Tag Archives: Historical Research

A Revolutionary Apothecary in Salem

Most of the students in my summer Research & Writing Seminar are pursuing local history topics related to the Revolutionary War and just after: conscription, taxation, the disruption to business, the involvement of African-Americans, Tories. This bunch seems to be drawn to that era like moths to a flame, and with the lack of local resources, we have had to be resourceful. Fortunately we have some good databases at Salem State, they are bound for repositories in Boston and elsewhere, and we’ve all enjoyed the wonderful Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr. site at the Massachusetts Historical Society. But once again, this foraging illustrates how hurtful the withdrawal of the Salem sources in the Phillips Library has been to our local academic and educational community. Supposedly the Library in Rowley will be open next week, and perhaps professional historians will journey up to explore its resources, but I fear it will remain inaccessible to most of my students. The lack of digitization still rankles, especially when compared to the wonderful Dorr site. I promised I wouldn’t post on PEM and the Phillips until we had some course-changing event, but obviously I can’t help myself. Still, enough: let’s move on to more responsible repositories.

Take care if you delve into the MHS’s Dorr database: hours will be devoured. The combination of Dorr’s own annotations and the quality and navigability of the images is addictive. My students are drawn to the news, the opinion, and the “big” topics, but I love the advertisements towards the end of the papers. If I were in their place, I think I’d write my paper on the Salem apothecary Jonathan Waldo, whose conspicuous advertisements crowd out everything for me, even the imminent war.

Waldo 1

Assize of Bread

Waldo 2The Essex Gazette of April 18, 1775, via the Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr. at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Jonathan Waldo (1756-1817) was a major Salem apothecary in the later 18th century, at one time in partnership with William Stearns and later on his own. His particular business mandated a large quantity of imports among his stock, as most British patent medicines were just that: British patent medicines. In the next (April 25) edition of the Essex Gazette, Waldo advertised goods imported in the last Ships from London: was that it for his business?

Waldo 8

Apparently not. Nearly all of his account books are in the Phillips Library, of course, but fortunately a classic secondary text, George Griffenhagen’s and James Harvey Young’s Old English Patent Medicines in America (1959) mined them to establish that Waldo’s business survived through the Revolution through a dual strategy of continuing to import apparently-contraband British medicine and concocting his own American substitutions. Waldo’s business endured even as he served as a Major of the Salem Militia during the Revolution and the major administrator of the restoration of the renamed Fort Pickering (previously Fort William) on Winter Island after. His post-revolutionary account book, digitized by Harvard University for its Countway Library of Medicine, confirms his thriving—and diversified—business. Indeed, the Revolution seems to have inspired “innovation” and reaped more profits for Waldo, who notes that the popular British elixir Turlington’s Balsam of Life was very dear even after the war was over, but “his own” recipe was increasingly popular with his customers due to its lower price.

Waldo Harvard

Waldo collage

Waldo Turlington's Balsam textWaldo, Jonathan, 1756-1817. Account book of Jonathan Waldo, 1788-1794 (inclusive). B MS b265.1, Countway Library of Medicine; Waldo managed to import a large supply of the popular Female Pills by Dr. John Hooper from London in 1777–along with a supply of Turlington’s Balsam of Life, Duke Digital Repository, History of Medicine Collections.


Severed from Salem

Reading through the Phillips Library catalog is an activity that is simultaneously enticing and frustrating: one can glean the scope of the collections but not access them, provenances are presented but not deeds of gift or deposit (which is standard). Given the missions of its two founding institutions, the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum, the Phillips’ collections are both regional and global in nature, but one cannot fail to notice the prominence of Salem materials, consequences of content and/or bequest. To supplement that perception, just browse through the century-old Essex Institute Bulletins digitized by the Internet Archive, where you can easily access long lists of donations and deposits from descendants of scores of old Salem families and every type of organization: public, civic, commercial, religious, fraternal and sororal (a word I had to look up!). As is always the case in the Witch City, there’s too much focus on witch trial records: the tragedy of the removal of the Phillips Library by the Peabody Essex Museum is the vast amount of personal and institutional history–a cumulative cultural memory– that will be severed from Salem. Let me offer up just one collection of papers as an illustration: the Almy, Butler, and Robson Family Papers, which encompass the activities and associations of three intertwined Salem families from 1804 to 1982. Through these records, we can (or could) examine the rise and fall of one of Salem’s most prominent department stores, Almy’s, Bigelow and Washburn (1858-1985), a particular phase in the history of the Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church (now the Wesley United Methodist Church on North Street, which donated its archives to the Phillips as well), an edited manuscript of Katherine Butler Hathaway’s famous memoir The Little Locksmith (!!!!!), and considerable correspondence and materials relative to her niece Elizabeth “Libby” Reardon Frothingham’s energetic advocacy for historic preservation both during and after Salem’s battle with urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. Personal perspectives on Salem’s history.

Almys PC

Salem-Wesley-ME-Churchx

Phillips PC Just two Salem institutions whose records are preserved in the Phillips Library, and the Essex Institute in its heyday.

The personal nature of historical materials works both ways: the people of Salem should be enabled to engage with their history in a personal way. When I read the detailed catalog entry and finding aid for the Almy, Butler, and Robson family papers, I think of the Almy’s clock that still stands on Essex Street, the first time I read The Little Locksmith, just a few years ago, and Elizabeth Reardon’s house histories for Historic Salem, Inc., which I used as a model for my own reports way back when I first moved to Salem and wanted to learn about my new city house by house. I’ve read about her exciting “discovery” of two Salem first-period houses hiding in (somewhat) plain sight, and just last year, I visited the ongoing restoration of her former house, and saw the cupboards where her records–memorials of decades of service to Salem– were stored. And now they’re off to Rowley?

Reardon 4

Gedney House

Severed 3

Severed 4The Gedney House on High Street, soon after its discovery by Elizabeth Reardon and restoration by Historic New England, and an excerpt from Julie Arrison-Bishop’s article “A Witness to Four Centuries in Salem”, Historic New England Summer 2015; 1965 Boston Globe article on Elizabeth’s discovery of the Samuel Pickman House (hiding under a mansard roof), and the Pickman House today, with the Peabody Essex Museum in the background.


Losing our History

The national discussion over Confederate war memorials is centered on the implicit question: who owns history? Often that is a question that is difficult to answer because in fact everyone owns history. Interpreted in a material way, however, it’s possible to be more literal: in terms of sources, for example, it is quite apparent that the Peabody Essex Museum owns Salem’s history.  The PEM’s Phillips Library, the third largest museum library in the United States, is the largest repository of historical records of Salem and Essex County by far: its holdings encompass the papers and records of innumerable Salem families and organizations, the definitive collection of Hawthorniana, all sorts of records relating to Salem’s China Trade, including logbooks, customs records, merchant account books, hand-colored plates of ships, maps, and the Frederick Townsend Ward collection, one of the world’s largest collections of Western-language materials on Imperial China. The Library holds a million historic photographs, including rare nineteenth-century views of Asia, the archives of Edwin Hale Lincoln, Frank Cousins and Samuel Chamberlain, and the complete North American Indian portfolio of Edward S. Curtis. The Edward Sylvester Morse collection of Japanese language books is just one small part of a 400,000-volume collection which began in 1799. The physical size of the entire collection is best expressed by numbers: 5000 linear feet of manuscripts, over 1000 linear feet of archives, 3,000 linear feet of newspapers, 135 linear feet of ephemera and nearly 5000 reels of microforms. The bulk of this collection was compiled when the Phillips Library was part of the Essex Institute (established in 1848), which merged with the Peabody Museum to form the new Peabody Essex Museum in 1992. As part of a new, ever-expanding museum which privileges the global and the sensational over the local and the historical, the Phillips Library’s mission has clearly changed: to what I do not know. But more importantly, it has become increasingly restrictive and inaccessible, and absent: it was closed for renovations in 2011 and its collections were moved to a facility in Peabody and now it is moving on to another (temporary?) facility even further away, in Rowley. According to one succinct statement regarding this move, and supposedly to facilitate it, all access to collections will be suspended from September 1, 2017 through March 31, 2018.

Phillips Library 1885

Phillips Ladies

Phillips Logbook Horace

Gentlemen in the Phillips c. 1885, and ladies outside Plummer Hall on Essex Street, which housed the Library for over a century; Logbook from the ship Horace, first decade of the 19th century.  All images in this post (except those from the Essex Institute Historical Collections Volume 113, no. 3 below) are from the Library’s social media accounts: Twitter and Instagram. The Library’s wonderful blog, Conversant, has been shut down, but you can still see some of the images it featured on Pinterest.

The lingering detachment of the Phillips Library has been nothing short of tragic for Salem, as it long served, in purpose and in effect, as the city’s historical society. While other towns in Essex County developed historical societies and museums over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Salem did not, because it already had one: a vast repository of private (and public) records right in its midst. You can see–and read—Salem citizens engaging with the Essex Institute and the Phillips Library (with their history) in the pages of the long-running (and thankfully digitizedEssex Institute Historical Collections, which is full of recollections and memorials as well as historical analyses of materials in the Library’s collection. Given Salem’s dynamic past, the lack of an accessible and engaging repository of its heritage has resulted in historical interpretations that are entrepreneurial at best, and crassly commercial for the most part: is it any wonder that we have a statue to a television character in our central public square?

Phillips EIHC

Phillips Map 1806

Phillips Certificate

Phillips Cushing

One of my very favorite volumes of the EIHC from July 1977: focused on a coincidental exhibition at the Essex Institute on the life and times of the Salem’s famous diarist, the Reverend William Bentley. It’s full of insights and images, including: a plan of South Salem Bridge and Lafayette Street, c. 1806, a certificate for the Salem Iron Factory, c. 1800, and a print and portrait of Salem printer Thomas C. Cushing, c. 1806 and 1816. Along with social media, these volumes might be our only avenue of access into the Phillips Library for a while…..

There are many curious, engaged and energetic people in Salem who clearly crave a closer, more introspective connection to the city’s complex past but I wonder how this can be achieved when we have so little access to our material heritage? That’s the big question, but I have so many more. Why haven’t more of the Library’s collections been digitized? That seemed to be the intent several years ago, but I only see a few digitized collections on the Museum’s website (volumes of The American Neptune, images of the Great Salem Fire, ocean liner ephemera, vintage valentines, the Winthrop family papers): this is a scant amount of material in relation to the Library’s entire collection and in comparison with the efforts of other comparable libraries. What about public records? The Phillips holds the major legal records of the Salem Witch Trials, the Essex County Court Archives, which were deposited at the Essex Institute by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1980, as well as the records of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County. These records have been transcribed, printed, and digitized (at the University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project) but don’t we still have a legal right to access the actual documents? I would imagine that the representatives of all those Salem families and institutions (the Appletons, the Crowninshields, the Derbys, the Peabodys, the Active Fire Club, the Salem Society for the Moral and Religious Instruction of the Poor, the Salem Female Charitable Society, the Salem Charitable Mechanic Association, the Salem Marine Society……I could go on and on and on…..) assumed that when they placed their records in the safe-keeping and under the stewardship of the Phillips Library that they would form part of a public archive for posterity: otherwise what is the point? And finally, I am thinking–and wondering–about my Americanist colleagues and how they’re going to conduct their research come tomorrow, when I will have more tools and materials at my disposal as an English historian here in Salem than they will.

Phillips 1687 deed

Phillips Reward of Merit

Phillips Chairs

Phillips collage

Phillips Peabody

Phillips Cousins

More random treasures from the Phillips Library: a 1687 deed conveying Rumney Marsh to Colonel and Mrs. Paige; a reward of merit bestowed upon Elizabeth S. McKinstry; a plate from Robert Manwaring’s Cabinet and Chair-Maker’s Real Friend and Companions (1765); just two broadsides; George Peabody’s letterbooks; a Frank Cousins photograph of the entrance to the Andrew Safford House. These tweets and posts from @pemlibrary are lifelines!


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