When I started blogging three (!!!) years ago I really didn’t think I would feature Salem quite so much; I chose the name Streets of Salem because it’s a nice (alliterative) name and I am a very place-oriented person, but I didn’t think the blog would be exclusively or even mostly focused on Salem. I’m not sure it is: history and architecture (of Salem, or not), art, literature, folklore, horticulture, and design certainly have their place here, and even when I do focus on Salem (about half the time? maybe more) I really try for a more universal perspective in terms of both chronology and geography. As much as I love Salem, there’s a certain parochialism here that I often find a bit jarring. Nevertheless–and that said— sometimes I can’t help but feature a Salem story: so much happened/happens here!
I was going to devote this week to various aspects of winter sports when I came across a neat industrial brochure about fluorescent lighting of all things, published by the Hygrade Sylvania Corporation (whose former plant is part of the university where I teach) in 1940: The Dream of Scientists becomes an Accomplished Fact. What a great mid-century title! I opened it up and there was the history of electricity from a Salem perspective.
I was attracted to the artwork (and the sheer confidence of the writing) so I kept on reading, but it got too technical. I knew about Moses Farmer anyway, but have never mentioned him here–too technical, I suppose. Salem’s industrial history is probably just as important as its cultural and commercial heritage but certainly not as heralded, or as visual. Farmer was a New Hampshire-born engineer who experimented with electrical devices, most prominently a “self-exciting dynamo” which he used to illuminate lamps in the parlor of his Pearl Street house in Salem every evening of July, 1859–twenty years before Thomas Edison’s light bulb. This, then, was the first instance of domestic incandescent illumination in the United States, right here in Salem. Of course Farmer’s achievement, like that of Edison, was based on the experiments of a succession of scientists: electrical experimentation, along with the first appearance of the word electricity, commenced in earnest in mid-17th century England.
I wish we had more (or any!!!) reports of Salem citizens observing the illuminated house on Pearl Street in the summer of 1859. I imagine crowds standing outside, night after night. This house is still standing, and its owners have paid tribute to what happened in their home with a sign on its exterior. I applaud their effort and enthusiasm, but I think the date is incorrect: after all, Farmer illuminated this very home in 1859. The MACRIS database identifies the house as the William Knight House, built in 1846.
I am imagining crowds in front of this house in 1859: over a half-century later we have documentation of crowds, and cars, converging before another “electrical” house in Salem. In 1924 the North Shore Real Estate Board commissioned the construction of an attractive colonial revival house on Loring Avenue (just down the road from the Sylvania Plant) equipped with all manner of state-of-the-art electrical appliances and gizmos, a house of and for the future, and another scientific dream fulfilled. It was open to the public for the month of June, and then sold; I drive by it several times a week.