Tag Archives: Massachusetts

2020: the Commemorative Year

One of the major themes of this blog has been how we remember history: what we choose to remember, what we choose to celebrate (or exploit), and what we choose to forget or ignore. This year promises to be very interesting in the realm of “anniversary history”, with two big commemorations crowding the calendar: the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower in Massachusetts and the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment enfranchising American women after a long, long struggle. I don’t think anything else—certainly not the 200th anniversary of the Missouri Compromise (1820) or the 300th anniversary of the South Sea Bubble (1720)— can compete with these epic events. Yet looking ahead at the succession of initiatives and events designed to commemorate these two markers, I am struck by one notable difference: the Suffrage Centennial seems to be a truly national movement, with major events in Washington, D.C., every single state, and many localities as well, while the Mayflower anniversary seems much more restricted: to Massachusetts, and even to the descendants of the Pilgrim passengers. This might just be my American perspective: the Mayflower commemoration certainly has a broader geographic scope, incorporating Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the Wampanoag Nation, encompassing the Aquinnah and Mashpee tribes. My perception might also shaped by the fact the Suffrage Centennial is already very much in full swing, so we shall see.

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Plans for the Suffrage Centennial have clearly been in the works for years, and their most dramatic manifestation was three major exhibitions in Washington: Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote at the National Archives Museum (May 10, 2019- January 3, 2021), Shall Not be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote at the Library of Congress (June 4, 2019-September, 2020), and Votes for Women: a Portrait of Persistence  at the National Portrait Gallery (March, 2019-January 5, 2020). As you can see, the last exhibition ends this weekend, but there is a companion catalog with wonderful essays and images. These exhibitions are just the beginning of a wave of suffrage remembrance and interpretation, washing over the nation: the website of the Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative is a great place to go for events and resources but every state seems to have its own central site as well, linking to institutional and local initiatives. Here in Massachusetts, Suffrage100MA, the Women’s Suffrage Celebration Coalition, sponsors features like the “Suffragist of the Month” at the Commonwealth Museum, but is hardly the extent of commemorative activity: the Massachusetts Historical Society had a very visual exhibit entitled “Can She Do It?” Massachusetts Debates a Woman’s Right to Vote up over last summer, the Boston Athenaeum has an ongoing “Eye of the Expert: (Anti) Suffrage program focused on items from its collection, the Schlesinger Library at Harvard will feature Seeing Citizens: Picturing American Women’s Fight for the Vote from March 23 to October 3, 2020, and there are local events all around me commencing next month. This very layered exploration of the coming of universal suffrage has been extremely comprehensive, examining the complexities of the struggle, divisions of class and race, and all sorts of attendant aspects (and materials!)—and there’s a lot more to learn and see.

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pixlr_20200101133156977Ace of Spades card (verso and recto) from a c. 1915 deck published by the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Co., Boston Athenaeum.

By contrast, the coming commemoration of the Mayflower’s arrival doesn’t seem very layered or very national: there are no events in Washington that I could find. The official US website for the commemoration is Plymouth400, Inc., which reports that the April 24 Opening Ceremony will be a two-hour event of historical content, musical headliners, interpretive readings, choreographed movement, original productions, and visual narratives to create a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. The Plymouth 400 Legacy Time Capsule will be introduced, and the first items will be placed inside by special guests. Honoring the past and celebrating the future, each of the commemoration themes – exploration, innovation, self-governance, religious expression, immigration, and thanksgiving – will be presented in creative ways. Invited participants include state and federal officials, representatives of the UK, The Netherlands, colony partners, and many more. Besides this extravaganza, it’s all about the ship: the Mayflower II (1957), which has been under repair in Mystic, Connecticut for several years. The newly-restored ship will sail to Boston for a maritime festival in May (docking right next to the Constitution, which should look cool), and then proceed home to Plymouth via Provincetown for more festivities in both ports. I do see references to attendant exhibitions on Pilgrim women and the Wampanoags on the Plymouth400 site, but nothing like the diffusion of inspired initiatives associated with the commemoration of suffrage.

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screenshot_20191231-154733_chromeThe Mayflower II seemed to be more of a national story in 1957; on the stop in Provincetownfrom Boston to Plymouth, there will be a “reenactment of the signing of the Mayflower Compact and VIP reception”.

The Plymouth400 website might not be comprehensive but it is all we have to go on; it is also, very decidedly, not a resource, with minimal effort toward edification. When compared to the much more impressive official British commemoration website Mayflower400 it is exposed for just what it is: a Chamber of Commerce production. After watching all of the poignant expressions of remembrance associated with the commemoration of each and every phase of World War One over the past few years, I am not surprised to see the sophistication, earnestness, and creativity of the British commemoration of the Mayflower voyage, which will include the opening of a Mayflower Trail through and outside Plymouth, multiple exhibits, public art and music projects, living history events, a muster, festivals, illuminations, a religious history conference, and even sporting events. The website links to resources and is itself a resource, with digital maps exploring the sites associated with the Mayflower itself and every single passenger and crew member. It brings all these people to Plymouth and then to America ( some via Leiden): why can’t we have something similar that shows where they went once they got here? As I am not a Mayflower descendant, I am forming the opinion that if I want to feel a real connection to those who left England in 1620 I had better make my way to Plymouth in Devon rather than Plymouth in Bristol County.

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screenshot_20200101-153517_chromeThe official British program and interactive maps on the Mayflower400 website, which also includes artwork that has been seldom seen (over here, at least), like Anthony Thompson’s 1938 painting The ‘Mayflower’ Leaving Plymouth, 1620 @Essex County Council.


Seeking Refuge in the Valley

We finally broke free of Salem for the last weekend of Haunted Happenings—-in the nick of time! It’s just been such a busy month, but on Saturday we abandoned all of our responsibilities and drove west to the Connecticut River Valley to visit my husband’s cousins, who live in the delightful town of Montague. I have been driving through or by Montague for many years, but never really stopped to explore it—or so I thought: it turns out that Turners Falls, a semi- regular pit stop for when when driving west or back east, is actually a village of Montague, along with Montague Center, Montague “City”, Millers Falls, and Lake Pleasant. We spent most of our time in Montague Center, and never found the elusive Lake Pleasant. On a long walk through the countryside surrounding the Center, we came across a beautiful first-period house for sale, which once belong to a mutual acquaintance of all of us: while staring at its characteristic over-the-top (by Salem standards) Connecticut-River-Valley doorway, I briefly imagined life “out west”, away from the Witch City and its exploitative “attractions” and Halloween hordes but also (unfortunately) far from work, family, and the ocean—which my husband could not live without. Oh well.

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20191026_122423A dreamy house—and former tavern—in Montague Center: listing here.

As you can see, Saturday was a beautiful day and we saw other wonderful houses (and many barns) as well, before lunching outdoors at a former mill and returning back to our cousins’ charming house—a former school and pocketbook factory— within which live FOUR cats (and a dog), and wonderful family heirlooms from Vienna arranged just so according to the wishes of their former owner. After indulging in cardamon-laced pastries on fine china (yes, we refugees were treated like royalty), we were off to Turners Falls, the largest of the Montague villages.

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pixlr_20191027150117299All around Montague Center: house & barns, the Book Mill, Valley cats, Viennese heirlooms, the Homestead.

I have stopped by Turners Falls over the years because it is unusual among Massachusetts towns (or villages, I should say), most of which have evolved organically. Turners Falls is a planned industrial settlement, the initiative of Fitchburg industrialist and railroad entrepreneur Alvah Crocker in the 1860s. Laid out on a grid, with harnessed hydropower, factory buildings and housing and very conspicuous tall-spired churches, Turners Falls has the look of an “ideal” industrial community, even as its factories are now vacant. It has a big broad Main Street, and most of its shops and restaurants seemed very much alive, but all I was interested in on this particular visit was the workers’ housing—mostly brick rowhouses in varied states of repair. They were all striking in their efficient design, but it was their conditions which were so curious, like those below with the boarded-up windows and their recently-painted red stoops!

Turners Falls

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20191026_163138Turners Falls, 1877, Digital Commonwealth ( I don’t think all of those streets were filled out!); the fast-flowing river after the Falls; workers’ housing. On the way home, the French King Bridge over the Connecticut River.

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Falling for Folk Art

This week I’m focused on spectacular examples of folk art. On Sunday I was up in my hometown of York, Maine, where I heard a great talk at the Old York Historical Society by Karina Corrigan, the curator of Asian Export Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, and then wandered through the small Remick Gallery showcasing the Society’s collections. There were some very unique items on view, representing both “high” and more vernacular styles, and I was much more drawn to the latter, because, let’s face it, I have high style stuff all around me in Salem (the Maine girl in me would be annoyed at this snobby statement, but I think the Massachusetts woman has snuffed her out, as I have now resided in Massachusetts for longer than I lived in Maine). I was particularly struck by this coat-of-arms for the Sewall family of York, because it looks so very unheraldic to me! The bees have been on the Sewall coat of arms for several centuries—and we can see them on Nathaniel Hurd’s 1768 engraving of the Reverend Joseph Sewall (son of Salem Witch Trials Samuel Sewall because there’s always a Salem connection)—but who are those people, and what is that creature? My class was split between lion and bear when I showed it to them, although several thought it was the Devil.

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Folk Art Hurd MFA

Sewall Family Coat-of-Arms, Old York Historical Society; Benjamin Hurd engraving of the Reverend Joseph Sewall, 1768, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

I don’t know if they qualify as art as they are really tools (for combing out flax fibers) but these hetchels looked very creative (and menacing) mounted on the wall; I have never seen them exhibited this way. There are a variety of spellings, but the name for one who  wields a hetchel came to be know as a heckler, and I think there is some sort of connection between the hetchel’s sharp (angry) “teeth” and the modern heckler’s sharp angry taunts. Most of the hetchels that I have seen have long handles, so they resemble brushes, and I always though they must have been the perfect tools for the ascetic practice of (self-) mortification of the flesh.

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But I am digressing……when I got home, despite a stack of papers awaiting me, I indulged in my favorite procrastination pastime of browsing through online catalogs of upcoming auctions, and when I got to Sotheby’s Sculptural Fantasy: The Important American Folk Art Collection of Stephen and Petra Levin I lingered over every lot. This auction is happening today, so we’ll see what prices these amazing objects fetch. I had an immediate, visceral reaction to the elephant, because pachyderms formed my very first “collection” accumulated from a very young age. I now have boxes in the basement and need no more elephants, but this particular “walking” or parading elephant, presumably Jumbo, has always enchanted me: I have it on placemats, notecards, and bookplates. The amazing painted eagle carved by John Haley Bellamy of Kittery Point, Maine, is surely as impressive as anything a Massachusetts craftsman could produce! A large pair of early 20th century dice—what more can I say? I dressed up with a childhood friend as a pair of dice for Halloween one year in York, and based on the estimates given, these are probably the only things I could afford in this auction. There are plenty of great trade and travel signs (along with weathervanes and whirligigs) so it was hard to choose, but I love the hats and the crocodile, and the “double” eye clock, of course.

Elephants Walking sign Sothebys

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Folk Art Eagle

Dice

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Crocodile

Eye Clock

Select lots from Sculptural Fantasy: The Important American Folk Art Collection of Stephen and Petra LevinSothebys.


Sweeping through Beauport

Historic New England offers comprehensive “nooks and crannies” tours through several of its properties occasionally, and I was fortunate to go on one of these basement-to-attic-and-all-the-closets-in-between tours of Beauport, the rambling Queen Anne “cottage” on Eastern Point in Gloucester, the beneficiary of a generous friend’s conflict! Beauport was built and decorated in great detail by Henry Davis Sleeper, one of America’s first professional decorators, over several decades beginning in 1907: it is an incremental construction driven by Sleeper’s evolving vision and career. The former was preserved by Helena Woolworth McCann, who purchased Beauport after Sleeper’s death in 1934, following the advice of Henry Francis DuPont: “the minute you take things out of this house, or change them about, the value of the collection does not exist, as really the arrangement is 90%. I have no feeling whatsoever about the Chinese room, as I think it is distinctly bad; but the rest of the house really is a succession of fascinating pictures and color schemes.”  Mrs. McCann had Sleeper’s pagoda removed from the China Trade room and made it her own, and likely packed away some of Sleeper’s stuff while she and her family were inhabiting the house over successive summers, but seems to have understood DuPont’s assertion that the house was the sum of its parts–and her family donated the intact property to Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) in 1942. So when you go to Beauport today, you are stepping into Henry Davis Sleeper’s house, the way he wanted it, and you know that this is a man who admired arrangement above all, incorporating the contrast of light and dark, all color of glass, green, anything and everything that projected the spirit of idealized and romanticized pre-industrial American and English material culture, depictions of great men (George Washington above all, but also Benjamin Franklin, Lafayette, and Lords Nelson and Byron, among others), and a fair amount of whimsy. Beauport is a lot to take in, even on a standard tour much less this exhaustive one, so I’ve divided my photographs into room views and details—but they represent only a small measure of both! You’ve really got to see Beauport for yourself: several times.

The bigger picture: it’s really difficult to photograph the entirety of this house, except from above or the ocean! I focused on inside, but there’s some lovely photographs of both the interior and exterior taken by T.E. Marr & Son c. 1910-1915 here.  

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20190628_142353The China Trade Room from Sleeper’s “Minstrel’s Gallery” above, within the Book Tower, the Octagon Room, where it’s all about eight, the Golden Step dining room, the South Gallery,  the Master Mariner’s Room, the “Red Indian” Room with its ships-cabin overlook of Gloucester Harbor, the Strawberry Hill room which became Sleeper’s bedroom, the Belfry Chamber—my favorite room in the house—-the Jacobean Room, the Chapel Chamber Room, and the Franklin Game Room.

Every salvaged discovery provoked an aesthetic reaction from Sleeper, and his design sense was so strong that it lives on well after his death in Beauport. Despite its size (it grew to 56 rooms by Sleeper’s “reactions”) the house remains very personal. It certainly reflects Sleeper’s personality, but as his collection of objects was so vast and varied it is possible to have a personal reaction to what you are seeing. That certainly happened for me, so my more detailed focus below reflects my own taste, in reaction to what I was seeing. And you will notice many other things that I missed.

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20190628_135742Details, Details: marble mantle and 18th century hand-painted wallpaper from China in the China Trade room (it was purchased by Philadelphia financier Robert Morris in 1784 and discovered, still rolled up, in the attic of the Eldridge Gerry House in Marblehead in 1923), wooden “drapes” in the book tower room, a portrait by Matthew Prior (c. 1845) in the Blue Willow room, fishermen’s floats ( I think Sleeper was the original high-low decorator!), beehive pull, memorial to the death of a former slave, majolica hedgehog or porcupine (?) Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Belfry Chamber, Green glass urn in the Chapel Chamber, plate commemorating the visit of Hungarian nationalist Louis Kossuth to Boston in 1852 & window shade commemorating the American victory in the Spanish-American War in the Pine Kitchen or Pembroke Room, my favorite of Sleeper’s many hooked rugs, and the portrait of a dapper anonymous man.

♠ A more comprehensive history of both the house and the man can be found here.


Traces of Half-Timbering

I was running along the ocean on Lynn Shore Drive when I became progressively 1) tired; and 2) bored so I stopped running and started walking, into the adjacent “Diamond District” of Lynn. Yes, I’m embarrassed to admit that, after a lifetime of living alongside it, I do take the ocean for granted, but I never, never grow tired of walking up and down streets lined with historic structures. I can never run on those streets, though, because there is too much to see, and the eclectic Victorian architecture of this neighborhood is particularly eye-catching. The Diamond District is large, encompassing nearly 700 buildings, so you need to break it up into sections or styles to be able to take in all in, and on this particular morning all I could see was ornamental half-timbering on the third stories of sprawling houses built in some composite “Victorian” style: are they Queen Anne, Stick, or some form of “English Revival”? I can never get all those late nineteenth-century categorizations straight! In my own mind I classify them as Tudor-Victorians, but that’s just because I like to assign the characteristics of “Tudor” to anything and everything.

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20190614_150050This last house tricked me: I turned the corner and thought I was seeing TWO houses ahead of me, but there was only one!

Well whatever style this is, it definitely dates from the 1880s and 1890s. I looked through some architectural catalogs in the vast Building Technology Heritage Library at the Internet Archive and the earliest example of half-timbered embellishment I could find was from the early 1880s, though I didn’t really conduct an exhaustive search. These homes are described simply as “modern” in contemporary texts, though the addition of the half-timbering detail also seems to have called for the addition of the adjectives “cozy” and “comfortable”. They are all cottages, of course, whether consisting of four rooms—or forty.

Cottage on a SIde Hill

Lynn CollageHalf-timbered cottages from William T. Comstock’s Cottages (1884) and Lambert’s Suburban Architecture (1894).


A Monumental Divide

At the center of Raleigh is the North Carolina Capitol building, in the midst of Capitol Square, surrounded by more than a dozen monuments to the memory of statesmen and soldiers. The most recent installation (1990) is the North Carolina Veterans Monument, while the tallest memorial is the monument erected “to our Confederate dead” in 1892, and the only monument referencing women is the 1914 statue honoring the North Carolina Women of the Confederacy. The Raleigh-Durham area has seen several intense protests against Confederate monuments over the past several years, resulting in the toppling of the Robert E. Lee and “Silent Sam” statues in Durham and Chapel Hill, but this past August the special “Confederate Monuments Study Committee” of the North Carolina Historical Commission voted that the Capitol monuments should stay in place, despite the request for removal from North Carolina governor Roy Cooper and the Committee’s own opinion that the statues are “an over-representation and over-memorialization of a difficult era in NC history.”

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I would have to agree with that characterization, particularly of the Women of the Confederacy statue, which depicts a woman as a mother-historian, reading the heroic tales (I presume) of war to her sword-bearing son. The towering Confederate Dead statue nearby (which was very difficult to photograph) features anonymous soldiers and a rather simple message of honoring the dead, and so is perhaps not as confrontational as a statue of an individual and identified Civil War soldier, though there is also a monument to Henry Lawson Wyatt, purported to be the first Confederate soldier killed in action, on the Capitol grounds. In announcing its decision to let these statues stand, the state Commission called for additional interpretation, “to provide a balanced context and accounting of the monuments’ erection in their time in political history” as well as the erection of additional monuments honoring the contributions of North Carolina’s African-American citizens. I did not see such context, nor equal monumental representation, but we are less than a year out from this ruling and a long-term effort to establish an adjacent “Freedom Park,” designed by architect Phil Freelon, the leader of the design team for the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture, appears to have accelerated over the past year.

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Plan for the proposed “Freedom Park” and monument in Raleigh.

As I wandered around Capitol Square this past weekend looking at all of its installations with my historical and decidedly northern (even more decidedly Massachusetts) perspective, I had the most visceral reaction to a monument which wasn’t even mentioned in the recent debate over Confederate memorials in North Carolina: that dedicated to Samuel A’Court Ashe in 1940. Ashe obviously lived a full life and was revered by many in his native state, but all I could see when I read this plaque was heroic defender of Fort Wagner. Just a few weeks before I was wandering another hallowed ground, Salem’s Harmony Grove Cemetery, where I saw the graves of several men who served with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first Civil War military unit comprised of African-American soldiers to be raised in the North. The soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th distinguished themselves during the assault on strategic Fort Wagner, which guarded the entrance to Charleston Harbor, at great cost, losing 281 men on July 18, 1863: 54 confirmed casualties (including commanding officer Robert Gould Shaw), 179 wounded, 48 simply lost, while the Confederate troops inside were reportedly “maddened and infuriated at the sight of Negro troops.” Their sacrifice confirmed their promise of hope and glory, in the words of Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, and was memorialized later by the Augustus Saint-Gaudens monument on Boston Common (1897), Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead”, and the 1989 film Glory. Ashe, the defender of Fort Wagner, has much to say about the war and its commemoration, as his long post-war career was characterized by prolific writing (and Confederate commemoration advocacy) both as a newspaper editor and historian. In his History of North Carolina, he makes no mention of the Massachusetts 54th at Fort Wagner, but only of “the splendid heroism and devotion of the North Carolina troops”, and his “historical” analysis of the causes of the Civil War focuses almost exclusively on the policies of an “unpatriotic” Abraham Lincoln, whom he never refers to as President: it is not true, as Lincoln said, that without slavery there would have been no secession. It was the absence of the spirit of compromise on the part of Lincoln and his party that brought about secession in 1861….Secession would have been averted if Lincoln had copied the example of his patriotic predecessors. But he made his anti-slavery feeling his ‘paramount object’ instead of his desire to save the Union. He was revered as “that stainless leader of the Lost Cause” in the 1940 address given at the dedication of his monument. Frankly, I don’t want to read anything more about or by Mr. Ashe, and the next time I am in Raleigh I will give his memorial a very wide berth.

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Shaw Memorial

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The monument dedicated to Samuel A’Court Ashe in Raleigh’s Capitol Square and one of his telling titles; the Boston Common monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th by Augustus Saint-Gaudens: two memorials which reference Fort Wagner, and the Civil War, in very different ways. The grave of  Salem native of Luis Fenollosa Emilio, a Captain of the Mass. 54th who survived Fort Wagner and lived to tell their tale in A Brave Black Regiment (1894).

 


Streets of North Adams

I found myself in the western Massachusetts city of North Adams on this past Saturday morning, having driven across the state to sit on a panel for an honors thesis defense at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts the day before. I love the Berkshires, but I must admit that if I’m driving out on Route 2 I generally drive right through North Adams to reach more pastoral destinations except for a few visits to Mass MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, splendidly housed in an old textile/electrical factory in the city center. But as I woke up in North Adams (in a beautiful bedroom at Porches, quite literally in the shadow of Mass MoCA), I was determined to stay there and explore for a bit. So I set off on foot, armed only with my phone, which was loaded with a walking-tour app provided by Historic North Adams, a collaboration between MCLA’s History Department, the North Adams Public Library, and the North Adams Historical Society. After I got the downtown down, I headed up one of the city’s several hills to discover its houses.

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Judging from the simple house plaques that adorn many of North Adams’ eclectic Victorians, North Adams became a boomtown in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, with the Arnold Print Works (1862-1942) turning out textiles for a global market from its complex of mill buildings along the Hoosac River—later the home of Sprague Electric, and now Mass MoCa. The Hoosac Tunnel was completed in 1875 (at great cost of treasure and lives—its workers named it the “Bloody Pit”) making North Adams a railway gateway to the west. Walking the streets of the city, you can feel and see the expansion of that era through the architecture: every single structure seems to date from the 1870s and 1880s with nary a Colonial in sight. The sound of hammers must have been constant in this period, along with the smell of smoke. There were several larger Victorians in divided and dilapidated states, but it was also clear that preservation was at work in North Adams, and as our entire region was plunged into a prolonged period of gloomy rain last week, it was nice to be among more colorful houses. This is just a small sampling: I’ll need to go back!

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20190504_090957Some of the larger Victorians on Church Street (just above) need some help, but just up the hill is a lovely neighborhood of mostly-restored structures. Below: the Arnold Print Works produced a full line of textiles over their long history, but one of their popular products in the 1890s were these stuffed animal templates (examples below from the collections of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum & Cooper Hewitt): the finished products are very collectible and you can buy reproductions too (here are some Etsy examples). 

North Adams RISD North Adams 1892

North Adams Arnold Print Work Owl Cooper Hewitt

North Adams Cat


A Cabinetmaker is Captured

Even though a Salem company of militia men did not make it to Lexington and Concord in time to participate in the battles that commenced the Revolutionary War (I still can’t figure out what Timothy Pickering was doing on that day), there are still some important connections and contributions to note on this Patriots Day, including the publication of one of its most essential primary sources, the coffin-embellished broadside Bloody Butchery of the British Troops: or, The Runaway Fight of the Regulars, by Salem printer Ezekiel Russell. Russell documents the death of Salem’s one casualty of the day, Benjamin Pierce, but a source from years later established another important connection: Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle of Lexington, on the Morning of the 19th of April, 1775, published for the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the battles in 1825. Phinney took oral histories from participants who were still alive, published in the form of sworn affidavits in the book’s appendix, and the very first account was that of Elijah Sanderson, who was at the end of a long career as one of Salem’s most successful cabinetmakers. Sanderson’s testimony was given just weeks before his death in early 1825, and published not only in Phinney’s account but also in the regional newspapers that year, when historical consciousness of the importance of the Battles of Lexington and Concord seems quite well-developed.

Sanderson Phinney

Sanderson Essex Register Essex Register

Elijah Sanderson and his younger brother Jacob were among the most prolific and consequential cabinetmakers of Salem, who spread the city’s craftsmanship and style far beyond New England through an expansive export trade in alliance with their partner Josiah Austin and several prominent merchants and shipowners.  Through their collaborative business, and with half-shares in several Salem ships themselves, they sent cargoes of furniture to the Southern seaports, the West Indies, Africa, and India in a series of voyages that are well-documented in the Phillips Library and have been analyzed by scholars Mabel M. Swan, Thomas Hamilton Ornsbee, and more recently, Dean Lahikainen. Their success was clearly tied to Salem, but in 1775 the Sanderson brothers were living in Lexington, in the home of their elder brother Samuel, when Elijah found himself swept up in the events of April 18 and 19, for a time even finding himself in the captive company of Paul Revere! I love his testimony because it rings true in its lack of heroism and drama: it must be true because it is recounted in such a detailed yet mundane manner! The Sanderson house was on the main road from Boston, and relatively late on the evening of the 18th Elijah noted the passing of a party of British officers “all dressed in blue wrappers”. He decided to discern what was up, so made his way to John Buckman’s tavern where an older gentleman encouraged him to “ascertain the object” of these officers, so he did so, on a borrowed horse in the company of two other comrades. There was general concern that the British were after John Hancock and John Adams, who had been “boarding some time at Parson Clark’s”. Elijah’s party was stopped by nine British officers a few miles down the road in Lincoln, and they were detained and examined, along with two other “prisoners”, a one-handed pedlar named Allen and Col. Paul Revere. After “as many question as a Yankee could” ask, the entire party mounted and made their way to Lexington, where the British officer named Loring observed “The bell’s a ringing, and the town’s alarmed, and you’re all dead men” but let them go, after cutting the bridle and girth of Elijah’s horse. We hear no more of Revere, but Elijah made his way to the tavern in Lexington and there promptly fell asleep! Yes, he fell asleep in the middle of the opening act of the American Revolution.

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Sanderson Lexington The taproom of the Buckman Tavern, where Elijah Sanderson fell asleep by the fire; early 19th century view of the Battle of Lexington, New York Public Library Digital  Collections.

Well not for long: Elijah awoke to the sound of drums and ran out to Lexington Common where he fell in, without a gun, but then stepped out “reflecting I was of no use” to become the perfect eyewitness bystander of the Battle of Lexington. He heard the British commander say “Fire” and then all was smoke and fire. After the British left for Concord, Elijah ran home to get his gun,, but it was gone (his brother took it) and so he returned to the center of town to “see to the dead”. A few hours later he witnessed the retreat of the British from Concord, firing houses as they made their way back to Boston. He ends his testimony with two statements that he clearly wanted to get on the record: 1) he spoke with one casualty of the day several days prior: a certain Jonas Parker who “expressed his determination never to run from before the British troops” and; 2) his wayward musket was still in his possession, and his brother “told me he fired at the British with it” on that fateful day. What a life this man led: his experience in Lexington, combined with his brilliant Salem career, could provide the basis for an absolutely amazing book. Reading between the lines of the Sanderson scholars, I’m guessing it was the younger brother, Jacob, who was the better craftsman and workshop manager, while Elijah was the traveling dealer and supercargo, with the responsibility of selling their wares up and down several coasts. Jacob died in 1810, and Elijah carried on through a series of less profitable (or at less amenable if the legal notices are any indication) partnerships. Lexington pops up in each and every obituary notice of this memorable man.

Sanderson Label Winterthur

Sanderson Collage

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Sanderson Salem Observer Feb 19 1825

“E & J Sanderson” label on a Salem-made pembroke table, Winterthur collections; Sanderson pieces from the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Christie’s Auctions, and the State Department; The Elijah & Jacob Sanderson House on Federal Street, 1783 (a very rare— I think—back-to-back double house which received Historic Salem Inc.’s first plaque!); just one Sanderson obituary.


Codfish Aristocracy

Growing up in York, Maine, my focus was increasingly over the river and out of state once I hit my teens, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a larger town with a mall, movie theaters, downtown shops, and lots and lots of restaurants. As I’ve said before, I think I ended up in Salem in large part because of its similarity to Portsmouth, and its greater proximity to Boston (now Salem surely has more restaurants, but fewer shops). For some reason which I can’t remember, my favorite restaurant in Portsmouth has always been The Oar House, which still exists, but a close second was The Codfish Aristocracy, which is long gone. I had very little historical curiosity then, as well as very little regard for American history, so I never questioned the name; only later did I delve into the origins of this interesting idiom. Since I have cod on the brain this week, I decided to delve into it a bit more, and of course, in this year of discovering all sorts of legacies of slavery, here is another one. I think there are several connections, actually. As a general reference to the New England aristocracy of families whose “new” wealth was based on the Atlantic fisheries and trade to both the West Indies and Europe, the term predates the nineteenth century; after all the original “sacred cod” was placed in the old Colonial State House in the early eighteenth century and the present one dates from 1798. Salem even has a claim for the origins of the term, based on the cod embellishment on the stairs in Colonel Benjamin Pickman’s beautiful Georgian mansion on Essex Street, built in 1756. A lithograph of this house was included in the materials chosen by a special Essex Institute committee to represent Salem at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, when it was “still standing though defaced by shops in front. It is said that the term “Codfish Aristocracy” arose from the fact that the end of each stair in the hall of this was house was ornamented with gilded codfish, Colonel Pickman’s fortune being derived from the fisheries”.

Cod in State House Griffin DC

Pendleton PickmanArthur Griffin photograph of the Sacred Cod in the State House, 1950s; The Pickman House by Pendleton’s Lithography, Digital Commonwealth & Boston Athenaeum.

New England cod fed both enslaved Africans and free Europeans and thus created great wealth in New England, but the derisive use of the term “Codfish Aristocracy”, in reference to the ostentatious and vulgar display of that wealth, comes later, in the 1840s and 1850s, and most prominently in the debate over slavery. He was not the originator of the phrase, but when Senator Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina remarked that We should regard it somewhat strange if we should require a codfish aristocracy to keep us in order in the midst of a speech on the floor of the Senate in the summer of 1850, it seemed to hit a chord. As a leading pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist voice, Butler drew heated criticism from Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who indicted Butler as both “the Don Quixote of slavery,” and an admirer of “the harlot, Slavery” in his own Senate speech in May of 1856: in retaliation Butler’s cousin Preston S. Brooks responded by caning Sumner on the Senate floor days later, instigating his three-year incapacitation. In the following year, after Senator Clement Claiborne Clay introduced a bill repealing all laws allowing bounties to vessels employed in the fisheries under the rationale that 25 states were made to pay tribute to the Codfish Aristocracy of a mere six, papers in Massachusetts opined that “southern hatred of New England” was his true motivation.

Somewhere between the absolute disdain conveyed by the southern use of the term and the occasional pride displayed in the North was the New York attitude: more mockery than condemnation. There are three caricatures of the Codfish Aristocracy that represent this perspective well in the collection of the Library Collection of Philadelphia: literal representations are always an effective form of censure!

Codfish LC

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Codfish Aristocracy LC 3Three Codfish Aristocrats: McAllister Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia, c. 1840-1880.


Blank Buildings

Periods and events of the past are generally identified after they are over: history is about remembrance, and imposing order and meaning on what has happened. There’s no better way to convey this essential point than to reference wars: obviously people in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, and the Seven Years’ War had no sense that these were the historic events in which they were participating or enduring! Often historical and cultural eras overlap, and that means that styles are identified well after their expression: medieval, colonial, Victorian. But there are also cultural descriptions detached from precise historical periods: Gothic and Palladian come to mind but I suppose any “revival” style could fall into this category. This long preamble is just my mind wondering how people of the future will categorize Salem’s current architectural style: in a city long identified by its architecture, how will the buildings of the early 21st century be branded? I think we are turning a corner with the latest downtown building slated for construction—a condominium development on the site of the District Courthouse on Washington Street–but I’m not sure where this turn will take us.

Blank Architecture 1 Coming Soon on Washington Street via Building Salem.

The style–or perhaps I should say form–of this rendering is familiar: similar buildings have been built in the last decade on Federal and Lafayette Streets. But what is it? I am architecturally naive, but it looks like a Prairie-esque type design on steroids, shorn of craftsmanship and charm. I’ve often heard Frank Lloyd Wright characterized as the most influential architect of the last century, both for better and for worse. All I see when I look at these buildings are the shallow or flat roofs with their overhanging eaves, sometimes slanted and sometimes straight, and their bulk. They look vaguely Italianate, vaguely “Mediterranean”, vaguely Prairie, and like they could belong anywhere and everywhere, and as more of them are built in Salem, Salem becomes less and less Salem-esque.

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Blank Architecture 5Ten Federal and 135 Lafayette; I think this “style” started with the Ruane Judicial Center nearly a decade ago, on the far right: it is very bulky with a conspicuous overhang. The panorama of courthouses on Federal Street makes quite a statement!

My title is a double entendre: I really don’t know what this architectural style is called or what architectural era we are in so I am inviting readers to fill in the blank______, but I also think that this architecture is blank: empty, soulless, devoid of any connection to its surroundings. We could do so much better; inspiration is all around us. A building in Lynn caught my eye just as I was driving back from the airport this morning: it features some of the very details that characterize these stark buildings in Salem but is clearly a composition rather than just a composite. It has texture, ornamentation, depth, craftsmanship: its builders were obviously proud to cast their mark on it, and mark its time, as it was built to last.

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Blank Architecture 8The Loraine Apartment Building in Lynn’s Diamond District, designed by architect Samuel Rogers.


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