Tag Archives: Hamilton Hall

The Forces Align

This past weekend was happening; the streets of Salem were full of tourists and the historical events in which I was somewhat involved came off very well: the Salem Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall and the “Salt Cod for Silver” symposium at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Clever costumes and a joyful spirit imbued the former, while a packed house turned out for the latter—for fish, and a deep dive into this often-overlooked Atlantic trade which brought a lot of wealth to Salem and the North Shore. The Resistance Ball is kind of important to me for several reasons, so I’m very grateful to everyone who made it a success. It benefited Hamilton Hall, a beautiful historic hall with a slight endowment that has to work for a living: the more support the Hall gets from its fundraising activities the more it can support the community (as for example, by providing its ballroom to Salem High School for the Junior Prom free of charge on Friday night) and the fewer weddings it has to host. I live right next to the Hall and I was president of its Board of Trustees for six years. But more than all of that, this particular event represents a relatively unique attempt to showcase the comprehensive and the progressive forces in Salem’s history, rather than one singular dark event that serves (and provides) the basis for constant exploitation. This is a city in which the commercial symbol of that exploitation is situated in its chief city square, so an event that celebrates resistance to: British rule in particular, imperialism in general, segregation, slavery, gender and racial discrimination, inequality, let alone Star Wars, is very welcome. Hester Prynne was in attendance as well as a lightsaber-wielding Rey. There is always some power force which provokes resistance, so how universal is this theme?

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Forces 14Tried to get more juxtapositions of historical and modern dress but what can I say? I was enjoying the party! Above is my beautiful friend and a very talented seamstress, Louise Brown, in her own creation of course. Below is our committee (with a few conspicuous absences) with chair Michael Selbst in the middle, to the right of me! And then we have some swag…..thanks to all our sponsors too!

Resistance Ball Committee

Forces Swag

Saturday night to Sunday afternoon: from festivities to fish! Salem is so fortunate to have a National Park in its midst: the Salem Maritime National Historic Site is always the perfect host, the perfect partner, the sole steward of our maritime history with the retreat of the PEM. The symposium went off beautifully and I was particularly interested to see some maps I had never seen before in the presentation by Karen Alexander of the University of New Hampshire (including a 1774 map from the British Museum which shows a very-populated and strategic Salem). It’s always interesting to hear about how port cities actually work, and I thought that Xabier Lamikiz of the University of the Basque Country explained the inner (and outer) workings of Bilbao really well. It was kind of odd to be staring at a screen with sources from the Phillips Library while the Salem storage facility for the same was being dismantled just next door, but I doubt very many people in the crowd were aware of that dissonance.

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Forces AlignScenes from the Salt Cod for Silver Symposium, and the demolition of the Stacks next door.


Historic Happenings in Salem

As always, I’m excited for the Salem Film Fest commencing this weekend and running through most of next week, but next weekend will see two big events inspired by Salem’s dynamic 18th-century history: the Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall on Saturday the 6th, and “Salt Cod for Silver: Yankees, Basques, and the North Shore’s Forgotten Trade”, a symposium focused on greater Salem’s trade with the Basque port of Bilbao on Sunday the 7th. I wish every weekend in Salem could be like next weekend, highlighting history in creative, comprehensive, and collaborative ways. The Resistance Ball is co-sponsored by Hamilton Hall and the Leslie’s Retreat Committee, dedicated to the ongoing interpretation and commemoration of the event of February 26, 1775 in which a large group of Salem citizens foiled the attempt of a British regiment to confiscate concealed cannon in particular and the spirit of resistance in general, while the “Salt Cod for Silver” symposium is co-sponsored by the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Salem State History Department, Historic Beverly, the Marblehead Museum, and the Bilboko Itsasdarra Itsas Museoa (Bilbao Maritime Museum).

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Historical Flyer

I am going to both events and you should too if you are in our area: tickets for the ball are still available here, and the symposium is a first-come, first-seated event (the capacity is 200 at the Visitor Center). This is the second run for the Resistance Ball, and we hope to make it a regular occasion. Do not be deterred by fear of period dress: there will be some 18th-century dress (both reproductions and costumes) in attendance but also formal and creative garb. I prefer to be inspired by the spirit of resistance rather then the actual eighteenth-century event myself. I made a list of my favorite female resistors, and at the very top was Joan of Arc, but I do think this is an American history-themed event so I am forgoing armor in favor a toile dress with quite a modern, short cut: I guess I’m just going as myself, the perpetual PEM resistor! There will be period dancing, but again: do not be fearful: the caller from the last ball, whom we have engaged again, was an amazing instructor and so it was really easy and fun to participate.

Salem Resistance Ball

Salem Resistance Ball2There WILL be fiddlers—and dancing! (Not really sure who took these pictures at the last ball two years ago, sorry)

I’m excited about the symposium for several reasons. In terms of interpretation, it seems like all Salem trade is China trade and even a cursory glance at the sources contradicts that perception. Yet I imagine that China is still part of the picture. Years of teaching European and World History in the early modern era has familiarized me with the concept of the Chinese “Silver Sink”: the west wanted so many things from China, but all it really had to offer (before Indian opium) was American silver, the first truly global commodity, and consequently much of it ended up there. So North Shore merchants are trading are trading fish for silver, which I presume they are using to purchase Asian wares and commodities? A variation on the same theme, or did more silver stay in Salem rather than just flowing eastward? We shall see. Any research on this trade has got to be based on the rich sources in the Phillips Library, so it will be wonderful to hear about what has been mined in these treasures, particularly the papers of the Orne and Pickman families. (The Essex Institute used to publish such information: see the wonderful text by its librarian Harriet Tapley published in 1934, Early Coastwise and Foreign Shipping of Salem; a Record of the Entrances and Clearances of the Port of Salem, 1750-1769). And of course I’m also eager to discover the stance of Great Britain regarding this trade, particularly before the Revolution.

The Ornes

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Salem merchant Timothy Orne, flanked by his daughters Rebecca and Lois, in paintings he commissioned from Joseph Badger in 1757. The portraits of the girls (I have always loved Rebecca and her squirrel, so I took this opportunity to showcase her again, and Lois is the mother of the woman who lived in my house for its first few decades) are from the Worcester Art Museum, and the Orne’s portrait belongs to the Newport Restoration Foundation.  The Orne House at 266 Essex Street (here in a Frank Cousins photograph from the “Urban Landscape” collection at Duke University Library) is still standing, though much changed. Orne is a very good representative of Salem’s “codfish aristocracy”, with more than fifty ships in operation over his commercial career, sailing to the West Indies and Europe and carrying fish, spirits, molasses, cloth and other commodities, as well as slaves, in addition to a fleet of fishing ships.

Below: As I don’t think the technology of drying cod has changed over the centuries, I thought I’d add this photograph of a shop in Lisbon two weeks ago.

Cod in Lisbon


The Christmas Ball at Hamilton Hall

It is formally called the “Holiday Dance” now, but I always think of it as the Christmas Dance or better yet, the Christmas Ball, held next door at Hamilton Hall since whenever. I’ve been going for decades, and it really never gets old for me. I remember well my first attendance, clad in some old Laura Ashley velvet frock, when appeared before me a woman in the most elegant vintage black gown, from the 1930s I think, and I immediately thought: I must up my game. I’ve tried to do so every since, and this very same woman, clad in a very different–but equally elegant–gown from India, was one of the dance patronesses this year. Yes, there are patronesses (and for the last few years patrons) to whom we bow and curtsey, escorted before them by ushers. There’s an amazing traditional punch which led to the loss of several Sundays in my past, but now I’m too smart (experienced) to imbibe, and a rather loose “grand march” at the end of the evening. I was in bed by that time, so no pictures, sorry.

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This is a very traditional event, but not an exclusive one. Anyone can go: well, as many as can fit into the Hall. In years past, I remember smaller crowds but last night was definitely a crush. This event, along with a lecture series on world affairs that began right after World War II, is one of two major fundraisers for the Hall, which is primarily maintained through revenues from weddings and a more recent membership initiative. As a next-door neighbor, I would rather that the Hall was a little less busy, frankly (although the weddings are limited to 25 per year and there are none in July and August), but I know that it has to work for its living. It was built by subscription and maintained by its “proprietors” until the 1980s, when it was transformed into a non-profit. Everyone turned in their shares, but these were just paper: not an endowment. I’m really interested in how the “Proprietors of the South Buildings” (which included not only the Hall but Samuel McIntire’s majestic South Church across the street, which burned down in 1903) conducted their business: all the corporation’s records, like those of every Salem organization, are in the collection of the Phillips Library but as the shares were held privately you often see them on ebay or at ephemera sales. There were various management companies that ran the Hall and employed caterers and that famous “conductor of affairs” John Remond, who is announcing some major redecorations in 1844 below. Just before Christmas in 1850, the gaslights were turned on at Hamilton Hall, the very same chandelier and sideburners that shone so brilliantly via electricity last night.

Hamilton Hall Certificates Collage

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Hamilton Hall SHeila FoleyI love this view of the Hamilton Hall ballroom, with its “Russian” mirrors and green chandelier, by artist Sheila Foley: see more of her live event paintings here


Mid (19th)-century Thanksgiving

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Thanksgiving was a very different holiday in some ways, but familiar in others. It did not become a national holiday until 1863: before that the Salem papers (I’m using the Salem Register in this post) note with each passing year how many governors have issued proclamations adopting the “joyous festival, so long the ‘peculiar institution’ of New England”. How jarring to see this phrase applied to Thanksgiving—when I thought it was an exclusive reference to slavery!  I’m not sure I’m really comfortable with the phrase “Universal Yankee Nation” in this 1847 article either.

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Apart from the provincial pride, Thanksgiving was also a busy public holiday, rather than merely a family gathering. It was both sacred and secular, and everyone was out and about in the morning (for church services) and the evening (for concerts and dances). I assume they ate their Thanksgiving dinners in between, as there were lots of advertisements for various foodstuffs  in the weeks before the big day, which was always in November in Massachusetts despite some December dates chosen by other states. Provisioning and preparations were very important: not just for family meals, but also for the meals that were prepared by different civic groups for orphans, prisoners, “inmates of the Alms House”, and (during the Civil War) soldiers.

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These advertisements from the Salem Register (from 1847-75) give some semblance of what Thanksgiving festivities were all about in mid-nineteenth-century Salem but are an under-representation: people really wanted to give thanks in as many ways as possible, especially during the Civil War. But they also wanted to celebrate: Thanksgiving is always referred to as a “festival”. Turkey–and other fowl– was definitely on the menu as you can see from the “warning” to Salem’s resident birds, and cranberries as well. I remain extremely impressed by the entrepreneurialism of Mr. John Remond, an African-American man who served as the resident manager and caterer of (a very busy) Hamilton Hall while also running several provisioning businesses downtown: he arrived in Salem from the West Indies in 1798, all alone and only ten years old, and seems to have transformed himself into one of the city’s major players by the 1820s. He and his wife Nancy (who also had her own business–and they had eight children) were also active abolitionists and do not seem to have suffered the handicaps faced by most African-Americans in the nineteenth century, but then again, advertisements only reflect one small sliver of their lives. But they can tell us that year after year in Salem, oysters, whether individually or in pies, were much in demand for Thanksgiving.


The Salem Resistance Ball

On Saturday night, a new event was held at venerable Hamilton Hall: the Salem Resistance Ball, commemorating the British Colonel Leslie’s forced retreat from Salem in February of 1775 in particular and a more universal spirit of resistance. Congratulations to the board of Hamilton Hall and the Ball committee for a job well done: there were lots of special touches to be admired about the event, and attendees clearly enjoyed themselves immensely. People turned out in a mixture of authentic period dress, costume, wigs, and formal wear, and there was even a suffragette in attendance! I think I got my act together, and wore a 18th-century-esque ball gown (from the 1980s), with a very new and puffy petticoat and my “old” reproduction 1805 corset underneath. There were several pre-parties and then we all arrived at the Hall, where there was lots of rum, a photo booth, lovely lighting, reproduction historical flags lining the ballroom, a light supper in the supper room, and lots and lots of dancing, led by period dancers and a caller who was an excellent instructor: I learned a lot. In particular, I learned that the “Grand March”, which signals the end of each and every Christmas Dance that I’ve attended at Hamilton Hall over 20+ years, is not supposed to be a sloppy melee, but actually a much more intricate promenade, and that it generally happens more towards the beginning of the dance rather than at its end. Perhaps the Hall’s newest ball can lead to some reform of one its oldest?

Before the ball Before the ball: a particularly beautiful sunset from Chestnut Street.

ball collage A very gracious pre-party.

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ball 10 The Setting.

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ball 28 Dancing.

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After the Ball

morning after Best dresses & the day after.


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Next weekend is the first-ever Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall, commemorating Leslie’s Retreat, Salem’s opening act of the American Revolution, as well as the spirit of resistance over time and in our own time. Its organizers are encouraging, but not demanding, period dress so I have to figure out what I’m going to wear. I have a magic closet on the third floor full of evening dresses from the late 50s and early 60s that I rely on for all formal occasions, but I think this event calls for something different. It’s too late to go the custom reproduction route and I detest cheap costumes. About a decade ago, I commissioned a period gown (and stays!!! which were actually more expensive than the gown) for a ball marking the 200th anniversary of the Salem Athenaeum: I just assumed I would wear this regency gown for the Resistance Ball but when I took it out, put it on, and pranced around in it the other night I realized it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Too late, too Jane Austen, not enough Abigail Adams. So now I’m at a loss as to what to wear.

Resistance Ball

If I had realized my mistake sooner I probably would have ordered a dress or a robe à l’Anglaise from one of the amazing seamstresses out there: I have an old silk petticoat that would suffice. I particularly like the silk jacket below, but putting together an outfit around that little number would take time and considerable money, not just for the jacket, but for all the underpinnings: it’s all about the silhouette in historical clothing. With my time constraints, I’m thinking about the basic design elements of late eighteenth-century fashions—corsetry, cinching, embellishment, neckline, silhouette–and seeing if I can come up with something “18th-century-esque” for next week. I don’t think I’m going to go as far as the Versace corset dress from the 90s below, but I definitely want an updated eighteenth-century look.

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There is lots of inspiration out there because of the combined aesthetic influence of Hamilton and Outlander: polyvore sets abound! American Revolutionary women have never been singled out for their sartorial style, but their near-contemporary across the Atlantic, Marie Antoinette, seems to have a fashion moment every twenty years or so. Now, however, the Schuyler sisters and Clare Fraser rule. There are lessons for updating in the strategies of the costume designers of both productions. Hamilton designer Paul Tazwell seems to focus on color, and notes that “in keeping the overall design as contemporary feeling as possible while still in the silhouette of the 18th century, I kept the detailing as simple as possible so that it didn’t feel too decorative and fussy. I used mostly silk taffeta for the dresses on the women because it stays crisp and light and moves in a way that viscerally feels like the 18th century to me”. Outlander designer Terry Dresbach (who maintains a beautiful blog with many insights into her process) is dealing with a time-traveler, so a bit of adaptation is required: a 1940s Dior jacket that Clare might have worn in her 20th century life is transported to the eighteenth century along with her, and both are altered in the process!

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outlander-christian-dior-exclusive-designHamilton’s Schuyler sisters on stage, dressed by Paul Tazwell; the Dior inspiration for Outlander’s “time-traveling” jacket by Terry Dresbach.

Thinking about both the essentials of eighteenth-century style and their adaptation, I browsed around for hours (what a rabbit hole!) and put together a working digital inspiration board. Pinned mostly from ebay and various designer archives, these are the dresses that seem to represent the look I’m going after best. Moving around the board clockwise, we have a very editorial look by Jean Paul Gaultier, a detail of a really beautiful Prada black taffeta gown, an Azzedine Alaia wedding ensemble (for some reason this screams 18th century to me!), a Zac Posen dress, a Carolina Herrera gown, and Dita von Teese in a Vivienne Westwood toile dress complete with panniers. Even if I could find one of these pieces, I couldn’t afford them, but they got me thinking in different directions about bodices, bows, draping, and toile…….what about a toile dress? Too day/summery? It would have to be the right toile, and the right style–too late for that now.

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Of all the designers above, it is clearly Vivienne Westwood who has been the most immersed in and influenced by the eighteenth century over her long career. She’s amazing at focusing in on the key elements and bringing a new artistic sensibility to them. The poster for the big present/past fashion moment several years ago, Le XVIIIeme au goût du jour (The 18th Century Back In Fashion) exhibition at the Palace of Versailles, features (half of) her bold dress on its poster, and two years ago her eighteenth-century-esque clothes were exhibited in situ at the newly restored Danson House in London (lately seen in the television series Taboo). Westwood’s “Sunday” day dress from a few years back looks to me like the perfect distillation of eighteenth-century style, but it’s really too informal for a ball and I can’t find one anyway.

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18th century Westwood Cut From the Past Danson House 2015 A Vivienne Westwood corset at Danson House.

So that’s where I am now, pretty much nowhere, although I can just raid my third-floor closet and wear classic vintage formal. I’m trying to remember what my now-vintage Laura Ashley dresses, which I think are still at my parents’ house up in Maine, look like, though I seem to recall they are more nineteenth-century-esque than eighteenth-century-esque. And very puffy sleeves: all wrong.


A Bicentennial Banquet

Salem was founded in 1626: its tricentenary was very much a big deal, celebrated with myriad events over several weeks and its quatercentenary is already on the horizon. I don’t know anything about its centennial, but its bicentennial was marked with at least one event (and probably more): an elaborate banquet at Hamilton Hall presented by the in-house caterer, John Remond. No doubt his wife Nancy, a “fancy cake maker” contributed much to the event, as well as his children. Catering and provisioning constituted the family business for this prominent free black family, along with hair dressing and unflagging advocacy for abolition. Despite the fact that 1826 would have been the bicentennial year, the feast actually happened on September 18, 1828: a bill of lading in the Remond Papers at the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum indicates that Mr. Remond had received a delivery of “one large green turtle” just a week before, a valuable commodity that must have ended up in his first courses of green turtle soup and green turtle pie.

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The dish that really stands out for me on this elaborate menu is pigeons transmogrified: not being a culinary historian it seems rather exotic to me, and I wondered if this could be Remond’s original creation. No way: it’s in nearly all of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century cookbooks, apparently a classic. Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy (first published in 1747 and never out of print over the next century), the Joy of Cooking of its era, contains a recipe for Pigeons Transmogrifiedas does Elizabeth Raffald’s Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) and all of their imitators. There were basically two recipes for this dish, as you can see below: one which encased the pigeons in puff pastry and another encasing them in cucumbers. I think the former represents the straightforward English cooking presented by Mrs. Glasse and the latter is more French-inspired, and I’m not sure which version was prepared by Mr. Remond in 1828. In any case, his guests, all 170 of them, had plenty of other choices if their preferences did not include pigeons.

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John Remond’s menu for the bicentennial dinner at Hamilton Hall, Remond Papers, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum (accessed via American Broadsides and Ephemera);  title pages of Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy and  variant recipes for Pigeons Transmogrified.


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