Life magazine was a different sort of periodical in its first incarnation, from 1883 to 1936, than after, when photographs characterized its style and substance. The earlier Life was all about illustration, and all the famous graphic artists of the era contributed to its pages: everyone from Charles Dana Gibson to Norman Rockwell. It seems to have been a humorous society magazine with some very cutting caricatures, and as I was leafing through a succession of Thanksgiving “numbers” I found a very dark view of the “Ye Merrie New England Thanksgiving of Earlier Dayes” by illustrator F.T Richards from 1895. Dark. Even Hawthornesque, you might say.
And quite a departure from the more playful portrayal of Thanksgiving Pilgrims published in Life and other contemporary periodicals in the first decades of the twentieth century: First Thanksgivings, amorous encounters and myriad in-the-stocks scenarios. Then the war comes and changes everything for longer than its duration, followed by the cult-of-celebrity culture that still seems to define us.
The first of March: a notable historical day from my own geographical perspective, as it marks the anniversaries of both the incorporation of the first English “city” in North America, my hometown of York, Maine (in 1642), and the commencement of the most dominant event (unfortunately) in the history of my adopted hometown of Salem, Massachusetts: the Witch Trials of 1692. March is also one of my favorite months, so I always wake up happy on its first day. I am sure that this is a minority opinion among my fellow New Englanders, for whom March is generally perceived as the muddiest month. It certainly can be muddy here, and cold, snowy, rainy, dark, windy, and raw. But it can also be bright (like today) with a brilliant sun that seems to highlight the material world in stark detail. It is the month of all weather, and also a month of transition. That’s what I like about it: you are heading somewhere in March (towards spring); you are not already there (like winter or summer). I like to be en route, in transition, looking forward, in the process—and March feels like that to me, all month long. If you look at magazine covers from their turn-of-the-last-century Golden Age, advertising artistry rather than celebrity, many seem to convey that movement, if only to depict the wind. At least those that don’t feature rabbits.
March covers from 1895 (2); 1896 (3);1897; 1900; 1905 & 1907; Swann Auction Galleries, Boston Public Library, and Library of Congress.
Out on Salem Sound the other day, sailing in a beautiful boat, I looked over at one of the several islands that mark the entrance to Salem Harbor and tried to imagine what once was. Off Great Misery Island there is a calm maritime meeting place referred to as “Cocktail Cove”: while one imbibes off-island now a century ago drinks were served on the island, first at the Misery Island Club, which became the Casino Hotel in 1904, and also in private cottages: 26 in all. Most of the structures on Great Misery were swept away by a fire in May of 1926 (just before the season), and both it and its adjacent island, Little Misery, reverted to nature under the stewardship of the Trustees of Reservations. But for a quarter of a century or so, Great Misery was quite a happening place, and its cottages attracted the attention of contemporary shelter magazines. House & Garden and The House Beautiful featured several Misery Island summer houses on their pages in their “aughts” heyday, all bungalows, and all the work of Salem architect Ernest M.A. Machado, an extremely enterprising young architect who died far too soon.
Sailing to the Misery Islands, passing the Fame along the way–off Great Misery.
Ernest Machado’s buildings on Great Misery: the Clubhouse/Casino (MIT Archives); the bungalow of Mrs. Charles Steadman Hanks (Mary Harrod Northend, “Some Seacoast Bungalows”, House and Garden, June 1905), “Ye Court of Hearts” (The House Beautiful, June 1905), the bungalow of Mr. George Lee, “The Anchorage” of Mr. George Towle (The House Beautiful, June 1909) , and “The Bunker” of Mr. Jacob C. Rogers (The House Beautiful, June 1906).
All of these Misery Island bungalow-owners lived on the mainland, either down in Boston or somewhere on the North Shore (Rogers was the last private owner of Samuel McIntire’s majestic Oak Hill, where the Northshore Mall now stands, or should I say sprawls), but they also owned summer houses along the Gold Coast: these cottages were for the weekend! The magazine articles accompanying these images emphasize the simplicity of the island bungalows, but it was a very deliberate, and very occasional, ethic. For about a quarter century, Misery was a Gilded Age playground, complete with shooting range and golf course, perfect for Harvard senior “Robinson Crusoe” picnics and reunions. Its moment might have been even shorter: social register references seem to appear with much less frequency in the teens and twenties, and then this very social chapter in the island’s history closes much more abruptly with the 1926 fire.
Newspaper reports of the 1902 Harvard reunions (Boston Post, June 22-25, 1902 ) and 1926 fire (Boston Daily Globe, May 8-10, 1926); Great Misery today, and home in Salem Harbor on a glorious early evening!