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.