Tag Archives: ephemera

Municipal Monsters

In what has become a pattern for me, I was looking for something quite particular, when I came across something that diverted me from my path altogether, this time in the online catalog of the American Antiquarian Society. The item in question was an image–a political cartoon from circa 1845 which depicts a gluttonous Boston consuming the smaller cities of Massachusetts, including Salem–and it immediately commanded my attention, not just because of the Salem reference but also because the “insatiable [urban] monster” depicted reminded me of an underlying perception in early modern Europe, if not before, of the emerging city consuming the countryside. You can easily understand this allegory, given the conspicuous growth of cities in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, paired with an equally conspicuous urban death rate. Apparently this was an issue in America too: though the sentiment seems more economic than demographic on this side of the Atlantic, on both continents it was not only about consumption, but also corruption.

monster-boston-1845 ‘A Nightmare Dream of a Patriotic Politician of the Interior’, c. 1845, American Antiquarian Society

I’ve never been able to find a great image of the emerging “Londonopolis” in the seventeenth century when that term was first used (in the title term of James Howells’ Londinopolis an historicall discourse or perlustration of the city of London, the imperial chamber, and chief emporium of Great Britain, 1657). London more than doubled its population over the seventeenth century, but only later do any “monstrous” depictions appear. Southern England, with London at its center, is the sea monster supporting Great Britain in the late eighteenth-century maps created by Robert Dighton and published under the title “Geography Bewitched”.

municipal-map-london-geography-bewitched-bmRobert Dighton, ‘Geography Bewitched or, a Droll Caricature Map of England and Wales‘, published in London by Bowles & Carver, 1793, British Museum.

It is not overwhelmingly obvious unless you make several connections, but the depiction of a country gentleman apparently escaping that “Sinners Seat”, Whitehall Palace, whose inhabitants ended up in a monstrous hell, captures the moral divide between rural/urban and virtue/vice. The sheer corruption of city hall (the American Whitehall Palace) was never more accentuated than in the anti-Tammany Hall cartoons in wide circulation in the later nineteenth century, in which Tammany is either an octopus or a tiger, preying on the people of New York City and state.

V0047997 A Stuart gentleman is standing before Whitehall, entitled "S


monster-tammany-tiger-lc‘Sinners Seat’, published: Rob. Walton[London] (At the Globe and Compasses at the west end of St. Paules church & Bon. Church Yard), Wellcome Images; J.S. Pughe, Boss Croker as an octopus consuming City Hall and beyond, Puck Magazine, 1901; S.D. Ehrhart, ‘The Tiger’s Prey’, Puck Magazine, 1913, both Library of Congress.

Anxious Apparitions

As part of a larger project I’m working on, I have spent the past few weeks reading stories about seventeenth-century apparitions. In general, they are not a very scary bunch, but they are anxious, because they’ve definitely got a role to play, in quite a theatrical sense. Ghosts either have a message for those they appear before–generally a warning–or they themselves have suffered a violent death and thus their appearance is a “wonderful token of their disquiet”. The English Civil War is a golden age for ghosts: fourteenth-century rebels Wat Tyler and Jack Straw appear to warn the rebellious Parlementarians along with the more recently-deceased King James. Only the slain (by either the Royalists OR his former commander Oliver Cromwell’s agents) Colonel Rainsborough has personal reasons for being so anxious. At the end of the interregnum, Cromwell himself appears, just after his own fateful death. All of these revolutionary ghosts are easily-recognizable in their top-knotted shrouds or “winding sheets” (so this is great material evidence for burial customs, yes?), and they have a lot to say.





There are some non-political, non-celebratory ghost appearances too, wonders, signs and portents to those that who see them as well as the larger community. Sometimes their appearance is very personal, but it always seems to be a public concern. In Strange and True News from Long-Alley in More-Fields, Southwark (1661) we read about the wonderful and miraculous appearance of the Ghost of Griffin Davis at the house of Mr. Watkins in Long-Alley; to see his Daughter Susan Davis, taking her by the hand at Noon-day and in the Night uttering such terrigle groans and hideous cries, that many neighbors have been too frightened, they are daily forced to remove their lodgings, with the several speeches between them, and how she and the maid were both flung down stairs by him….lots of details but we never really get WHY the ghost of Mr. Davis is so very agitated. His story is combined with that of the very popular Powel ghost as well as that of Jane Morris, a Wakefield widow who was alive but ghostlike in her behavior. The ghosts of the later seventeenth century don’t seem to have the same missions as their counterparts from earlier eras (and they have lost their shrouds) but they are still anxious. By the end of the century, if not before, ghosts turn up in ballads, rendering them slightly less serious but still not the satirical characters they will become a century later.




Seventeenth-century ghosts:

 The just reward of Rebels, or the life and death of Jack Straw, and Wat Tyler … whereunto is added the Ghost of Jack Straw. London: printed for F. Couls, I. Wright, T. Banks, and T. Bates, 1642.

Strange Apparitions, or The Ghost of King James, : with a Late Conference between the Ghost of That Good King, the Marquesse Hameltons, and George Eglishams, Doctor of Physick, unto Which Appeared the Ghost of the Late Duke of Buckingham Concerning the Death and Poisoning of King James and the Rest. London: Printed for J. Aston, 1642.
 Colonell Rainsborowes ghost or, a true relation of the manner of his death, who was murthered in his bed-chamber at Doncaster, by three of Pontefract souldiers who pretended that they had letters from Leiutenant Generall Cromwell, to deliver unto him. To the tune of, My bleeding heart with griefe and care. London, 1648.
The World in a Maize, or, Olivers Ghost. London, Printed in the year, 1659.
Strange and True Newes from Long-Alley in More-Fields, Southwark, and Wakefield in York-Shires.  London: Printed for John Johnson, 1661
Sad and Wonderful Newes from the Faucon at the Bank-Side. London: printed for George Horton, 1661.
An answer to the unfortunate lady who hanged herself in dispair. London: Printed for P. Brooksby, J. Deacon, J. Blare and J. Black, 1684.
All accessed via Early English Books Online

Fashion Shoots in Salem

I would not say that Salem is the most fashionable place I’ve ever been to, but it does have its moments, and one of those moments is happening now. When it comes to clothing, “Salem style” is dominated by perceptions and projections of revamped goth, but this motif has penetrated the highest realms of fashion in recent years. The Fall 2007 ready-to-wear collection of the late great Alexander McQueen was inspired by the experience of his distant ancestor, 1692 victim Elizabeth Howe, and this year has been proclaimed “the season of the witch” by several fashion journalists who noted the dominance of capes, collars, chokers, and “chanelling gowns” in the spring runway shows. According to The Gaurdian‘s Priya Elan, the idea of “caricature” is what the witchy aesthetic is about, distilling femaleness down into opposites. It’s a high-fashion update of goth, with its incorporation of Victorian fashion and the tension between bold, dark colours, delicate fabrication, malevolence and timidity. Standing in opposition to the unfussy silhouettes of athleisure, it retains a certain otherworldly mystique and is all the more interesting for it. 

witchy-wear“Salem-inspired” looks from Alexander McQueen (Fall 2007) and Prada (Fall 2016), Vogue Magazine.

This “witchy aesthetic” is on full display in the September 2016 issue of W Magazine, which features a portfolio of images entitled “Power” by renown fashion photographers Inez van Lamswweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, shot in Salem. To set the scene, the introduction to the fashion story proclaims that “over 300 years have passed since the Salem witch trials, but echoes of the hearings still haunt the Massachusetts town”, apparently making it the perfect setting for moody modern enchantresses. Shot at Pioneer Village and Derby Wharf and a few other locales around town, the photographs are beautiful but the projections pretty standard.



salem-fashion-6-w W Magazine photographs by Inez and Vinoodh, styled by Edward Enninful.

But there are other aspects of “Salem Style”. The Peabody Essex Museum is the beneficiary of two major collections of contemporary fashion, those of local icon Marilyn Riseman and international icon Iris Apfel. Certainly these pieces (700+900) are more of a reflection of these ladies’ styles rather than that of Salem, but at the very least they will make the city a more fashionable destination! And while it doesn’t have the couturier air of the W Magazine shoot, the Boston Globe also chose Salem for its Fall 2016 fashion feature. Rather than atmospheric fog and weathered buildings, the Globe feature was shot at the recently-refurbished Merchant hotel, with its bright and colorful, even glossy, interiors. Here we have a more enlightened expression of Salem style. 



salem-fashion Photographs by Sadie Dayton for the Boston Globe/Styling by Janine Maggiore/Ennis, Inc.

Appendix:  Some tourism features on Salem from the past could almost be fashion features—I particularly like this National Geographic photograph from 1945 and Life magazine photo from 1949, which illustrated an article on Marion Starkey’s Devil in Massachusetts. 

Girls pose by a jail that recalls the witch trials of 1692 in Salem

salem-fashion-nina-leen-august-8-1949 B. Anthony Stewart for National Geographic, 1945/ Nina Leen for Life Magazine, 1949.

Craftsman Confidence

As part of my recent immersion in early nineteenth-century design trends, I browsed through digital volumes of The Craftsman over its 1901-1916 run, every issue readily accessible at the University of Wisconsin’s wonderful Digital Library of the Decorative Arts and Material Culture. This was not a difficult task, as Stickley’s magazine is so interesting: such a heady mix of practicality, philosophy, and politics! How can you not enjoy a magazine with article titles like “Was Jesus a Carpenter?”, “The Century of Ugliness” (which was of course the 19th century from their point of view–when craftsmanship was compromised by industrialization), and “A Plea for True Democracy in the Domestic Architecture of America”?  In the end though, I came away feeling sad, as the editors and authors were so very hopeful for their new century, and their hopes were not fulfilled–the most anachronistic aspect of the magazine is its strident optimism. Everything can be reformed and everything is “civic”: not just education and urban planning, but also architecture and horticulture, even clothing. Birds are just as essential as bookcases, as the magazine espouses an integrated doctrine of conservation, craftsmanship, and community. The persistent quest for everything that is simple and “true” does get a bit pedantic as time goes on, even though I would like to live in their well-crafted and orderly world much more than in our disposable and disorderly one! But as soon as I saw Kaiser Wilhelm II depicted in a rather romantic fashion by the “new” German artist Arthur Kampf my browsing grew increasingly melancholy: I knew that the twentieth century would obliterate all opportunities for “Craftsman World”, and transform all those hand-crafted bungalows into cookie-cutter ranches.












Images from The Craftsman, 1901-1916, including the first cover and Stickley’s device, “Als Ik Kan” underneath a joiner’s compass, borrowed from Jan Van Eyck (Flemish for “All that I can do”), a Craftsman door and two-family house, “affording an opportunity for economy of construction without loss of architectural beauty”, living room, dresses “designed for comfort with a purpose in their ornamentation”, hexagonal urban planning, bookcases, urban villages, 1914 cover, and the foreboding Kaiser.

Ephemeral Elms

Every day, I’m thankful to live on my street because of its amazing architecture: I wake up in the morning, look out the window, and feel both wowed and grateful. But I’m also thankful because about halfway down Chestnut Street there is an elm tree: a graceful survivor, one of a handful in Salem. I walk down and touch it every day. Elm trees are touchstones for us now because they are so rare, of course, but I think it is useful to remember that even before the dreaded Dutch Elm Disease elms were always BIG: majestic, legendary, historical. I have a particular Massachusetts point of view here–the American elm is our state tree–but elms seem to have been held in high esteem wherever they have flourished and perished. Massachusetts had several George Washington elms and an assortment of “Great” elms and it was duly noted whenever they came down—in storms of 1876, 1923 or 1938–well before the tree plague came to our shores. The archives are full of stories about these trees, as well as prints and photographs: I particularly like those captured by international plant hunter Ernest Wilson on his Sanderson camera in the 1920s, part of the collection of the Arnold Arboretum. The first picture below is relatively rare; Wilson preferred to take pictures in the late fall or winter to reveal the trees’ “architecture”, and often posed his wife and/or car–or some nearby boy–in proximity so we can see their great scale.

Ephemeral Elms Lancaster EW AA

Elm Holliston EW AA

Elm Hingham Wilson AA

Elm Hingham sign AA

Elm Framingham EW AA

Great Elms in Lancaster, Holliston, Hingham (+sign) and Framingham, Ernest Wilson, Arnold Arboretum Collection.

There were two notable “George Washington Elms” in Massachusetts, one in Cambridge and the other in Palmer. Both were captured by Wilson as well as many other photographers: these were famous trees, even though there does not seem to be much verifiable truth behind their legends (particularly the Cambridge tree–whose remains or “relics” were scattered about after its death in 1923: you can read much more about it here). The Palmer tree came down in the Hurricane of 1938.

Elm Palmer GW EW AA

Elm Cambridge Wilson AA

Elm Cambridge destruction 1938 Leslie Jones

“George Washington” elm trees in Palmer and Cambridge by Ernest Wilson; the remains of the latter, Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library.

An elm tree didn’t have to have Washington or Revolutionary connections to become “great” in Massachusetts: every town seems to have its beloved tree with an “ancient” name or association: the great “Queen Elm” in Lancaster (a town famous for its elms), the “Gulliver Elm” in Milton, the “Winning Elm” in Chelmsford and many “big” and “old” elms, like the stately elm on Boston Common which came down in 1876. In Salem we had the old “Bertram Elm” in front of the Salem Public Library (the former home of John Bertram) and many, many, more–now sadly gone, except for a few singular survivors, like our Chestnut Street tree. I believe there were a few new elms planted this summer, though–so things are looking up.

Elm Boston Common DC card 1876

Elm Salem Bertram postcard

Chestnut Street Elm

Preparing to Paint

Is there anything more engaging than an artist’s sketchbook? Or even a notebook with a few sketches in it? I suppose the end product doesn’t have to be visual, it’s the insight into that conception/creation/ working it out process that I’m interested in, but imagery tends to be far more accessible, of course. I use Leonardo’s notebooks extensively in my Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and early modern courses, and students are immediately engaged, entranced even, far more than they are when I show them the finished product. It’s interesting to see the wanderings of a very fertile mind in his case, what inspired him and what he also had to work out: perspective, motion, hands. Most of Leonardo’s sketches never made it onto canvas; once a particular challenge was overcome he moved on to the next one, but the sketchbooks of more (focused, disciplined, on-task???? it’s hard to compare Leonardo negatively to anyone) artists illustrate the progress from page to paint: those of Claude Monet immediately comes to mind. But again, it doesn’t have to be about images. The sketchbooks of  Massachusetts artist Alvan Fisher (1792-1863), a pioneer in American landscape, genre, and “view” paintings, gives us insights into his preparation for one of the first views of Salem from “Gallows Hill”, a scene that would be imitated time and time again over the course of the nineteenth century. Fisher jotted down notes about the Salem Witch Trials in his sketchbook, indicating that his inspiration for the Salem painting was not just the view he saw before him, but the events that brought him to this particular place.

Fisher View of Salem from Gallows Hill

Fisher Sketchbook no 5 1824

Alvan Fisher’s View of Salem from Gallows Hill (1818), Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, and Sketchbook no. 5, containing notes about the Salem Witch Trials, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. With the recent validation of Proctor’s Ledge below rather than Gallows Hill above as the 1692 execution site, it occurs to me that the inspiration for this famous “view” is based on a falsehood! Indeed, I think that the figures in the foreground are sitting on THE ledge. But clearly a perspective from that point would not be as revealing of the city below.

From what I can see, most of the sketches in Fisher’s notebooks in the Museum of Fine Arts contain more conventional preparatory sketches: houses, hills, streams, animals. Creatures, particularly creatures in motion and even more particularly birds, seem to captivate artists for centuries, from Leonardo to Salem’s most famous artist, Frank Benson. Browsing around sketchbooks which have been digitized (especially those included in this archived exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art), I can’t tell which is more captivating to me: individual sketches or the entire sketchbook, the works themselves or the works in progress. 

Fisher Notebook 1

Benson Sketchbook 1882

Bird Collage

Sketchbook Rockport

Sketchbook Porter

Page from Alvan Fisher’s Sketchbook no. 1, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Autographed sketch by Frank Benson, 1882, Skinner Auctions; Leonardo’s sketches from the Codex on the Flight of Birds and one of Benson’s bird sketches, Northeast Auctions; Covers of sketchbooks of Harrison Cady (1943) and Fairfield Porter  (1950) from the Archives of American Art.

August Americana Picks

August is the season of Americana offerings at auctions and antique shows, and I have my eyes on a few lots in upcoming auctions at my favorite regional auctioneers.I really don’t “need” anything, but that has never stopped me from looking, pretty much everywhere I go, but especially through online auction catalogs and at previews and shows. What am I looking for? I’m always entranced by transferware, even though (or perhaps because) I sold off my own collection of pink a few years ago. Creamware, pearlware and mochaware. MAPS, especially schoolgirl maps. SIGNS, Salem especially, but not necessarily. Fancy chairs, always. Interesting paper. Anything with an unusual texture or history. In the past, Federal card tables: they are going for a song now but I simply have too many. So here is what is tempting me from sales coming up over the next week or so at Northeast and Skinner Auctions.

at Northeast:

August American TT

August Americana Colonial Cupboard Northeast

August Americana Ships Passage 1817

August Americana Salem Harbor Soup Plate

Copeland Spode’s Transferware Tissue Patterns; Colonial Cupboard made in Hudson Valley, New York;  Ship’s Passage for the Brig “Ceres” of Salem, signed by President James Monroe, 1817; English creamware soup bowl (one of a pair–the other features Nantucket Harbor) decorated with green enamel and black transfer print of Salem Harbor.

At Skinner:

August Americana 1 Skinner

Americana Auctions Metamorphosis Skinner

August Americana Eagle Print Skinner

August Americana Chairs

August Americana Desk Skinner

A polychrome transfer-decorated Liverpool Pottery creamware pitcher, bearing the name of Captain James Barr, a Salem Privateer whose house is still standing on Lynde Streeet; A Metamorphosis, America or England, 18th century, watercolor and ink on paper depicting Adam and Eve, and a lion changing into a griffin; Framed print of an eagle with an olive branch; Set of NINE fancy chairs with old green paint (it looks black to me, but the description says green); a nineteenth-century schoolmaster’s desk. This last item is a bit rustic for me, but for some reason I just love it. Maybe because it’s almost back-to-school time. Maybe I want to bring it back to school WITH me and carry it around from room to room to bolster my mastery!

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