Tag Archives: ephemera

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

eclipse collage

Eclipse 1932 Williams

Eclipse 1932 Williams 2

Eclipse glasses 1932

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

Eclipse NYT

M25823-28 001

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.


Give me Mrs. Miniver

My husband, myself, and my stepson can rarely find a movie we all want to see together: the latter is 16 so of course all summer movies are made for him, but I can’t stand the bombastic computer-generated imagery and violence and the predictable scripts. When Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk came out, we all wanted to see it and so went together last week: a rare occasion. We did not return home together, however, as I had to run out less than halfway through! It wasn’t that it was bad–it was actually riveting–but also just too painful for me to watch all those men on the beach, so exposed and so vulnerable. I knew the Armada was coming but I couldn’t wait for it.

Dunkirk film

Dunkirk real The film and the reality, June 1, 1940 ©Imperial War Museum, London

It’s ridiculous I know, but I think I prefer the Mrs. Miniver version of Dunkirk, in which the gentleman-architect Mr Miniver takes his pleasure craft (conveniently docked in front of his Hollywood-perfect expansive English cottage) out into the Channel and returns only slightly battered (and bearded) a few days later. During his absence, Mrs. Miniver battles a downed Nazi in their kitchen. She wins, of course, but the Director William Wyler gives him a speech intended to bolster the Allied effort (by the time the film was released in 1942, the United States had already entered the war, but during its production Wyler was concerned about American isolationism): We will bomb your cities…Rotterdam we destroy in two hours. Thirty thousand in two hours. And we will do the same here! Combined with all other “inspirational” details in the film, including the bombing of the Miniver house, the heartbreaking death of their new daughter-in-law, and the village vicar’s closing sermon, it’s no wonder that Joseph Goebbels was afraid of it.

Mrs. Miniver 2

Mrs Miniver

It was acceptable to make propaganda films in the 1940s: today things must be as real as (technically) possible and sometimes that is unrelenting, at least for me: I fear my stepson is inured due to a steady diet of video games. I would like to see the Dunkirk miracle play out so I think I’ll have to steel myself to go back and see this film again, but in the meantime I’ll occupy myself with more distant records of this epic event, in paper and a paint. The Imperial War Museum in London has many photographs (including several of the Germans moving in after the evacuation), oral histories, and paintings of Dunkirk among its collections, although after I spent some (digital) time with these memorials I realized they weren’t that distant after all.

Dunkirk collage

Dunkirk 1940 IWM jpeg

Dunkirk painting 1940

Dunkirk Drawing IVW

Dunkirk abstractJune 3 headlines from the Sydney Morning Herald and the Los Angeles Times; a small fraction of the 200,000 British Expeditionary Forces who were evacuated (+140,000 French troops), ©IWM; Charles Ernest Cundall, The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, 1940© IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 305); “little ships” in Muirhead Bone’s The Return from Dunkirk; Arrival at Dover, 1940, © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 251); Rudolf A. HaywoodThe London Fire-Boat ‘Massey Shaw’ approaching Dunkirk at 11 pm on the 2nd June 1940, © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 248).


Battle of the Bonfires

Salem’s traditional Independence Day eve bonfires were epic, receiving considerable regional and national attention up until the 1950s, peaking with a portfolio of images taken by Life magazine photographer Yale Joel in 1949. I’ve written about these spectacles before, but there is more to say. I have a much better understanding of their chronology now, but I still can’t find evidence of the very first one, which early 20th-century references point to happening in 1814. I do not doubt this date, or even an earlier one, as bonfires go way back in Anglo-American history, through the Armada and Gunpowder Plot commemorations on one side of the Atlantic and Pope’s Day and Revolutionary War festivities on the other, but I wish I could find some confirmation. Actually, I don’t have much information about Salem’s bonfires prior to 1890, but after that year they clearly took off, escalating in size and notoriety over the next decades. There was a decade-long dry spell from 1910, which I assumed (very logically) was due to the Great Salem Fire of 1914, but actually predated that catastrophic event by several years. Things start heating up again in 1921, and in the 1920s there were bigger bonfires and crowds with every passing year. There are sporadic bonfires in the 1930s and 1940s, and then after the war the tradition continued into the 1960s (I think!) but it’s a bit hazy.

Bonfires Cabinet Card 1907

A.C. MacKintire cabinet card, c. 1906: these bonfires were BIG.

So here’s a bit more national, regional, and local context for Salem’s Independence Day bonfires, gleaned from a variety of sources, including a local facebook group focused on Salem’s history. Unfortunately no member is old enough to remember the pre-1930 glory days, but the earlier history is surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) well-documented.

1. It’s all about the 1890sI’ve noticed this about other aspects of Salem’s history, particularly anything related to tourism: everything intensifies in the 1890s. There are random brief references to Salem’s bonfires before 1890, but in that year the Boston Daily Globe ran a long story under the headline “Old Salem Ablaze. Bonfires on Gallows Hill Lighted the Home of the Witches” which described a frenzied celebration in the streets of Salem on July 3:  from sunset until midnight the principle streets were crowded with men, women, boys and girls, who passed the time in firing crackers, throwing torpedoes and blowing horns. In many ways it was the most noisy demonstration ever made in Salem. At midnight the immense crowd assembled in the vicinity of the highlands to watch the bonfires. On Gallows Hill a pile consisting of over 1000 barrels and boxes, to say nothing of old straw beds and witch hazel crammed into the intersections of the stack was set on fire, making a very handsome sight. The pile was 50 feet high and the flames towered as many feet higher. From 11-1 there was a concert on the hill by the Salem Brass Band. The Broad Street Social Club also had its annual jubilee on the Lookout and its adjacent pasture in the at the head of Broad Street (now the site of Salem Hospital). The 8th Regiment Band gave a concert from 8 to 12:00, interspersed with a exhibition of dissolving views, thrown upon an immense screen (what in the world was this????). At midnight upwards of 1000 barrels were set on fire, making a mountain of flame, which could be seen for miles.

Bonfire 1898 collage

2. Battle of the Bonfires: as the Philadelphia Record article above illustrates, there was a fierce competition in Salem over bonfire blazes, between the Gallows Hill Association which built their pyre on Gallows Hill and the Broad Street Club, which claimed Lookout Hill: this competition led to bigger and bigger bonfires with each passing year. In addition to this internal Salem competition, there was also competition between Salem and other Boston-area cities and towns, particularly in the first decade of the twentieth century. Salem clearly won the Boston battle, and the Gallows Hill guys (succeeded by the Ward Four Social Club and the Ancient Order of Hibernians) took the Salem prize.

Bonfires 1903

Bonfire 1905collage

3. Independence Day was the “most dangerous day of the year”. I’m quoting from an 1865 editorial and a 1935 Department of Agriculture pamphlet, both referencing the death, maiming and disablement associated with the festivities of July 4. During that long period there were repeated attempts by federal and state officials to cut down on the fiery July 4th celebrations, to no avail. On several occasions violence broke out in Salem, most notably in 1909, when a shooting occurred at the Lookout bonfire. Note the description of the scene in the Boston Daily Globe article from the next day: upwards of 75,000 persons witnessed the burning of the stack of railroad sleepers and barrels. Hundreds of boys and men were firing guns and revolvers. There’s a sense that things were getting a bit out of control, which may explain why the bonfires ceased for about a decade at this point.

Bonfire BDG 1909

4. Logistics. I’m amazed that things didn’t get even more out of control, given the composition of the bonfires: barrels of course, which were provided by local businesses, including tanneries, so supposedly they had remnants of combustible materials. Casks, old straw beds, hogsheads, railroad ties and sleepers, wired together and lit afire by torches before 1905, and then: ELECTRICITY. Salem made big news in 1905:  never before in the history of this country was a bonfire started by wireless electricity claimed the Boston Daily Globe, thanks to 18-year-old John J. Brophy, pictured below. Even though the days of the Lookout bonfires were numbered at this point, this was a great victory for the Broad Street Club. One of the few acknowledgements of any potential danger in producing these spectacles concerns ignition: twenty years later there will be a brief attempt to ignite by “radio”.

Bonfire electricity collage

5. 1920s revival. After a break during the nineteen-teens, during which the Great Salem Fire devastated the city and the new Salem Hospital was built on Lookout Hill, the Gallows Hill bonfires resumed under the auspices of the Ward Four Social Club and Ancient Order of Hibernians. The 1922 bonfire was ignited just after midnight ‘the night before’ by the old-fashioned torch method, and not by electricity as one or two of the former fires were started. There is a very conspicuous emphasis on “tradition” and “revival” in all of the coverage of these 1920s bonfires, and this is when you see references to the first bonfire: the organizers of the 1928 bonfire referred to it as the “114th Bonfire”. There was a tremendous response: with crowds reported at 80,000 for Salem’s tercentenary year and nearly as many in 1927. There are a few regional competitors in this decade, but Salem’s bonfire was repeatedly claimed to be “New England’s Biggest”.

Bonfires 1922

Bonfire 1927 collage

Bonfire 1928 Lowell Sun

6. Decline and dispersal. From 1931 to 1951, the Gallows Hill bonfires ebbed and flowed and ebbed again. The Boston Globe coverage of July Fourth festivities in the region shows what happened at the beginning of the era very clearly. In 1931, there was another “huge Salem bonfire stack”, so momentous that it required round-the-clock guards before the big night, while in 1932, both Boston and Salem abandoned their “bonfires of yore” at the onset of the Depression: for the first time in many years, there will be no mammoth stack in Salem. Several places have taken the money to buy railroad ties and cut them into stove lengths to give to the needy when the cold weather arrives. This strikes me as a pretty straightforward illustration of just one little consequence of the decade’s economic crisis! The bonfires resumed from 1937 to 1940, but they were much smaller and Salem was just briefly mentioned along with other communities in a Fourth of July roundup by the local papers. After World War II, everyone wanted to build a big celebratory bonfire, and Salem’s attracted a crowd of 60,000 in 1946, but in the next year (gasp) neighboring Danvers had a bigger stack and a bigger crowd. The Life photographs look a bit memorialistic in this context, but Salem natives tell me that the bonfires continued into the 1950s and early 1960s. What is clear from personal reminiscences is that Gallows Hill was no longer alone from this point on: there were smaller bonfires built in other parts of town: Collins Cove, Dead Horse Beach in the Willows, along the river in North Salem. So the bonfires (and the competition?) continued as an expression of neighborhood and community spirit, tapped down but still very traditional.

Bonfire Depression collage

7. Appendix: is there an (unfortunate) connection between Salem’s famous bonfires and that OTHER big Salem event, resulting in the common misconception—still very much alive today—that the accused witches of 1692 were burned on Gallows Hill?  I can’t tell you how many national headlines I read like the one below!

Bonfire 1928 Text Box


The Lost Bungalows of Great Misery Island

Out on Salem Sound the other day, sailing in a beautiful boat, I looked over at one of the several islands that mark the entrance to Salem Harbor and tried to imagine what once was. Off Great Misery Island there is a calm maritime meeting place referred to as “Cocktail Cove”: while one imbibes off-island now a century ago drinks were served on the island, first at the Misery Island Club, which became the Casino Hotel in 1904, and also in private cottages: 26 in all. Most of the structures on Great Misery were swept away by a fire in May of 1926 (just before the season), and both it and its adjacent island, Little Misery, reverted to nature under the stewardship of the Trustees of Reservations. But for a quarter of a century or so, Great Misery was quite a happening place, and its cottages attracted the attention of contemporary shelter magazines. House & Garden and The House Beautiful featured several Misery Island summer houses on their pages in their “aughts” heyday,  all bungalows, and all the work of Salem architect Ernest M.A. Machado, an extremely enterprising young architect who died far too soon.

Sailing to the Misery Islands, passing the Fame along the way–off Great Misery.

Misery Sailing

Misery Fame

Misery Today 2

Ernest Machado’s buildings on Great Misery: the Clubhouse/Casino (MIT Archives); the bungalow of Mrs. Charles Steadman Hanks (Mary Harrod Northend, “Some Seacoast Bungalows”, House and Garden, June 1905), “Ye Court of Hearts” (The House Beautiful, June 1905), the bungalow of Mr. George Lee, “The Anchorage” of Mr. George Towle (The House Beautiful, June 1909) , and “The Bunker” of Mr. Jacob C. Rogers (The House Beautiful, June 1906).

Misery Island Club

Misery Hanks collage

Misery Island Lee Bungalow

Misery Bungalow 2

Misery Bungalow 3

Misery Bungalow Bunker

Misery Bungalow Bunker 2

All of these Misery Island bungalow-owners lived on the mainland, either down in Boston or somewhere on the North Shore (Rogers was the last private owner of Samuel McIntire’s majestic Oak Hill, where the Northshore Mall now stands, or should I say sprawls), but they also owned summer houses along the Gold Coast: these cottages were for the weekend! The magazine articles accompanying these images emphasize the simplicity of the island bungalows, but it was a very deliberate, and very occasional, ethic. For about a quarter century, Misery was a Gilded Age playground, complete with shooting range and golf course, perfect for Harvard senior “Robinson Crusoe” picnics and reunions. Its moment might have been even shorter: social register references seem to appear with much less frequency in the teens and twenties, and then this very social chapter in the island’s history closes much more abruptly with the 1926 fire.

Misery club Bonston Post June 25 1902

Misery Reunion 2

Misery Fire collage May 8-10 1926 Boston Daily Globe

Misery Today

Misery Salem Harbor 2Newspaper reports of the 1902 Harvard reunions (Boston Post, June 22-25, 1902 ) and 1926 fire (Boston Daily Globe, May 8-10, 1926); Great Misery today, and home in Salem Harbor on a glorious early evening!


Scorched Earth/A Lost Salem Garden

Since I went in deep for the centennial anniversary of Great Salem Fire of 1914 a few years ago I have this date imprinted in my mind: I woke up this morning and my first thought was oh no. So much was lost that day—houses, factories, civic buildings, churches–as the fire devoured several wards of Salem. The recovery effort, which seems remarkably swift and efficient to me, focused primarily and rightfully on rebuilding, but there was an implicit concern for the loss of landscape as well, and so parks were planned and trees replanted. There was one notable Lafayette Street landscape that was lost on forever on that day, however: the garden of George B. Chase. There was no effort to reconstitute this creation; instead the large lot became the site of the new Saltonstall School, which rose from the ashes of the fire pretty quickly. The Chase Garden was indeed fleeting, but fortunately we have two great sources to remember it by: the wonderful 1947 guide book Old Salem Gardens, published by the Salem Garden Club, and several photographs in the American Garden Club’s Archives of American Gardens at the Smithsonian.

Chase Old Salem Gardens

Chase Old Salem Gardens 2

Chase Garden collageJust one of my many copies of the invaluable Old Salem Gardens (1947) with the Chase garden entry; the location of the Chase garden on the 1874 and 1891 Salem Atlases.

The Salem Garden Club ladies who produced Old Salem Gardens, chief among them Club President Mable Pollock, took great care to include historical information and personal reminiscences whenever possible, greatly enhancing the research value of their compilation:  this is no little pamphlet! We hear all about the Chase Garden from the “discussive and chatty” Miss Chase, who grew up on the property, as her memories are transcribed onto the page. She tells us about the beds of ostrich ferns and rhododendrons in the immediate proximity of her family house, above which swayed purple beech and weeping birch trees, and a “large bed containing 72 plants of Azalea mollis bought from Lewis Van Houtte of Belgium”. In the spring there was white narcissus poeticus, followed by red salvia. Laburnum and althaea screened the large vegetable garden, which included salsify, rhubarb, asparagus, peas, beans, carrots, summer squash, tomatoes, onions and corn: the seed of the latter [came from] a cousin, Benjamin Fabens, and was called “Darling’s Early”. It was most satisfactory in every way, for the ears were not too long, and they had deep kernels and a small cob; the husk was quite red, as were the blades….it was the sweetest corn ever eaten at that time. Continuing along towards Salem Harbor along a box-bordered path, we “see” fruit trees and more exotic trees and shrubs, including a very notable varieties of magnolia and viburnum which particularly impressed repeat visitors from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Near the back of the garden were beds of roses, and a cutting garden of annuals and perennials, encircled by yet another row of shrubs and trees, including the oldest growth on the property, a locust grove, which nature had planted. All swept away on one day: June 25, 1914.

Chase Garden

Chase Garden AAG 1904 Smithsonian

Chase Garden After

Chase Garden After 2Views of the front and back of the Chase Garden (including Mr. Chase himself on the bench), 1904, Archives of American Gardens, Smithsonian Institution; Ten years later on Lafayette Street: postcard views of the Fire’s immediate aftermath from the (commemorative???) Views of Salem after the Great Fire of June 25, 1914 brochure issued by the New England Stationery Company.


Cultivating American History

The Smithsonian Libraries have produced a summer-long digital and actual exhibition on the history of American gardening titled Cultivating America’s Gardens and it features a Salem garden! I’m not surprised; I’ve consulted the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens on more than one occasion and it has several wonderful slides of Salem gardens, most unidentified. The “old-fashioned” garden of the Misses Laight on Chestnut Street in the 1920s opens up one section of the exhibition, “Gardening as a Link to the Past”, which doesn’t surprise me either: Salem’s Colonial Revival ethic and aesthetic certainly extended to horticulture. Besides “the Past”, Cultivating America’s Gardens has six additional sections/themes: “Gardening for Science” (“botanizing” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), “Rolling out the Lawn” (the emergence of the Great American Lawn from the Victorian era through World War II), “Gardening to Impress” (Gilded Age gardens and World Fairs), “Gardening for the Common Good” (Victory gardens and school gardens), “Gardening as Enterprise” (selling seeds), “Gardening for the Environment” (sustainable gardening), as well as a concluding section on the Smithsonian’s role in preserving America’s garden heritage. My discoveries from the online exhibition? The word “botanizing”, which I never knew was a verb, the “tastemaker” Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer (1851-1934), author of more than 300 articles for Garden and Forest as well as the influential Art OutofDoors: Hints on Good Taste Gardening, and the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture, Gardening, and Horticulture for Women, founded in Massachusetts in 1901, the first of its kind open to women. I definitely want to learn more about that!

Curated Gardens Laight

Curated Gardens Victorian Lawns

Curated Gardens Gilded

Curated Gardens War

Curated Garden collage

Curated Seeds

PA624001

The Laight Garden in Salem, 1920s; Catalog for Ross Bro’s. Co., Farm & Garden Supplies (Worcester, Massachusetts, 1909); The Blue Garden at Beacon Hill, Newport, Rhode Island, 1920s; Editorial cartoon: “War Garden to Do Its Duty”, drawing after J.N. Darling in the New York Tribune, about 1917 (LOVE THIS); the gardens of Alexander Hamilton and Dolly Madison as envisioned in 1920 by Peter Henderson & Co.’s Everything for the Garden catalogs; Burpee’s Seeds Contest entry, 1925; The Concrete Jungle, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2002, Lawrie Harris, photographer, all Smithsonian Institution Libraries.


Stepping off in Salem

I browsed through a few promotional publications issued by the Boston & Maine Railroad Company a century and more ago this past weekend and was reminded of just how integral the train was to Salem’s economic and cultural life at the time, and well after. In 1909 New England Magazine emphasized the former in an interesting article called “The New Salem” which charts Salem’s transition from seaport to manufacturing center: “its railroad facilities (it is on the main line, Eastern Division of the Boston & Maine railroad, and has direct lines to Lowell and to Lawrence, which are great coal-carrying roads), are unexcelled, for its manufactured products can be loaded into box cars and sent with expedition to any part of the United States, Canada, or Mexico, where standard gauge rails run, without transfer”.  Boston & Maine emphasized their economic role in slimmer, more ephemeral publications, but their illustrated guide books, highlighting the shore, the mountains, and “picturesque” New England, tended to focus on their ability to effect cultural connections. Down East Latch Strings; or Seashore, Lakes and Mountains by the Boston & Maine Railroad. Descriptive of the tourist region of New England (1887), Here and There in New England and Canada (1889), and All along Shore: a booklet descriptive of the New England coast (1907), all issued by the “General Passenger Department” of the Boston & Maine, were clearly oriented towards “the vacationist’s enjoyment”. These books have instructive descriptions of what the vacationist should look for in each town once he or she steps off the trains, wonderful illustrations, and great maps—I could look at these railroad maps forever. All trails seem to lead to Old Orchard Beach or North Conway, but there’s lots to see along the way—or on the way back.

Train touring collage

Train Touring DE LATCHSalem was one recommended stop along the eastern line up to Maine in the 1880s–but Old Orchard Beach was really the place to be in the summer. Bird’s Eye and route maps are always included and tipped in.

Train Tour 5

Train Tour Map 1902

The chapter on Salem in Moses Foster Sweetser’s Here and There is a fascinating mix of past and (1887) present, with a slight reference to the witchcraft “delusion” and much more emphasis on the China Trade and Hawthorne: before the 1892 Bicentennial Salem hadn’t quite evolved into its Witch City identity. Sweetser refers to Salem as a “mother-city”, and notes its somewhat-faded grandeur as well as its current vitality: “Of late years there has sprung up a new Salem within the old, a metropolis for the adjacent populous towns of Essex South, with active manufactories, richly-endowed scientific institutions of continental fame, and a brilliant local society, made up in part of cultivated immigrés from Boston, who find here the choicest advantages of urban life in a venerable and classic city”.  I love this observation—it contradicts what I think is the mythology of a long decline for Salem and it also sounds like now (although the émigrés are coming more from Cambridge and Somerville than Boston).

Train Tour

Train Tour 4 The North and South Churches in Salem, and the “Old Witch House” in Here and There in New England and Canada (1889): I’m not sure the Witch House ever looked like this!

Sweetser departs Salem for points north “passing out from the castle-like stone station of Salem, the cars rumbling into the the long, dark Salem Tunnel, for half a century happily known as the “Kissing Bridge” of this route, and the locale of more than one bright osculatory poem”. Well there’s one avenue for further research—and once again I wonder, why did we tear our depot down?

Train Tour 6


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