Tag Archives: Historic Houses

Out of the Closet

This is actually a post on Salem wallpaper, but there are so many anecdotes about long-forgotten patches of paper found in closets and cupboards by vintage wallpaper hunters/reproducers like Dorothy Waterhouse and Nancy McClelland that I thought I could get away with a more provocative title. A great example is “The Creamer” pattern manufactured by Thomas Strahan & Company in the 1930s after its discovery in the upstairs closet of a house (still very much standing) on Essex Street which belonged to the Salem stationer Benjamin Creamer. Before his untimely death in the early 1850s, Benjamin and his brother George were major stationers in Salem, supplying both writing papers and “room-papers” to their customers; George carried on alone from that date.

Salem Wallpaper Creamer

Salem Wallpaper 361 Essex

Salem Wallpaper Creamer Ad

“The Creamer”, manufactured by Thomas Strahan & Co., after a fragment found in the Nicholas Crosby House on Essex Street, home of the Benjamin Creamer family in the mid-nineteenth century; a trade card for Creamer Stationers.

I’ve checked in all (12) of my closets and found no remnants of rare French wallpaper, sadly: just dull old paint befitting a house that was once home to boarders and one very large family. But there are lots of other places to look for Salem wallpapers: Historic New England has digitized its extensive collection, the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum of the Smithsonian maintains a treasure trove of wallpaper images online, and both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, also have wallpaper samples among their digitized collections. And if you can’t find the original paper, images and descriptions of colonial reproductions in trade catalogs can also offer impressions of what once was, as well as verification of the importance of Salem as source. I love to look for and at old wallpaper for both aesthetic and historical reasons: it gives you the ability to imagine existing houses in earlier incarnations, and verifies the existence of houses that no longer exist. First the former.

Salem Wallpaper collage

Salem Wallpaper Capt Farlen House

Salem Wallpaper collage 2

Salem Wallpaper Nathaniel Hawthorne 1920

Salem Wallpaper collage 3

French block-printed paper, c. 1820-25, manufactured by Jacquemart & Bénard, originally in the Lindall-Gibbs-Osgood House on Essex Street, Cooper-Hewitt Collection; A fragment of paper taken from the upstairs chamber of the Capt. Thomas Farless House at 120 Derby Street, 1862, Cooper-Hewitt Collection; Two wallpapers associated with the Gardner-Pingree house: Zuber et Cie’s “Grinling Gibbons” and Nancy McClelland’s “Pingree House”, Cooper-Hewitt Collection and Hannah’s Treasures on Etsy;  “Nathaniel Hawthorne” wallpaper, c. 1920, once installed in the House of the Seven Gables, Cooper-Hewitt Collection; a Nancy McClelland catalog from 1941.

The wallpaper samples below were taken from houses that no longer exist: I had no knowledge of most of them so now I’ll have to go down another rabbit hole and find out everything I can about them! Just look at the first fragment below, from the Louisa Rhodes house on Essex Street (where was that?) and the collection of Historic New England: stunning. There are three Salem reproduction wallpapers manufactured by the venerable firm M.H. Birge & Co. in the collection of Cooper-Hewitt, all from houses that are no longer standing. One pattern (the last below), simply called “Old Salem” is also in the Historic New England archive, which includes the extraordinarily detailed notationan old colonial paper……laid by J.W. Everill on Dr. Cook’s house in Norman St., Salem, Mass., Oct. 22nd and 25th, 1852. A notation on the old paper from which this was taken established its age in this country as 63 years. Yet, the fact that this sample was made in sections or black, and fastened together, offers evidence that it was many years older. No papers being produced in rolls or continuous strips until after the year 1790. This Louis XV paper with its Swiss influence comprises a vista of romantic scenes, medieval castles and crags above a river. The author gets a bit more fanciful here, but his observations are still interesting: In picturing Dr. Cook’s house, as it was in the old days when the Halls echoed with laughter, and wax tapers were in vogue, the customs of dress with the men in knee breeches with silver buckles and gold lace, women in trailing brocades and rare laces, not to overlook the powdered puffs, and the negro servants coming and going on household errands, all tend to show why the charm of coloring, as well as the decorative character and excellent drawing of this design prompted its appropriate use. But I thought it was laid in 1852, hardly the setting described above: maybe it was stuck in a closet until that time?

Salem Wallpaper Rhode House HNE

Salem Wallpaper Sible Hancock ST

Salem Wallpaper Elm and Charter

Salem Wallpaper Old Salem

Wallpapers from the lost Salem houses of Louisa Rhodes (Historic New England); Mr. Sibble of Hancock Street (Birge, Cooper-Hewitt); Mr. Holbrook’s house at the corner of Elm and Charter Streets (Birge, Cooper-Hewitt), and Dr. Cook on Norman Street (Birge’s “Old Salem”, Cooper-Hewitt and Historic New England collections).


Fire Alarm

I was moving very slowly on Wednesday morning and so was still at home in the late morning when all sorts of sirens went off on Chestnut Street and three firetrucks charged in, accompanied by several police cars.The entire street was blocked off, and then a huge ladder truck arrived from Lynn (apparently there was a simultaneous fire in Salem so we needed aid).  The object of everyone’s attention was a roof fire at #12, the Jonathan Hodges house. I saw no fire (or even smoke) myself but apparently the contractors who were working on the roof–welding, I suppose–saw or smelled something, and so they called the Fire Department, which of course was absolutely the right thing to do. Once the ladder was extended to the top of this very large house, one firemen ascended to its end and started pounding away on the roof, which caused me to gasp, because after all this particular house is a Samuel McIntire house, in fact the only one so-documented on the street, and no one likes to see such a treasure attacked. But an attack by fireman is much, much better than an attack by fire, certainly. After a few minutes (maybe 15) everyone seemed satisfied that there was either no fire or it was out, and all the firemen and policemen left and the contractors went back to their work. A calm descended on the street almost as quickly as the alarm.

Fire Alarm 008

Fire Alarm 014

Fire Alarm 021

The Jonathan Hodges house is three doors down from mine across the street; diagonally across is the Chestnut Street park, which used to be the site of another magnificent Samuel McIntire building: the South Church, built around the same time (1805). This towering building, with its 150-foot steeple, was completely consumed by fire one night in 1903: I can’t help wondering what would have happened if that huge ladder truck had been available then. But that’s a pointless exercise. On a much happier note, in 2009 (on a hot, muggy day I remember well) a fire broke out in the historic Ropes Mansion on Essex Street when contractors were on the job: another rapid response by the Salem Fire Department saved the house from any serious structural or water damage, though the attic floor was charred, and a single crystal water pitcher broken.

McIntire South Church PEM

Ropes Mansion Fire August 2009

The South Church on Chestnut Street in Salem, before 1903, from the McIntire microsite at the Peabody Essex Museum’s website; the Ropes Mansion fire of 20009, photograph courtesy of Frank Cutietta.


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