I drove “out west” to the recently-reopened EmilyDickinsonMuseum last week thinking it would just be a pleasant last road trip of the summer during which I would learn a bit more about the poet, take some photographs of her house and the surrounding Pioneer Valley, and then return home to dash off a quick post and then turn to my syllabus prep as the new semester starts TOMORROW. But that’s not how it worked out: I couldn’t dismiss Emily or the rest of the Dickinsons that quickly or easily. The “Homestead” was striking and the tour substantive, but I left with fewer pictures and more questions than I intended to have. Emily remains enigmatic, but I found myself more interested in her living conditions than her work: the physical space of the house and its surrounding land, which was much larger and more pastoral in her time, her dashing brother Austin and very close sister-in-law Susan next door, the constant companionship of her younger sister Lavinia, and what can only be called the LOOMING presence of her brother’s pushy mistress and the first editor of her work, Mabel Loomis Todd. Emily managed never to meet Mabel (which I find particularly impressive) but nevertheless she was there. It was just all too much for me, so I wondered how Emily persevered/flourished in such a space! So when I got home, I couldn’t possibly post before I read three books about Emily and her family, all when I should have been working on my syllabi! This beast was the best: I could not put it down for two days, an amazing work of scholarship.
The Dickinson “Homestead,” members of the family, the library and conservatory. The Museum places pinecones on period seating which it does not want you to sit on, but also provides period seating in green!
So much LOVE and DEATH! Emily’s parents die–her mother after a long incapacitation in the bedroom next to Emily’s, and then her beloved young nephew. His father, her brother Austin, begins his passionate and long affair with Mabel, wife of a young Amherst College astronomer, and Emily has to pussyfoot around her own house, the Homestead, to get to her conservatory off the library while they are having liasons! Next door at the Evergreens, the social center of Amherst it seems, her very best friend and “sister over the hedge,” Sue Dickinson, is in distress over her husband’s open adultery. Emily herself commences a passionate-yet-platonic (I think?) relationship with an old friend of her father’s, Judge Otis Phillips Lord from SALEM. She refers to him as “My Lovely Salem” in her letters and he visited her often before his death in 1884. Emily died two years later and then Mabel the Mistress takes over, with the approval, at first, of Lavinia. The Poet is established, but conflict between all of the surviving insiders ensues, resulting in many Dickinson possessions and Emily’s papers going to Harvard. The recently-restored Homestead contains period copies of everything and so you really feel the Dickinson presence (or at least I did) but Harvard’s Houghton Library is the major Dickinson repository.
The amazingly colorful double parlor: somewhat subdued walls and brightly-patterned floors seems to be the theme. The lovely runner and second-floor landing floorcover by ThistleHillWeavers; Emily’s bedroom and stand-in “desk”—a Federal work table. The real desk in the Dickinson Room at the Houghton Library.
But displaced possessions don’t matter, believe me, the house is THE HOUSE, and it is so colorful and full of texture, it feels alive! I loved it: the curation of the interiors seemed to echo the “meticulous care” Emily took with her own life. There are period pieces, both authentic and reproduction papers and textiles, and also some donations from the recently-concluded Dickinson series. The Homestead is a palimpest house: built in 1813 in a more austere Federal style, it was expanded and embellished by Emily’s father, and interpreted as her family house. I think I responded to it so much because it reminded me of my own house, built in 1827 and “italianaticized” in the 1850s, but my double parlor is nowhere near as colorful as Emily’s! You’ve got to go; you’ll have your own response, believe me.
A fragment of period wallpaper in Emily’s room, and an utilitarian white dress representative of what she preferred; her mother’s room next door, furnished with a bed from Dickinson the television series; the only surviving tree from the Dickinson era: an oak which survived the Hurricane of 1938. The Evergreens, Austin’s and Sue’s house, which is closed now but apparently still perfectly Italianate inside.
I have taken a lot of road trips this summer: west, south, north. On my way to any place in the first two directions, I’ve tried to explore a territory I call “middle Massachusetts” between the greater Boston area (which I tend to extend to Worcester) and the Berkshires. The latter has a very strong identiy as you can see from the map I found in a shop in Great Barrington, below, as does greater Boston, the North and South Shores, and Cape Cod. But I’m just not sure about the middle: part of it could be called the Connecticut and/or Pioneer valley, but other parts seem not exactly mysterious to me, but rather amorphous. My attempts to discover and characterize Middle Massachusetts has taken me down some small old roads, and so far my favorite route has been Massachusetts Route 57, which extends from just south of Springfield almost to Great Barrington, just north of the Connecticut border. This route is perfect: not one chain store, lots of old houses, general stores, taverns, rolling hills, rivers, state forests, and a lake or two. I’m not sure why it’s not referenced on maps of nineteenth-century Massachusetts turnpikes, as it was clearly a major route from Springfield to the Berkshires from quite early on judging by the structures that line its path.
From the Berkshire perspective above, Route 57 includes several western Massachusetts towns, but I don’t know, Sandisfield doesn’t feel very Berkshirey to me although it is formally in that county My favorite town on Route 57, Granville, is definitely not a Berkshire town, nor is neighboring Tolland, and then you drive through the New Boston village of Sandisfield, Sandisfield proper, New Marlborough, Monterey, and then finally Great Barrington. Route 57 merges with Route 23, another nice old route but not quite as pristine and rural. Great houses line the road, some a little shabby, some very shiny. Soon I was in New York State, and I returned home on a series of other lesser-known east-west routes, in northern “Middle Massachusetts.” It’s just too easy to take the Mass Pike.
Structures in Granville, West Granville (for some reason I didn’t snap a picture of the very much open Granville General Store—which has great cheese—but I did capture the very closed West Granville Store) New Boston, Sandisfield and New Marlborough along Route 57.
The ConcordMuseum has been one of my favorite local history museums for some time, but I haven’t been there since the completion of a major expansion and reinterpretation initiative during the Covid years. Late last week I found myself with some free time and so off to Concord I went. I was impressed with the update, but just like the last time I visited, I could only really see the Concord Museum through the prism of a missing Salem Museum: I walked through the exhibits, which manage to be both chronological and thematic, sweeping yet very focused, thinking: Concord had this, but Salem had more of this, and also that! Salem did that first! OMG I can imagine a perfect Salem exhibit just like this Concord one, just change the names. And ultimately: can’t Salem just copy Concord? Why can’t Salem have a Concord Museum? This is really not fair to the Concord Museum, which should be viewed on its own merits rather than comparatively, but lately (well, not so lately) I’ve become obsessed with the idea of a comprehensive Salem Museum which lays out ALL of Salem’s history in a chronological yet thematic, sweeping yet focused way: from the seventeenth through the twenty-first century, first encounters to Covid. It should be accessible and inclusive in every way, downtown of course, and it must be a collaboration between the City and the Peabody Essex Museum, because the latter possesses the greater part of Salem’s history in textual and material form. Really lately, I’ve come to think of Salem as experiencing an invasion of the body snatchers scenario, in which all of its authentic history has been detached to another town, only to be replaced by stories that are not its own: real pirates from Cape Cod, vampires who could be from anywhere and everywhere. Can’t we tell the real story, and the whole story?
So, with apologies to the Concord Museum, I’m turning it into a sort of template while also (I hope!) presenting its exhibits in some interpretive and topical detail. The museum lays out an essentially chronological view of Concord’s history, while first identifying Concord’s most prominent historical role, as a center of the emerging American Revolution, and both acknowledging and examining its regional indigenous history. Then we stroll though Concord’s history, which is told through both texts and objects, and lots of visual clues asking us to look closely.
Indigenous regions & English plantations: the Concord Museum explores the land negotiations in detail.[Salem also posseses a 17th century land-transfer document, held at City Hall. The 1686 “Original Indian Deed” of Frank Cousin’s photograph below features many more signature marks of Native Americans, testifying to a more complicated negotiation? I don’t really know: it’s not part of Salem’s public history.]
“Original Indian Deed” at Salem City Hall, c. 1890, Frank Cousins Collection at the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum via Digital Commonwealth.
You walk through the Concord Museum viewing exhibits in chronological order, but there are necessary tangents, and the biggest stand-alone exhibit is devoted to the events of one day: April 19, 1775. This is a new permanent exhibit, and it utilizes all the latest technology of visual storytelling while at same time focusing on the personal experiences of those involved. The famous Doolittle images, rendered dynamic, rim the perimeter of the exhibition room and a large digital map illustrates the events of the day. There’s a lot of movement in this room! We also hear from some of the participants and see the texts and objects which highlight their experience. How does one get ready for a Revolution? How does war affect daily life?
[Obviously, in a Salem Museum, one permanent exhibit would have to be devoted to the Witch Trials: interpreted not only as a story but as a collective and contextual experience. Apart from 1692, Salem should be paying a lot more attention to its Revolutionary role(s): not just Leslie’s Retreat, but also its brief role as a provincial capital and those of all of its privateers! Real Salem privateers.]
There is a continuous emphasis on how individuals experienced and shaped their world in the Museum’s exhibits, encompassing both big events, pressing issues, and daily life. We learn about the African-American experience in Concord through both official documents and the lives of two black families in town: the Garrisons and the Dugans, whose members were acquainted with both enslavement and freedom. Thomas Dugan’s probate inventory is posted, alongside a display of the possessions listed thereon. Concord’s dynamic abolitionist movement is another window into the institution of slavery, but it is not the only one. As would certainly be the case with a Salem presentation, abolition provides an opportunity to showcase female agency, and the Museum’s exhibits do not disappoint. But again, all I could think of was: Salem’s Female Anti-Slavery Society predates Concord’s Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society by several years, AND it was desegregated because it was an extension of the first female abolitionist society in Salem, which was founded by African-American women.
The Museum’s exhibits on slavery and abolition: Mary Merrick Brooks was a particularly active member of the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, and because her husband did not support its efforts, she sold her own tea cakes; “potholder quilts” were made up of squares like this one, which were also sold at Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Fairs in Concord (as well as Salem).
[The Histories of Slavery and Abolition illustrate the Salem problem really well, as there has been lots of research into both over the past few years by several institutions, including the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Peabody Essex Museum, and Hamilton Hall. But their efforts are all SILOED, and this prevents the diffusion of a comprehensive history of both to residents and visitors alike. Salem Maritime has developed walking tours and a research guide into African-American history in Essex County, the PEM is currently exhibiting an examination of school desegregation in Salem, and Hamilton Hall has had lots of materials and texts pertaining to the Remond Family on its website for several years, but are all these resources really getting out there? A common space and place for historical collaboration and exhibition would amplify all of these efforts considerably. We have so much information, from Salem’s 1754 Slave Census entry (below), to the recently-rediscovered 1810 Census for Salem, to the digitized records of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society (credit to the PEM’s Phillips Library for getting both the Census and the SFASS records out there), to the abolition petitions digitized by Harvard: but it’s not being used to tell a cohesive and comprehensive story! The Concord Museum has an Uncle Tom statue which once belong to Henry David Thoreau, but the Salem Museum could display an Uncle Tom’s Cabin card game manufactured by the Ives Brothers in 1852.]
There were 83 enslaved persons in Salem in 1754 according to the Massachusetts Slave Census of that year.
Like Salem, Concord has many heritage sites, so I imagine the Concord Museum serves as an orientation center from which people can go on to visit the Alcott’s Orchard House, Minute Man National Historical Park, or Walden Pond (among other places!) The Museum has reproduced Ralph Waldo Emerson’s parlor—while the actual room is just across the way–and utilized digital technology to enhance its interpretation. There’s also a great exhibit on Henry David Thoreau, but Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne seem a bit short-changed—maybe there’s an evolving emphasis? A Salem Museum would have a host of public intellectuals to juggle as well. Lots of material objects “made in Concord” or purchased in Concord and we also get to learn about the town’s conspicuous visitors—some of whom stayed at the famous Old Middlesex Hotel. [it would be so much fun to research an exhibition on who stayed at Salem’s equally famous Essex House.]
Details from the Concord Museum’s Emerson and Thoreau rooms—the star is one of several placed by Concord antiquarian Cummings E. Davis, whose collection is essentially the foundation of the Museum, along a trail in Walden Woods to lead people to Thoreau’s cabin. Loved this image of the Old Middlesex Hotel which seems to have played a hospitality role similar to that of the Essex House in Salem, below (an 1880 photograph).
I’m skipping over a lot, as there was a lot to see, so you’ll have to go to the Museum yourself, but I did want to mention its engagement with Concord’s storied history as well as the documented past. Concord is a famous place, just like Salem, and so there is an obligation not only to present the past but also to address how the past has been presented, to take on “Paul Revere’s Ride” as well as April 19th. I really liked how the Museum presented the process of commemorating the Battles of Lexington and Concord a hundred years later, chiefly through the commission of Daniel Chester French’s Minute Man statue. A photograph of a group of disenfranchised Concord women surrounding the statue at its unveiling on April 19, 1875 makes a big statement, especially as Louisa May Alcott, present on that day, later noted that women could not march in the grand parade unescorted or even sit in the stands to listen to speeches of the day (maybe this was a blessing).
Lilacs are so ubiquitous in New England in May that you tend to overlook them, but over the past pleasant days I have been seeking them out in some of my favorite spots. I’m always so conflicted during this month, as my academic responsiblities conflict with my desire to immerse myself in all things horticultural. Over the last few weeks, I missed both Lilac Sunday at the Arnold Arboretum, as well as the peak spring blooming at the Stevens-Coolidge garden in North Andover. But I finished my grading over the weekend, and found myself going to and from my family’s house in York Harbor, Maine on my own wayward routes, chasing lilacs along the way. I saw lilacs by the sea, lilacs in town, lilacs in the country, lilacs by front doors, back doors, bulkheads, gates, and many many fences.
Starting out in York Harbor yesterday (where it seems to me that there were many more lilacs in the past; I guess childhood memories are always like that!), then on to Portsmouth, where lilacs peaking through garden gates and alongside foundations lured me into StrawberryBanke. I really loved the garden at the Nutter House, the boyhood home of author Thomas Bailey Aldrich–this last lilac bush is in the garden his wife designed for him later and it is at least a century old. More on this garden later in the summer!
From Portsmouth, I drove to North Andover, as I decided to visit the Stevens-Coolidge garden even though I knew the tulips would be a bit past their peak: it’s still a lovely garden! Not many lilacs though: just a couple of tall hedges, which were waving constantly on this very breezy day. North Andover is an old town, so I knew I’d find some lilacs peaking out from any number of places, and I was not disappointed: they enclose several venerable house lots, the Parson Barnard House included.
From North Andover I headed home on the old Salem Road that takes you through Middleton and Danvers: bound for the beautiful GlenMagna garden in the latter town. I ended the day in a purple haze, but also with lots of gratitude and appreciation for the North Andover, Topsfield and Danvers Historical Societies, which maintain all these properties in such beautiful condition. From my jaded Salem perspective, the absence of cash-cow commodification of heritage sites is so welcome and refreshing. I visit the Glen Magna garden all summer long, and view it much in the same way that its founder and his successors, the Salem merchant Joseph Peabody and several generations of the Endicott family, must have: as a retreat from bustling Salem. Of course I can’t set myself up in the house like they did, but I’m very grateful for the open garden! The last Endicott to summer at Glen Magna, William Crowninshield Endicott, Jr., brought the 1794 summer house designed by Samuel McIntire for the Derby farm on Lowell Street in Peabody to Glen Magna in 1901. This amazing structure is worth a visit at any time of the year—it looks just as strking in the midst of winter as it does in the midst of all this green, and purple.
Lilacs against the Parson Capen House’s barn, and the gardens at Glen Magna.
One thing that I’ve always loved about Massachusetts is its regional topographical diversity. I’m not sure that this is the correct phrase: topographical generally refers to the natural landscape but I’m referring to the built environment. In nearly every region of Massachusetts, you can explore urban and rural environments adjacent to each other, within the time span of an hour or so. It’s a bit more difficult to get the urban/rural contrast within the general vicinity of Boston, where suburban streetscapes reign, but elsewhere you can explore the architecture of a densely-settled old city by foot in one hour and then find yourself driving amidst farmland in the next. This was my experience over the past few days as I explored the South Coast of Massachusetts, which extends from Cape Cod to Rhode Island along Buzzards Bay. It was my Spring Break breakaway, as I decided to stay relatively close to home rather than taking a big trip. This is beautiful coastline, but if you’re familiar with this blog you know that I’m more interested in human history than the natural world so I tend to explore territory through buildings and this region contains quite an array of architecture. It’s an easy day trip, basically just following Route 6 from Fall River to Wareham or the other way around, but I spent a lot more time in rural New Bedford and rural Dartmouth than I expected to, so I stretched it out to two days. You could do a wonderful Industrial Revolution tour of these region, starting with the Old Slater Mill National Historical Park in nearby Pawtucket, Rhode Island and then proceeding to the powerhouse cities of Fall River and New Bedford where factories remain in various states of redevelopment or decline, but I was a bit more interested in domestic architecture on this trip.
Beginning with the cities, where you can see the impact of all that wealth from whaling (New Bedford) and manufacturing (Fall River AND New Bedford) very clearly, as well as the impact of the DECLINE of these industries. But I was focused on the former! Very impressive mid-nineteenth century houses in both cities: Fall River experienced a fire in 1843 which was followed apparently by a building boom, but both cities have impressive revival buildings: Greek, Gothic, even Renaissance. I stayed away from everything relating to the notorious Lizzie Borden in Fall River for the same reason I don’t dwell on anything related to 1692 here: I’m not interested in the commercial exploitation of tragedy. In New Bedford, I breezed through the Whaling Museum too quickly: that definitely deserves its own post and both cities (of course) have active historical societies that document and exhibit their economic and social histories.
Great Gothic Revivals! This regional ramble was prompted by my desire to see just one house, the William J. Rotch cottage in New Bedford (first up below), and it has some impressive neighbors.
This last red house is in Fall River; all the rest are in New Bedford, in the immediate vicinity of the Rotch Cottage.
Great Greek Revivals!
In both cities—-more institutional than residential I think, although some larger buildings began as residences and then became offices or institutions. The first house below is another Rotch house in New Bedford with a lovely adjacent garden, now a museum, and the following houses are also in New Bedford except for the last two, which are in nearby Mattapoisett: rural variations on a theme.
I didn’t expect Fall River to remind me of…….San Francisco? The Highlands Historic District looks WAY down on the Taunton River and Mount Hope Bay. I couldn’t really capture this in pictures, but here are a few houses in the district.
Idiosyncratic Buildings: The former Durfee High School/current Probate Court building in Fall River & the Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford.
Cape-Towns: the South Coast is very close to Cape Cod and thus very Cape-like, although less commercial. And all manner of Capes can be found all along Buzzards Bay, particularly east of New Bedford. I think this first one is in Westport (although I can’t quite remember, was in a bit of a daze at the time), and the following photographs are of Mattapoisett (2) and Marion (2).
Shingles: South of Boston you tend to see more shingles than clapboards on older houses, but there were some interesting shingle-clapboard combinations on the South Coast as well. Below: Westport (2), the lovely Dartmouth village of Padanaram (2), Marion (2), and the sign on the Rochester Women’s Club.
A working Coast, past and present: Outside of the cities, you can see evidence of work past and present: in the harbors, of course, but also on the land. The Russells Mills section of Dartmouth (which is one of the largest Massachusetts towns in terms of acreage) is preserved as an early center of rural industry, as is the Tremont Nail Factory District in Wareham, and there are “Right to Farm” signs in nearly all the towns I visited, and of course, cranberry bogs! Below: Russells Mills (2), Padanaram Harbor, and Wareham (2).
Some Orientation: Crop of the South Coast from Ernest Dudley Chase’s 1964 tourism map of Massachusetts, Boston Public Library; an old sign in Rochester.
I’ve got a lot of gardening and exterior house projects to do, but we’re in the midst of a stretch of rainy, foggy and soggy weather, so I can’t trim my hedges or paint my scraped and sanded deck (especially the latter). After last year’s summer of writing, I am more focused on activity this year, but we’ve had too few days of that perfect dry and sunny New England weather: it’s either wet or hot! I know I shouldn’t complain, as many parts of our country have it far worse, but I seem to be doing it anyway. Tuesday seemed particularly gray, so I threw EdwinWhitefield in the car and drove off in search of greener pastures: to the Merrimack River Valley. It was lush, lush, lush, a benefit of this icky weather for sure, and I really didn’t get very far: I went for more byways than highways and consequently just covered a southeastern corner of a much larger area. Whitefield was not a great guide, frankly: he missed a lot of Homes of our Forefathers in Amesbury, and West Newbury, and even the major metropolis of the region, Haverhill (I didn’t make it as far west as Lawrence or Lowell). Here’s my route (well, sort of):
Obviously I did not follow a thought-out or straightforward path, which explains why I didn’t cover much ground: one place led to another and these are large towns with lots of great houses to be found on nearly every road, requiring many stops. I don’t know Haverhill as well as some of the other towns in the valley, and it is large and diverse with lots to see: I really could have spent the entire day there. I drove up to the river on route 97 through Beverly, Topsfield, Boxford, Georgetown and Groveland, and searched for the one little house Whitefield sketched in the last town: not sure I found it but below are my top candidates. The bottom house is the wonderful George Hopkinson House on the National Register: unfortunately it faces the river rather than backing up to it, as in Whitefield’s sketch. Then it was across the river into Saltonstall country: like Salem and several other Massachusetts towns, the storied Saltonstall family looms large in Haverhill. But there is no Saltonstall house standing: the first one, the so-called “Saltonstall Seat” overlooking the river, burned down in the early 18th century, and a Georgian house later relocated to the shores of Lake Saltonstall was taken down in 1920. The Buttonwoods Museum (which really should update its hours) is home to the Haverhill Historical Society and the Duncan and Ward Houses, situated on the site of the Saltonstall Seat. Behind the Museum are historic cemeteries and the Highlands neighborhood, full of amazing houses in every conceivable architectural style. And then lakes! Haverhill really has a lot going for it, including a pretty vibrant downtown.
Groveland houses; Haverhill and the Merrimack in the 1880s; Whitefield’s Haverhill houses; the Duncan and Ward Houses of the Buttonwoods Museum.
After exploring the Highlands for a while I wanted to see if I could find a vista similar to the one in the print above, so I crossed the river over into Bradford, which is actually part of Haverhill. It is home to the charming campus of the now defunct Bradford College which originated as an academy at the seventeenth-century Kimball Tavern, now for sale. As I looked at this building, built in 1692, I began thinking about Haverhill’s famous captive, Hannah Dustin, who has been in the news recently as there is discussion about the appropriateness of her statue, given that she killed and scalped ten members of the Abenaki family holding her hostage after the raid on Haverhill in 1697. Her statue is scary, so I decided to cross the river again and go in search of the garrison house which her husband Thomas was building at the time of the raid. It now sits rather oddly next to a modern house and across from a golf course, but still intact. Then I got back on Whitefield track and went in search of the birthplace of another famous Haverhillian, John Greenleaf Whittier. From Whittier’s birthplace, now open, I naturally wanted to visit the house in which he resided later in life, in nearby Amesbury.
The Kimball Tavern, Dustin Garrison House and Whittier’s birthplace in Haverhill, and Whitter Homestead, Macy-Colby House, and a private 17th century house in Amesbury.
I took a very indirect route to Amesbury via Rocks Village, yet another village of sprawling Haverhill! Its bridge brings you across the river into West Newbury, which is full of eighteenth-century houses, and then I drove east into Newburyport and across the old chain bridge into Amesbury, also home to many early houses and ignored by Whitefield. As the day progressed towards the golden hour, things got a bit brighter, but it was also time to drive south towards home along route 1A. As is the case with Salem, the two houses which Whitefield chose to sketch in Newburyport are no longer standing: the Toppan and Pillsbury-Rawson Houses, which were both on High Street, I believe. But all of the first period houses he sketched in “Old” Newbury have survived, including the Noyes and Coffin Houses. The former is one of my very favorite old houses in Essex County, if only for its situation: it takes you right back to the seventeenth century. The latter is a Historic New England house, and open on Saturdays over the summer. Newbury and Rowley to the south are North Shore towns that link the Merrimack River Valley to Cape Ann, which Whitefield sketched a bit more actively, but I’ll have to leave that for another day trip.
This past Wednesday was my stepson’s 20th birthday and lo and behold, instead of all the outdoorsy things we have done on birthdays past he wanted to go see the collection of armor and arms at the WorcesterArtMuseum, which absorbed the John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection in 2014. This is the second largest arms and armor collection in the US, and I have been speaking about it to my stepson for a decade or so, so I was thrilled that he wanted to dedicate his birthday to this little trip: Salem is all about the coast and the sea for him in the summer, so going “inland” was quite a change. I hadn’t been to the Worcester Museum for quite some time, but I remembered it as a treasure, and so it remains: it’s just the right size, you don’t get overwhelmed, and you can see a curated timeline of western art from the classical era to the present. Taking their cue from the Renaissance court at its entrance, the galleries are humanistic in their proportions and colors, so the whole experience is rather intimate. We started with the medieval galleries on the first floor, and worked our way to the top: I lingered in the Renaissance rooms, but also really enjoyed those that featured art from Colonial and 19th century America, as it was nice to see some familiar favorites in “person”.
Wednesday at the Worcester Art Museum: the Renaissance Court with These Days of Maiuma by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison on the wall; Chapter House of the Benedictine priory of St. John Le Bas-Nueil, later 12th century, installed in 1927; armor & weaponry are clustered in the Medieval galleries but spread about in the Renaissance and early modern galleries upstairs; Christ Carrying the Cross, 1401-4, by Taddeo di Bartolo; Vision of Saint Gregory, 1480-90, a FRENCH Renaissance painting; Jan Gossaert, Portrait of Queen Eleanor of Austria, c. 1516 (I was quite taken with this portrait, but the photograph doesn’t really capture it very well–her fur glistened!); Steven van der Meulen, Portrait of John Farnham, 1563. Follower of Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Giovanna Chevara and Giovanni Montalvo, early 1560s.
While Queen Eleanor above was captivating, I am obsessed with the “Madonna of Humility” by Stefano da Verona, a painter with whom I was not familiar. She dates from about 1430, and I think this painting is the essential Renaissance encapsulated: I stared at it for a good half hour, and could have spent hours before/with her.
There was a “Women at WAM” theme running through the galleries, perhaps a holdover from the suffrage centenary last year, and I did find myself focusing on the ladies, both familiar and “new,” from near and far.
Women at WAM: Mrs John Freake and Baby Mary, 1670s; Joseph Badger, Rebecca Orne (of Salem!), 1757; Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of the Artist’s Daughters, 1760s; Philippe Jacques Van Brée, crop of The Studio of the Flower Painter Van Dael at the Sorbonne, 1816; Att. to John Samuel Blunt or Edward Plummer, An Unidentified Lady Wearing a Green Dress with Jewelry, about 1831; Winslow Homer, The School Mistress, about 1871; Frank Weston Benson (from Salem), Girl Playing Solitaire, 1909.
And then there are those charming “primitives” in the collection, including the very familiar Peaceable Kingdom of Edward Hicks with its odd animals and the Savage family portrait with its odd people! I looked at the latter every which way to try to perfect their proportions, but it’s just not possible.
Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom, 1833; the big-headed Savage family by Edward Savage, about 1779 (the artist is on the far left–“Savage’s initial struggles with perspective and anatomical proportions are evident in this work”).
As I said above, the Worcester Art Museum dedicates the majority of its space to its own collections, but there are two very special—and very different—temporary exhibitions on now: one on baseball jerseys, as Worcester is enjoying its first year as home to the Triple A WooSox who have relocated from Pawtucket, and a very poignant display of the processes of theft and retrieval of Austrian collector Richard Neumann’s paintings, the target of Nazi plunder. The story told was fascinating and the pictures presented lovely, but what really caught my attention were their backs, displaying the numbers by which they were added to the “Reichsliste,” the Nazis’ centralized inventory of cultural treasures, and considered for inclusion in Hitler’s Führermuseum. So chilling to see these mundane Nazi numbers.
Baseball jerseys and Nazi numbers at the Worcester Art Museum.
This was supposed to be the summer of LONG road trips but various things keep tethering me to Salem, so I’m taking lots of short ones. My companion over the last few trips has been Edwin Whitefield, a nineteenth-century English expat artist who loved old New England houses, and presented them in a series of portfolios entitled Homes of Our Forefathers published between 1879-1889. I’ve been an admirer of Whitefield for years, primarily because I admire his pioneering preservation perspective: he sketched obscure houses in small towns shorn of their modern additions and “improvements” to reveal their beauty and craftsmanship so that an ever-“improving” society might actually stop and see them and/or to document them, fearing that they were not long for this world. Whitefield had a successful career as a landscape and botanical artist, engraver, and lithographer from about 1840, with a specialty in color lithographs of North American city views. His Homes portfolios represent the last stage of his career as he died in 1892, and the portrayals of these old houses seem not only charming, but also poignant to me, with his little notes about their history and the precariousness of their present conditions. I imagine him walking around with his sketchbook, and now I’m driving around with my camera—and his books in the backseat. I fear that many of the houses which Whitefield preserved on paper will no longer exist in materiality.
The “Whitefield Project” started last week when I decided to drive over to Medford, an old city just outside of Boston which is home to Tufts University and the oldest brick house in New England, once called the Craddock House and now called the Peter Tufts House. There are so many photographs of this structure, but I wanted to see it as it might have been built, and so I pulled out one of my Whitefield volumes, and decided to take it (him) along. The Tufts House was so spectacularly preserved, and it was such a nice day, that I decided to keep going west along Route 16 (through Cambridge, which deserves its own Whitefield post), in search of a house which shares its page in my 1880 edition, the Abraham Browne House in Watertown, now one of Historic New England’s properties. As the Tufts House is a private residences and the Browne house is closed indefinitely, that was about the extent of my trail for that day.
This past Saturday, I had to go down to Plymouth, so I decided to bring Whitefield along. The South Shore was “Pilgrim country” to him: he clearly wanted to trace the tracks and document the efforts and experiences of his fellow countrymen. He sketched lots of houses in this region but I decided to follow Route 53 and focus on Hingham, Pembroke, and Kingston on this trip. I do not need an excuse to visit the Old Ship Meeting House in Hingham, one of the most important structures in New England. It is in amazing condition (but there seems to some kind of issue with its Federal-esque Rectory across the street), and Hingham is one of the prettiest towns in Massachusetts. Then it was off in search of the famous Barker House in Pembroke, which Whitefield believed was the oldest house in New England, built in 1628. Alas, Pembroke has a lovely old Quaker Meeting House, and a seventeenth-century house which serves as the headquarters of its historical society, but the Barker House is long gone: a genealogy of the Barker family informed me that it was likely built in 1650 and “fell to pieces” after the last of its members died without issue in 1883. Whitefield must have been heartbroken.
Heading south to Kingston, Whitefield led me to the Bradford House, another seventeenth-century structure maintained in immaculate condition (although with an altered roofline if we are to believe Whitefield) by the Jones River Historical Society, complete with a period garden. It was still closed for the pandemic, but the gentleman gardener watering on a hot afternoon told me all about the activities that generally went on there, including weekly breakfasts in the summer and the annual Lobster Boil. He admitted that he had added a few modern varieties among the period plants “for a spot of color” and left me to wander the grounds. And so I had a perfect seventeenth-century stroll, at the end of a long hot day.
I am very, very anxious about the election and can think of little else. I have enough of a historian’s sensibility, of a human’s sensibility, to know that this is the most momentous election of my life. Of course there is little that I can do–other than donate and vote–so I have been appeasing my anxieties in my usual way: by reading about elections past. It has also helped me to read and listen to Boston College history professor HeatherCoxRichardson, who has been putting the current situation in a comprehensive historical context for months now: talk about commitment! I have learned a lot about American history during this whole blogging experience, but I think I’ve learned more in the last 6 months than the past ten years: the problem is, I’ve been looking for the comfort of we’ve been here before but I seem to be surmising that many aspects of our current situation are truly aberrant! Apart from the search for context, there is just something very interesting about the logistics and detritus of elections past: in this digital age, we don’t have enough electoral texture. So here are just a few items that caught by eye.
Early Election Ballots:I love browsing through the early election ballots at the AmericanAntiquarianSociety: if you don’t understand the Electoral College—they are rather clear illustrations: also of the evolving concept of the ticket. Plus it’s interesting to see the emergence and disappearance of various political parties.
Mass Appeal: I love this flyer for Nathaniel Prentice Banks (also from the American Antiquarian Society), who was running for a Massachusetts congressional seat in the election of 1852. I don’t know if you can read it all, but he is appealing to all different sorts of men—mechanics, young men, middle-aged men and veterans! Plus he courts the ladies, and exhorts them to “stir up” their men!
Voting by Mail: since 1864. Very American. Poll Book from the Smithsonian Institution.
Poll Taxes! Who knew?I associated poll taxes with the segregated South, but in fact, people had to pay them right here in Massachusetts, and in other states as well, right up to the ratification of the 24th amendment in 1964! Imagine paying to vote. Imagine being an active suffragist, working your whole life for the voting rights of women, all women, and even after enfranchisement this barrier is still there! There were a few snarky articles published in the Boston papers right after the ratification of the 19th amendment in which the theory was put out there that perhaps women wouldn’t want to vote as they would have to tell the poll tax assessor their true ages! Unbelievable!
A Salem Parade Flag.Just because it must have been fun to see election parades, which I assume must have brought people together, but perhaps not. 13-star flag used in 1896 Salem parade, Cowan’s Auctions.
Pinback Buttons! Never can get enough of these: most are Roosevelt and McKinley, 1900 & 1904, from the Smithsonian; the Citizen pin is from 1915-20 and the Ann Lewis Suffrage Collection. I love the sentiment of Vote as you please but please vote.