Tag Archives: Historic New England

The Wentworth-Gardner House

We were in York Harbor all last week with family and friends, several of whom had never been to this region of New England before. So I was a bit of a tour guide, in my fashion. On a morning tour of Portsmouth, we passed by my favorite house in town, the Tobias Lear House, as well as its more famous neighbor, the Wentworth-Gardner House, one of the most famous Georgian structures in the country. I’m very familiar with this house, but for some reason I’ve never been inside, and the door was open with a flag out front, so in I went, forgetting all about my companions. They followed me, but I really gave them no choice in the matter! We had a lovely tour with a very knowledgeable guide, and the house was ever more stunning than I imagined. I’m kind of glad that I had never been in before, as this house is probably the best example of the entrepreneurial antiquarian Wallace Nutting’s material and cultural impact in New England and I’ve come to appreciate him only recently. Nutting purchased the house in 1915 and added it to his collection of “Colonial Pictorial Houses” after his restoration, and thus it became one of the more influential representatives of the “olden time” in his time and the Colonial Revival in ours. Images of Nutting’s wispy colonial ladies in its midst are scattered throughout and a room is devoted entirely to his work.

The Wentworth-Gardner House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire: present and before Wallace Nutting’s purchase in 1915; the amazing center hall with a stairway re-installed by Nutting, and one of his colonial ladies descending (from a large collection of Nutting images at Historic New England).

The houses was built by Mark Hunking and Elizabeth Rindge Wentworth in 1760 as a wedding gift for their son Thomas, who lived in it until his death in 1768. It was owned and occupied by Major William Gardner from 1793 to 1833, and thereafter by his widow. In the later nineteenth century the grand mansion became a rooming house as its South End neighborhood declined, and then Nutting came to its rescue! As you can see, his most extensive restoration was to its exterior, but the reinstallation of the stairway was a major undertaking as well. I know that the pineapple was a customary colonial symbol of hospitality, but I can’t help but wonder if Nutting was inspired by Salem’s “Pineapple House.”

Nutting’s restored doorway (Historic New England) and Salem doorheads from the 1895 Visitors’ Guide.

Nutting sold the house to the Metropolitan Museum of Art just after the close of World War I, initiating the threat of removal to New York City that was itself removed by the onset of the Depression. After a brief stint of stewardship by the Preservation of New England Antiquities, the Wentworth-Gardner (and adjoining Lear house) House was acquired by a group of local preservationists who eventually became known as the Wentworth-Gardner Historic House Associates in 1940. It’s just a great place to visit: so many wonderful structural and decorative details, including the wonderfully carved mantel in the front left parlor (another one of Nutting’s reinstallations), the newly-installed reproduction eighteenth-century flocked wallpaper, the very Colonial Revival kitchen with its steep steps leading to upstairs, several great bedchambers (I couldn’t call them simply bedrooms), the Wallace Nutting room, and a very nice exhibition on historic preservation in Portsmouth. I remain so impressed by this small city with all of its historic houses, in wonderful condition and all open to the public. It’s a great example of community commitment to material heritage and the importance of having several institutional stewards thereof, rather than just one or two.

Georgian and Colonial Revival styles/worlds merge in the Wentworth-Gardner House, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.


Roseland Cottage

In the last week of June I drove down to the “quiet” northeastern corner of Connecticut to see a house that was a major presidential July 4th destination in the later nineteenth century, Roseland Cottage, Historic New England’s sole property in the Nutmeg State. Home to several generations of the prosperous Bowen family from its construction in 1846 until its acquisition, fully furnished, by Historic New England in 1970, Roseland Cottage is a perfect Gothic Revival summer cottage located on one of the most picturesque roads in New England, Route 169 (the old Norwich-Worcester Turnpike), across from the Woodstock common which could accomodate the crowds that accompanied the first presidential visit of Ulysses S. Grant in 1870. Successive July 4 celebrations grew in size mandating their relocation to nearby Roseland Park, but three more presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley, still stayed at the “cottage” and its outbuildings include both a presidential “two-seater” outhouse and a bowling alley built for Grant. When you read the accounts of these post-1870 Independence Day celebations you kind of get the feeling that this was a “July 4th is back” moment after the turmoil and division of the Civil War and its aftermath. I’d like to think that we are in a similar moment now, post-Covid, but I don’t think we are quite there (though it was nice to see the Pops last night). Roseland, however, is much more than a presidential pink palace: it feels very much like a family home, centered, but at the same time, out of time, as if it sprung from a fairy tale.

Roseland Cottage, built in 1846 for Mr. and Mrs. Henry C. Bowen: downstairs parlor, presidential bedroom, and outbuildings (including a carriage house bowling alley built for President Grant’s visit).

Because of its distinct style (even the furniture was custom-built for the house in Carpenter Gothic style, which foreshadowed Frank Lloyd Wright according to our guide), the house feels like a stage set in some ways, but also like we’ve just stepped in to a family home moments after its inhabitants have left as there are so many personal items remaining: Mr. Bowen’s commendations and commissions (he was a stalwart progressive Rebublican, which meant pro-abolition and suffrage in addition to pro-temperance, and also the founder and publisher of The Independent newspaper), Mrs. Bowen’s wedding dress and the Gothic Revival crib in which she rocked nine of their children (she died giving birth to their tenth and Mr. Bowen remarried a local girl), family photographs, books, prints, games, and decorative objects. I like to think that the pink china below was her preferred shade of her favorite color: Roseland has apparently been 13 shades of pink over its history and is now quite salmony-pink.

The other contradictory feeling is formality and SUMMER: Roseland Cottage is bordered by lush box-bordered gardens (which used to enclose roses but now mostly annuals, I believe), lawn, and Woodstock green so vivid green surrounds you inside, along with the bright colors of the stained-glass diamond-paned windows and the flowers outside. There are some fancy woolen carpets, but also thin matting under foot, and all of the soft furnishings are cotton florals and lace. Such a contradition, this house: dark and light, formal and fairytale-ish, solid and airy, sunshine and shadow.

My “HNE booties” and the grounds, displaying another contradiction: I wonder why there is a Greek Revival folly among all this GOTHIC Revival?


Salem Sustainability; or the Most Charming Memoir Ever

I came across a delightful short memoir quite by accident yesterday; it was so well-written and charming that I couldn’t stop thinking about it so I decided to write about it today to get it out of my head! It’s not about any BIG thing or event; in fact, it’s about a very little thing, what we might call an accessory today, and something we might not have thought much about at all before the pandemic: handkerchiefs in general, and “bundle handkerchiefs” in particular. “The Bundle Handkerchief ” was published in The New England Magazine in 1896 by Elisabeth Merritt Gosse, a Salem native and emerging newspaperwoman, who would go on to have a very successful career writing principally for the Boston Herald. It must have proved popular as it was issued as an illustrated pamphlet a few years later: I would love to get my hands on this! It’s such a simple story of how people wrapped up their purchases or possessions in the nineteenth-century, in handkerchief bundles of all cloths: gingham and calico sold at Mrs. Batchelder’s or Miss Ann Bray’s shops, the ‘finest white India silk” for ladies’ hats, lawn, linen or muslin for more intimate garments, Madras for new gowns as they made their way home from the dressmakers’, and “pale pink and blue gingham plaids” for shirts and spencers. Yet it is also revealing: of what people are doing and buying and wearing in very specific detail. l learned about all sorts of shops and customs of which I was previously completely unaware in its jam-packed three pages.

The bundle handkerchief as art: Alfred Denghausen, 1936, National Gallery of Art.

Apparently one could not even enter this world properly (or be introduced to it) without a bundle handkerchief! Is this where the stork with the bundled baby comes from? According to Elisabeth, No Salem infant, even without the requisite number of great-grandfathers and grandmothers, could be considered to have been properly introduced to society until it had dangled in a bundle handkerchief from a pair of steelyards, while its weight was recorded in the family Bible at the end of the family pedigree. She also included her own childhood memory of accompanying the family servants, armed with “two great bundle handkerchiefs of coarse blue and white checked gingham” to Mr. Hathaway’s bakery on Sunday mornings after church to retrieve the baked beans and brown bread which had been placed in his cavernous oven the day before. Salem women packed their soldiers’ trunks with prayer books from Mr. Wilde and medicine chests from Mr. (not Mrs.?) Pinkham, as well a selection of fine new bundle handkerchiefs, and three of these, of dark red silk, with the name embroidered in one corner, came home in one soldier’s trunk, brought by a guard of honor; for Salem gave the first of the Essex County heroes who laid down their lives for their country in the war of the Rebellion, as she did in the war of the Revolution. I wonder if she is referring to her own father here, Lt. Colonel Henry Merritt, who was killed at the Battle of New Bern in March of 1862.

Not blue and white, but the best I could do: a recipe card from the 1950s; Mr. Hathaway’s Bakery or the “Old Bakery” (now the Hooper Hathaway House on the campus of the House of the Seven Gables) in its original location at 21 Washington Street, Historic New England; Elisabeth Merritt Gosse in 1905, upon the occasion of the dedication of a boulder commemorating her father’s regiment near Salem Common.

Elisabeth Merritt Gosse recounts her last memory of a bundle handkerchief on the streets of Salem, wrapped around a book and carried by Mr. John Andrews in and out of the Salem Athenaeum, and observes that her title topic is as vivid a bit of color in Salem’s history as is Alice Flint’s silk hood, the frigate Essex, the North Bridge or even the House of the Seven Gables; and to speak of it calls up a long line of Salem’s sires and dames who took pride and pleasure and comfort in its use. [Another Salem memoirist, Harriet Bates or “Eleanor Putnam,” went even further: “The bundle handkerchief is as essential a figure in Salem history as the witches themselves.”] The bundle handkerchief’s time had passed in 1896, however, replaced by paper and string, prosaic, rustling, tearable, and to be quickly thrown aside and thrown away. This is not a good development in Elisabeth Merritt Gosse’s estimation, but as she died at the venerable age of 86 in 1936, we can at least be glad that she didn’t live long enough to see plastic.

Elisabeth Merritt Gosse was referencing the OLD Salem Athenaeum, now one of the Peabody Essex Museum’s empty buildings further up on Essex Street, but as I happened to be walking by the present one today, I snapped this photograph.


A Picky Guide to October in Salem

I think this might be the first time I’ve written up a “things to do” in Salem for Halloween, a holiday that lasts for at least two months here and seems to be on the way to becoming a year-long “celebration” with perhaps a month break for Christmas. I’m the ultimate Halloween Scrooge, I’ll never be able to get past the opportunistic exploitation of tragedy issue, and Salem has enough boosters already. BUT, this year is a bit different as I am teaching the Salem Witch Trials for the very first time, in a couple of seminars for freshmen designed not only the explore the historical event and its impact but also to introduce them to the requisite skills of critical thinking and effective discourse. None of my students are from Salem, so I want to introduce them to the city as well. They are excited to be here and the last thing they need is a Halloween Scrooge: every Thursday after our last class of the week they ask for weekend recommendations and it would terribly wrong for me to simply say LEAVE. They should form their own impressions about Salem in general and Salem in October, so here is my guide to helping them do that. It’s not just for students and those new to Salem: I get emails about October every year so I’m trying to address general queries as well.

Get the story straight and the lay of the land. Where to go for general orientation when there is no Salem Museum? The only option is the Salem Visitor Center on Essex Street, right in the midst of the sprawling Peabody Essex Museum campus. The Center is a collaboration between the National Park Service and Essex Heritage: at present there’s not much there besides flyers, books for sale, banners, and restrooms, but you can purchase tickets and view the best introduction to the trials: Salem Witch Hunt: Examine the Evidence. We’ve spent the last month in class doing just that, but I still recommend this documentary to my students and anyone visiting Salem with the goal of learning more about the trials.

The Salem Armory Visitor Center and the Peabody Essex Museum’s Plummer Hall and Daland House adjacent: empty in the midst of much activity!

Choose your tour carefully. Walking tours are the best way, and really the only means, for the student/visitor to get both the lay of the land and the Salem story, but it’s important to know which Salem story you want to hear. I have no idea how many walking tours are offered now: I was walking down Charter Street the other afternoon (a relatively short street) and I encountered six, encompassing amplified guides each surrounded by 30+ tourists. It felt like a gauntlet. It’s impossible not to hear what guides are saying as you walk down the street, and they are spinning very different tales. So this is an opportunity for consumer research. Use the crowd-sourced tourism review sites: they are very illuminating. I’m taking my seminar students on their own walking tour in November, but I’m sure many of them want to go on ghost tours now and are are too afraid to ask for recommendations from me: I have none, so I would just tell them (and any visitor so-inclined) to do their research. There are a few below-the-radar historical and architectural tours that I’d like to mention here, however. Dr. Donald Friary, the former executive director of Historic Deerfield who now lives in Salem, is giving two focused tours of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site sponsored by Essex Heritage, and you can also book tours with him (and other guides) here. Two other tour companies which seem to be offering more intimate and focused (cultural and architectural) experiences are here and here.

In addition to Dr. Friary’s tours, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site offers several audio and digital tours of their site; The tour group in Derby Square above is about the average Salem size in October: this particular guide was doing a great job explaining the changing coastline of Salem while keeping their rapt attention: I’m sure I couldn’t do that!

Salem museums are not created equal. Salem has only two museums which are accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, whose core standards are available here: the Peabody Essex Museum and Historic New England’s Phillips and Gedney Houses. Actually the small museum administered by Essex Heritage out at Bakers Island is also accredited, but I doubt that very many October visitors are going to make it out there and it is closed for the season. The word museum is used very loosely in Salem, so beware: this is another realm for which online reviews will be helpful. Last year, the Peabody Essex Museum decided to engage with the Witch Trials by offering its first exhibition on the events of 1692 in quite some time, and it was truly wonderful to see objects and texts which I had only read about for the first time. This year, the PEM is continuing its engagement with The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming. I’m a bit confused by this exhibition so I’m going to go back again myself as well as with my students, but I will say that, once again, the authenticity of the objects and texts is striking when contrasted with so much faux in Salem, and I know from reading all these reviews that authenticity is something that very many Salem visitors are seeking. Historic New England offers a bit of specialty programming for both of its Salem properties in October: just the other day I went to a stirring presentation of Poe poems at the Gedney House, and the Phillips House is presenting Wicked Wednesdays for children.

Poe at Gedney House by Theater in the Open: these performance are over but remember, remember for next year. They use the house really well.

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial and Charter Street Cemetery. A big change here in terms of stewardship, so I can recommend a visit to these important, sacred sites. In past years, they were both overrun, but a partnership between the Peabody Essex Museum and the City of Salem has created a more protected and interpretive environment, based at the adjacent first-period Pickman House. The cemetery has been restored very carefully, and it’s really one of the most poignant places in Salem. Unfortunately the tackiest attractions in Salem are adjacent, literally blowing smoke into the cemetery, but that’s the reality of Salem in October: poignant and tacky.

FilmsThere are many opportunities to see timely films in Salem during October: on the Common, at the recently-revived Cinema Salem, on the patio of the East Regiment Beer Company. I’m looking forward to a screening of the animated House of the Seven Gables at Cinema Salem on the 28th in an evening sponsored by the Gables which will also feature a Q and A with the creator/director, Ben Wickey.

Just walk around: I suspect that my students just want to walk around in the midst of the packed Instagram crush that is downtown Salem, although a few of them did express concerns about the density of the crowds last weekend. So for them, and any visitor seeking a bit more space, I would recommend just walking around the neighborhoods: in the McIntire District, adjacent to the Common, along  and off Derby Street. There’s lots of beautiful houses to see, many decorated for the season, and lovely gardens behind the Ropes Mansion and Derby House. I’m hearing that the Haunted Happenings Marketplace, now on Salem Common, is a bit more carefully curated than in years past, so I might even venture over there today (a Saturday!) on foot, of course: opinions may differ about the character and impact of Salem’s Halloween, but the one thing everyone agrees on is the need to discourage driving dramatically: traffic and parking are just too scary.

Derby and Ropes Gardens, Federal Court, and WAY further afield on Lafayette Street.

 


A Cape Full of Color

So every year in early September we journey to Cape Cod on the weekend after Labor Day for my husband’s birthday. It is an odd time, just after “summer” is over and we have established our fall routines, and I always complain, but off to the Cape we go because he has wonderful memories of fishing in Provincetown and that’s what he always wants to do for his birthday. As is generally the case with us, he will fish and I will walk or drive around looking for old houses, but this time we spent most of the weekend together. Provincetown is one of those towns that I don’t think I want to go to before I go but once I’m there I’m happy: actually everyone seems happy in Provincetown! It’s not that it isn’t a wonderful, dynamic and scenic town, it’s that I always feel that it is overbuilt and too crowded, with both houses and people. And it is, but if you stop and look at individual houses you’ll see some wonderful details and landscaping. I had not seen the Public Library before, and that was a special treat, and of course I had to make my yearly pilgrimage to John Derian’s summer house with its shop in back. Another highlight: the recently-restored eighteenth-century Mary Heaton Vorse House, on which interior designer Ken Fulk seems to have spared no expense.

Saturday in Provincetown: the Pilgrim monument, Public Library in the former Center Methodist Church, featuring a half-scale model of the Rose Dorothea schooner on its upper floors, John Derian & Mary Heaton Vorse Houses, and, of course, the beach.

I posted a few pictures and an Instagram friend informed me that there was an “All around the Common” event on Sunday way back in Yarmouth Port, during which several historic houses would be open, including Historic New England’s Winslow Crocker House, which I had never visited. So that was all I needed to hear: I had no problem driving back to get into that house. It was a very blustery day, so my husband decided to join me in lieu of fishing: a big surprise. We then commenced a long drive back to Salem via nearly every Cape town on Sunday, with stops in Harwich and Yarmouth. We both really wanted to visit the Atwood-Higgins House in Wellfleet, which is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, but as soon as we got to the gates of the property a rather frantic park ranger drove up to us in his SUV and told us to proceed with extreme caution as there was a major mosquito infestation. We were still pretty gung-ho, but about ten steps in we were covered with mosquitos and ran back to our car: one Wellfleet mosquito rode all the way back to Salem with us! And then it was on to Yarmouth.

All we saw of the Atwood-Higgins property in Wellfleet.

I dashed through the Edward Gorey House and the Bangs Hallet across the Common, and then spent quite some time in the Winslow Crocker House: too much time for my husband. The house was built during the Revolution by privateer Crocker in West Barnstable, and moved by collector and descendant of an original land grant Cape family, Mary Thatcher, to Yarmouth Port in 1935-36. She had a new foundation laid, and removed all evidence of the division made by earlier owners. Miss Thatcher lived in the house all year long and filled it with antiques, all of which she donated to Historic New England. It’s a gorgeous Georgian house with warm wooden paneling throughout, lots of light, and some great William & Mary and Hepplewhite furnishings. I have added Miss Thatcher to my list of heroic female preservationists.

The Edward Gorey and Captain Bangs Hallet houses on Yarmouth Port Common and the Winslow Crocker House, built c. 1780. Miss Thatcher.

Our last visit was to the 1790s house of an old friend of my husband’s, also on architect, on the Herring River in West Harwich. Amazing setting and decoration, and some very striking mantles in particular (I hope you can pick up the detail in the pictures). A perfect end to our Cape dash, and then we dashed for home, with (miraculously) no traffic!

A beautiful end of our weekend in West Harwich.


Cogswell’s Grant

Like several summers in the past, this was supposed to be my “Historic New England Summer” in which I made a determined attempt to visit and write about as many HNE houses as possible. I started out very close to home at the Phillips House, and then was supposed to go on from there, but other plans and places interfered, and so I’m just now getting back to the “plan.” Yesterday I spent a delightful hour or so at Cogswell’s Grant, an expansive eighteenth-century farm which was long the summer house of two prominent collectors of Americana, Bertram and Nina Fletcher Little. The house is in the midst of glorious farmland surrounded by river and bays in Essex: a New England home in the midst of “Constable country” has always been my impression, reinforced by the golden early-September ambiance. I was so fortunate to have been given a tour by the site manager, Kristen Weiss, who knows the collections, and the family, so well. And that’s the key to Cogswell’s Grant: it is full to overflowing with the Littles’ collections, but also the stories of the things they collected as well as their own stories as collectors. The collections and the stories are inseparable and integral to the story of the house, from the 1930s until today.

A front parlor and Mrs. Little’s charming closet office.

My perspective on the Littles was far too Salem-centric, as Bertram Little was the son of Salem Mayor (as well as naval architect, photographer, silversmith, military officer, bank director, and the last collector of the Custom House) David Mason Little and grew up on Chestnut Street in the midst of other Littles. But his purview, along with that of his wife and and collecting partner, Nina Fletcher of Brookline, was regional rather than parochial. They were New Englanders, who lived in Brookline during most of the year and at Cogswell’s Grant during the summers, from the late 1930s. I did not appreciate the professionalism of their collecting activities to the extent that I should have, or their partnership, or her scholarship: I returned home with just a few of her many books. Generally, when I visit a historic house I feel that I can sum it up in a somewhat representative way pretty quickly, but there’s just too many stories at Cogswell’s Grant: I’ve got to go back for more. It’s probably best to approach the vast collection through categories, which Mrs. Little does in her narrative of how their collection grew, Little by Little. Six Decades of Collecting American Decorative Arts (although as Kristen pointed out, this very accessible book employs a chronological framework as well). Again, so many stories: she was collecting stories as well as objects. Beginning with her first piece of blue and white Staffordshire she leads us through fireplace accessories, hooked rugs, clocks, “useful wares,” furniture, maritime art (the collection of which was tied to her husband’s Salem heritage), decoys, textiles, pictorial panels, all manner of portraits and paintings, and interesting miscellaneous items, like the engraved ostrich eggs the Littles purchased at a North Shore auction on the eve of World War II: they had to use a good amount of their precious gas ration to attend, but it was worth it! The portraits stand out in my photographs, just as they do in the house, but they are only part of a much larger story.

The open hearth kitchen/dining room and various halls of objects. An anonymous couple in their finery by Royall Brewster Smith, c. 1830.

With so much visual stimulation, you can either get overwhelmed or adopt a very personal perspective on what you are seeing: I always try to do the latter. Of all the portraits at Cogswell’s Grant, the one that I had the most immediate reaction to was of eighty-four-year-old Jacob Gould [Jacop Goold] by Benjamin Greenleaf, painted in 1803. He has an open book and a conspicuously-pointed finger, but all I could see was his red cap! I had just been proofing the copy edits to my forthcoming book the day before, and one chapter has a section on Renaissance suggestions for better sleep: wear a red cap!

Mr. Gould in his red cap; second-floor parlor and bedrooms; an amazing pictorial collage of the arrival of the first Oddfellows in America (there they are in the bottom left corner!); the BIG barn.


Summer Sunday Stroll in Salem

Sometimes I try to look at Salem as a tourist, a casual tourist taking a stroll, rather than with my historian/resident intensity. It doesn’t work for long, but I can pull it off for a few hours. I haven’t been home for very many weekends this summer, and I’m about to depart for two weeks in the Hudson River Valley, so I decided to take a long walk around Salem on a humid August afternoon, taking only pretty pictures (no new buildings). Two happenings inspired me: the annual antique car meet on Chestnut Street sponsored by Historic New England’s Phillips House (which did not happen last year and so I was REALLY looking forward to it) and the bountiful gardens around town, the products of our very rainy July.

I just love the juxtaposition of old cars and old houses at this car meet, which gets bigger and better every year.

More natural color: the Ropes Mansion and Derby House gardens are bursting with blooms at this time of year; the former is a formal annual garden, the latter a Colonial Revival garden of traditional plants: they are actually quite complementary. The Ropes is maintained by the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) and the Derby garden by the Salem Maritime National Historic site: I appreciate these perpetual gifts to the community by both organizations.

Ropes and Derby Gardens.

It was definitely phlox time in both gardens, and Derby was abuzz with bees and butterflies. While I am grateful to the PEM for the Ropes Garden (as well as the open Ropes Mansion), even the casual tourist is going to notice their other properties around town and wonder what’s going on there? Can I get in? The grounds of Peirce-Nichols have always been wide open, now they are closed (but not locked) and I can’t remember the last time I was in there or Crowninshield-Bentley. Ok, stepping outside of my casual tourist mode (I told you it doesn’t work for long): every time I walk by the newly-restored Daland and Plummer buildings on Essex, right next to the Visitors Center, I can’t help but think: why can’t the Salem Museum go here? The buildings are so beautiful, so convenient, and apparently empty. Why can’t the PEM install their recent Witch Trial exhibit in there, along with the wonderful “Salem Stories” still on display across the way, and the Bowyer sundial, the Pickman codfish, James Emerton’s Paracelsus apothecary sign, various Derby items, the rooster weathervane from the former East Church, maps, photographs and paintings by Salem artists, among many other things and create a contextual introduction to Salem history for the those tourists who do not come dressed in Halloween costumes in the middle of August? And residents too! A girl can dream.

The PEM’s Peirce-Nichols, Crowninshield-Bentley, and Daland houses + Plummer Hall, the previous location of the Phillips Library.

Back on the tourist trail. I must say: Essex Street east and west on either side of the pedestrian mall is looking pretty good these days: some nice restorations, street gardens, and window boxes. One thing that the casual tourist might not notice, but I sure have, are some improvements in the hardscape downtown: there are several islands which have been neglected for years which are newly-planted and newly-mulched, like those across from the old Custom House, below. Central Street is further embellished by two beautiful shops, Emporium 32 and Diehl Marcus & Co. Back up on Essex and further down, I checked out the newly-restored First Period Daniels House, apparently the “Oldest Bed and Breakfast in the US,” and then walked down to Derby Street.

Shop window installation by Salem artist Meg Nichols of Mink Studio, reflecting the PEM’s summer exhibition, In American Waters: the Sea in American Painting. Central Street shops, Essex Street wreaths, and the Daniels House.

Derby Street feels like the realm of the House of the Seven Gables and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, both of which I’ve written about many times, but in the midst of the latter is my favorite little street, Palfrey Court, lined by the Derby Garden, several Georgian buildings, and St. Joseph’s Hall as well as the former “Rum Shop” (another building that needs a purpose!). I just love this little street: when I stand in the middle of it looking down towards Derby and the water, I get a better sense of Salem’s maritime-mandated streetscape than anywhere else. It’s the mix of buildings, the narrowness of the street, the absence of cars. Up ahead is the (relatively) new location of the Salem Arts Association, a perfect spot with lots to see inside.

Palfrey Court and the Salem Arts Association.

And returning home for the golden/cocktail hour!

 


The Phillips House

I can’t believe that I’ve been blogging here for eleven+ years and have not featured 1) the only house museum; 2) the only house belonging to Historic New England; and 3) the only house which was (partially) moved to its site on the street where I live, Chestnut Street, before! There are two buildings which are open to the public on this famous street, Hamilton Hall and the Phillips House: the former is most definitely an assembly hall, while the latter is a home, and when you visit it, that will be one of your primary takeaways. Not only will you become familiar with multiple generations of the Phillips family, but also members of their staff (who were apparently never referred to as servants); not only will you see beautiful rooms “above,” but also working spaces “below.” The Phillips House has one of the best preserved historic working kitchens on the street (last used in 1962), which you will not see here, because I spent so much time and took so many pictures on my own personal tour with my former student Tom Miller that my camera was dead by the time I got there. So you must see it for yourself. The Phillips House opened for the season this past weekend: it is open every weekend through October but advance reservations are required.

The Phillips House on Chestnut Street is open! Great to see the flag flying. Tom Miller  opened the door for me on this past Friday, and we commenced a three-hour tour. Tom has been a associated with the house for 13 years, and knows everything about the Phillips house, its contents and inhabitants.

Because the house is a creation of many decades, families and styles, it has a lot to teach visitors, even though its interiors are presented as they were in 1919, several years after the Phillips family had taken possession and completed their renovations. Their fortune was based on Salem commerce, shrewd investments, and advantageous marriages, and they were well-traveled and engaged in society and civic affairs, so we can learn a lot from their stories as well. The story of the house begins with a maritime marriage and a messy divorce: between Elizabeth Derby, daughter of Salem’s wealthiest merchant, Elias Hasket Derby, and one of his ship captains, Nathaniel West. Mr. Derby did not approve of the marriage in 1783, but nevertheless he left his daughter an enormous inheritance in his 1799 will, which she used to to build a magnificent country estate just a few miles inland, commissioning the justly-famous Samuel McIntire to undertake much of the design and craftsmanship. After an important reform to Massachusetts divorce law in 1806 allowed women greater property rights in divorce cases involving infidelity on the part of the husband, Elizabeth Derby West sued for divorce and won, in a very public case involving a parade of prostitutes perhaps paid to give evidence against Captain West by her vengeful brothers, with whom he had engaged in fist-to-cuffs down on the docks. Elizabeth moved to Oak Hill permanently and continued to lavish material attention on it until her death in 1814, leaving it to her three daughters with the stipulation that they never let their father have a piece of it. The youngest West daughter, Sarah, died intestate five years later and consequently  her father did indeed inherit a third of the estate, despite his former wife’s wishes. He detached four rooms of the estate and had them moved to Chestnut Street: four miles in two days via teams of oxen and logs. After installing a central hall-connector with Palladian window and doors, he now had a slim but elegant (McIntire!) house. Over the nineteenth century the house doubled in size with a succession of owners, and the Phillips family acquired it in 1911. The cumulative composition is a bit Georgian, a bit Federal, a bit Victorian, and a lot of Colonial Revival, with just a pinch of Gothic.

The house in 1916, with lines marking the original McIntire rooms moved to Chestnut Street. An oxen team moving a structure along State Street in Newburyport for comparison, and the house in the later nineteenth century, all collections of Historic New England.

As you move through the house you are aware that you are entering another architectural era, especially as you move from McIntire front to Colonial Revival rear—somewhat of a pale imitation with an expanded scale. But you’re also busy looking at all the things that tie everything together, the personal belongings of a very grounded though worldly family.

Colonial Revival-ized houses always seem to have or side stairs: the front hall must be wide and open; I seem to recall that this side doorway (the “carriage entrance”) was once in front and is McIntire.

Dinner is set for a small party on the evening of July 30, 1919 in the expansive dining room: part of the extensive additions to the back of the house. No McIntire mantel, but lots of movable decorative detail in the form of serving ware, and one of my very favorite paintings which I somehow forgot was here: Thomas Badger’s Portrait of Thomas Mason (with a squirrel). It was a delight to see it: you can have your Copley boy and squirrel painting, I prefer this Badger.

As I am writing this it is very hot, so I want some ORANGE FAIRY FLUFF. The amazing pantry at the Phillips House, and the Badger!

Upstairs, things are a bit more intimate: bedrooms and bathrooms and Mrs. Phillips’ day room for keeping the household accounts. On the third floor there are guestrooms and staff rooms: a rear staircase descends from the latter to the kitchen. There are really wonderful windows throughout the house, in all shapes and sizes, with great views of Chestnut Street, and more McIntire detail in the front two rooms on the second floor.

Another major painting which “surprised” me in residence at the Phillips House was Marblehead folk artist J.O.J. Frost’s Massey’s Cove ( The Hardships and Sacrifice, Massey’s Cove, Salem 1626) depicting the first European settlement of Salem. It was just wonderful to see it there, hanging in Stevie Phillip’s light-filled, McIntire embellished bedroom with the best views of Chestnut Street in either direction. A less happy surprise, in this most Salem of houses, was a crumpled-up sign for the James Duncan Phillips Library, a library which is, of course, no longer in Salem.

I think I had professorial privilege as Tom showed me EVERYTHING and the standard tour can’t be quite as expansive due to time constraints, but the interpretation of the Phillips House definitely emphasizes the close personal connections between the generations that lived in the house and their staff and this is highlighted by one of the special tours at the house, “The Irish Experience at the Phillips House,” which will be offered on August 5. An annual must-attend event which we all missed last year is the antique car meet, which is on August 8. Vintage cars line the length of Chestnut Street, and the juxtaposition of cars and houses is more than instagram-worthy, believe me!


Tragedy amidst the Everyday

I LOVE Diaries: they offer such personal perspectives into the past, encompassing both “big” events and everyday occurrences. I read diaries, teach with diaries, and think about diaries often. I even like books about diaries, such as Kate O’Brien’s volume in my favorite Britain in Pictures series. So it is rather odd that I have omitted one of the most important diaries of a Salem woman in this year of #SalemSuffrageSaturdays until now: that of Mary Vial Holyoke (1737-1802), the second wife of Salem’s most eminent physician, Edward Augustus Holyoke (1728-1829). Mary’s diary was published in a compiled volume of Holyoke diaries published by the Essex Institute in 1911, after having been in the possession of several collectors, including the famed Salem numismatist Matthew Stickney.

Photograph of a Greenwood Portrait of Mary Simpson Vial before her Marriage.

1771 Portraits of Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke and Mary Vial Holyoke by Salem artist Benjamin Blyth, referred to in Mary’s diary: Dr. Holyoke’s portrait, which descended in the Osgood family, is from the Northeast Auctions archive; Mary’s portrait, which descended in the Nichols family, appears to be lost at present.

 

Last week’s list of “notable Salem women” from the perspective of 1939 included Mary and drew me back to her diary, a record of 40 years of her rather enclosed life in Salem from 1760 to 1799. I had read it several times before but found it………….. unpleasant is the word I think I want to use. At first reading, the impression that I formed was of a superficial woman who gave birth to babies annually—most of which died within days—and resumed her social activities and household duties without missing a beat. None of this was unfamiliar to me as an early modernist: infant mortality hovered between 15 and 20% while 60% of all children born died before the age of 16 in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and childbirth was the leading cause of death for women, who were not especially introspective when they took pen to paper. But both Mary’s losses (8 of her 12 children) and her diary’s quickfire mix of the mundane and the sorrowful are comparatively extreme. Just one page of entries from the summer of 1767 contains entries about gardening, polishing or “scouring” furniture brasses, hanging bed curtains, attending “turtle” feasts and hosting the regular Monday assembly. Then on September 5 she was “brought to bed” at 2:00 in the morning, and gave birth to a daughter baptized Mary on the next day. On September 7 she reports that “The Baby very well till ten o’clock in the evening & then taken with fits.” Two days later, “It Died about 8:00 in the morning.” On the next day, we read simply “was buried” without even a pronoun.

A child’s shoe last from the first half of the nineteenth century, Historic New England

As I read the diary again over this past week more carefully, Mary emerged as a more thoughtful, caring, and substantive person. She was among a circle of women in Salem who were not just drinking tea and attending “turtles” (I love this name for social gatherings and think we should resume it) with great regularity, but also attending all those were brought to bed: for birth, for illness, for death: they were always “watching”. Mary was watched, her dying children were watched, and she herself watched. The entry above seems cold to be sure, but Mary generally referred to “my dear child” while noting the burials of her infants. And then there was the particularly poignant entry after the death of yet another of her newborns in 1770: the same as all the others. You almost can’t blame her for getting right back to the business of household work, which she does with great relish after she and the Dr. (this is how she refers to her husband) move into their permanent house on Essex Steet: this becomes “our house” and there’s a lot of work to do to maintain it: scouring, provisioning, ironing, soap-making, bottling, sewing, cooking, gardening, preserving (preserved damsons, a week too late! exclamation mine) and other tasks are all noted in detail. I think I dismissed the diary previously because Mary had little to say about the Revolution, but she does take note of the repeal of the Stamp Act and the “setting off” of a “feathered man” before the Revolution, and as it proceeds she gradually refers to the Americans as “our people”, perhaps reflecting her husband’s transition from Tory to Patriot. Dr. Holyoke was an early adopter of smallpox inoculation, and she records the constant outbreaks as well as the incremental inoculations. Earthquakes also appear with surprising regularity in the diary: I had no idea Salem was subject to so many tremors in the later eighteenth century. Extreme weather was also notable: Salem experienced some very hot summers and several “great” snows during Mary’s lifetime she elaborates on the former and is quite succinct about the latter. There’s more to learn about and from Mary Vial Holyoke, to be sure: you’ve just got to read carefully, between the lines and with careful attention to the personal pronouns, as she brings us into her world.

The Bowditch-Holyoke House at the corner of Essex & Central Streets in Salem, presently the site of the Naumkeag Block     


Break for Ice Cream

I was reading and writing about the 1563 plague in London—very deadly and very overshadowed by later Tudor and Stuart plagues—when I had to take a break for ice cream in the midst of a stifling afternoon. The break went on a bit longer than expected because I became diverted into the history of ice cream: I just opened up an old cookbook I had for a moment (really!) but the recipe looked similar to some that I had seen in the seventeenth-century cookbooks that I am going to be writing about later in this chapter that I’m working on so I indulged myself for a bit longer in the name of “research”……and before you I knew it I had abandoned early modern England and was looking into the history of ice cream in Salem. From the plague to ice cream in a half hour: the balance of book and blog will not work well if I continue to be so indulgent (but it was hot).

earliest-ice-cream-recipe

Take three pints of the best cream, boyle it with a blade of Mace or else perfume it with orang flower water or Ambergreece, sweeten the Cream, with sugar[,] let it stand till it is quite cold, then put it into Boxes, e[i]ther of Silver or tinn, then take, Ice chopped into small peeces and put it into a tub and set the Boxes in the Ice covering them all over, and let them stand in the Ice two hours, and the Cream Will come to be Ice in the Boxes, then turn them out into a salvar [salver = dish] with some of the same seasoned Cream, so sarve [serve] it up to the Table.

This is Lady Ann Fanshawe’s handwritten recipe for “icy cream” from the mid-seventeenth century and the Wellcome Library’s digitized recipe-book collection (MS.71113) . It is unusual when compared to the first published recipes for ice cream in the next century, which are more custard-style creams, made with egg yolks, and then frozen. But Lady Fanshawe’s ingredients–mace, orange-flower water, and even ambergris (well maybe I should exclude ambergris)–were not that unusual: early ices were made with a wide range of ingredients: all sorts of fruits and herbs, honey, tea and coffee, crumbled cakes and biscuits. Ice cream history in the nineteenth century is marked by two big developments, both in the US: the development of the portable ice cream “freezer” and “Philadelphia-style” ice creams, made without eggs. But nineteenth-century ice creams, sorbets and sherberts were still more exotic than we think they were, or at least thought they were: Mrs. Lincoln’s Frosty Fancies and Frozen Dainties, published in the late nineteenth century for best-selling freezer manufacturer White Mountain, feature lots of interesting ices, and ice creams made with arrowroot, cornstarch, and gelatin for their foundation, rather than eggs.

Ice Cream Frosty Fancies (3)

ice_cream_Fozen-removebg-preview (2)

And yes: I think this is yet another aspect of Salem’s history which seems notable, although I did not extend my break to make a city-by-city, town-by-town comparative analysis of ice-cream production and consumption. Salem had a very early ice cream “manufactory”, from at least 1856, as well as several antebellum retail shops or saloons. And these multiplied over the later nineteenth century and then of course opened up in the tourist destination that was (and remains) Salem Willows. Salem also had ice cream “peddlers” from the late nineteenth century on, and even a “millionaire milkman”: Gilbert H. Hood of the famous H.P. Hood Company, still very much with us, who spent the summer and fall of 1921 “learning the business from the ground up” while based at Hood’s Salem ice cream factory, now the site of luxury condominiums.

Salem Ice Cream

Cool-1881

Ice Cream Holly Tree

Ice Cream Shute (5)

Ice Cream NDN Aug 19 1989

Hood Collage

Notice of Salem’s first ice cream manufactory in the Salem Register, June 30, 1856; Salem Willows postcards from 1905; The manufactory at 271 Essex became a “saloon” in the 1870s and another popular ice cream parlor was the Holly Tree on Central Street (Collections of Historic New England); “Ira Moody Chute standing in front of his ice cream wagon, Salem, Mass., ca. 1898,” (Historic New England); The Newburyport Daily News, August 19, 1889; Gilbert H. Hood in the Boston Herald, October 9, 1921.

More! The SERVING of ice cream was serious business a century ago, and Historic New England has some great examples from the Phillips House: ice cream forks, scoops, molds, trays, etc….: check them out here.