Tag Archives: material culture

Pirates were Pirates

So I’ve been preoccupied with pirates for about a week, ever since the new Real Pirates Museum opened up in Salem adjacent to Charlotte Forten Park on Derby Street. My preoccupation was fostered by initial outrage at the apparent pirate takeover of this relatively new park dedicated to a prominent abolitionist and educator: colorful murals of the pirates within rise about the very minimalist park in a manner which I found dissonant and even offensive. I saw red: this was another Samantha statue moment for me. It wasn’t just the murals: the Real Pirates sign and entryway is centered on the park and there is obvious intent to integrate the attraction with the park. What could be the rationale? I looked through the meeting minutes of the two boards which were charged with approving the walkway, signage, and murals, the Salem Redevelopment Authority and the Public Art Commission, and found some interesting statements from the project manager for Real Pirates to the latter. He connected piracy and abolitionism (and past and present) through an effusive focus on piratical egalitarianism: “the concept of the murals is to portray the values of maritime history honored in Salem today as represented by the jolly roger, a symbol once condemned by nations that enslaved and exploited human beings and now seen as a symbol of what may have been the most democratic and egalitarian society of its time and by five portraits of historic individuals who sought freedom from the oppression and intolerance of their time.” The Commission approved the murals with one condition: that the pirates be disarmed.

Pirate values? That’s the connection? Motley crews in the Golden Age of Piracy shared the same values as Charlotte Forten in the nineteenth century and even Salem today? This seemed a little over the top and brought me into the realm of the Real Pirates Museum, a place I didn’t really want to go: it’s a private business and who am I to tell them what they should or should not be doing? But still, this is a lot of public projection, literally and metaphorically. I’m very familiar (especially after doing a deep dive over this past week) with the historiography of Atlantic piracy in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in which historians like Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, and others have emphasized the socio-economic structures which churned up so much piracy and cast pirates themselves as working-class heroes challenging the various hierarchies of the British Empire during its most craven period, when it was armed with the asiento granting monopoly privileges to supply the Spanish Empire with enslaved labor. Pirates were clearly challenging this evil empire, and doing so with diverse and meritorious crews, but pirates were also pirates: practical, opportunistic, violent. Pirates were not roving abolitionists. While it is true that the large crews of Edward Thatch or Thache, the notorious Blackbeard, might have been as much as thirty percent African at one time, it is also true that when he captured the French slaver La Concorde in November of 1717 with 455 enslaved Africans in its hold he returned the vast majority to its deposed captain for transport back to the slave market in Martinque. La Concorde became his flagship briefly, renamed The Queen Anne’s Revenge: slave ships were popular among pirates as their architecture suited piratical purposes perfectly, but liberating human cargoes was not their business. In the words of David Cordingly, “pirates shared the same prejudices as other white men in the Western world. They regarded black slaves as commodities to be bought and sold, and they used them as slaves onboard their ships for the hard and menial jobs: working pumps, going ashore for food and water, washing and cleaning…” (Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates, 34). They were also disarmed, just like the Real Pirates mural figures.

Anchor from the Queen Anne’s Revenge, whose wreck was discovered in 1996. The Queen Anne’s Revenge Project is an absolutely wonderful site, where discoveries, treasures, and topics are discussed regularly relative to the ship in particular and piracy in general.

So that brings us, and me, to the Real Pirates Museum in Salem. Real Pirates is the sister museum of the Whydah Pirate Museum on Cape Cod: both are based on the sensational underwater archeological discovery of the wreck of the Whydah, another slaver turned pirate flagship, off the eastern coast of the Cape in 1984 by Barry Clifford. I’ve always heard that the Whydah is the only authenticated pirate shipwreck, but I believe that the Queen Anne’s Revenge has since been authenticated as well? In any case, the Whydah Gally was captured in the Caribbean by Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy and his crew on her maiden voyage in 1716 and utilized to capture a succession of prizes until she ran aground off Wellfleet in the following year. Bellamy perished along with most of his crew, a young, dashing, democratic Robin Hood who seems to have acquired the most romantic reputation of any Golden Age pirate because of his storied relationship with a Cape girl, Maria/Mary/Mehitable Hallett, who may or may not have existed (If she did exist, she was certainly not named Maria, a very Catholic name in very Protestant Massachusetts). Here is how the project manager of Real Pirates described these two in his submissions to the Salem Public Art Commission, as their murals were going to be, and are, very prominent:

Sam Bellamy, known as the “Robin Hood” of pirates, who had suffered as a common sailor, and was determined to assert his inherent human right to organize with others of similar conviction to form his own nation that would oppose by force other nations that had derived their wealth from the sale of human beings and from the murder and exploitation of the common person.

Maria Hallett, who as a single mother was thrown out of her home, banished from civilization and then accused of being a witch and yet never gave up her dignity or her dream of true love and salvation.

Much of these characterizations seem to be made up of whole cloth, and when I read them, I really didn’t want to visit a museum pushing romance over reality: even if “Maria Hallett” existed, or is a composite of several women who existed, how in the world can one know that she never gave up her dignity or her dream of true love and salvation (salvation?)? But I’m really upset about the park, so I knew I was going to write more, and if I was going to write more I knew I might end up criticizing the museum because of these over-the-top, thoroughly anachronistic statements of egalitarianism, dignity and love rather than its own exhibits, which is not fair. So off I went to see the Real Pirates. Before I left, I wanted to check the photography policy, so I went to the website, and there I saw something very interesting: I was not headed for merely a pirate experience, but a pirate and witch experience!

This is not the pitch on Cape Cod, I can assure you: this is a special Salem pitch. And obviously this is why there’s so much emphasis on Maria Hallett, who became known as the “Witch of Eastham” over her long legendary career. I quickly became more fixated on this than the “Pirates as Social Justice Warriors” claim, especially as I did not see over-reach in that area in the exhibit’s interpretation. It was disappointing, because my experience there was primarily positive: the staff was friendly and informative, it’s a very well-designed space, there’s a good introduction to the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and there are authentic artifacts from the Whydah. When you have Real Pirates and real treasure why feature a fake witch? I think this focus is a mistake, although to its credit, the exhibition does present all the Maria theories rather than the “fact” of her existence. I shook that fictional witch off, because I was enjoying my conversation with one of Real Pirates’ managers, who is a graduate of our MA program at Salem State where she wrote her thesis on pirates! She was full of plans and ideas, for both interpretation within the museum and engagement outside: she seemed to have put more substantive thought into how to feature and honor Charlotte Forten than most people associated with the City of Salem, even though that is not her job. (I still think it’s a stretch, and an uncomfortable one at that, but go for it) And then I got distracted by the nautical instruments displayed, as there’s a whole chapter on them in my book: I thought they were rather boring to write about actually but now I don’t seem to be able to get enough navigational dividers! That’s the key: the authentic objects. Historical authenticity is sadly at a premium in touristy Salem, and the Real Pirates Museum can distinguish itself by keeping it real.

A REAL Anchor.


The Era of Excessive Mourning

I’m giving a talk at the end of the month on the impact of the Reformation on the theology of death and practice of mourning, on both sides of the Atlantic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I’ve got the former down, but I’m a bit confused by the latter, and particularly by the rise of large, elaborate funerals from the later seventeenth century. Puritans in both old and New England modeled their mourning on the Calvinist disdain for the Catholic culture of death, with its emphasis on transcendent saints, purgatory, prayers, rituals, and material remembrance. As there was nothing that the living could do to facilitate the passage of the deceased into heaven, funerals should be short and simple, and excessive monuments could easily trespass into the territory of idolatry. That’s the ideal, but was it the reality? The most straightforward directive for funerals, the Directory of Publick Worship (1647) of the Westminster Assembly charged with reforming the Church in the midst of the English Revolution, asserted that because the custom of kneeling down, and praying by or towards the dead corpse, and other such usages, in the place where it lies before it be carried to burial, are superstitious; and for that praying, reading, and singing, both in going to and at the grave, have been grossly abused, are no way beneficial to the dead, and have proved many ways hurtful to the living; therefore let all such things be laid aside on the one hand, and on the other that the Christian friends, which accompany the dead body to the place appointed for publick burial, do apply themselves to meditations and conferences suitable to the occasion and that the minister, as upon other occasions, so at this time, if he be present, may put them in remembrance of their duty. Meditations? I get that, but conferences could clearly be held in the pub after the burial. The Directory’s final say on funerals, that this shall not extend to deny any civil respects or deferences at the burial, suitable to the rank and condition of the party deceased, while he was living relays what happened: as the religious significance of the funeral was lessened, their social roles increased, as an expression of the deceased (and their families) status in society. Monument comes to mean something a little more…..mobile.

Every little detail of the funeral of Robert Devereux, the 3rd Earl of Essex and first General and Commander of the Parliamentarian Army, is included in this 1646 broadside.

Essentially what happened is that funerals became more for the living than for the dead. Perhaps they always were, to some extent, but the Reformation extended that extent considerably. Over the course of the seventeenth century, we can see this consequence in print, in broadsides publishing funeral sermons and elegies, as well as the new funeral custom: the issuing of funeral “tickets”.

A Selection of Funeral Tickets from the British Museum.

Across the pond in British America, there weren’t many funeral tickets, but there were lots of printed elegies, and lots of gifts dispersed to the (presumably invited) mourners by the family of the deceased: the traditional ring, the occasional “scarf”, and gloves, so many gloves. The custom of gifting the minister and pallbearers with white gloves seems to have been extended to include everyone who attended the funerals of former members of wealthy New England families in the first half of the eighteenth century: the family of Andrew Faneuil dispensed 4000 pairs of gloves to mourners in 1738! This custom was burdensome to many families, obviously, and the Massachusetts General Court passed “An Act to Retrench the Extraordinary Expence in Funerals” in 1742, ordering that “no scarves, gloves (except six pair to the Bearers, and one pair to each Minister of the Church or Congregation where any deceased person belongs), wine, rum, rings shall be allowed at any Funeral, upon the Penalty of Fifty Pounds,” an extravagant fine for extravagant funerals! As you can see below, Charles Apthorp’s Boston funeral reverted to past practice in 1758 after the act ran out, as his family distributed 95 pairs of gloves to attendant mourners. The attempts of local and provincial governments to regulate “excessive mourning” in the eighteenth century illustrate another consequence of the Reformation: the so-called “secularization of the parish”:  it was the state, or the assembly, or the town, which regulated funeral practices, not the Church. In his multi-volume History of Salem, Massachusetts (1924), Sidney Perley reports that in 1697, the town’s selectmen established rules about both the ringing of bells and the order of processions for funerals: ministers had no say.

Major Thomas Leonard’s funeral elegy, Library of Congress; a mourning ring for Edward Kitchen of Salem, Yale University Art Gallery; Announcement of the 1742 Act; Charles Apthorp portrait by Robert Feke (Cleveland Museum of Art) and a list of the 95 gloves dispensed by his family on the occasion of his 1737 funeral, King’s Chapel.

I had no idea that “excessive mourning” was such a conspicuous issue in colonial British America, so was particularly surprised to see the First Continental Congress address it by including elaborate funerals with other forms of “expensive” diversions” which were prohibited: just a black ribbon or crepe armband or necklace, and no funeral gifts of scarfs and gloves. After the Revolution, elaborate funerals must have returned, and so did the penalty system: the selectmen of Boston and Salem issued very detailed and stern warnings against excessive funeral gifts and dress in 1788 in an attempt to encourage an “economical plan of mourning.” By this time, I think the era of elaborate funerals was coming to an end, only to be revived and extended by the Victorians, of course. When Mary Ball Washington died in the following year, newspapers across the new country lauded the first President’s restrained mourning for his mother, as “the heart that mourns need no external sign to speak the agony that preys within.”

The size and customs of funerals are just one avenue into this big topic, but I’m wondering if these showy funerals represent the triumph of a a transatlantic Anglicanism over Puritanism, among other themes and trends. On a more material level, I’m also wondering if coffins became more common in North America, land of a million forests, than still-shrouding Britain in this period! Fortunately I’m giving this talk with my colleague Tad Baker, an expert on colonial material culture (as well as the Witch Trials and myriad other topics), so he can speak to the issue and other details of the built landscape of the Old Burying Point on Charter Street in Salem, the sponsor of our event. I’ve got some things to say about early modern European cemeteries, but he has a lot more expertise in this realm.

Here’s the link to our talk, “The Protestant and Puritan Way of Death,” for the Charter Street Welcome Center: https://www.facebook.com/events/1275084503014361/

And here are some great resources—I’ve got to continue brushing up on this topic myself so I welcome more suggestions!

Craig M. Koslofsky, The Reformation of the Dead: Death and Ritual in early modern Germany, 1450-1700.

Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead. A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. 

Peter Marshall, Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England 

Steven C. Bullock, “Often Concerned in Funerals:” Ritual, Material Culture, and the Large Funeral in the Age of Samuel Sewall” New Views of New England: Studies in Material and Visual Culture, 1680-1830, eds. Martha J. McNamara and Georgia Barnhill (2012: available here).

Steven C. Bullock and Sheila McIntyre, “The Handsome Tokens of a Funeral: Glove-Giving and the Large Funeral in Eighteenth-Century New England,” William and Mary Quarterly 69 (April 2012).


Salem Sustainability; or the Most Charming Memoir Ever

I came across a delightful short memoir quite by accident yesterday; it was so well-written and charming that I couldn’t stop thinking about it so I decided to write about it today to get it out of my head! It’s not about any BIG thing or event; in fact, it’s about a very little thing, what we might call an accessory today, and something we might not have thought much about at all before the pandemic: handkerchiefs in general, and “bundle handkerchiefs” in particular. “The Bundle Handkerchief ” was published in The New England Magazine in 1896 by Elisabeth Merritt Gosse, a Salem native and emerging newspaperwoman, who would go on to have a very successful career writing principally for the Boston Herald. It must have proved popular as it was issued as an illustrated pamphlet a few years later: I would love to get my hands on this! It’s such a simple story of how people wrapped up their purchases or possessions in the nineteenth-century, in handkerchief bundles of all cloths: gingham and calico sold at Mrs. Batchelder’s or Miss Ann Bray’s shops, the ‘finest white India silk” for ladies’ hats, lawn, linen or muslin for more intimate garments, Madras for new gowns as they made their way home from the dressmakers’, and “pale pink and blue gingham plaids” for shirts and spencers. Yet it is also revealing: of what people are doing and buying and wearing in very specific detail. l learned about all sorts of shops and customs of which I was previously completely unaware in its jam-packed three pages.

The bundle handkerchief as art: Alfred Denghausen, 1936, National Gallery of Art.

Apparently one could not even enter this world properly (or be introduced to it) without a bundle handkerchief! Is this where the stork with the bundled baby comes from? According to Elisabeth, No Salem infant, even without the requisite number of great-grandfathers and grandmothers, could be considered to have been properly introduced to society until it had dangled in a bundle handkerchief from a pair of steelyards, while its weight was recorded in the family Bible at the end of the family pedigree. She also included her own childhood memory of accompanying the family servants, armed with “two great bundle handkerchiefs of coarse blue and white checked gingham” to Mr. Hathaway’s bakery on Sunday mornings after church to retrieve the baked beans and brown bread which had been placed in his cavernous oven the day before. Salem women packed their soldiers’ trunks with prayer books from Mr. Wilde and medicine chests from Mr. (not Mrs.?) Pinkham, as well a selection of fine new bundle handkerchiefs, and three of these, of dark red silk, with the name embroidered in one corner, came home in one soldier’s trunk, brought by a guard of honor; for Salem gave the first of the Essex County heroes who laid down their lives for their country in the war of the Rebellion, as she did in the war of the Revolution. I wonder if she is referring to her own father here, Lt. Colonel Henry Merritt, who was killed at the Battle of New Bern in March of 1862.

Not blue and white, but the best I could do: a recipe card from the 1950s; Mr. Hathaway’s Bakery or the “Old Bakery” (now the Hooper Hathaway House on the campus of the House of the Seven Gables) in its original location at 21 Washington Street, Historic New England; Elisabeth Merritt Gosse in 1905, upon the occasion of the dedication of a boulder commemorating her father’s regiment near Salem Common.

Elisabeth Merritt Gosse recounts her last memory of a bundle handkerchief on the streets of Salem, wrapped around a book and carried by Mr. John Andrews in and out of the Salem Athenaeum, and observes that her title topic is as vivid a bit of color in Salem’s history as is Alice Flint’s silk hood, the frigate Essex, the North Bridge or even the House of the Seven Gables; and to speak of it calls up a long line of Salem’s sires and dames who took pride and pleasure and comfort in its use. [Another Salem memoirist, Harriet Bates or “Eleanor Putnam,” went even further: “The bundle handkerchief is as essential a figure in Salem history as the witches themselves.”] The bundle handkerchief’s time had passed in 1896, however, replaced by paper and string, prosaic, rustling, tearable, and to be quickly thrown aside and thrown away. This is not a good development in Elisabeth Merritt Gosse’s estimation, but as she died at the venerable age of 86 in 1936, we can at least be glad that she didn’t live long enough to see plastic.

Elisabeth Merritt Gosse was referencing the OLD Salem Athenaeum, now one of the Peabody Essex Museum’s empty buildings further up on Essex Street, but as I happened to be walking by the present one today, I snapped this photograph.


In Which I Try to Understand the Peabody Essex Museum’s Current Exhibition on the Salem Witch Trials

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), located here in Salem, deserves considerable credit for engaging in and with the history of the city’s trademark event, the Salem Witch Trials, in a series of exhibitions featuring authentic documents and objects beginning last year and continuing this year with The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming. For several decades prior, the PEM ignored the trials, and by association, the flocks of tourists who converged upon Salem because of their escalating exploitation. During this time, I always hoped that the PEM would offer some sort of exhibition to counter the commodified interpretations of the trials (or some essence thereof) which reign in Salem, and it has. Last year’s exhibition, The Salem Witch Trials 1692, was a little spare, but the authenticity of its items and the straightforward manner in which the story was told was striking, especially in the context of schlocky October Salem. But this year’s exhibition is……much more murky: I simply don’t understand what I’m supposed to take away from it, both in terms of “reckoning” and “reclaiming,” especially the former. Connecting the past to the present is a complex task, or maybe I’m just missing the links made, so I thought I would “write it out”.

Judge Jonathan Corwin’s Trunk: Corwin was a justice on the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which presided over the Salem Witch Trials, and his Salem house is now known as the “Witch House”.

I briefly visited this exhibition shortly after it opened in September, and returned yesterday with several students in my freshman seminar on the Trials: they are going to be writing reviews for our class, so we’ll see if they have grasped it better than I! There are three parts to Reckoning and Reclaiming. You enter into the world of seventeenth-century Salem, armed only with a map and a very brief panel introduction to the trials, and represented by objects or “material manifestations” belonging to people swept up in the trials: Judge Corwin’s trunk (above), victim John Proctor’s sundial, a loom belonging to one of the members of the accusing Putnam family, embellished with symbols of counter-magic, as well as documents related to the legal process of the Trials. The second part/room takes you, via a timeline on the wall and more primary-source documents, through the more focused prosecution of victim Elizabeth Howe of Ipswich and into the present, represented by a glittery black dress from her descendant Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2007 collection entitled “In the Memory Of Elizabeth How, Salem 1692.” Still in the present, you (we) move on to the last part of the exhibition: photographs of modern witches by Frances F. Denny, who is also a descendant of a Trial participant, Judge Samuel Sewall, as well as a woman prosecuted for witchcraft in Boston in 1674, from her series Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America.

Edward Payson’s Testimony on behalf of Elizabeth How(e).

All the constituent parts of this exhibition are interesting and well worth your time, but how are they connected? And who is doing the reckoning and the reclaiming? The exhibition, or us? I discern responses on the part of descendants McQueen and Denny but I always though reckoning and reclaiming were a bit more intensive activities. I looked up both words in the Oxford English Dictionary in order to get some guidance.

Reckoning: The action or an act of giving or being required to give an account of something, esp. one’s conduct or actions; an account or statement so given. Also: an occasion of giving or being required to give such a statement; a calling to account. A calling to account! That’s it: so who is being called to account in this exhibition? The afflicted girls, the judges, the people of Salem? Nope, no reckoning on their parts is in evidence. Survivor Philip English’s 1710 statement “What a great Sufferer I have been in my Estate by reason of the Severe prosecution of me & my wife in that Dark Time”, as well as the 1712 petition for compensation by the daughters of victim Elizabeth Howe are included in the exhibition, but not the apologies issued by accuser Ann Putnam, members of the jury, and Judge Samuel Sewall. We can read the poignant testimonies of those who spoke up for the accused (and these are my favorite objects of the exhibition) but the swift, even jarring, movement into the present makes it seem as if redemption is not possible in the past. Before I saw this exhibition, the use of the word “reckoning” in its title was enticing to me as I thought we were going to be presented with an historical view of how people who lived through the Salem Witch Trials wrestled with what they had experienced in its aftermath, but we are not presented with a full accounting.

Reclaiming:  Wow, this is a word that has many meanings and forms! Everything from falconry to recycling. I think the meaning that is relevant here is this one: To reassert a relationship or connection with, or a moral right to; (now frequently) to re-evaluate or reinterpret (a term, concept, etc., esp. one relating to one’s own demographic group) in a more positive or suitable way; to reappropriate. Clearly the exhibition is emphasizing the reappropriation of the word “witch” in our time through the creations of Alexander McQueen and the photographs of Frances F. Denny (along with the words of Denny’s subjects, who are all very expressive and assertive). But what does this reappropriation have to do with the victims of 1692 who were not, of course, witches? Again, the shift from past to present seems jarring, and the connective thread very thin, essentially McQueen’s and Denny’s lineage (and there about a million descendants of Witch Trial victims out there). Denny’s portraits are compelling for sure, so much so that they seem to constitute another, separate exhibition, tied to the first only through a word (and a dress?).

The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum until March 20.


What I’m Reading this Summer

I haven’t done a reading list in a while and I have really been reading, so it’s time. It’s been a voracious reading summer for me: it’s as if I was emptied out by writing my own book and I need to fill myself up! There are the usual random categories you will be familiar with if you’ve been following me for a while: history, architecture, decorative arts, design, a marked preference for nonfiction over fiction. This summer I seem to be more interested in the public aspects of all these things: public history, urban planning, media. History has become so very contentious in our time, and I feel my deficiencies in American history knowledge very keenly. I’m also troubled by the constant tide of development here in Salem, and looking for new urban ideas, strategies and policies that lend themselves towards unification rather than division. My major collecting focus has always been pottery, but for some reason I’ve become obsessed with fabric this year, not so much as an objection of consumption but of production. And I have read some fiction, though not much. So here’s a working list of what I have read or am planning to read before I go back to school.

History is very, very, very public in general and Texas history in particular: 

Well the top three books are not only public histories but also personal histories, and that makes them very compelling, although a bit uneven in places. Denmark Vesey’s Garden is magisterial (thus I had to amplify or “quadrify”? it); it’s one of the best history books I’ve ever read, examining the very complex story of “how slavery has been remembered in Charleston, South Carolina from 1865 to the present” in the words of its married historian authors. I’m finally realizing now, probably long after most American historians, that slavery really has to be examined historically at both the macro and the micro levels to fully grasp both its existence and its impact.

But BIG history is also important and interesting (and very useful for teaching):

I don’t really understand the modern world so I try to read as many books with the subtitle “the making of the modern world” as possible. This is actually a pretty large genre: you would be surprised at just how many books claim that their subjects “made” the modern world, beginning with a study of Genghis Khan. These are this year’s “making” books: I read everything by Linda Colley and my understand of the 18th century is basically based on her interpretation, so I would have read this even without its “making” subtitle, but I certainly would not have picked The Butterfly Effect without its making claim: Melillo makes a pretty good argument for the centrality of insects.

I’m particularly interested in material history this year: just loved these two books—they are big history too.

These histories of fabric are a bit more than the standard commodity global histories that we have seen over the past several decades (oysters, alcohol, drugs) in that they are about production as much as consumption, and like food, fabric is pretty essential.

Two books with Napoleon in the title, which are not necessarily about Napoleon:

Actually the first book is about Napoleon, but more about the painting he stole from a Venetian monastery, Paolo Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana, which ended up, and still remains at the Louvre. I believe that it is hanging right across from the Mona Lisa, another Italian painting that ended up in Paris. I’m always looking for works at the intersection of art and history, especially stories that involve theft, and Saltzman’s work was perfect. The center figure of Ben Macintyre’s The Napoleon of Crime, was an art thief, but much more: apparently master (and short) thief Adam Worth was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Moriarty.

Insights into vexing problems:

Besides the changing environment, on which I think I can have minimal impact beyond my personal and household habits, the two pressing issues which concern me the most are deliberate ignorance and disinformation and ugly architecture. Information literacy has become a much more important focus of my teaching over the past few years, but deliberate, willful ignorance and disinformation still confounds me. I’m looking for some historical context with Ovenden’s book, which I haven’t read yet. On a more local level, Salem has been experiencing a building boom over the past few years with the construction of steady stream of really ugly—or even worse, generic—buildings. Despite the fact that nearly everyone I talk to in town is wondering how we are getting all these monstrosities, there seems to be no opportunity for public discourse. Expectations are very low: why don’t we want beauty in our lives? Sometimes critics are labeled busybodies, but I believe that architecture is public, and so I was particularly struck by the title of Timothy Hyde’s book, Ugliness and Judgement. I’m looking for ways to be a more educated and effective critic: Hyde was helpful as was Charles Montgomery’s Happy City.

And finally fiction!

Well, I read Station Eleven because it seemed timely: it’s about a post-pandemic world! And it is a wonderful book, but not for me: I am not a future-dweller. It drove me back to a comfortable period, and some classic works of historical fiction which I never read, never even considered reading before this odd year. Norah Lofts was an amazingly prolific author of historical fiction and mysteries, and the second volume of her “House” trilogy, which follows the history of a Suffolk house and the residents who lived in it from the fourteenth century to the twentieth, is a Tudor-Stuart treat. In the same vein and tradition, Hilda Lewis’s Mortal Malice is more focused on one of the major scandals of the Jacobean era: the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury while a royal prisoner in the Tower of London, a scandal that involved not only poison but also affairs, plots, and Sir Francis Bacon. It even attracted the attention of Nathaniel Hawthorne centuries later. It’s hard to turn this scandal into a bad book, and Lewis does not disappoint.


Renaissance Refresh in Worcester

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 Worcester Art Museum, 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.


A Vexillogical History of Salem

What am I writing about? Flags for the July 4th weekend of course: I had to look up that word and thus am using it, despite the fact that it is somewhat intimidating and I could easily have chosen something easy and alliterative like flags of our forefathers. But once I discover a new word, I want to use it, so here we are: vexillology is the study of flags, and like many other aspects of life (including food, drink, architecture, industry, and myriad forms of material and intellectual culture) Salem’s flag history is so notable that you can almost tell its history through flags: we have a famous colonial flag defacement, a Revolutionary symbol, many claims of “first flags” in foreign ports, a notable expression of Civil War resistance, and lots of other interesting flags which illustrate particular trends and times. Salem’s vexillogical history is a a variation on the device used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his Grandfather’s Chair, which told the tale of the “Endicott Flag” in vivid detail.

A fanciful view of Endicott ordering the defacement of the English Ensign by cutting out its cross of St. George, Ballou’s Pictorial, 1855; Some flag illustrations from So proudly we hail : the history of the United States flag (1981) by William R. Furlong and Bryan McCandless.

Flag history is often “patriotic history” which of course is a contradiction in terms, so there is a lot of lore and legend that needs to be cut out, just like St. George’s cross. It’s best to stick to the primary sources. John Winthrop reported that on 5 November 1634, “At the court of assistants complaint was made by some of the country (Richard Brown of Watertown, in the name of the rest) that the ensign at Salem was defaced, viz. One part of the red cross taken out. Upon this, an attachment was awarded against Richard Davenport, ensign-bearer (who was ordered to cut out the cross by John Endicott), to appear at the next court to answer. Much matter was made of this, as fearing it would be taken as an act of rebellion, or of like high nature, in defacing the king’s colors; though the truth were, it was done upon this opinion, that the red cross was given to the King of England by the pope, as an ensign of victory, and so a superstitious thing, and a relique of antichrist.” Certainly Endicott was not alone in these sentiments: popery and the cult of the saints were right at the top of the “traditions” or relics which were the focus of intense Puritan opposition in both old England and New England. The “crossless flag” did not really take root, but symbols like the pine tree began to appear on banners in the next century, both within and without the cross, eventually inspiring the famous “Appeal to Heaven” flag of Washington’s Cruisers. There were so many interesting regimental flags used during the American Revolution, but the only one I would find with ties to Salem is that of Major Israel Forster of Manchester-by-the-Sea: there are several extant examples, one in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum (see above) and the other which sold at auction in 2014. There are no references to the Forster flag in the PEM’s digitized catalog and collections, and I’m also curious about a flag with one star and many stripes which was long displayed in the Essex Institute’s Plummer Hall: I don’t know why it is often so difficult to find objects that were in the old Institute in the new PEM!

The Historic Forster Flag at Doyle’s auctions, 2014; 1915 postcard featuring the “mysterious” flag in the Essex Institute.

The history of the recognition of the American flag seems very intertwined with that of Salem’s maritime history: all the old-school maritime historians assert that the first time the US flag was spotted in many Asian and African ports was on a Salem ship. This would be a great topic for an academic paper, perhaps even a dissertation: you can certainly assess how important flying the flag was in all sorts of contemporary images, like George Ropes’ Launching of the Ship Fame (1802). The flag you see here, with its circle of stars, represents a common configuration in the nineteenth century up to the Centennial, but there was no standard, official design for the (expanding) stars and stripes until 1912 so there were all sorts of interesting arrangements up to that time. The Fame flag is very similar to that in a watercolor painting memorializing the American prisoners of the War of 1812 who died in the massacre at Dartmoor Prison in 1815, among them nine Salem sailors. About a decade later, a young Salem sea captain was gifted a flag by a group of Salem ladies for his first overseas voyage in command: this was William Driver, who made his Salem fortune and then retired early to Nashville, where his brothers operated a shop. He brought his flag with him, displayed it proudly until the onset of the Civil War, and then hid it in the attic until Union troops captured the city. His “Old Glory” became the symbol of resistance and triumph, both during and especially after the Civil War. What comes after is a bit more complicated, because there are actually two Old Glory flags: a large banner in the collection of the Smithsonian which is generally accepted as “official” and a smaller one in that of the Essex Institute/Peabody Essex Museum. It is quite clear, however, that a Salem-made flag was at the center of both storms at sea and on land.

George Ropes, The Launching of the Ship Fame, 1802, Peabody Essex Museum; Memorial to the victims of the Dartmoor Massacre, Dowst Family, Skinner Auctions; “Old Glory” at the National Museum of American History.

A few sought-after 13-star flags with Salem provenances have surfaced over the past few decades, including one which belonged to shipmaster Parker Brown and the so-called “Hancock & English” flag from the Mastai Collection, a period flag which was modified by the addition of the 1880 presidential candidates which once graced the cover of Time magazine (July 7, 1980: second from right in top row, below). There was a considerable expansion in the commercial use of the flag over the second half of the nineteenth century, and it was a favorite banner for Salem’s entrepreneurial merchant/photographer/author Frank Cousins, who featured flags and political souvenirs in his shop, and advertised his wares with flag posters and trade cards. From the Centennial on, it’s all about parades as well, which called for a variety of festive flags. Salem excelled at one particular form of July Fourth celebration in the twentieth century—bigger and bigger bonfires—and flags were always on top of these impressive constructions: this has always struck me as a bit problematic as presumably they would burn. A blaze of glory, perhaps.

13-star Salem flag, Heritage Auctions; Frank Cousins Bee-Hive flag, Bonsell Americana; 1896 parade flag, Cowan’s Auctions; July Fourth Bonfire, Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.


Dress UP Salem

Maybe you’ve seen this week’s New Yorker cover: a woman in her apartment on her computer, presumably in a Zoom meeting. She’s wearing a lovely blouse, earrings, and lipstick and her hair looks great, so all “above” is perfect. But below, out of sight of the computer screen, is another matter: she is wearing gym shorts and slippers, there is scattered paper everywhere, along with Amazon boxes, drinking vessels, and two cats. And she’s drinking a cocktail. That, dear readers, is me in the fall of 2020, teaching four courses while writing a book, with a new kitten running all around. Next week classes will end and I’m just about finished with a particularly difficult chapter: then I’m going to put on a skirt and tights and real shoes. This sad state of sartorial affairs has depressed me, as generally in December I’m thinking about what I’m going to wear to the Hamilton Hall Christmas Dance and other holiday events: obviously not happening this year. We’re also fortunate in Salem to see attendees of the Commonwealth Vintage Dancer’s Fezziwig’s Ball walking through the streets to Old Town Hall: again, not this year. So I’ve mustered up some historic Salem dresses and some new-old dresses in historic Salem settings to get myself in the holiday mood, material girl that I am.

My favorite Salem dress ever is Sarah Ellen Derby Roger’s wedding dress, in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum. I looked for something similar with Salem provenance, and found this lovely pale pink gown with amazing sleeves. I also found the wonderful blog of historical clothing maker Quinn Burgess, The Quintessential Clothes Pen. Since Quinn has attended several events in Salem wearing her own creations, I thought you would like to see some period clothes in situ, at Hamilton Hall and Old Town Hall. Her dresses below are designs from 1812-1813, about a decade earlier than Sarah’s wedding dress and its more muted cousin.

Sarah Ellen Derby Roger’s Wedding Dress, made in Salem from materials from India,1827, Peabody Essex Museum (Gift of Jeannie Dupee, 1979); Pale pink silk gown, Charles A. Whitaker Auctions. Quinn Burgess at Hamilton Hall and with her friends at Fezziwig’s Ball in Old Town Hall–an annual event sponsored by the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers. Photo credits: L. Stern (white and red dresses at Hamilton Hall) and James Sabino (The Festive Ladies at Old Town Hall).

Let’s go forward a bit to the middle of the nineteenth century, not really my favorite period for design, but the ladies below make it look good! I came across this Civil War photograph of Marianne Cabot Devereaux Silsbee, author of A Half Century in Salem (1886) in her photograph album at the Phillips Library in Rowley. Despite the volume, I imagine this must be a day dress, but I found a very colorful chartreuse and purple ballgown from a Salem family in the archives of Whitaker’s auctions in Philadelphia. I always thought I liked that color combination, but now I’m not so sure: I think I prefer Quinn’s more subtle gown—hardly a “little” black dress–indeed Quinn tells me it is blue!

Marianne C.D. Silsbee, Phillips Library PHA 58; Civil War Era silk ballgown from a Salem family, Charles A. Whitaker Auctions; Quinn Burgess in a navy c. 1860 dress at Hamilton Hall (photographer credit: Emma Forrest).

And speaking of little black dresses, I’m going to jump forward a century to show you one from a Salem purveyor: a Mollie Parnis dress from the Mayflower Vintage shop on Etsy. Gorgeous. I’m not sure I’d wear this to the Christmas Dance, as I prefer more of a ballgown for that occasion, but (if I could fit into it), I’d find someplace to wear it. I’m looking forward to the moment when I can even think about what dress I might wear, where.

Mollie Parnis dress from Mayflower Vintage.

 

Highlights from Charles A. Whitaker Auctions.

More of Quinn Burgess’s work can be found at: The Quintessential Clothes Pen; www.quinnmburgess.com; Twitter (@thequinnpen) and Instagram (@thequinnpen).

You can see more period dances and dancers at vintagedancers.org +upcoming events.


Pickering House Perspectives

A well-interpreted house museum can offer up multiple perspectives, encouraging visitors to explore what interests them. I’ve been on some less-inspired tours of historic houses, believe me: too many family stories without any context whatsoever and too much plastic fruit are my own particular aversions. But a good house tour is a veritable–and personal–window into the past, and if it’s a particularly old house, many windows. One of Salem’s oldest houses, the Pickering House (c. 1664), been part of my life for a long time, but the other day I realized I had never taken a formal tour of it, or written a post! So I decided to rectify both slights this past weekend. I should lay all my cards on the table: the Pickering House was notable for having Pickering family inhabitants for decades but now is home to two good friends of mine, both energetic stewards who have hired in succession two stellar graduates of the History Department at Salem State as research docents: so I am a bit biased for sure. However, it seems objectively true that graduate #1, Jeff Swartz, really expanded the interpretation of the Pickering House during his tenure, and graduate #2, Amanda Eddy, is clearly following his example.

As Amanda told me, the Pickering House was always owned by John Pickerings, from the 17th century to the 20th, but the most conspicuous Pickering was Colonel Timothy Pickering, Adjutant-General and Quartermaster General of the Continental Army, Washington-appointed Postmaster General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and Representative, negotiator of Indian treaties, including one (miraculously) still standing, farmer. He himself was a multi-dimensional man, so if you’re going to tell the story around him, you’re going to have many stories. But the other Pickerings are interesting too: I could tell that Amanda was particularly fascinated with the John Pickering VI, who oversaw the trim transformation of the house’s front façade in1841, in the midst of a Gothic Revival craze in Salem driven largely by Colonel Francis Peabody of Kernwood and Harmony Grove fame. Mary Harrod Northend believed that Mr. Pickering was inspired by famous Peacock Inn in Rowsley, Derbyshire, but I’m not so sure.

Colonel Tim presiding over the Dining Room, Amanda Eddy showing us the evolution of the house; the Peacock Inn, UK National Archives.

So if it’s architectural history you’re after you have a wealth of styles to explore in the Pickering House: First Period craftsmanship of the seventeenth century, Gothic Revival style of the nineteenth, Colonial Revival elements added in the twentieth. If you’re more focused on material or visual culture, there are wonderful examples of needlework, portraits of Pickerings by Joseph Badger, and lots of little things to see. I love curio cabinets, and Amanda opened up the Pickering cabinet for us and took out: a piece of Old Ironsides, a pair of old eyeglasses, and the skeleton key to the front door. If your interest is more textual, there is a fabulous family library in the east room, a fragment of Timothy Pickering’s and Rebecca White’s wedding banns in the west, and a manuscript cookbook in the dining room. As Amanda is working with the family archives in the attic, she brought down several of John VI’s handwritten topical pieces for us to see, touch, and read.

Western parlor with portrait of Mary Pickering Leavitt (1733-1805) and her daughter Sarah by Joseph Badger; Hessians!; wonderful portrait by Mary, restored by textile conservator Elizabeth Lahikainen in 2017; the Pickering family arms; from the curio cabinet; LOVE this china pattern but forgot to ask what it is—please inform, someone; family books and one of John VI’s essays.

These are the kind of fabled places which should thrive during this pandemic as we all strive for connections: personal, cultural, social, historical. No crowds: just careful and curious people. There were just five of us, inside yes, but keeping our social distance with masks in place. We signed the register: proper procedure but also contract tracing. And yes, there were even a few witches.

Photograph by Salem photographer and artist James Bostick.

 


Whist Women

I’ve learned a lot about Salem women, both as individuals and collectively, during this year of #salemsuffragesaturday posts, but there remain some gaps I’m looking to fill in the next few months. Of course I don’t have to stop posting about women when this commemorative year comes to a close, and I won’t, but when you focus over a period of time things become apparent. I gave a Zoom talk about “400 Years of Notable Salem Women” (kind of a ridiculous old-fashioned title, but I couldn’t come up with anything better) last week, and and afterward I was asked a question about church affiliations/religious life, and I thought: wow I have really skipped over that this year! This is a bias of mine in my teaching too: most of my scholarly and teaching focus is on the medieval and early modern periods, when religious identity was everything, and so whenever I get up into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries I’m like “people are not religious now”. Of course nothing could be rather than the truth: religion just becomes more separate and less public, but by comparison with the earlier eras religious affiliations and institutions seem subsumed by the secular. It’s very apparent that Salem’s churches served at the center of many women’s lives in the nineteenth and twentieth century, however, so that is something I need to address. I’m also interested in the social life of Salem women: their leisure activities, amusements, and associations. So far my collective view has been focused on advocacy and reform—the political life of women—but when they just wanted to hang out, what did they do? There were so many clubs and societies: very public and reform-minded, very secret and social, everything from the little-known Female Religious and Biographical Reading Society to the well-known Thought and Work Society, but what did Salem women do for fun?

This guy’s recommendations seem more prescriptive than descriptive…….

One activity came up again and again and again, in memoirs, personal histories, and newspaper accounts, in the early nineteenth century, the later nineteenth century, and the early 20th century: whist, a card game that dates back to the seventeenth century. Because of the Puritan disdain for cards, you don’t see any references to whist in the earlier century, but by the early nineteenth century it is clear that this was a popular pastime for Salem women (and men) and it grows more popular: looking back at the “gay” 1890s, James Duncan Phillips recalled that:

It took something more permanent than dances and parties to organize the society of Salem of the Nineties, and there were social organizations of the most firmly established character. At their head stood “Our Whist,” as it was always proudly referred to by its members. You had to be at least a Silsbee, or a Phillips, a Rantoul or a Gardner, or related to one, to belong to it, and before you could possibly join you must have been asked to “fill in” at least a dozen times…..This was good old-fashioned Whist—-none of the new-fangled varieties of bridge or contract, but the ladies took it just as seriously, and they were all old, very, very old friends….Whist night was a sacred appointment, and the loyal members were not supposed to break it or go elsewhere, nor was the night changed without serious consideration, or for any frivolous reason.” James Duncan Phillips, Salem in the Nineties”, Essex Institute Historical Collections 89. (October 1953)

I am quite done with Phillips as a historian, having come across several letters of his in an archive which can only be described as racist, but sadly I can’t resist his remembrances, which are full of chatty details you don’t read elsewhere. He takes us right into the Chestnut Street parlor with this one, and goes on to report that the games were played in complete silence, but after the last hand the socialization began. I assume that sherry was in the hands of these genteel women (as in Boston) but he only refers to peppermints and “vulgar” chocolate bonbons as refreshments. Writing from the perspective of the mid-twentieth century, he does give us a valuable insight into the evolution—and end—of this venerable game: so many “new-fangled” variations emerged over the nineteenth century, and eventually several evolved into bridge.

So many different variations of whist—-trophy, progressive, duplicate, Boston, and more—and so much whist STUFF: markers, cards, chests, books. It’s a game that can be recounted through both literary and material culture.

If it was just a few Chestnut Street ladies I don’t think I would have bothered with whist, but I kept finding more references to it, indications that its popularity was more egalitarian and extensive. A case in point is this wonderful news item from the winter of 1900: Six Salem Willows Who Dug Out Snow-Blocked Street Railway After Employees Had Refused to Aid. Apparently the February 22 meeting of  Juniper Point Whist Club in Salem Willows was imperiled by the snow drifts which covered the tracks of the Lynn & Boston railroad, so a “shovelling brigade” of six of the Willows’ “leading ladies” (Mrs. Harry Esbach, Mrs. John Swasey, Mrs. Joseph Brown, Mrs. Charles S. Brown, Mrs. John Dunn and Miss Louisa Choate) was formed, enabling to meeting to go on! The Boston Daily Globe goes on to report that the ladies cleared 150 feet of track in two hours: they were determined. You start to see some subtle (and not-so-subtle) criticisms of whist-playing women in the next few decades, like this “vinegar valentine” portraying a masculine-dress Suffragette torn between her whist/bridge meeting and voting Election Day.

Determined Salem Willows whist women: Boston Daily Globe, February 22, 1900; “vinegar” valentine, Kenneth Florey Suffrage Collection.

Moving back a bit, I have to admit that my interest in whist was really sparked by another memory of James Duncan Phillips: of a “living whist” game/performance held in Salem in 1892.  This was a “famous” party, held at the Cadet Armory on Essex Street for the benefit of the Salem Hospital as he recalled, and “directed by a Madam Arcan.” Indeed, Madame Arcan directed living whist in over 25 American cities in 1892 and 1893, and the Salem event is prominently featured in several national newspaper stories. No pictures, unfortunately! Living whist seems to have been spin-off of the living chess “movement”, originating in Britain and spreading to the rest of the empire (and the US) over the 1890s, yet another expression of that very dynamic decade.

Living whist performances in Australia & San Francisco (right): the latter was directed by the famous Mme. Arcan, who also oversaw the Salem event in early 1892.


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