What are you wearing on New Year’s Eve? I’m still dealing with this bum leg, so it will likely be sweatpants for me, unfortunately, but I have to say that some version of “domestic attire” has been the norm for the last decade or so. I had much more festive New Year’s Eves when I was younger, but family celebrations at home seem to be the rule for now. I remember spending New Year’s in Rome when I was 20, dancing in some sort of tunnel wearing a dress I had just bought in Florence! There were lots of fancy country club/hotel parties later, but frankly those can be a boring. I don’t really need a fancy party, but I would like to be a bit better dressed. I did manage to hobble around Hamilton Hall at the annual Christmas Dance a few weeks ago in a drop-waisted sequin dress, so I already had that silhouette on my mind, but I decided to browse through some digital fashion collections to see what women might have been wearing a century ago as they ushered in the New Year—-the year they would become fully enfranchised citizens here in the US.
Fashion plate from La Moda Elegante Ilustrada, December 6, 1919, Fashion Institute of Technology; Georges Barbier’s “les belles Sauvagesses de 1920” from Le BonheurduJour, ou, LesGracesàlaMode, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; Vogue covers and sketches from December 1919.
To my untrained eye, it looks like the “1920s silhouette” emerges immediately with 1920! Or maybe that’s just what I was looking for—and these lovely Lanvin dresses from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art seem almost timeless. For more on the House of Lanvin’s long run, check out this cool online presentation. I think most people have heard of Lanvin, but what about Clara Becht and Jacqueline Kasselman, the designers of some very stylish evening ensembles in the collection of the Cincinnati Museum of Art? I certainly hadn’t. With a very dynamic fashion periodical press in these days, I imagine that the practice of knocking off was already prevalent, so midwestern ladies could have “French” frocks for their big nights out. Whatever the source or inspiration for their evening dresses, women in 1920 did not confine themselves to the palette I am featuring here (for some reason): various shades of green and blue seem to have been popular, and there were also pops of universally-festive red. Happy New Year! I’ll see you on the other side.
House of Lanvin evening dresses, 1920, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Lanvin advertisement in the Gazette du Bon Ton, fall, 1920; Dresses by Clara Becht and (2) Jacqueline Kasselman at the Cincinnati Museum of Art; Fashion plates of gowns by Jeanne Paquin and Madeleine Wallis with an American silk-satin dress from an unknown designer, Victoria and Albert Museum. Yet another “Robe du soir”, from the Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920.
I’ve been working my way through all of the artists who were born or lived in Salem since I began this blog so many years ago, but one very notable and successful artist whom I have yet to cover is the sculptor John Rogers (1829-1904), chiefly because I don’t really care for his work. They have not aged well, but the “Rogers Groups” were important expressions of American material culture in the later nineteenth century: often Rogers is referred to as the Normal Rockwell of sculptors, and plaster castings of his best-selling works, depicting sentimental scenes of a young couple about to proclaim their marriage vows before a country parson and a convivial games of checkers “up at the farm,” sold thousands of copies for $15.00 each from 1860 to 1890. Even though Rogers studied in Paris like so many aspiring American artists, he firmly rejected the neoclassical sculptural style of his teachers—-and his time—in favor of a more accessible “vernacular” approach. He wanted to be a successful, popular artist more than an artist: he told his mother so, many times, in letters we can read at the New York Historical Society. The mother of John Rogers was Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers (1805-1877), and she is really my interest and my focus; but I can only get to her through him. And my interest in her started with a dress, the beautiful, ethereal, dress seemingly spun from air and mica (but really Indian muslin and silver) which she wore to her wedding reception in 1827.
Indian Muslin and silver wedding reception dress of Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers, 1827, Peabody Essex Museum (Gift of Miss Jeannie Dupee, 1979).
This dress is in the stunning new Asian Export gallery of the Peabody Essex Museum. Since its opening about six weeks ago, I have snuck into see it (and several other things) about three or four times: I’m obsessed with it (and several other things)! The dress is beautiful, but I feel a connection to Sarah largely through her younger sister, Mary Jane Derby (Peabody), who was an artist and the author of a hand-written and -bound journal composed for her grandchildren which a lovely lady from Maine bought at a yard sale and sent to me: I know that I should turn this little book over to her family, or an archive, but I’ve held on to it simply because I cherish it. In the journal, Mary Jane writes about her wonderful childhood in the large mansion on Washington Street that she depicts in one her most alluring paintings. This is the mansion to which Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers would return after her marriage to John Rogers of Boston, and the birthplace of her son John Rogers (Jr.) in 1829.
Mary Ellen Derby, the Pickman-Derby Mansion at 70 Washington Street, c. 1825; Detroit Institute of Arts; a Moulton-Erickson Photograph from the 1880s, Cornell University Library—the house was demolished in 1914 for the present Masonic building; The Margaret,co-owned by Mary Jane’s and Sarah Ellen’s father John Derby, was one of the first American ships to reach Japan, in 1801, Old-time Ships of Salem, Essex Institute, 1917; The Rogers wedding announcement in the Salem Literary and Commercial Observer, June 9, 1827.
Mary Jane and Sarah Ellen Derby seem to have had a perfect Salem childhood growing up in this mansion during Salem’s most prosperous period, the granddaughters of Salem’s most prosperous merchant, Elias Hasket Derby, and the daughters of John Derby, Esq, part-owner of The Margaret, one of the first American ships (and THE first Salem ship) to dock in Japan. I’m so dazzled by her childhood (and her dress) that I make the cardinal historical mistake when I look at the post-marriage life of Sarah Ellen: I judge this life by my own standards and perspectives, rather than hers. By all accounts Sarah and her husband had a happy marriage (they had eight children, after all, of whom John Jr. was the second-eldest) but their lives together don’t seem to have been as comfortable as her Salem life. Despite his Harvard degree and Boston Brahmin pedigree, John Sr. was not a very good businessman: shortly after John Jr.’s birth in 1829 the young family was off to Cincinnati where Mr. Rogers attempted to establish a sawmill (and where Mary Jane met her husband, the Reverend Ephraim Peabody, while visiting her older sister) after this failed it was back to (western) Massachusetts for a silkworm enterprise, which also failed after a few years. There was a brief stint in New Hampshire, and then the (now much larger) Rogers family settled in Roxbury, with John Sr. taking up a post (a political appointment?) at the Boston Custom House which he held for the rest of his life. There was no Harvard for John Jr.: he was briefly established in a Boston apprenticeship before he ran off in pursuit of an artistic career. Perhaps this background explains his entrepreneurial attitude towards that career. All of this makes me feel sorry for Sarah: all those moves,, all those children! Did she have any help? Did she look back at her wedding reception dress and think: how did I get here? But I’m just projecting my own feelings on to her: she had a large and by all accounts happy family and a successful son who addressed all of his letters to that family to her, at its center, or heart (and it looks like despite all of those children, she still might have been able to fit into that dress).
Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers and her family, New York Historical Society Rogers Collection and the archived online exhibit John Rogers: American Stories where you can see more photographs, get more context, and read letters from John to Sarah; Checkers at the Farm—the second most popular work of Rogers—Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of John Rogers and Son; photograph of “Checkers”, Smithsonian via Essex Institute Lantern slide: E24240; Advertisement for “Checkers”, Harper’s Weekly 3 (March 18, 1876): 235.
I love twentieth-century magazine art, especially early twentieth-century cover illustrations, for various reasons: the accessible aesthetics, the creativity and artistry, the cultural representation. Then as now, magazine publishers and editors wanted to represent their time and place with their covers, and also send messages, or signals, to their readership as well as the people who might glance at them as they walked by a street (or airport) stand. The difference between then and now, though, is that more artists were called upon to create these covers in the first half of the twentieth century than photographers. So we have have less realism and more ambiance, color, symbols and impressions. I was looking at a succession of covers of one of my favorite shelter magazines (which had several reincarnations and which I wish would be reincarnated yet again), House and Garden, and it was obvious that its editors deliberately veered away from the realistic renderings featured on covers in the first decade of the twentieth century towards more artistic and impressionistic images in the second and third. Here’s a succession of October covers with the messages that I am receiving, all from the Condé Nast Library, which I’m fortunate to be able to access via Artstor: the alternative themes of “fall planting” and “furnishing for the fall bride” predominate for these “numbers”, but I think there are other messages too.
The Aughts: we are so Sturdy! (and such good builders, 1908-11).
The Teens: we’re so Whimsical! (1916-1920).
The Twenties: we are so industrious (and America is truly the land of plenty; 1921-29).
The Thirties: we’re so confused! We are so very 1) Sleek (1936); 2) Acquisitive (1937-38: House & Garden certainly seems a bit out of touch with the DEPRESSION; 3) Rococo (1938-41).
1949: We’re Going Places (and we can have it all).
An amazing weekend in Salem, for the city, objectively and collectively, and for me, personally. I’m writing at the end of a long day, which will be yesterday, during which I gave a morning presentation on the Remond Family of Salem, an African-American family who operated many successful businesses in the mid-nineteenth century while simultaneously supporting every social justice cause it was possible to support (which were many) next door at Hamilton Hall, and then made my way to the long-heralded opening of the new wing of the Peabody Essex Museum. Both were really important events for me: I’ve been focused on the Remonds since I moved next door to Hamilton Hall, and in attendance at my talk was George Ford from California, a Remond descendant who is so dedicated to his family’s story and memory that he just want to be where they were. And except for a few professional events I had to attend at the Peabody Essex, I have not visited the museum since December of 2017, when the non-announcement was made that its Phillips Library, encompassing the majority of Salem’s written history, would be removed to a new Collection Center in Rowley, Massachusetts. Over time I realized that I was only hurting myself, as the Peabody Essex is indeed a treasure house, and the historical references of new Director Brian Kennedy and media reviews of the new wing and the #newpem infused me with hope, and so I was excited to return, but also a bit anxious. (There was also a big food truck festival in Salem but don’t expect me to report on that!)
The Remonds in the morning, and the new PEM Wing in the afternoon!
As exasperated as I can often get with Salem, you must know that it is an entirely engaging city and place to live, always, but this weekend was particularly intense. If the famous PEM neuroscientist Dr. Tedi Asher had affixed monitoring devices to me I would have given her readings off the charts, I am sure! I was nervous about going into an institution which I have been so critical of over these past few years–not to exaggerate my influence, it was just an internal feeling. I have friends and acquaintances who work at the museum and it never felt good to criticize the place where they worked. Everything seems different now, with the new Director, Brian Kennedy, acknowledging Salem, community, founders, even slavery (i.e. historical realities rather than cultural idealizations, and potential engagement or even interest in historical interpretation!) with every passing press report. Expectations can make you anxious too though, and I was anxious to see what role the new dedicated Phillips Library gallery in the new wing would play, as an expression of priorities, as an indication of respect for the old (dry) texts which always require a bit more effort to make them shine. So here I go into the PEM, heading straight for the new wing, with all of my anxieties and expectations. What do I see first?
A wall! And an amazing N.C. Wyeth mural titled Peace, Commerce, Prosperity–both of which I loved. Before I looked at anything, I was struck by that wall: the side of the East India Marine Hall which I had never really seen; it must have been alongside the former Japanese garden but I never noticed it for some reason. Maybe I was just focused in my mind on the back wall of Hamilton Hall which borders my own garden, which I stare at all the time and think of the Remonds working on the other side, but all I could see when I entered the new wing was this wall. It might also have been my admiration for the Georgian Pickman House, which formerly stood in the same spot I was standing in—-maybe I was trying to conjure up its orientation—but for whatever reason, I stood staring at that wall for quite some time. (Yes, Salem’s history is weighing on me, just a bit). Then I snapped out of it, spent some time looking at the lovely Wyeth mural, and moved into the new Maritime gallery, where I was caught. There’s no other word for it, caught. I was transfixed by everything, and as soon as I got to the trio of paintings of ships in various stages of “tragedy and loss” by the Salem deaf-mute artist George Ropes, I realized that I wanted–or needed– to come back to this very intimate gallery every day, or as often as possible. Such a clever installation with its angled walls, ensuring that you discover something new around every corner, and everything so very evocative of the perils and promise of the sea. And such a thoughtful mix of old exhibits and new, including the venerable glass-encased ships’ models we can see in all the old photographs of the Peabody Museum. I saw many things that I had only seen in pictures before, but also “old friends”. There were texts, not just paintings and objects. Stunning, substantive, respectful: I was very impressed.
The treasures of the new Maritime Gallery: the George Ropes paintings are STUNNING; I can’t possibly capture their beauty here. Lovely to see many East India Marine Co. artifacts plus texts and sketchbooks; Ange-Joseph Antoine Roux, Ship America at Marseille, 1806; a reverse glass painting by Carolus Cornelius Weytz, c. 1870; Ship Models and dashing Salem Sea Captains John Carnes and Benjamin Carpenter by William Verstille; Vases by Pierre Louis Dagoty, c. 1817.
The Asian Export Gallery on the second floor of the new wing was extremely well-designed as well, with an entrance “foyer” covered entirely in c. 1800 Chinese wallpaper from a Scottish castle showing us just how cherished, and integrated, products from Asia were in the west. This opened up into a spacious gallery, providing a vista for what can only be called a “Great Wall of China”! This space was delightful aesthetically, but it was also a teacher’s toolbox for me: all of our introductory history courses are focused on global connections and trade, so I was able to photograph about three PowerPoint’s worth of photographs, for which I am very grateful. Then it was upstairs to the new wing’s third floor, where Fashion and Design reigned—particularly the former, so many mannequins. I have to say that compared to the other two galleries, this one left me cold, but I’m sure that I’m in a minority as it was the most crowded space of my afternoon. We all respond to different materials in different ways of course, but I was struck by the contrast of the rather “old-fashioned” display of Iris Apfel’s ensembles with the modernity of the actual clothing: draped sheets à la eighteenth century with bespectacled mannequins in front? To me it looked inartful, kind of like a throwaway installation, but maybe I’m supposed to notice the juxtaposition? I’m not sure: there were just too many mannequins—it was a crowd for me. There was a readily apparent flow, or connection, between the objects in the Maritime and Asian Export galleries below, but here I could not link the fashion and non-fashion items into any semblance of a story. But again: it was crowded, so I’ll have to go back and try again.
Perfect place to text, no? LOVED this painting of Two English Boys in Asian Clothing, c. 1780 by Tilly Kettle, “the first prominent British artist to work extensively in India”; the “Great Wall” in its partial entirety and detail; the Fashion and Design gallery on the third floor of the new wing.
By this time, I was running out of time (chiefly because I spent so much time in Maritime World) but I wanted to see how some older spaces were impacted by the addition of the new wing—namely the adjacent East India Marine Hall—as well as the heralded dedicated Phillips Library gallery. Here disappointment began to kick in, so read no further if you want a fluffy, disengaged appraisal: that’s not what I do here. The old hall, so stunning and so missed by me, was all dark, reduced to background for artist Charles Sandison’s digital projections of words and phrases from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ship captains’ logs. I had seen this before, as PEM’s first “FreePort” installation a decade or so ago, so I was surprised to see it again. I really liked it before: it was definitely immersive. It was not what I wanted to see now; I was hungry for real words and texts after their authentic integration in the Maritime gallery and so these fleeting, ephemeral images felt fleeting and ephemeral. But this is a temporary installation so I’m not going to go on and on about it; I’m looking forward to what’s next for East India Marine Hall.
Charles Sandison: Figurehead 2.0.
On to the new Phillips Library dedicated gallery space! I was anxious, so maybe I wasn’t thinking clearly, but it actually took quite a while to find it. My very handy Visitor Map, which was handed out to everyone as we entered the PEM, indicated that it was right behind East India Marine Hall on the same floor, but because the circular staircase in the rear of the building was blocked off you couldn’t quite get there from where I was without going up, down and all around for some reason. Again, it might have been me, I was going by sheer sensation here, but the difficulty of access seemed to combine with the closet-like room I eventually found to give me a profound impression that the Peabody Essex Museum really didn’t want to showcase the collections of the Phillips Library. Here was an afterthought, thrown in behind the restrooms. I hate to rain on this parade, but that is what I felt. The “Creative Legacy of Hawthorne” exhibit seemed uninspired to me as well, but to be honest, I couldn’t really take it in, I was so disappointed by this sad space. I’ll have to go back and look at it again, if I can muster the willpower. I know that the new Phillips Librarian is happy to have this space, and I’m sure he and his staff will do as much with it as they possibly can, but there’s no way that I can say that it was anything other than a great disappointment to me, right now. The contrast between this disposable space, and all of the wonderful, powerful, thoughtful and spaciousgalleries I had just seen was almost unbearable: I just had to walk away. There was a large panel which gave a brief history and description of the Library and an introduction to its new reading room in Rowley which I couldn’t quite capture with my camera so I made a collage of different sections: there was no filter with tears, “broken” and “recoil” didn’t look quite right, so I settled for worn.
Well let’s try to end on a high note, shall we? No one likes a killjoy. The whole opening of the new wing was handled wonderfully by the curators and staff of the PEM: everyone was on hand, all weekend long, to help, and guide, and answer questions. The Visitor Map (and these cute buttons for all of the new galleries, except, of course, for the Phillips Library) is great. There was a wonderful spirit about the place. Not only is the new wing impressive architecturally: it offers some interesting views of Salem from its upper stories. The new garden is a thoughtful space: I’m looking forward to seeing how the plant material fills in. It was good to be back in the Peabody Essex Museum after my long absence. Salem’s mayor, Kimberley Driscoll, shared her reactions to the opening of the new wing on social media and someone forwarded her post to me. She was clearly as excited as the rest of us and why not: it was, again, a big weekend for Salem. Mayor Driscoll wrote that As we enter these doors we’ll know more about 16-year old sea captains who sailed around the globe and brought back treasures and trinkets to their hometown. Humankind is amazing when it comes to rising up to challenges. We tell those accounts, see those treasures, wonder what it was like and how it came about, marvel at the possibilities….we do all that here. In this space. In our city. Yes in our city, in Salem: but we can’t tell those accounts if we don’t have our history: trinkets and treasures are not enough. And we don’t have to wonder, we could actually learn and know, if we had our history, but we don’t: it’s not here, in our city, in Salem.
The Phillips Library Gallery is #206 on the Visitor Map + adorable buttons; the new garden; view from the third floor of the new wing.
There are two notable developments regarding the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), the major archival source of Salem’s history, so (fair warning) I am returning to that troublesome topic. I don’t think I’ve written about the Library and its collections since the very beginning of the semester, when I made my first trip up to Rowley: out of sight, out of mind has been one of my major concerns about the relocation of this venerable collection to this rather detached location, and that’s pretty much been the case for me. The Library has regular open hours up there, the staff is very helpful, there are many discoveries to be made, but while I’m sure it is an invaluable repository for the curators of the Museum and specialized researchers, it’s hard to see how it could develop into any sort of a community resource, despite the nature of many of its collections. The PEM (or I should say its leadership to date) has never acknowledged the historical-society-origins of its amalgamated Library, so I’m sure that’s fine with them, but they have taken several strident steps towards open access in recent weeks with the hiring of a new Head Librarian and the announcement of a digitization initiative which will roll out in several stages. Following up on their partnership with the Congregational Library, which has made some important manuscript collections accessible, there are now some very interesting printed materials available in the Internet Archive, with lots more to come, apparently.
There is a facsimile edition, but how amazing to see the original 1693 maritime atlas of Pierre Mortier, the “most expensive sea-atlas ever published in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century” according to the eminent Dutch cartographical historian Cornelis Koeman. Stunning plates of beautiful European ships: here is a “Tartane de Pesche”.
This is wonderful: certainly the PEM should be commended for cracking open the treasure chest that is the Phillips Library but I do want to emphasize that this “opening” has been a long time coming and is as much due to outside pressures as inside initiatives. Thanks to all the people who are keeping track of these things in Salem (and to digitization), I have in my (FAT) Phillips Library file a collection of published articles in which a succession of PEM representatives made confusing claims about the museum’s progress towards making its holdings more accessible. In response to a major push-back by scholars and librarians in 2004 after Library hours and staff were reduced dramatically, the PEM indicated that increased internet offerings would compensate for the restricted access. Then-acting “Library Administrator” John R. Grimes made the egalitarian argument that “many of the people interested—or potentially interested—in historical documents are not professional researchers, but students and laypeople with regular jobs, for whom the new digitization technology and the Internet proved access to knowledge they would otherwise never see” (Northeast Regional Library Newsletter, June 2004). A decade later, Phillips Library Librarian Emeritus Sidney Berger published an update on the progress of digitization in the Winter 2014 issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine, stating that in an effort to bring the PEM’s material to a worldwide audience, during the last two years, PEM’s Phillips Library, with the assistance of a team of cataloguers, has gone from having 9 percent of its holdings to more than 90 percent digitally accessible; financial gifts from donors have made this possible. The team has undertaken a retrospective conversion of 175,000 old cataloging records into the preferred Library of Congress system and catalogued another 75,000 previously unprocessed materials. The retrospective conversion connects PEM’s vast library holdings to researchers near and far. One of the particularly gratifying aspects of this project has been to make 50,000 singular, one-of-a-kind documents that only exist in PEM’s Phillips Library Collection available online. We could all see the online catalog, a momentous achievement certainly, but where were the “50,000 singular, one-of-a-kind documents”? No one could find them, and there was also confusion among the general public about the distinction between “records” and “holdings”: both can refer to catalog entries as well as the documents themselves. I think the long-term claims and confusion left PEM in a bit of a vulnerable position when they finally announced that the Phillips Library would not be returning to Salem, because it was apparent that there was no compensatory commitment to digitization. When pressed at the dramatic public forum on January 11, 2018, CEO Dan Monroe would only say that digitization was “expensive”.
Mr. Monroe at the 1/11/18 public forum at PEM.
So that is why the recent announcements are so welcome. Digitization goals are clearly stated. Mr. Monroe is departing, to be succeeded by Brian Kennedy, the director of the Toledo Art Museum, an institution that seems to have all of its collections online. The newly-hired head librarian, Dan Lipcan, has a great track record of digitization at the Watson Library at the Met (and, if this blog post about the devastating losses at Brazil’s MuseuNacional is any indication, a higher degree of sensitivity about the importance of material heritage to a locale than I have discerned from most representatives of the PEM). The chief of collections, John Childs, has been a pretty steady advocate for more digitization throughout, so I’m assuming that he is behind the initiatives that have already been put into place. The materials “deposited” in the Internet Archive seem very well-curated and seemingly representative of the Phillips Library’s diverse collection: local history, maritime history, natural history, fashion (not a strength of past collecting, but definitely a present and future emphasis), all about China, and more.
It’s very interesting to see the expansion vision that never happened on the front and back covers of the Essex Institute’s Annual Report from 1988, and I really want to dive into the HistoricStructureReport for Derby Wharf from 1973, but I’ve also got to admit that I love George Barbier’s beautiful illustrations in Lebontond’après–guerre (the lady in the Poiret dress avec arrow above) and who can resist a book titled The Romance of Men’s Hats? But what I’m really looking forward to, along with many people, is the promised digitization of photographer Frank Cousins’ large body of work, encompassing images of Salem from c. 1890-1920. Apparently these are coming soon, and after that could we please see some scans from all those papers of Salem families? Almy, Butler & Robson, Crowinshield, Fabens, Lee, Loring, Peabody, Peirce-Nichols, Saltonstall, Waters……..my colleagues and I made a list if anyone’s interested.
Louis XIV famously once said Fashion is the mirror of history but as we all know, sometimes mirrors show us things we don’t want to see. I was looking around for some inspiration for my Resistance Ball dress, when I discovered the work of an amazing Haitian-born, Brooklyn-based artist named FabiolaJean–Louis, a photographer, a stylist, a (paper)dressmaker, and a “maker” who seems to be able to embrace the past, present and future in her work, sometimes simultaneously. Her breakthrough exhibition, Rewriting History (2016), took my breath away. Look at this “mirror image”, in which the embroidery design on the back of the embellished dress of “Madame Beauvoir” mirrors the scars from the scourged back of the once-enslaved man named Gordon, displayed in a famous photograph by McPherson & Oliver that went viral during the Civil War.
Madame Beavoir’s Painting
The juxtaposition of the very beautiful (women, dresses, surroundings) with very ugly historical events is jarring in these compositions, but also remarkably effective: you can’t look away. According to Ms. Jean-Louis, it’s not just the medium and the message but also the material: the paper gown sculptures are transformed in a way that allows me to represent layers of time and the events of the past as they intrude upon the present. Through the materials, I suggest that although we cannot change the past, we can act to change the present, as we activate the memories, visions, and legacies of our ancestors. Rewriting History seeks to reconnect viewers to the past so that parallels with current events are amplified.
Madame Leroy and Rest in Peace; Revolutionary Dress Top (detail).
The beautiful Madame Leroy in her exquisite eighteenth-century gown with a stomacher (locket? window?) encasing a lynched man, an image which is repeated even more starkly in the model-less Revolutionary Dress. Less straightforward, at least for me, is Marie Antoinette is Dead, modeled on François Boucher’s portrait of a reclining Madame de Pompadour, but the updated subject seems to be a Voodoo Queen in a rococo dress. There are no fashion victims among Jean-Louis’s subjects: only powerful women, and heroines such as Mathilda Taylor Beasley: born into slavery in Georgia in 1832, she somehow escaped, and operated a secret school for African-American children in Savannah in the 1850s—a very dangerous act at that time and place. I cannot help but think of Charlotte Forten Grimké, a contemporary of Beasley’s and Salem’s first African-American educator, who ascended to that profession under far more advantageous circumstances in the North. Beasley is memorialized in Passing and Violin of the Dead, and now I know her name. I really can’t discern whether I am reacting to these works as a cultural consumer or an educator.
Marie Antoinette is Dead; Boucher’s Portrait of Madame de Pompadour (Neue Pinakothek, Munich);Passing and Violin of the Dead. All photographs by Fabiola Jean-Louis with more + commentary at her website: www.fabiolajeanlouis.com .
I’m diving deep into early modern recipes this month, and as the term recipe was not reserved for the culinary realm during this time that means instructions for all sorts of things: health, hygiene, magic, preservation, and cosmetics, or the “beautifying part of physic” according to one of the first books devoted exclusively to made beauty: Johan Wecker’s Cosmeticks (1660). Wecker’s categorization of cosmetics was in alignment with the contemporary understanding of the body and its operation, best expressed by Francis Bacon in his Advancement of Learning earlier in the seventeenth century: the knowledge that concerneth man’s body is divided as the good of man’s body is divided, unto which it referreth. The good of man’s body is of four kinds, Health, Beauty, Strength and Pleasure: so the knowledges are Medicine, or the art of Cure; art of Decoration, which is called Cosmetic; art of Activity, which is called Athletic; and art Voluptuary, which Tacitus truly calleth eruditus luxus [refined luxury?]. This subject of man’s body is of all other things in nature most susceptible of remedy; but then that remedy is most susceptible of error. What cosmetic remedies does Wecker offer? Here’s the title page and his own summary of its contents:
As you can read, this book offers a lot: all deformities of Nature corrected, age renewed, youth prolonged, the least impediment amended. I am wondering if it was “promised to the world” by the prominent physician Nicholas Culpepper; I assume that’s just an advertising ploy. The egalitarian pitch (every one may be his own apothecary) is contradicted by many of the valuable ingredients of the recipes within, but there are also some very simple recipes with basic ingredients—essentially there are hierarchies of recipes for the same goal: whiter skin, smoother skin, spot-free skin, fairer hair, more hair in some places, less in others, a sweeter-smelling body. Women should have rose-water on hand at all times, and lots of lemons, the occasional pineapple, and be prepared to devote many eggs to their beauty regimens.
A few skin-whitening recipes are above, with reference in one to the legendary ceruse, the white-lead concoction which all of my students think Queen Elizabeth I slathered on her face every single day to hide her smallpox scars and project majesty and Virgin Mary-ness, thanks to Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998). We don’t have a lot of evidence for this cosmetic fable (see here), and I can’t find recipes for ceruse in any of the likely seventeenth-century texts, perhaps because it was purchased as a ready-made commodity (especially the preferred Venetian variety), or it was too much of a target for the anti-paint Puritans. I did find a Royal Society recipe of sorts (more like an industrial process) in a charming twentieth-century book about the history of cosmetics, Neville Williams’ Powder and Paint. A History of the Englishwoman’s Toilet, Elizabeth I—Elizabeth II (1957), but most of the cosmetic creams referenced in seventeenth-century recipe books featured the less-dangerous and -expensive “bear’s grease”(or that of any animal, but usually pigs) rather than ceruse. The marvellous Hannah Woolley’s skin waters, ointments and creams echo those of Wecker: even though some of her recipes are equally elaborate, it seems that “beautifying” is more about pampering (and removing) than paint (and adorning). Don’t get me started on patches–they are a whole other story.
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
A recipe for an excellent “Pomatum”, to clear the Skin, from Hannah Woolley’s The accomplish’d ladies delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery : containing I, The art of preserving and candying … II, The physical cabinet, or, Excellent receipts in physick and chirurgery, together with some rare beautifying waters … and also … The art of angling. III, The compleat cooks guide ((1685).
Wash Barrows-grease, or [pig] Lard often-times in May-dew that hath been Clarified in the Sun, till it be exceeding white, then take Marsh-mallow-Roots, scraping off the out-sides, make thin slices of them, set them to macerate in a Balneo, and scum it well till it be Clarified, and will come to rope, then strain it, and put now and then a spoonfull of May-dew therein, beating it till it be through cold in often change of May-dew; then throw away that Dew, and put in a Glass, covering it with May-dew, and so keep it for your Use.
At a symposium on Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables last week, members of Salem State’s English Department offered really interesting insights into the text, its themes, context (and subtext) and characters. One presentation in particular, by the very prolific Nancy Schultz, focused on the connections between the two old characters in the book, the house itself and Hepzibah Pyncheon. This was particularly resonant for me, as I’m always interested in “Olde Salem” and Hawthorne’s description of Hepzibah, as quoted by Professor Schultz, immediately reminded me of a description of another woman, who lived in my house at almost exactly the same time in which The House of the Seven Gables was set: Mrs. Harriet Paine Rose. Let’s look at the descriptions of these two women, one fictional and the other real, but both very much characterized by their turbans.
Hawthorne is not very complimentary towards “Our miserable old Hepzibah”, a “gaunt, sallow, rusty-jointed maiden, in a long-waisted silk gown, and with the strange horror of a turban on her head!” The author of the entry in the Pickering Genealogy obviously holds Mrs. Rose in much higher esteem: she is (or was) beautiful and virtuous but was notably also “the last person in Salem who wore a turban”, implying that she was also a bit out of style. I would love to see the pencil sketch of the turban-wearing Mrs. Rose alluded to above, but haven’t been able to find it anywhere (it’s probably locked away in the Lee papers in the Phillips Library), but of course we have many illustrations of Hepzibah in her turban, as it was identified as such a “horrible” and characteristic feature of her persona. Such a contrast of an (un-)fashionable portrayal with those much more charming depictions of turban-wearing ladies earlier in the nineteenth century.
Mary Ann Wilson, Young Woman Wearing a Turban, c. 1800-1825, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Portrait of a “fashionable” woman, c. 1810, Northeast Auctions; Hepzibah and her turban (or turbans, as they all seem to be different styles) by Maude and Genevieve Cowles (1899), A.A. Dixon (1903) and Helen Mason Grose (1924), and a more recent (1997) Classics Illustrated cover depicting a very grim turban-wearing woman indeed.
Hepzibah’s turban also reminded me of the most famous turban-wearer of all, Dolley Madison, who was photographed and painted wearing her characteristic headpiece in the year before her death in 1849, long after turbans were fashionable. This was her look and she was sticking to it, whether out of necessity or by design. It certainly does not look like a “strange horror”!
Photograph of Dolley Madison by Mathew Brady, 1848, Library of Congress; Painting by William S. Elwell, also 1848, National Portrait Gallery. Dolley descends upon the White House and witnesses her husband’s presidential oath, be-turbaned of course, in two YA books, Dolley Madison, First Lady, by Arden Davis Melick (with illustrations by Ronald Dorfman), 1970 & Dolly Madison, Famous First Lady, by Mary R. Davidson (with illustrations by Erica Merkling), 1992.
I am so looking forward to Halloween night next Tuesday, not only because our long municipal nightmare will be over here in Salem for another year, but also because I actually do enjoy creative Halloween costumes, and they do appear on this night, glittering like stars in a sky of more generic garb. If an entire family is going to make the trek to Salem to trick-or-treat on Chestnut Street, they will often go all out, and in years past I’ve seen the Swiss Family Robinson, The Jacksons, the Addams Family (actually I think these three were all just last year), the Coneheads, the Jetsons, and a variety of historical characters, en masse and individually. I wish there were more conceptual costumes and less inspired by popular culture but that’s probably asking for too much for a holiday that is supposed to be for and about children. The most creative (and conceptual) costumes I have ever seen were made (or proposed) for masquerades or fancy-dress parties prior to 1920 or so, after which Halloween began to emerge as a major American holiday and the witches and the pumpkin-heads pushed out the nymphs and the sprites and the various ethereal forest creatures. Costumes begin with Queens, who were entitled to prance about in court masques long before actresses were, so I’m going to begin my portfolio with the Queen of the Amazons, one of many costumes designed by Inigo Jones for Ben Jonson’s Jacobean masques, which were commissioned by King James I’s (and VI’s) Queen Anne, my vote for best–dressed Queen of all time. Jonson’s The Masque of the Queens was presented at Whitehall Palace in February of 1609, the third masque written for Anne and the first to include an “anti-masque” featuring witches, of course, the opposite of the virtuous ladies played by the Queen and her ladies. Penthesilea, the Amazonian Queen, enters first (after the witches).
Inigo Jones’ Penthesilea costume for the Masque of Queens, 1609, British Library; Thomas Rowland’s Dressing for a Masquerade, British Museum; Léon Sault’s designs for the House of Worth, 1860s: Eve with a snake and a Sorceress, Victoria & Albert Museum.
A bit less custom, and a bit more commercialized, costuming commences in the later nineteenth century: more for fancy-dress parties than for Halloween. All sort of costumes can be found in pattern books from this era, such as Jennie Taylor Wandle’s Masquerade and Carnival. Their Customs and Costumes, published by the Butterick Publishing Company in 1892. As you can see, the Halloween archetypes (devil, witch, sorceress, little and big bat) are already popular. Women’s magazine also offer up lots of fancy-dress inspiration: below are some very……naturalistic costumes from the Ladies Home Journal in 1914 and a few more conventional examples from 1920.
The transition from fancy-dress to Halloween costumes comes just around this time, 1920: I am marking it with an aptly-titled commercial publication, Dennison’s Bogie Book, issued by the Dennison Manufacturing Company of Framingham, Massachusetts in 1920. This “book of suggestions for decorating and entertaining at Hallowe’en, Harvest Time, and Thanksgiving” contains lots of instructions, indicating that we’re at a moment where traditions are being invented. Of course all you need to have the perfect Halloween are Dennison products, which all seem to be made of orange and black crepe paper. It seems like full-blown commercial Halloween is right around the corner, but yet when I look at the photograph of Batgirl, St. Ann (wow, she’s the outlier here!), and Wonder Woman from New York city photographer Larry Racciopo’s Halloween (1980), it doesn’t seem like we’ve come that far at all.
Bat Girl, St. Ann, and Wonder Woman photographed by Larry Racioppo, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
For antiques aficionados, August is all about Americana auctions (couldn’t resist all the alliteration!) and there are always Salem pieces to discover. Among the lots of Skinner’s upcoming Americana auction, a late eighteenth-century pole fire screen captured my attention immediately, not just because it was made in Salem, but also because of its flame-stitch embroidery. Flame-stitch is one of my favorite perennial patterns, characterized by its durability and adaptability: it spans the ages (from at least the Renaissance) and can be easily adapted by time and place. It’s somewhat obscure origins–according to the curators at the Victoria & Albert Museum, it is a technique also sometimes known as Irish stitch, Hungarian stitch, Florentine stitch and bargello stitch, the variety of names indicating the uncertainty of its origins–perhaps explains its mutability. It is one of those patterns that can appear both “antique” and “modern”: flame-stitch cushions, in particular, seem timeless.
Mahogany pole screen, late 18th century, Skinner Auctions/ Flame-stitch pincushion, late 17th century, Victoria and Albert Museum/ Flame-stitch “Jasper” pillow, Jayson Home/ 18th century flame-stitched pillow, 1stdibs/ a faux flame-stitch pillow in my backyard.
In its modern incarnations, flame-stitch doesn’t necessarily need to be a stitch: the zig-zag, chevron pattern seems to be sufficient for the more general identification. No needle required, pattern without technique. The vibrant contrasting colors of flame-stitch fabrics past have also given way to more tone-on-tone variations of the present. I’ve always wanted to upholstery one of my couches in a flame-stitch fabric, and I must admit that both the Federal-era embroidered version (on the left) and the more contemporary variation (on the right) both appeal to me (although I really love the 18th-century embroidery fabric from a Newport-made slip seat–which might have originated as a pocketbook–AND the early 19th-century French and Lee Jofa chartreuse fabrics below).
American Country Federal Sofa, Northeast Auctions/ Southwood Mahogany Flame-Stitch Sofa, Chairish/ 18th-century slip seat upholstery, Winterthur Museum Collections/ Woven early 19th century French flame-stitch panel, 1stdibs/ Lee Jofa watersedge fabric.
Two historic flame-stitch items that often pop up at auctions are men’s pocketbooks or “wallets” and stools. An extraordinary example of the former is included in the upcoming Skinner auction: a later eighteenth-century Massachusetts wallet featuring African-American servants, or slaves, well-dressed but definitely in service. This was featured on Antiques Roadshow a while ago, and so I was not surprised to see it come up for auction (with an estimate of $10,000-$15,000). There are so many (somewhat less singular) examples in museum collections and auction archives that I imagine every late eighteenth-century man walking around with a flame-stitch wallet! For women, there were flame-stitch embroidered shoes, from earlier in the century. Obviously there are endless variations of both the historic technique and the modern pattern, but I think the form that captures the cherished quality of flame-stitch best are bible and book covers, which were also produced in great quantity in the eighteenth century.
Rare flame-stitch Massachusetts wallet featuring African-American figures, Skinner Auctions/ American silver-mounted pocketbook inscribed “Thomas Stubbs”, 1798, Bonhams Auctions/ Flame-stitch pocketbook, late 18th century, Cooper Hewitt Museum, Gift of Mrs. Rollin Stickle/ Flame-stitch Latchet Shoes, c. 1700-1729, Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Early 18th century French fruitwood stool, Bonhams Auctions/ Folk art painted stool with flame-stitch seat, Northeast Auctions/ Pair of mid-century modern flame-stitch benches, 1stdibs/ Bible cover, 18th century, Philadelphia Museum of Art.