Tag Archives: Inventions

Wired for “Effortless Living”

There is a well-maintained Colonial Revival house on Loring Avenue in South Salem for sale right now: it looks unassuming, but when it was built in 1924 it was famous, surpassing, very briefly, Salem’s other notable structures. This house was one of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of model “electrical homes” built across the country in the 1920s and 1930s, and people lined up outside to see just how bright their domestic futures were going to be.

Wired House

The Salem Electrical Home was actually one of the first “Modern Homes” in the Boston region, joined in the next decade by equally popular electrical homes in Needham, Reading, Jamaica Plain, Lynnfield and Marblehead. Lines were long everywhere, with the Boston Globe reporting that 150,000 people visited the Marblehead home in 1935: Women are largely attracted to the displays of electrical homes, although there is a good proportion of men among them. Kitchen appliances and the kitchen arrangement is as attractive to women as a mile of shop windows. The electrical kitchen preserves the food, cooks the meals, disp0ses of the garbage and attends to numerous of the household tasks. It really does seem to be all about the kitchen, which assumes the character of an autonomous entity, “saving” time, energy, and ultimately money (spent on all those servants no longer needed): there’s no mention of the increase in disposable income necessary to purchase all these miraculous gadgets, of course.

Wired collage

Wired Kitchen NY 1930s

Wired Kitchen NY Worlds Fair NYPLDG

Wired 1911

Newspaper headlines about electrical homes around the country, 1920s; photographs of the Electrical Kitchen at the New York World’s Fair in 1939; Philip Atkinson’s Electricity for Everybody, 1911, New York Public Library Digital Collections.


Through the Spyglass

While watching Admiral, the lavish Dutch film about the great Michiel de Ruyter (1607-1676), Lieutenant-Admiral of the Dutch Fleet during the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the mid-seventeenth century, all I could think about was spyglasses. He had one on deck, of course, as did everyone around him, and it also seemed as if we were watching these epic naval battles through them from the shore. So in addition to seeing spyglasses on the screen, I felt like I had one, and was therefore able to get very close to this meticulously made-up world (sometimes too close–see below). Admiral is not a great film by any means (although its original Dutch version, titled Michiel de Ruyter, is probably a lot better as the English dubbing is really distracting; I would have preferred subtitles), although it is very engaging one. It’s also not a great historical film: the history is off and compressed; no one ages or is the right age.The peripheral royal characters, the foppish Prince William III of Orange and the decadent King Charles II of England, are just caricatures, but very watchable caricatures nonetheless. And fair warning: the violence is explicit as the film recreates one of the most horrifying events in European history, the lynching of Johan and Cornelis de Witt by an organized Orangist mob in 1672. I really wish I had looked away sooner. Nevertheless, for all the violence and the video-game attributes of the film, it does present an interesting corrective to the dominant British or French perspective one usually sees in historical films and the acting and material details are really wonderful. Like our founding fathers, Michiel de Ruyter is on the money in the Netherlands, so not just anyone could play him: the Dutch actor Frank Lammers was perfect. And I also started to think about naval formations for the very first time.

Admiral Film Poster 2015

Admiral Michiel_de_Ruyter_1607-1676

Admiraal_Michiel_Adriaensz._de_Ruyter_en_zijn_familie_door_Jurriaen_Jacobson_1662

Admiral Spyglasses Still

The poster for the 2015 English-language film; Ferdinand Bol, Michiel de Ruyter as Lieutenant-Admiral, 1667, Rijksmuseum; Juriaenn Jacobsz., Michiel de Ruyter and his family, 1662, Rijksmuseum; a still from the film with spyglasses.

As you can see in the contemporary paintings above, de Ruyter’s spyglass was like an extra appendage: he wields it even in the family portrait. A century or so later it will be commonplace to see admirals and sea captains pictured with their spyglasses, but this is a new composition/characterization in the seventeenth century–the telescope was invented by Dutch spectacle-makers (NOT Galileo) for maritime purposes only a few decades before the beginning of de Ruyter’s career. It’s almost like a national symbol for the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century, when it was commonly referred to as the “Dutch Telescope”. From this time until well into the nineteenth century it’s fairly difficult to find a portrait of a sea captain without a spyglass by his side: it looks like this is yet another legacy of the Dutch Golden Age.

Some Anglo-American sea captains of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, spyglasses in hand:

Admiral Warren NMM

Captain Sir Edward Vernon NMM

Sea Captains nineteenth century

Thomas Hudson, Admiral Sir Peter Warren, 1748-42, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; Francis Hayman, Captain Sir Edward Vernon (who later became an Admiral, SWOON), c. 1753-56, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; and two mid-nineteenth century merchant captains from either side of the Atlantic: an anonymous English merchant captain, c. 1830 and portrait of Captain John Howland of New Bedford (1802-46) by an unknown artist, New Bedford Whaling Museum.


Electri-city

When I started blogging three (!!!) years ago I really didn’t think I would feature Salem quite so much; I chose the name Streets of Salem because it’s a nice (alliterative) name and I am a very place-oriented person, but I didn’t think the blog would be exclusively or even mostly focused on Salem. I’m not sure it is: history and architecture (of Salem, or not), art, literature, folklore, horticulture, and design certainly have their place here, and even when I do focus on Salem (about half the time? maybe more) I really try for a more universal perspective in terms of both chronology and geography. As much as I love Salem, there’s a certain parochialism here that I often find a bit jarring. Nevertheless–and that said— sometimes I can’t help but feature a Salem story:  so much happened/happens here!

I was going to devote this week to various aspects of winter sports when I came across a neat industrial brochure about fluorescent lighting of all things, published by the Hygrade Sylvania Corporation (whose former plant is part of the university where I teach) in 1940:  The Dream of Scientists becomes an Accomplished Fact. What a great mid-century title! I opened it up and there was the history of electricity from a Salem perspective.

Cca49902HygradeSylvaniaCorporation_0005

Cca49902HygradeSylvaniaCorporation_0006

I was attracted to the artwork (and the sheer confidence of the writing) so I kept on reading, but it got too technical. I knew about Moses Farmer anyway, but have never mentioned him here–too technical, I suppose. Salem’s industrial history is probably just as important as its cultural and commercial heritage but certainly not as heralded, or as visual. Farmer was a New Hampshire-born engineer who experimented with electrical devices, most prominently a “self-exciting dynamo” which he used to illuminate lamps in the parlor of his Pearl Street house in Salem every evening of July, 1859–twenty years before Thomas Edison’s light bulb. This, then, was the first instance of domestic incandescent illumination in the United States, right here in Salem. Of course Farmer’s achievement, like that of Edison, was based on the experiments of a succession of scientists: electrical experimentation, along with the first appearance of the word electricity, commenced in earnest in mid-17th century England.

I wish we had more (or any!!!) reports of Salem citizens observing the illuminated house on Pearl Street in the summer of 1859. I imagine crowds standing outside, night after night. This house is still standing, and its owners have paid tribute to what happened in their home with a sign on its exterior. I applaud their effort and enthusiasm, but I think the date is incorrect: after all, Farmer illuminated this very home in 1859. The MACRIS database identifies the house as the William Knight House, built in 1846.

Light 009

Light 010

I am imagining crowds in front of this house in 1859: over a half-century later we have documentation of crowds, and cars, converging before another “electrical” house in Salem. In 1924 the North Shore Real Estate Board commissioned the construction of an attractive colonial revival house on Loring Avenue (just down the road from the Sylvania Plant) equipped with all manner of state-of-the-art electrical appliances and gizmos, a house of and for the future, and another scientific dream fulfilled. It was open to the public for the month of June, and then sold; I drive by it several times a week.

electricity


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