Tag Archives: maritime history

Anchor Away?

As if it is not enough to bury the archives of a historical seaport in an inland warehouse 45 minutes away, rumor has it that one of the prominent symbols of Salem’s maritime heritage will also be removed: the large anchor that stood sentinel in front of the East India Marine Hall for over a century. I don’t like to trade in rumor, but given the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum’s propensity to avoid announcements until their intended actions have become faits accomplis, I think I should. We’re all scrambling to save as much of Salem’s historic fabric as we can. But I have a question mark in my title and am ready, indeed eager, to issue a retraction. Looking at the latest renderings for the addition that is rising on the western side of hall, however, I fear that that won’t be necessary.

Anchor 1912

Anchors First

Anchors 2

Anchors NS MAG EssexStreetLookingEastatNight-ba45be61East India Marine Hall and its milieu, 1912-the near future? As you can see, the anchor—clearly maritime kitsch that would spoil the sleek streetscape envisioned—is not there. Below we have a livelier, anchor-centric rendering from Rich Mather Architects: unfortunately Mather died and the PEM looked elsewhere, although his colleagues and successors at MICA Architects carried on with the rest of his commissions.

Anchors Aweigh Rich Mather Landscape Architect

To be fair, the anchor has not been in front of the East India Marine Hall from the date of its erection, but only since 1906. It was a gift from Theodore Roosevelt’s short-lived Secretary of the Navy Charles Bonaparte, of the “American Bonapartes” descended from the little Emperor’s younger brother Jerome. Secretary Bonaparte seems to have been a remarkably tone-deaf official, as almost immediately upon his appointment, in response to solicitations for funds to restore the venerable USS Constitution, he asserted that Old Ironsides should be towed out to sea and used as target practice! This caused an uproar in Boston, as you can imagine: the Boston Transcript opined that “to New England sailors, firing on the Constitution would be almost as offensive as bombarding Bunker Hill Monument or Plymouth Rock” and the national press ran stories under the headline “Secretary Bonaparte’s Collision with New England Patriotism”. There were Save the Constitution fairs and petitions, as the combined forces of the Daughters of the War of 1812 and the Massachusetts Historical Society shepherded a movement which forced Bonaparte to back down. He wisely did so, and in his second (and last) annual report he called for patriotic celebrations in Massachusetts’ seaport towns, in recognition of the Bay State’s maritime heritage. This was the compensatory initiative that brought a hand-forged c. 1820 anchor to rest before the East India Marine Hall in 1906. As long-time Peabody Museum treasurer and trustee John Robinson noted in his 1921 pamphlet The Marine Room at the Peabody Museum of Salem,“as an anchor is the emblem of the Salem East India Marine Society, for whom the building was erected in 1824, the placing of this large, old-time anchor at its front is very appropriate”. Apparently not now.


Bewitched Girls and Seafaring Boys

These days I don’t have much time to read fiction in general, and I tend to avoid novels set in Salem in particular, but I’m always on the lookout for later nineteenth and early twentieth-century novels with alluring covers as part of my ever-increasing, very random Salem collection of material objects. My interest is more cultural than literary, and two trends are immediately apparent when you examine a range of Salem titles dating from the first half of the twentieth century: the girls are somehow entangled in the Witch Trials, and the boys are off to sea. I can’t imagine a more distinct gender division–and while the accused/entrapped/bewitched girls continue into the later twentieth century and later, the seafaring boys disappear. Here we have a YA literary illustration of the rise and dominance of Witch City. I think it all starts with the 1842 publication of Ebeneezer Wheelwright’s The Salem Belle: A Tale of 1692, which has recently been revisited, reissued and revealed: as source material for Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. 

Salem fiction collage

And after Salem Belle: Ye Lyttle Salem Maid: a Story of Witchcraft (1898) by Pauline Bradford Mackie, Lucy Foster Madison’s Maid of Salem Town (1906), Dulcibel by Henry Peterson (1907), and Frederick Sterling’s A Fair Witch (1911), and others—most were popular and reprinted continuously in the first decades of the nineteenth century. This is a 1934 edition which illustrates the type of covers I crave almost perfectly.

Fictional Salem Maid of Salem Towne

One novel from this era that doesn’t quite fit into the endangered-Salem-maid category is Esther Forbes’ Mirror for Witches, which was first published in 1928 and was seldom out of print for the rest of the century. With its provocative woodcut illustrations by Robert Gibbings and its seventeenth-century “voice” (of a girl who witnessed her parents’ burning for witchcraft before she came to Salem), this tale is pretty graphic in more ways than one: the New York Times assessed it as a “strange, eerie book” and a “unique achievement”. It’s hard to believe that Forbes was also the author of Johnny Tremaine!

Mirror collage

Salem Fiction Mirror for Witches 1928

Plots get lot more modernly romantic as the twentieth century progresses, of course, resulting in novels like Mildred Reid’s The Devil’s Handmaidens (1951), in which Puritan maiden Hope Farrell is betrothed to a wealthy Salem magistrate when the object of her affection, handsome young sailor Dan Marston, is captured by slave traders on one of his annual voyages. When he returns eventually, she confesses her love for him but maintains that “a Godly maiden does not break a troth”, and heartbroken Dan yields to the wanton wiles of a certain Submit Tibby (I kid you not). Meanwhile, all hell breaks loose when the Salem Village girls start their fits, and Hope’s own mother is drawn into their net. It’s all there on the cover, how could I resist it? A least we have a little maritime history here. A romantic rivalry also fuels the plot of John Jenning’s The Salem Frigate (1946) which moves the setting up to the Salem’s golden age. The covers below (hardcover and paperback) are a little deceiving: we’re in the realm of men now.

Salem Fiction Devils

Salem Frigate collage

The realm of men (or boys) generally necessitates a wartime setting for Salem novels: the Salem Frigate was set primarily during the War of 1812, and a series of adventurous Salem boys books from earlier in the century featured the American Revolution: The Armed Ship America; or When we Sailed from Salem (1900) was part of James Otis’s Boy’s Own Series, A Patriot Lad of Old Salem (1925) was one volume in a series of Patriot Lads books written by Russell Gordon Carter. Mildred Flagg’s A Boy of Salem (1939), a companion to the author’s Plymouth Maid, is set in the time of seventeenth-century settlement, not that of the later trials. All these Salem boys have a great deal of freedom of mobility: they face the frontier and trials which are largely self-imposed, in stark contrast to those of their fictional female counterparts who were confined to the suffocating world of Salem, 1692.

boys fiction collage


In-Vested

Yesterday I was treated to a very special tour of the China Trade gallery and basement of the Peabody Essex Museum by a distinguished and generous curator, and while I was able to snap lots of photographs (exhibition items, packing and conservation materials, amazing things in storage, including a whole subterranean gallery of ship models, some in their original Peabody Museum cases) I came away thinking about just one item, a portrait of Captain William Story by the Chinese artist known in the west as “Spoilum” (Guan Zuolin). The Story portrait stuck with me for two reasons. I had just been reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Custom-House” prelude to The Scarlet Letter, which disses Story as one of the venerable figures, sitting in old–fashioned chairs, which were tipped on their hind legs back against the wall. Oftentimes they were asleep, but occasionally might be heard talking together, ill voices between a speech and a snore, and with that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms–houses, and all other human beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on monopolized labour, or anything else but their own independent exertions. These old gentlemen—seated, like Matthew at the receipt of custom, but not very liable to be summoned thence, like him, for apostolic errands—were Custom–House officers. By all accounts this is an unfair characterization of Story, who was ending his storied maritime career with a post at the Custom House as Weigher and Gauger, but you can read about his long career here. The other reason I was so taken by Story’s portrait is far less weighty: once again I wondered, why is his hand in his vest? This is a portrait by a Chinese artist who probably knew nothing of that western convention—or perhaps Spoilum was such a popular artist precisely because he did.

Story PEM

Story Spoilum

Importing Splendor gallery wall at the Peabody Essex Museum with portrait of Spoilum’s Portrait of William Story, c. 1804; close-up from MIT’s “Envisioning Cultures” website.

Everyone seems to associate the hand-in-vest/waistcoat pose with Napoleon but many such portraits predate those of the little emperor. Why put the hand in this position in an expression of apparent disablement? Or is it cloaked power? Then there are the rather spurious theories of Masonic hidden hands or attempts by the artists to lessen the challenge of rendering hands by painting just one. Apparently it was simply a dictate of genteel behavior, handed down from the ages of Greece and Rome (which explains the pose’s eighteenth-century origins, in that most neo-classical of centuries). If it was a question of gentility, you can see how the pose would appeal to merchants and sea captains, self-made men who perhaps wanted to appeal a bit more polished for posterity.

Piggot

Young Mariner

George_Washington,_1776

Spoilum Cranstoun

Portrait of a Western Merchant

American Sea Captain Dutch School

Ships Model PEM

Pre-Napoleon in-vested sea captains (+ General Washington): Joseph Blackburn, Portrait of Captain John Pigott, c. 1752, LACMA; John Durand, Portrait of Young Mariner, ca. 1768–1772, collection of John and Judith Herdeg; Charles Willson Peale, General George Washington, 1776, Brooklyn Museum of Art; Chinese-export Reverse Painted Mirror of Captain John Cranstoun, c. 1785, Bonhams; Spoilum, Portrait of Western Merchant, c. 1785, “Envisioning Cultures at MIT; Portrait of an American Ship Captain (Purported to be Captain John Thompson of Philadelphia who engaged in the China trade), c. 1785, Sotheby’s + in the basement of the Peabody Essex: what a treat!


Sail Boston 2017

It was probably not the best day for it—the city was hot, humid, and teeming with people—but yesterday we took the Salem Ferry into Boston to look at the tall ships in town for Sail Boston 2017. Apparently there were more than 100 in the harbor, the largest number in many years due to Boston’s status as an official port of the trans-Atlantic Rendez-Vous 2017 Tall Ships Regatta. We didn’t see them all, but we saw many, before I dived into a breezy hotel bar in pursuit of water, which I quickly followed with a gin and tonic (or two). The stars of the show were undoubtedly the Chilean barquentine Esmerelda and the German barque Alexander von Humboldt II–I wish I had seen them in Saturday’s Parade of Sail. For striking photographs, I think they docked the most dramatic, pirate-ship-looking vessels at Rowes Wharf : the bright red Atyla from Spain and the beautiful Dutch barque Europa. I certainly took my share of shots of the latter (including the first photographs below), but the crowds were so thick around the former it was hard to get a good angle (plus a Sail Boston staffer kept yelling at us to KEEP MOVING). I’m really glad we took the ferry in, not just because driving and parking would have been a nightmare, but also because we got to see the smaller schooners under sail, darting around each other and the islands in Boston Harbor. The ships are here until Thursday: if you have some precious weekday time off they are well worth seeing, especially as the crowds will be a bit sparser.

Sailboston 4

SB Collage

Sailboston 6

SB OOST

SB Galeon

SB ESSEX

SB BEST HARBOR

SB SECOND BEST

SailBoston Church

Around and in Boston Harbor for Sail Boston 2017 on Sunday—and look at this beautiful NEW Catholic Church in the Seaport District: Our Lady of Good Voyage Shrine.


Cabin in the Sky

The evening before last I was incredibly privileged to be able to attend a gathering in a ship’s cabin at the top of the Hawthorne Hotel. Not an actual cabin of course, but a rather convincing model, built for the Salem Marine Society in the 1920s as a condition of the sale of their building to the developers of the hotel. The Society, which was founded in 1766, had met continually at this location since 1830, and while its members do not seem to have been particularly attached to their Italianate Franklin Building (which replaced the earlier McIntire Archer Block, destroyed by fire in 1860), they were very attached to the site. And so the new hotel opened in 1925 featuring not only six stories and the latest accouterments, but also a rooftop cabin room, inspired by the actual captain’s cabin of one of the last great Salem East Indiamen, the barque Taria Topan. This cabin in the sky also represents the fruitful collaboration between the barque’s one-time commander, Captain Edward Trumbull, and the architect of the Hawthorne, Philip Horton Smith. It remains the private meeting room of the Salem Marine Society and their occasional guests, of which I was fortunate to be one.

Salem Marine Society Cabin HH

Cabin Room HH

SMS Cabin Interior

Hawthorne Hotel Buildings Collage

Cabin HH Exterior

Nathaniel Bowditch presides over the Salem Marine Society’s cabin at the top of the Hawthorne Hotel, the evolution of construction on the spot, from Samuel McIntire’s Archer Block (completed by 1810) to the Franklin Building (built after 1860) to the Hawthorne Hotel (built in 1925); X marks the spot of the rooftop cabin.

I was so excited to be in this space that I was a bit frenzied and not very good company, I’m afraid. I just wanted to see and capture everything. My skittishness was compounded by the fact that it was an absolutely beautiful early evening, and the ship’s cabin opens up onto an equally enticing (on such a day) ship’s deck, affording amazing views of Salem in every direction. Up in the air, surrounded by water on three sides, Salem’s original maritime orientation is all too apparent: the next time someone complains to me about how inaccessible is, I’m going to tell them to take a boat.

View of the Harbor from HH

View of Salem Common

View of Essex Street from Rooftop

But all those dashing sea captains were back inside, hanging from the teak-paneled walls in the form of portraits (alongside navigational instruments and paintings of ships) and encased in the Society’s registry of masters, a vast compendium of faces from 1766 to the present. I could have spent hours with this volume, gazing at all these drawings, paintings, silhouettes, and photographs of men and (finally!) women. There are so many ways you could use this source: it’s not just a record of maritime history, but also genealogy, social history, military history, even fashion history. Hats, no hats, hats, no hats.

Captain Abbot

Captain Fisk of Salem

Captain Collage

Captains Collage

Captain Fillebrownp.

Captains Abbot, Fiske, Chipman, Millet, Ward (clockwise), Tucker (right) and Webb, masters and members of the Salem Marine Society; a 20th century portrait of Captain John Fillebrown, who served in the War of 1812 and died a prisoner of war at Dartmoor Prison in England, along with 270 other Americans.

There were stories to be found in the cabin as well. The most apparent and dramatic one concerned the status of the Society’s very first honorary member, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Commander in the U.S. Navy and the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory. Despite his maritime magnificence, Maury was a Virginian and so not eligible for membership in the Society, but its membership honored his achievements by bestowing an honorary membership on him in 1859 and hanging his portrait on the wall of their original rooms.Two years later, after Maury resigned his commission and joined the Confederacy upon the start of the Civil War, the Salem mariners rescinded his membership, condemned him as a traitor, and placed his portrait head down and against the wall. This “reverse orientation” remains to this day, though a visiting delegation of the Mary Washington Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities gifted the Society with another image of Commander Maury in 2008, which hangs alongside the reversed portrait. And so now, in the words of the southern Commander, “All is Well”.

Salem Marine Society Cabin Interior

Sticken from our rolls


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.


The Wayfaring Chapel

To stick with cinema for just a bit, I’ve always believed that those in Salem who favor the maritime over the witchcraft in terms of tourism focus are handicapped a bit because Salem was not a whaling port like New Bedford. Merchants are simply not as dashing and courageous as whalers; there is no Hawthornian equivalent of Moby Dick. When I think of the latter, I must admit that images from the 1956 film come to mind much more quickly and vividly than detailed passages from the 1851 book, and the very first image that comes to mind is the passionate preaching of Father Mapple (Orson Welles) from that amazing pulpit shaped like the bow of a ship in a seamen’s chapel, or Bethel, packed with mariners. Both the preacher and the place were based on reality; in the case of the former, the “Mariner’s Preacher” of the Boston Bethel, Edward Thompson Taylor, and the Bethel was based on that of New Bedford, which is still standing (its original pulpit was not the elaborate one depicted in the film, but a similar one constructed to satisfy the tourists who made their way to New Bedford in increasing numbers due to the popularity of the film–a version of Salem’s Samantha statue).

Bethel

Bethel Collage

Orson Welles in John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956); The New Bedford Bethel or “Whaleman’s Chapel”, exterior and interior.

Like nearly every seaport of a certain size, Salem had a Seamen’s Bethel too, but it was a wandering one. It clearly existed in the early part of the nineteenth century (there is an extant sign, and several references to a chapel at the head of Phillips Wharf), but was reincarnated later on. The French Catholic parish, St. Joseph’s, purchased an old Bethel on Herbert Street in 1873, and then it turns up in two locations on Turner Street: first right on the water in the House of the Seven Gables’ front yard, and then alongside it on the street. A large bequest by Captain Henry Barr funded the construction of this later building in 1890-91, but a decade later newspapers across the country were commenting on Salem’s fading maritime glory, testified to by the fact there were simply not enough sailors in Salem to attend services in this new Bethel; consequently the YMCA took over the building in 1911. By the 1920s it was moved to another location on Turner Street to accommodate the expanding House of Seven Gables Settlement Association, and by the 1930s it was gone. The last picture of the Bethel below, taken by the Boston-based architectural photographer Leon Abdalian in 1929, was probably more notable for the blimp than the Bethel at the time!

Seamen's Bethel Salem on Water

Bethel on Turner

The Salem Seamen’s Bethel, 1914 and 1929, Boston Public Library.


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