The Salem Arts Festival was this past weekend in Salem: its tenth anniversary. Last year plastic-bag jellyfish were suspended above Derby Square and Front Street; this year it was all about bees. Salem’s art scene is very vibrant now, but this little city has always had a bustling community of artists (well, after the Puritans morphed into the Congregationalists) and craftsmen. I’ve written about quite a few individual artists, but I thought I would look for more collective precedents, and that quest took me directly to the fairs of the Salem Charitable Mechanic Association (1817-1932). The records for this association, like those of nearly every Salem institution and organization, are relatively inaccessible, as they are in the Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library, which has been closed in Salem, removed to Rowley, and for which digitization plans are nonexistent at present. But fortunately the Association wanted to showcase the creations of all its exhibitors, and so compiled a wonderful program for its first fair in 1849 that has been digitized in several places. This was held in its very own Mechanic Hall, built a decade before.
Two copies of Reports of the First Exhibition of the Salem Charitable Mechanic Association, 1849, a certificate from the exhibition (Boston Athenaeum), and Mechanic Hall at the corner of Essex and Crombie Streets in Salem, built in 1839 and destroyed by fire in 1905 (Dionne Collection, Salem State University Archives).
This program makes for very interesting reading for several reasons. First of all, the judges of each category are very detailed and opinionated about their criteria for awarding diplomas and silver medals–although it appears that everyone who showed up got the former. The sheer eclecticism of the entries is notable, as is the relatively small number of industrial entries–surprising as the exhibition was occuring in the midst of the Industrial Revolution in Massachusetts. The organizers address this deficiency in their introduction: it is to be regretted that there was not a greater display of the Manufactures of Old Essex, especially of Cotton and Woolen Goods. Andover and Newburyport, with their numerous and extensive Cotton and Woolen Manufacturing Establishments, did not exhibit a single article. Saugus with her Flannel and Yarn Factories—-none, and Danvers, with her Carpet and Tweed Factories, was also deficient. When we consider that Essex County produces more than the whole State of South Carolina—-that her products are more than twenty millions of dollars—and a fair share of it in the articles alluded to—the display was not what it should have been. But notwithstanding these adverse circumstances, the energy and the perseverance of the mechanics of Salem, essentially aided by the Ladies, produced one of the most beautiful exhibitions ever witness in this vicinity. I guess they just didn’t get the word out! And yes, “the Ladies” are very well-represented in this 1849 exhibition, which showcased every possible type of art: mechanical and utilitarian, “fine” and decorative.
Diplomas and medals for “drab” clothing, an artificial leg, mineral teeth, a miniature steam engine and a Patent Cloth Folder used at the Naumkeag Steam Mills in Salem, among other exhibits; a rare medal from the 1849 exhibition, from John Kraljevich Americana.
Above all, the integration of art and science seems very apparent in this exhibition: perhaps it is highlighted by the paucity of industrial exhibits but there are still many categories that we would consign to an arts festival today rather than one celebrating “mechanics”. Besides “Fine Arts”, everything created with a needle was on display, along with everything for the house and the body. This exhibition was all about creation, pure and simple. I love this universality and lack of separation between the artistic and the scientific: it illustrates the continued influence of the culture of the Renaissance, the period in which I was trained, during which everything was an art. But the Charitable Mechanic Association had its categories too, some of which seem rather arbitrary: the sole Daguerreotype exhibitor, one of Salem’s three practitioners at the time, was D.S. Bowdoin, who won a silver medal in the Fine Arts category for “a very admirable collection of Specimens, showing great skill in the mechanical execution, good taste in the arrangement of subjects, and in the management of light and shade”. To me, the daguerreotype seems a near-perfect combination of art and science.
I couldn’t find any D.S. Bowdoin daguerreotypes from 1849, but here are two cartes de visite from later: studio portraits portrait of Robert Daley (or Daily), a Salem “expressman”, c. 1855 (Historic New England) and John Lewis Russell, a well-known botanist and Unitarian minister (Wisconsin Historical Society). According to the later photograph, Bowdoin’s studio was in the Downing Block, Salem.
Back in the present and now that I think about it, this arts festival does indeed bridge the gap between art and science in its own way: what could be more technological than transforming commissioned plastic bees into building materials? I have never really understood the stem vs. steAm debate, and let’s throw an H for history in there somewhere!
Scenes from the Salem Arts Festival on Saturday: my neighbor Racket Shreve’s “Best in Show” painting in the gallery in Old Town Hall along with “Remembering Georgie” by Heather M. Morris; the Mural Slam—just loved this work-in-progress of “Salem from Above” by Casey Stanberry, especially in its partially finished state.