Tag Archives: Flora and Fauna

Political Poplars?

I suspect that most of my colleagues who teach American history dislike Thomas Jefferson. I don’t really get into it with them; I prefer to play naive and impressionistic when it comes to American history (because I am), but I have heard and seen disparaging words and glances on more than one occasion. Their opinion was shared by Salem’s Federalists over two centuries ago, who cast Jefferson as a licentious Jacobin even before the disastrous Embargo Act of 1807. But there was one Jeffersonian “policy” that was popular in Salem, at least for a while: the planting of (Lombardy) Poplar trees on the Common and along several streets. Jefferson loved these stately trees, and had them planted not only at Monticello but also in Washington, along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. His poplar advocacy spread north, and in one of my favorite Salem paintings (actually it’s everyone’s favorite Salem painting), George Ropes’ Salem Common on Training Day, the newly-planted poplars are very prominent. Apparently they were also planted along the Newburyport “turnpike”, now Highland Avenue, and a few other new streets.

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Poplars Washington

Poplars Porter MFA

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Poplars lining Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., early nineteenth century, Library of Congress; Poplars in Rufus Porter’s “Boston Harbor” wall mural from the Prescott Tavern in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; George Ropes, Jr., Salem Common on Training Day, 1808, Peabody Essex Museum. 

As attractive as they were (or as Ropes made them), the Common poplars would soon be gone, replaced by maples and elms and more pedestrian trees. Was their disappearance due to nature (the “Great September Gale” of 1815 or their unsuitability to Salem’s climate and/or soil) or politics? I ask this question because of a provocative little passage in one of Sidney Perley’s early articles in the Essex Antiquarian (1911): Political feeling was so strong in the old Jeffersonian days that these poplars were condemned by the Federalists on account of Jefferson having been instrumental in producing them. Some of the Republicans planted these trees in front of their residences to show their allegiance to Jeffersonian principles, and the enraged Federalists were guilty of injuring and destroying them. This was true in Salem in 1801 in several instances, the mischief being of course done under cover of darkness. Captain Samuel Very, who lived at Buffum’s Corner, offered a reward of twenty dollars for the conviction of the person or persons who injured the trees before his house. Very interesting! It sounds like poplars were conspicuous targets, and the grove on the Common must have been offensive to Salem’s Federalists: did they mount an attack? To answer this question, I turned to one of Perley’s contemporaries and the authority on horticultural Salem a century ago, John Robinson, who wrote a great little book on Salem’s trees titled Our trees : a popular account of the trees in the streets and gardens of Salem, and of the native trees of Essex County, Massachusetts : with the location of trees, and historical and botanical notes (1891). A man of science, Robinson discounts political explanations for the disappearance of Salem’s poplars in favor of botanical ones: The stiff Lombardy Poplar (Populus dilatata) once grown everywhere, is now but rarely seen except in a state of decay. Our Common was originally planted with these trees in 1802 from nurseries on the northern side, in the vicinity of Winter Street. But, fifteen years later, the trees were found to be of little value for ornament and they were replaced by elms. There are wrecks of Lombardy poplars on Loring Avenue, beyond the Marblehead branch railroad crossing, near the Willows, and on the Newburyport turnpike in various places……….it turns out that Lombardy Poplars just didn’t “take” in Salem’s soil. There are certainly no Poplar “wrecks” on the Common today, but I think I found a few relics in the Howard Street cemetery, still standing guard.

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Apparently NOT a poplar, but an upright English oak!


Bits of Bosch

I show a lot of art in my classes but most of the time the images are serving as mere backdrops for the era or issue I am discussing rather than the focus of our collective attention. This is due to the fact that I am historian, rather than an art historian, so art is primarily illustrative for me, and I also find that many paintings (apart from portraits) require a great deal of explanation and elaboration–time that I just don’t have–so I use them to evoke the past rather than explain it. When I do focus in on a painting, and spend some time with it and on it, it’s usually the details on which I dwell. For this reason, I am absolutely enraptured with this amazing high-resolution zoomable “interactive documentary” of The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490-1510) by Hieronymus Bosch. You can–I did–spend hours zooming in on every little detail: strange and familiar animals, birds big and small, large strawberries and tempting apples, grotesque figures, wanton entanglements, horrific punishments, bewildering vignettes. You can acquire an intimate knowledge of the painting, much more intimate than could ever be possible any other way (even by examining it in person at the Prado where the whole overwhelms the parts). You can “take” an audiovisual tour if you like, or just wander around on your own in silence, zooming and opening up helpful notes as you move from place to place. And you can go back, again and again and again. As the Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych, so too is this particular presentation: it is part of a “transmedia triptych” which also includes a documentary film, “Hieronymus Bosch, Touched  by the Devil” and the “virtual reality documentary” “Hieronymus Bosch, the Eyes of the Owl'”.  You can check out all three projects here.

A few bits of Bosch, starting with my own triptych of his favorite owls: an elephant, mouse in a tube, hedgehogs or porcupines, coupling in a mussel shell and moving into hell, the dreaded knife between the ears, strange music, the mirror reveals all, hanging through a key.

Bosch Owls

BoschElephant

Boschmouse

Bosch Hedgehogs

BoschShell

Bosch Ears

BoschButt

Bosch Mirrorp

Bosch Keyp

The entirety here.

 


Animal Adaptations

I don’t think I will ever tire of anthropomorphic animals, no matter how old I get. This weekend, to mark National Handwriting Day (not really, but any excuse to shop), I purchased a print of a letter-writing fox from the Litus Gallery, and then went back for more. The very dynamic discussion in response to my Samantha statue post last week referenced the word “whimsical” several times, so I wanted to reorient myself to that word and sense and to me, these works are most definitely whimsical, fanciful, even dreamy. But beyond the aesthetics, many of the Litus images (as alluded to by their titles) are also referential: the title of my fox is “Michael Drayton writing the Second Part of the ‘Poly-Olbion’, Fleet Street, 1617 and I also purchased a print of a clerk-like cat titled “John Selden leaving Hare Court, Inner Temple, August, 1614.” I don’t think that either the poet or the jurist was painted in these situations, but other examples of the Gallery’s work are based directly on particular paintings. I thought it would be interesting to match up the originals with the adaptations. The differences are not hard to discern!

Fox Writing Letters

Animal Adaptations Collage 1

Animal Adaption Collage 2

PicMonkey Collage 3

PicMonkey Collage 4 Rembrandt

Animal Adaptation Collage 6 Blake

Animal Adaptations Collage 5

Weighing the Fruits after Jan Vermeer’s ‘Woman Holding a Balance’; Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, 1664, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C./ The Turnip Spinner (After Chardin’s ‘Gabriel Godefroy watching a top spin’/ Jean-Siméon, Portrait of the Son of M. Godefroy, Jeweler, Watching a Top Spin, c. 1735, The Louvre/ The Eight Lives of Mr. Tybalt (after Nicolaes Eliaszoon’s ‘Portrait of Nicolaes Tulp’; Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy, Portrait of Nicolaes Tulp, 1633, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam/The Book-Keeper (after Rembrandt’s ‘Young Man at His Desk,’); Rembrandt, Scholar at his Desk, 1631, Hermitage Museum/ I want, I want, after William Blake; William Blake, “I want, I want” from For Children: the Gates of Paradise (1793)/ Il Ladro di Fragola (after Jean Baptiste Chardin’s ‘Basket with Wild Strawberries’; Jean Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Basket with Wild Strawberries, 1731.

All Animal Adaptations available at the Litus Gallery.


Scraps of Salem History

Moving on from rocks to paper today, as it is time for a more ephemeral and less serious topic. I am by no means a serious collector, but I seek out and purchase ephemera pretty consistently, generally but not exclusively Salem items. Things have to appeal to me both aesthetically and historically, and I love unusual fonts and illustrations as well as things that are architectural or zoological. I have several folders of stuff, but certainly not boxes. Trade cards continue to be an ephemeral favorite, but I seem to be buying a lot of programs lately, as well as various “visitors’ guides” to Salem: these serve as my guide to the city’s changing identity over time. Is the emphasis on Witch City or “Old Salem” or the China Trade or the city of Hawthorne? Somehow it doesn’t seem possible for Salem to be all of these things simultaneously for the authors and editors of the guides in my collection, but the programs of the various historical “pageants” that occurred over the period from 1890 to 1930 reflect a more comprehensive (though wildly historically incorrect) approach. One of my favorite recent purchases is the program for a concert/pageant sponsored by Salem’s G.A.R. Post in 1895 entitled Historic Salem Illustrated. Representing Epochs in the History of Salem from the Time of its Settlement up to the Present Year with really cool illustrations of each “epoch” (“Indian”, Colonial, Revolutionary, Commercial, “Patriotic” (basically the Civil War), and “the Present or Electric Period”) by George Elmer Browne (1871-1946) who later emerged as an important Cape Ann/Provincetown artist. The historical vignettes, set to music, include “Chief Naumkeag welcoming the Puritans”, a tableau of Colonial punishments, and “The Blue and Gray of 1895”. What better way to tap into this particular historical perspective?

Salem Scraps GAR Programp

So here is a random sampling of some recent additions to my ephemera files, along with some things I haven’t featured before and some notes about why I like these scraps of paper and what I have learned from them, starting with some items I chose completely for their aesthetic qualities, and more particularly, their fonts: even though Salem: its Representative Businessmen and Points of Interest is from the “Electric Age” (1893) and the menu from the Calico Tea House (in the Hawthorne Hotel) is from the Atomic Age (1953) they have a similar aesthetic quality. On the menu in 1953: “Witch House Chicken”, “Derby Wharf Scrod”, and “Seven Gables Salad”. Still in the realm of color, a few trade cards from the first decade of the twentieth century (I think): the first is a very unusual view of the Custom House, and the second features cute rabbits. And how can you beat insects and architecture! A program for an Essex Institute “Social Evening” in 1868 at Hamilton Hall which featured all these creatures viewed under a microscope with musical interludes (LOVE this snail), followed by a program for the annual meeting of the members of the Salem Club in 1914 and a ticket (multiplied) to the 1952 Chestnut Street Day house tour which was held sporadically from the 1920s to the 1970s (it would be great to revive this event).

Salem Scraps in color

Salem Scrap 1910s PC Custom House

Salem Scraps TC Burnett

Program Final

Salem Scraps Snail

Salem Club 1914

Salem Scraps CSD 1952

It’s a lot easier to find things that our intended for an external audience–advertising and tourism pieces basically–than the entomological item above, or the G.A.R. or Salem Club programs. Salem really crafted and disseminated its image from at least the 1890s on and so there is a sea of promotional materials out there: brochures for walking, trolley and automobile tours, little pamphlets of photographic “glimpses” of Old Salem (besides postcards of which there are oceans). Witch City is nothing new, but it was definitely less all-encompassing a century ago, or fifty years ago, or at any time before the 1980s. One thing that you definitely notice when you look over older promotional materials is a consistent emphasis on Revolutionary Salem that is absent now. If you want to be a specialist collector, you could form a collection out of paper items created for the 1926 Salem Tercentenary alone, and at its center would be the Highlights in the History of Salem pamphlet published by the Salem Evening News, which has the perfect title for an ephemeral history.

Salem Scraps 1896

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Picture1

Salem Scraps 1926


Chimneys, Mantles & Mice

I just finished sweeping up the last bits of mortar and plaster dust in the house, the consequences of some oddly-timed house projects: a major rebuilding of two of our towering chimneys and some minor plastering and painting in our central hallway. So after I clean myself up, I’ll be ready for the Christmas festivities! I hope that wherever you are, things are a bit more peaceful, and less dusty–and if it is your preference (it certainly is mine), colder: we are expected to hit 7o degrees on this Christmas Eve, 2015. What an odd year, weather-wise, with Snowmaggedon in February and Christmas in July in December–such extremes are portents of the future, I fear. Before everything gets messed up again, I took some pictures of both inside and outside, decorations and scaffolding. We have a great tree this year, if I do say so myself, but as I find it impossible to photograph Christmas trees I’m not sure you will be able to appreciate its glory. You’ll have to trust me. My mantle decorations are the usual excessive winter wonderland installations. I was inspired this year by two particular creatures: an Asiatic dormouse in the form of an Asian export soup tureen dated 1760 I spotted at the Peabody Essex Museum and a Christmas card featuring a drypoint etching of a rabbit by the artist Bruce North from 1996. Nice mice are hard to find though, and the combination of mice and rabbits made my double parlor look a bit nursery-ish, so I mixed it up a bit with foxes and of course, deer.

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Christmas Inspiration

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Seeing Red

It’s finals week and getting reading for Christmas week so please excuse a few short posts. My house is not quite ready yet, but the rest of Salem is draped in red. No white Christmas this year for sure–we’ve had several 60 degree days this month and the forecast looks brown, even green, as the warm weather has resulted in some startling regrowth out there–much of my garden looks like it is still alive! I know you’ve seen a thousand pictures of Hamilton Hall here, as it’s right next door and a site of constant activity and attraction for me, but I popped in to see it decorated for the Christmas Dance (now called the Holiday Dance but I’m still going to call it the Christmas Dance) this weekend. It looks lovely, better empty really though I do love the Dance.

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Downtown: Santa getting ready to ride, beautiful red berries in the Derby House garden, red door on Mall Street; next door at Hamilton Hall, exterior and interior.


Season of Contrasts

I have some free time on Saturday, so I’m going to walk around and take pictures so that I can present Salem’s Halloween to you in its full glory, but today I have prettier, and for the most part, calmer pictures of Salem and Essex County that I’ve taken over the last few weeks. When looking through my picture files, I was struck by how many contrasts were depicted:  between city and country, Salem in its Witch City mode and the county in its luxuriant fall mode, a lot of energy in Salem and a lot of tranquility on its outskirts. But everywhere there is color at this time of year, contrasting color: bright, dark, golden. October is such a beautiful month, but I really do prefer the slightly starker, Halloween-free November: just a few more days.

Salem:

Fall 7

Fall Windows

Fall Immersion 9

Fall Immersion 12

Fall 5

Fall Immersion 4

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My back yard at night–the mansard tower of the building on Broad Street that was the original Salem State Normal School and is now condos is always lit of with purple flashing light during October. It looks cool but I can never take good night pictures.

Ipswich, Newbury, Newburyport:

Fall Immersion 11

Fall Immersion 14

Fall Immersion 13

Fall Immersion 17

Fall Immersion 15


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