sculpture that was part of the Navigating the Imagination exhibition originating at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and shown here in Salem at the Peabody Essex Museum. Another artist who seems to have been inspired by the portraits of these and other merchant princesses is the Australian photographer Bill Gekas, who has posed his very alive 5-year-old daughter in a series of  “reimagined” scenes, with adorable, and engaging, results.

Merchant Princess Cornell

Merchant's Daughter

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Medici Princess), c. 1948, Private Collection; Bill Gekas, The Merchant’s Daughter, © Bill Gekas.


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