A rather fluffy post on seed packets for this week: it’s grading time! This combination of gardening + paper, two of my favorite things, is irresistable to me at all times, but I have also noticed a trend over the last decade or so. I was thinking about my 2007 wedding the other day, as our anniversary coming up at the end of the month. The reception was held outside under a fairytale tent at the House of the Seven Gables, and so there was not much decoration, just some beautiful simple arrangements to complement the colonial revival garden. With that theme in mind, I made my own seed packets with custom labels for favors, as it was next to impossible to find decorative packets at the time. Now there are many sources for packets with striking graphics, with or without seeds! I seldom sow seeds, but whenever I have, I’ve always purchased the most decorative packets I could find: Renee’s Garden Seeds and Monticello were my go-to purveyors, and the Hudson Valley Seed Company, which has always had the most creative packets. These are still great sources, but there seem to be many more now; this particular post was inspired by some gorgeous packets designed for the Italian seed company Piccolo by the London-based studio Here Design. These packets look like little Penguin books, another obsession of mine! Once I saw them, I knew I was not up to date in the dynamic development of seed packets, so I dug in and looked for more.
Going back a bit: because of course I’ve got to delve into the history of the seed packet, which seems to be an eighteenth-century innovation here in the United States. It is tied to, and illustrative of, the emergence and development of a commercial retail market for gardening supplies. Usually the D. Landreth Seed Company, founded in 1784 in Philadelphia by brothers David and Cuthbert Landreth and still very much in business, is given credit for the first seed packets, but a few years ago some packets were found in the eaves of the eighteenth-century Woodlands Mansion just up the river from the famous Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia (clearly a horticultural nexus): whether they were for storage or sale is unclear. There were several seed shops in Salem in the mid and later 18th century, like Mr. Bartlett’s below, but I have no idea how they sold their seeds: perhaps people just came in and grabbed a handful? In any case, moving forward into the nineteenth century, there is no doubt that the entrepreneurial Shaker colonies were pioneers in the mail-order seed trade, to which many plain “papers,” or packets testify.
For the most part, this blog has been an academic release for me rather than academic engagement: I consider most of the history I’ve offered up here more pop-up than professional. But there is one academic field with which I have been engaging (mostly in the form of learning) continuously: the history of tourism. This is a relatively new field, emerging in the 1990s, but also a very interdisciplinary and important one, involving social, cultural, and economic factors interacting at local, regional, and global levels. There’s a Journal of Tourism History, several academic book series, and an emerging taxonomy: the general category of Heritage Tourism, for example, can be broken down into more specialized endeavors: literary tourism, thanatourism (also called Dark Tourism, focused on visitation to sites of death and suffering), legacy (genealogical) tourism. Salem became a tourist designation in the later nineteenth century, and from that time its projections have included all of these pursuits. With the bicentennial of the Salem Witch Trials in 1892, witches started appearing everywhere, but Nathaniel Hawthorne represented stiff competition in the opening decades of the twentieth century, particularly after the centennial commemoration of his birth in 1904 and the opening of the House of the Seven Gables in 1910. Over the twentieth century Hawthorne waned and the witches ultimately triumphed, but at mid-century there was a relatively brief span when Salem and its history were both perceived and presented more broadly, as an essential “historyland” which one must visit in order to understand the foundations of American civilization. The major periodicals of the 1940s and 1950s, including Time, Life, American Heritage and National Geographic, presented Salem not only as a Puritan settlement, but also as an “incubator” of both democracy and capitalism with the events of 1692 subsumed by those larger themes.
I think I need to explain and qualify my use of the term “historyland” before I continue, as I’m not using it in the perjorative way that it has come to be used in recent decades: idealized history theme park where one can escape the present and have fun! The “American Way of History” in the words of David Lowenthal. Its meaning evolves, but I am using it first (more later) as it was initially applied: to a region in which much happened and much remained as material legacy to what happened. It emerges in the 1930s as a very specific reference to the area encompassing Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia: I believe a section of Virginia’s Route 3 is still called the “Historyland Highway.” Virginia was so great at marketing itself as Historyland (an example is upper left in the above graphic—some chutzpah to claim that the “nation was preserved” in Virginia!) that other states, like nearby Maryland and North Carolina, started using the term as well. I’m sure that every state on the eastern seaboard was jealous, and the term was extended geographically, chronologically, and conceptually when a Historyland living history park focused on the logging industry opened in Wisconsin in 1954. In the next decade, National Geographic started using the term more generally in reference to national landmarks, in the succession volumes to its popular Wonderlands guides. I don’t want to romanticize the word or its meaning too much: the history that characterized these historylands was overwhelmingly European, narrative, and a bit too focused on colonial costumes for my taste, but at least it was place-based. I can imagine that the civic authorities would have been just a bit wary about the impact of for-profit attractions peddling a story that was not Salem’s in the 1950s and 1960s, especially with the presence of so many non-profit local history museums like the Essex Institute, the Peabody Museum, Pioneer Village, and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Clearly that is not a concern now. In characteristic fashion, National Geographic focused on the site-specific aspects of Salem’s past and present in its September 1945 issue, focused on the Northeast. Its industrial base has created some “drabness,” but “this prosaic, utilitarian present is more than matched by an extraordinarily insistent and romantic past. Salem is literally a treasure house of early American landmarks, relics, articles, and documents of historic interest, all easily accessible and within a small area. The little city is fairly haunted by these still-visible evidences of its illustrious position, first as progenitor of the great Massachusetts Bay Colony, and later as a mistress of the seas. Unlike some larger cities of venerable age, in which population grew apace, it was unnecessary for Salem to tear down and rebuild: thus a larger proportion of memorable objects remains undisturbed.” Wow: a city which retains its treasures, was focused on preservation, and haunted by its still visible-past rather than made-up ghosts! What we have lost.
Photographs of Salem from the September 1945 issue of National Geographic, obove, and from America’s Historylands: Landmarks of Liberty (1962) below: the Witch House, secret staircase at the House of the Seven Gables, and Pioneer Village.
This total package, “treasure house” characterization continued to define Salem’s representation in national periodicals over the next two decades, during which Life, Time, and even Ladies Home Journal came to the city to take it all in: the Custom House and Derby Wharf, the House of the Seven Gables, Pioneer Village, the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum, the Court House with its pins, the YMCA with its small Alexander Graham Bell display (see above), the recently-restored Witch House, and Chestnut Street. (And everything was open all the time! Peirce-Nichols, Derby, all those houses we can seldom enter today). But change was coming, to they ways and means by which we interpreted the past as well as to Salem. From the late 1960s, the meaning of “historyland” took on a more negative meaning and associated “living history” attractions began to fall out of fashion, a trend that culminated with Disney’s disastrous Virginia pitch in the early 1990s. And then Samantha and her Bewitched crew came to Salem, allegedly showing it the way forward: tell one story rather than many and focus on private profits rather than civic pride. The Salem Witch Museum demonstrated that that path could be very successful, and so everybody else jumped on board: the public sanction of “Haunted Happenings” eventually transformed Salem into a full-time Witch City and undermined those institutions which were trying to tell other, or more complicated stories. Many of Salem’s textual treasures have been transferred to Rowley, but I guess we are compensated by the real pirate’s treasure from the Whydah? In recent years, the city’s tourism agency, Destination Salem, has attempted to broaden its appeal by taking advantage of the popularity of genealogical research/travel with its Ancestry Days (next week: see schedule of events here) but I wonder how far that initiative can go when most of Salem’s genealogical assets are in Rowley. Perhaps no structure represents Salem’s transition into a modern historyland, with all of its current connotations, better than the Peabody Essex Museum’s Ropes Mansion, once merely an “early home on an old street” and now the Hocus Pocus house. If I were a true historian of tourism, I could explain this transition in social, cultural, and economic terms, but I’m not there yet. Nevertheless, Salem is the perfect subject for this dynamic field: we’ve already seen some great studies, and I’m sure we’ll see more.
The Ropes Mansion in the May 16, 1958 issue of Life Magazine, and October 2021.
I don’t think I’ve posted enough about women’s history for this women’s history month so I have put some extra effort into this last March post! Two caveats to the preceding statement: 1) If I do say so myself, my deep dive into local women’s history in the 2020 commemorative year should have earned me “surplus merit” and; 2) extra effort was not a hardship because the subject of this particular post is so interesting but yet elusive: “runaway wives” notices from the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Every historian, or every social historian I should say, wants to get into the house (or even into the bedroom) of people who lived in the past so these notices of women who left the “bed and board” of their husbands are interesting entryways, but in most cases the door slams shut before you can learn too much!
What’s going on behind closed doors? Illustration from The Life of George Cruikshank in Two Epochs by George Cruikshank and Jerrod Blanchard, 1882. Courtesy of Forum Auctions UK.
The notices are certainly numerous: in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, nearly every issue of the Salem Gazette and the Salem Register contains one or more. They are legal and financial notifications first and foremost, in which husbands announce that they will take no responsibility for the expenses of their runaway wives going forward, but depending on the nature of the separation, they are also an airing of dirty laundry or downright slander. The wives respond occasionally but not consistently, so we are left with only one side of the story for the most part. Sometimes the notice is on the very first page, above the fold (like this first example below) and sometimes it is buried deep inside the paper. Some notices are pro forma, while others contain considerable detail.
Front and Center, 1806, and for some reason 1804 was a banner year for runaway wives.
Let’s look at my sampling in chronological order to see if we can spot any trends. This IS a sampling: there are a lot more of these notices, and reoccurring ones as well. For example, George Felt disavowed his wife Sally in 1807 (below) and then again in 1818. So your eyes don’t blur and headaches occur, I’m breaking up the notices with a few images from chapbooks of the period from the collection at the National Library of Scotland. In general American chapbooks seem more concerned with instruction than relationships, and these British ones are a bit more bawdy, often highlighting the exploits of marital strife in a humorous, lyrical manner.
A Collection of New Songs, etc. Edinburgh 1802. National Library of Scotland Chapbook Collection.
In this first batch we have a combination of the straightforward (Daland and Young) and the slander. Note the phrases and adjectives utilized among the latter: “unbecoming the character of an honest woman,” and “intemperate, quarrelsome and troublesome,” even evil: clearly the men want to justify their abandonment of legal responsibility for their wives. The last notice, just above, is the most detailed and therefore the most interesting: Mrs. Teague has absented herself “frequently” and run up “extravagant” debts, and Mr. Teague provides several aliases for her so people in the “many” towns she visits can be on guard. This cautionary, “I’m doing you a favor” tone is very consistent in runaway wife notices.
The Farmer’s Son; or The Unfortunate Lovers, Glasgow, 1805. National Library of Scotland Chapbook Collection
The batch of notices above contains pretty standard examples, save for the removal of furniture from the family homes by Molly Ives and Mary Vincent. By the 1830s, these notices were clearly old hat, and even a decade before the editors of the Salem Gazette conveyed that sentiment by running an opinion piece which called them “excessively tiresome” as well as one which conveyed the other side of the story in a rather amusing way (notice that the word elope was generally used to refer to getting out of a marriage rather than into one in the early nineteenth century). I wish we had more responses from Salem women, but there are only a few, generally referencing fear of bodily harm (I researched all the women referenced above and found nothing). Going back to the very beginning of our period, Hannah Peele posted publicly in the Gazette that the reason she left her husband Roger’s house for one of their daughter’s as “because I have conceived my life to be imminently in danger while I lived with him: the reasons for which suspicion are too well known to many.”
Just as separations were public, so too were divorces in Colonial and Federal-era Massachusetts. From my perspective as an English historian, it’s pretty clear that divorces were much easier to obtain in New England than Old England. The Puritans of Massachusetts considered marriage a civil contract rather than a religious sacrament and so divorce could be, and was, granted by the authorities on grounds of bigamy, adultery, abuse and abandonment (although there were also a few successful cases of claims of their husbands’ “insufficiency” on the part of female petitioners): maintaining the social order was the primary consideration. Massachusetts Bay granted the first divorce in British America in 1639 and between 1692 and 1785 the Massachusetts General Court heard 229 petitions for divorce and granted 143. Divorce was not common or easy, but it was an option for Massachusetts men and women. And as is the case with any conflict or schism, we can learn a lot about the parties involved than in cases of peaceful continuity.
Four Excellent New Songs, including Over the Moor to Maggie, Edinburgh, 1780. National Library of Scotland Chapbook Collection.
In contrast to Salem’s most famous divorce, the well-publicized and scandalous split of elites Elizabeth Derby West and Nathaniel West in 1806, I think that Mrs. Anderson’s 1815 suit (above) is probably more representative. The wife of a mariner during Salem’s most prosperous age, she had not seen or heard from her husband in five years and had no “maintenance” for herself and her child. He was the “runaway” rather than her, and I wonder how many other contemporary Salem women found themselves in such situations. The lives of mariner’s wives: yet more uncharted territory in the history of a city which is overwhelmingly focused on that well-trodden.
I have a guilty secret to admit, one which will reveal me to be out of step with most of my fellow Salem residents (no, it’s not about “witches”): I’m not particularly fond of Salem Willows. It’s got a great history and a great spirit, and I’m always happy when I go there, but I don’t really appreciate it. I’m sure I must be a bit of snob about seaside amusement parks, as I never really appreciated York Beach while I was growing up in York either. I don’t understand chop suey sandwiches, and while the popcorn at Hobbs is great, I enjoy my friend Carol’s just as much. While I can take or leave the Willows, I know that many Salem natives wait eagerly for its opening every spring: they have strong memories and associations which I don’t have, and they like chop suey sandwiches. The other day, I came across an article in a 1941 issue of Woman’s Day in a trial database of women’s magazines that we just obtained at Salem State: it was so enthusiastic about the Willows experience back in the day that I began looking at it in a new (old) light.
The article is primarily about Ebsen’s, established in 1885 and the last restaurant standing on the Willows’ Restaurant Row. By the end of the decade, it would be gone, but it was clearly alive and well in 1941. Since that was such a fateful year, one can’t help but feel we are “witnessing” the end of the era in the enthusiastic prose of Sallie Belle Cox, who was embarking on her second career after making a name for herself as the “cry baby of the airwaves” playing crying babies on radio broadcasts in the 1930s. On one such program, she met her husband, radio writer and broadcaster Raymond Knight, a Salem native. She became his second (of three) wives, and by her account he was horrified that she did not know the glories of Salem Willows in general and Ebsen’s in particular, so they drove up from New York City in the early summer of 1941. While her husband insisted that his hometown was the “one city in the world where they know how to make a fish dinner,” Cox’s image of Salem was “a weird, fascinating place filled with clipper ships and jaunty old sea captains who brought home exotic wives with rings in their ears to annoy all the other natives whose only fun in life was roasting witches on dull Saturday nights.”
Salem native Raymond Knight and his soon-to-be wife Sallie Belle Cox (behind the microphone at left) in Radio Stars magazine, 1933-34.
And straight to the Willows and Ebsen’s they went. The restaurant was packed, its oilcloth-covered tables and chairs the same which had been installed in 1890. They partake of equally-old Charley Ebsen’s Shore Dinners: fish or clam chowder, fried clams, fried flounders, and fried lobster, with potato chips, pickles, ice cream, and their choice of non-alcoholic beverages. Cox finds the chowder divine and furnishes her readers with the recipe from chef Fred Millet, who has also been around since before 1900. She also notes that “the Rhode Island and Manhattan clam chowders are not even considered worth discussing in Salem” and admits that there can never be enough fried seafood.
“Shore Dinners” by Sallie Belle Cox, Woman’s Day, July 1941.
In my sweetest dreams Salem is Candy Land rather than Witch City, and it certainly has the heritage to claim that title (although Candy Land was a Milton Bradley game rather than a Parker Brothers production.) There are of course the famous Gibralters and Black Jacks, still sold at the Ye Olde Pepper Candy Company on Derby Street, America’s oldest candy company. Mrs. Spencer sold her hard candy from a horse-driven carriage, and her primary competition seems to have been the stationary confectioner John Simon, whose shop was stocked with a variety of syrups and sweets, everything from anise drops to peppermint. He was always announcing his “removal” to Boston but somehow never made the move. Before the later nineteenth century, however, most confectionary item were not sold by single confectioners, but rather by grocers and apothecaries, and their lists of available sweets became longer and longer with every decade. Nourse’s Fruit Store on Washington Street sold “calves foot jelly candy, strawberry jelly candy, sherbet candy, gum jelly drops, and “East India Red Rock Candy” and all sorts of candies made with the New England’s favorite ingredient, molasses. Confections got a bit softer in the later nineteenth century, when cream candies became popular, and then comes Chocolate!
The Theodore Metcalf Company, one of Boston’s most successful apothecaries, published a beautiful pamphlet on gibralters and black jacks but these were SALEM candies; Nourse’s advertisement, Salem Observer 4 November 1865; Trade cards illustrate the softer trend in confectionary consumption.
The decline of hard candy and the rise of chocolate seems to be a major trend, but candy customers still loved variety. The most successful, and very long-running, confectionary business in twentieth-century Salem was the “Palace of Sweets” on Essex Street, from which the Moustakis Brothers sold their “mastermade” (a patented term) confections. This business was in operation from 1905 until 1968, and after the Taft Summer White House in Beverly placed a series of larger orders it received—and marketed—the presidential seal of approval.
Moustakis Brothers’ Menu from the digital archives of the Culinary Institute of Technology.
Salem is still candy central, in fact two confectionary shops opened up just this past year: Curly Girl Candy Shop on Washington Street and the Chocolate Pantry on Derby, not far from Ye Olde Pepper Candy Company further down the street. And then there is the venerable and amazing HarborSweets, the manufacturers of my very favorite candy, Sweet Sloops. I don’t even really have a sweet tooth, and if I am going to indulge I prefer jelly beans to chocolates, but bring a box of Sweet Sloops into the house and I will not rest until they are gone!
The House of the Seven Gables and Ye Olde Pepper Candy Company sponsored the ice sculpture of Mrs. Spencer’s horse and carriage for the Salem’s So Sweet festival this past weekend: its position made it difficult to photograph but it’s much bigger than it appears in this photo! My beloved Sweet Sloops, available at HarborSweets on Leavitt Street in Salem as well as lots of other retailers.
For some reason, I’ve been going through the archives of Life magazine over the last month or so: it started with the photographs, and then I had to read the stories too. Life seems like it was a perfect mix of news and popular culture: we don’t have the like now, do we? And I doubt we ever will again with our very diffused and digital media. I’m no twentieth-century historian, but it also seems to represent the collective mindsets of its changing times: it really excels at representing wartime America, of course, but the later decades too. So far my favorite issue bears a beautiful Elizabeth Taylor on the cover on the occasion of her fortieth birthday: but inside the focus is on President Nixon’s imminent trip to China. It was fifty years ago this very month, and a very big deal. For some historical context, Life went to Salem, which emerges as kind of cultural intermediary between the United States and China, as it was the first American city to become thoroughly acquainted with the East. And so we get to read about Elias Hasket Derby and his ships, and see Derby Wharf, and all sorts of “exotic souvenirs” brought back from China by Salem’s daring merchants and later installed in the old Peabody Museum of Salem. It’s all great, but the best photograph is an aerial view of Chestnut Street where nothing much has changed in fifty years.
“When the US Sailed to China,” Life magazine, 25 February 1972. Photographs by Henry Groskinsky.
I think that the Peabody Essex Museum is still playing that intermediary “West meets East” role, although now the perspective is far more global than western. I know that I fault the PEM often for its displaced library and limited local offerings, but their East Asian and China Trade galleries are beyond impressive. I find myself teaching the first half of World History this semester for the first time in a decade, and I really had to do a lot of preparation before I stepped into the classroom (well, first it was on the screen as we had a “staggered” opening). China is the star of pre-1500 world history, and all my “color” comes from the PEM! Its collections are much stronger in later-dynasty objects, but there’s still some wonderful things on display from earlier eras. Much has happened in the past half-century: the Cold War is over, and Life magazine has also concluded its run, but Salem’s “China Cabinet” not only endures, but has been expanded considerably (and we no longer refer to its contents as souvenirs). In fact, aside from Salem’s built landscape, PEM’s East Asian collections constitute one of the largest and most lasting material legacies of “its” history insitu: this seems like an odd statement, but I think it is true.
Yichengyong Picture Workshop, Tianjin. Family celebrating the New Year and welcoming wealth from all directions, 1908-11, reproduction of detail from a woodblock print; Standing official with tablet, Jin dynasty, early 13th century; Guangzhou artists, Tea packer and porter, about 1803; Guangzhou artists, Wu Bingjian, Known as Houqua, about 1835; George Chinnery, detail from Dr. Thomas Richardson Colledge and His Assistant Afun in Their Opthalmic Hospital, Macau, 1833. There’s an emphasis on people and their relationships in PEM’s present galleries, but there’s also the “Great Wall of China” and a transplanted 18th-century Chinese house, Yin Yu Tang, to see.
I adore the venerable and very traditional British magazine Country Life, which has been showcasing stately homes, lush gardens, and rural pursuits since 1897. I’ve had indulgent subscriptions and purchased my share of back issues: there can never be enough manors, fields, and drawing rooms for me! Despite my obsession, I had no idea that Country Life featured Salem in a 1972 issue with Salisbury Cathedral on the cover until just last week, and as soon as I saw the table of contents I searched for a copy and snapped it up. The timing is interesting to me: 1972, as Salem’s long struggle with urban renewal was coming to a close, or at least one phase. Of course, the editors at Country Living were not at all interested in anything new: they were seeking what survived.
The article is interesting and the photographs are great—but rather dated: they had been published by Samuel Chamberlain in several publications prior. Perhaps British readers would not have seen his New England views before but they might have appreciated Salem in color! The author, Helen Hall, observes that “the architectural richness of Salem is not so immediately apparent as it is in Deerfield or Marblehead,” so I assume this article is part of a series. She is not very complimentary about most of the city, actually, noting that “you are not especially aware of being in a town that was once so dependent on the sea for its existence” (I think you might be more aware of that now, but maybe not) and that certain parts “give the impression of never really having recovered from the decline of the Depression years.” She does note the recent renewal but also that “the results so far have been negative, with extensive demolition of often potentially restorable buildings, mostly in the central shopping district, creating blitz-like (!!!!!!) spaces that have become, inevitably, parking lots.” But she does love the Essex Institute and its houses, the Custom and Derby houses of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Common, and Chestnut Street. The latter is still elm-lined when she visited, and while she finds American elms “much more graceful” than their European counterparts, they also hindered her views of the houses.
Samuel Chamberlain photographs of Salem in the August 31, 1972 edition of CountryLife.
Salem set the style standard in the first half of the century when Colonial Revival ruled, ruled, and continued to rule: right up to World War II and then beyond, according to the dictates of shelter magazines. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, you can find photos of Salem houses and house parts in issues of The House Beautiful and House & Garden from nearly every year: after that Salem is not quite as “present” but still around. Much of the attention shed on Salem is a result of two people I’ve written about here time and time again, Mary Harrod Northend and Frank Cousins, and after their deaths in the mid-1920s a Salem publicist-successor did not appear, yet “Old Salem” (rather than the “Witch City”) endured as the quintessential New England seaport. I’ve shared every Salem feature in these two particular periodicals from the teens and twenties in past posts, but not too many from the 1930s. A few weeks ago I came across some Salem images from a 1939 issue of House & Garden which were so striking that I knew I had to track down the original copy rather than rely on a digital version, and when it arrived I was not disappointed. This was an issue devoted to New England in all its glory, and Salem plays a central role. There is an interesting architectural introduction by Frank Chouteau Brown, some charming infographics that indicate that the Federal style had not yet been identified (???) but was rather referred to as the “Late Georgian,” and then some lovely watercolor vignettes of the interiors of several Chestnut Street Houses, the Gardner Pingree House, and the House of the Salem Gables by students at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, which is now the Parsons School of Design.
Cover and illustrations from the June 1939 special New England issue of House&Garden. No Federal?
The Barstow West and Pickering Dodge Shreve Houses on Chestnut Street.
Parlors and Bedrooms of the Gardner-Pingree House of the Peabody Essex Museum.
Parlor and Dining Room of the House of the Seven Gables.
These rooms look so lively in these images: the interpretations really emphasize color and texture over pristine period perfection. There are some black and white photographs in the issue as well, like the one of the John Ward house below, but I don’t think they can compete with color. The magazine also aims to be a resource, so there’s a listing of all the historic houses in Salem and their hours of operation, which were far more extensive than today. You could go into the Peirce-Nichols House every afternoon from Wednesday to Saturday all year long, and the Gardner-Pingree and Derby houses every day!
The Ward House and notice for the Second Chestnut Street Day, 1939.
Happy June! I’m going to transition into a summer of lighter fare here: houses, gardens, non-academic books, events with people! In my contrary fashion, I’m going to start this transition with a spooky short story: one of the spookiest and shortest stories I’ve ever read. Madeline Yale Wynne’s “The Little Room” was first published in the August 1895 issue of Harper’s Magazine and then in The Little Room and Other Stories (1906). It’s a story about memories and perceptions, with a lot of ambiguity balanced by (in contrary fashion) very precise details, material details.
I’ll let you read it for yourself (it’s right here), but the basic problem is whether a certain space in an old Vermont farmhouse inhabited by two old maids was in fact a china cupboard or a “little room” complete with a green Dutch door exiting to the outside and a couch “covered with blue chintz—Indian chintz—some that had been brought over by an old Salem sea-captain as a ‘venture'” and given to one of the ladies when she was at school in Salem (yes, there is always a Salem connection). This chintz was described in more detail by those who saw the little room, and not the cupboard: it was “the regular blue stamped chintz, with the peacock figure on it. The head and body of the bird were in profile, while the tail was full front view behind it.” There were also hanging shelves with leather-bound books in the room, from which one bright red volume stood out, titled the Ladies’ Album, which “made a bright break between the other thicker books.” On the lowest shelf was a pink seashell, “lying on a mat of made of balls of red shaded worsted.” Not just a mat: a mat made of balls of red shaded worsted! Can we have any doubt that such a room, such a couch, such a shell, such a mat existed? Yes, we can. The room also contained several bright brass objects, a braided rag rug, and was wallpapered with “a beautiful flowered paper—roses and morning glories in a wreath on light blue ground.” How can this room not have existed? Wynne ensures that we will never know whether it did or not, but at least it can exist in some digital form with a bit of foraging and filtering.
The green Dutch door:
On the walls: I couldn’t find the wallpaper so precisely described by Wynne so I altered the color a bit from a 1960s floral paper on Etsy (which is the best place to find vintage wallpaper) and a watercolor possibly by John Hancock from the Carnegie Museum of Art (this is a lovely painting and I’ve really mucked it up with my filtering so make sure you see the original).
On the Settee: this first fabric looks very “stamped” but it’s really going to clash with my wallpaper, the second is softer but would still make for a very vibrant room!
On the Shelves: Wynne refers to hanging shelves very particularly, not a bookcase. I think of hanging shelves as more contemporary, but there are examples from the 18th and 19th century: the shelves below look appropriate to me, although with everything on them I think they would have to be bigger. These Waverly novels look weighty, but you can see how a slim red Ladies’ Album might pop out: perhaps it was Ladies Home Journal (which used red extravagantly) rather than Ladies Album? I’ve got lots of brass objects for this digital shelf/room (although maybe I should have polished them), and I stole the ultimate shell from my husband’s study. No mat though: I looked far and wide for a mat made of balls of shaded red worsted with no success, so the shell is sitting on a throw (but I used a “faded” filter). And finally, an amazing braided rag rug, which (hopefully) will pull this very interesting room together.
So that’s my “little room,” which was fun to put together. While this little story of a little room is an amusing diversion, it’s really not just about material stuff: it’s about the truth, and that awful scenario when two people, or three or four, or more, cannot decide or agree on what the truth is. This little story is a lot more timely now than when I first read it, maybe twenty years ago: then I think we all knew what the truth was.
I was enthralled this week with news of the new technology which has unlocked “letterlocked” letters from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: before the onset of the envelope in the nineteenth century there were often-intricate practices of folding, cutting, creasing and sealing letters to secure their contents, making it impossible for modern scholars to pry them apart without causing considerable damage to invaluable sources. With every discovery of a locked letter, or a cache of locked letters, the pressure mounted to discovery another way to reveal the writing inside, and this very week, a team of scientists announced their process of “Unlocking history through automated virtual unfolding of sealed documents imaged by X-ray microtomography.” This is BIG news: the letters are scanned and “virtually unfolded,” rendering their physical integrity intact. Secrets are revealed! I just can’t think of anything more exciting.
The computer-generated unfolding sequence of a sealed letter, Unlocking History Research Group via New York Times.
I’ve worked with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century letters before but they had already been opened up: hopefully they weren’t quite as “locked” as some examples and no harm ensued. It’s so interesting that envelopes became common so late in western history: really only from the 1830s. With the completion of my manuscript (and before readers’ comments come in) I had the time to indulge my curiosity a bit this week, the first opportunity in over a year, so I engaged in one of my favorite pastimes, putting a Salem spin on a much larger and more global topic. I haven’t engaged in “ephemeral history ” for a while so it was also nice to look at some pieces of paper. Both epistolary and postal history can reveal all sorts of interesting things, even on the surface, and two great sources for all things philatelic are the Stamp Auction Network in general and Daniel F. Kelleher Auctions in particular: all the letters below come from the latter source unless otherwise noted. First up, some folded 18th-century Salem letters from the Kelleher archive: addressed to Mrs. Hannah Pickering, Widow from 1725, and the nephews of John Hancock, Thomas and John, from 1796 (via the Salem “packet”).
Once envelopes arrive, they become increasingly elaborate, especially with the coming of the Civil War. The Phillips Library has a large collection of Civil War Covers which I hope to see one day but the one below is from Kelleher: as you can see, it contrasts quite strikingly with the simple letter addressed to Mr. Robert Manning, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle. The Salem printer-publisher J.E. Tilton specialized in embellished envelopes: here is one showcasing John C. Frémont’s western expeditions in support of his presidential campaign in 1856. In the next decade Tilton moved his business to Boston, but other Salem printers took up the patriotic paper trade. The envelope illustrations seem to get larger and more colorful over the second half of the nineteenth century, leaving little space for the address—illustrated by the Spanish-American War cover from 1898.
In addition to patriotic purposes, envelopes were great means for advertising and commemoration: all sorts of engines start to appear from the 1870s on, along with a variety of other industrial (and agricultural) goods and of course, the company headquarters. Salem’s famous hotel, the Essex House, appeared on numerous envelopes in the later and early twentieth centuries. Clothing and shoe manufacturers took full advantage of their stationery (the 1895 letter to the Naumkeag Clothing Co. in Salem is from DowneastStamps), and before the stamp became the chief expression of commemoration, it was all about the envelope.