Tag Archives: material culture

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.


Lafayette Fangirls

I just love the idea and the historic reality of the “Farewell Tour” taken by the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824: the exuberant reception, and the deep appreciation expressed by both Americans and Lafayette again and again and again, everywhere he went. I also like all the things that were produced for this occasion: prints, plates, paintings, ribbons, all manner of print and material commemorative culture. In honor of its namesake, Lafayette College has amassed a large collection of Lafayette memorabilia but it is by no means the only repository of such items. Like every American town and city where Lafayette alighted, Salem greeted him with great enthusiasm, on this very day nearly 200 years ago, and Lafayette left his mark: the main southern thoroughfare to Marblehead was named after him, as well as one of my favorite rooms (the room with the bar!) in Hamilton Hall. The Hall was the site of the elaborate dinner (including 65 separate dishes) for the General/Marquis prepared by its increasingly-renown African-American caterer John Remond and his wife Nancy, with the ladies of Salem providing the decorations: the Salem Gazette reported that the “whole effect was beyond our powers of description” on the next day.

Lafayette in Salem Collage

Even more so than the Hall, it’s these ladies that I am interested in, as I bet they were all decked out. I love the Lafayette ladies’ accessories from this era: the ribbons, hats, gloves, and fans which were worn at the parades in his honor and then tucked away in some keepsake box, perhaps brought out at the time of his death in 1834, and then packed away again. They’re not difficult to find, as Lafayette’s tour was so extensive, and women who could afford to displayed their patriotism in a very exuberant and festive fashion: we have to remember that Lafayette was not only a valiant foreigner who answered America’s call at a crucial time, he was also the last living Revolutionary General in 1824. He was more than “the Nation’s Guest”, but he was also French, so deserving of a display.

Lafayette Gloves

Lafayette Bag Cooper Hewitt

Lafayette-Ribbon-Lafayette-CollegeGloves with Lafayette’s image from the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; a silk bag from the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt Museum, and a ribbon from the collection at Lafayette College.

Fans are the most elaborate of Lafayette mementos, in my humble opinion, and several Salem ladies had fans for the farewell tour–whether they were domestically produced or French imports I do not know. There’s a lovely Lafayette fan featured in the Museum Collections of the Essex Institute which I assume is still in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, but I can’t find it, of course, because PEM. The Museum of Fine Arts has two fans which likely belonged to Elizabeth and Sarah Derby, if the initials are any indication. If they did in fact belong to the Derby girls, I don’t know if they had them in hand on that day, this day, in 1824: all of the newspaper accounts reported heavy rain in Salem. And after that he was gone, but the adoration continued: in a piece that was reprinted up and down the east coast the Salem Gazette observed that “Everything is Lafayette, whether it be on our heads or under our feet…..” in October.

pixlr

Lafayette Fan Elizabeth Derby MFA

Lafayette Fan Sarah Derby MFA

Lafayette-Salem-Oct-12-Gazette

Fans in the collections of the Essex Institute (Peabody Essex Museum?) and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Salem Gazette, October 12, 1824.


New Year’s Eve, 1920

What are you wearing on New Year’s Eve?  I’m still dealing with this bum leg, so it will likely be sweatpants for me, unfortunately, but I have to say that some version of “domestic attire” has been the norm for the last decade or so. I had much more festive New Year’s Eves when I was younger, but family celebrations at home seem to be the rule for now. I remember spending New Year’s in Rome when I was 20, dancing in some sort of tunnel wearing a dress I had just bought in Florence! There were lots of fancy country club/hotel parties later, but frankly those can be a boring. I don’t really need a fancy party, but I would like to be a bit better dressed. I did manage to hobble around Hamilton Hall at the annual Christmas Dance a few weeks ago in a drop-waisted sequin dress, so I already had that silhouette on my mind, but I decided to browse through some digital fashion collections to see what women might have been wearing a century ago as they ushered in the New Year—-the year they would become fully enfranchised citizens here in the US.

NYE 1919 (2)

NYE 1920 Barbier (2)

screenshot_20191229-160359_samsung-internet

screenshot_20191229-160337_samsung-internet

screenshot_20191229-160225_samsung-internetFashion plate from La Moda Elegante Ilustrada, December 6, 1919, Fashion Institute of Technology; Georges Barbier’s “les belles Sauvagesses de 1920” from Le Bonheur du Jour, ou, Les Graces à la Mode, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; Vogue covers and sketches from December 1919.

To my untrained eye, it looks like the “1920s silhouette” emerges immediately with 1920! Or maybe that’s just what I was looking for—and these lovely Lanvin dresses from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art seem almost timeless. For more on the House of Lanvin’s long run, check out this cool online presentation. I think most people have heard of Lanvin, but what about Clara Becht and Jacqueline Kasselman, the designers of some very stylish evening ensembles in the collection of the Cincinnati Museum of Art? I certainly hadn’t. With a very dynamic fashion periodical press in these days, I imagine that the practice of knocking off was already prevalent, so midwestern ladies could have “French” frocks for their big nights out. Whatever the source or inspiration for their evening dresses, women in 1920 did not confine themselves to the palette I am featuring here (for some reason): various shades of green and blue seem to have been popular, and there were also pops of universally-festive red. Happy New Year! I’ll see you on the other side.

53.262.1 0002

Lanvin Collage

Lanvin Gazette

screenshot_20191229-170702_chrome

screenshot_20191229-170510_chrome

cam_1985.18_01

Evening Gown Collage V and A

Last EveningHouse of Lanvin evening dresses, 1920, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Lanvin advertisement in the Gazette du Bon Ton, fall, 1920; Dresses by Clara Becht and (2) Jacqueline Kasselman at the Cincinnati Museum of Art; Fashion plates of gowns by Jeanne Paquin and Madeleine Wallis with an American silk-satin dress from an unknown designer, Victoria and Albert Museum. Yet another “Robe du soir”, from the Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920.


Salem Sensory Overload

An amazing weekend in Salem, for the city, objectively and collectively, and for me, personally. I’m writing at the end of a long day, which will be yesterday, during which I gave a morning presentation on the Remond Family of Salem, an African-American family who operated many successful businesses in the mid-nineteenth century while simultaneously supporting every social justice cause it was possible to support (which were many) next door at Hamilton Hall, and then made my way to the long-heralded opening of the new wing of the Peabody Essex Museum. Both were really important events for me: I’ve been focused on the Remonds since I moved next door to Hamilton Hall, and in attendance at my talk was George Ford from California, a Remond descendant who is so dedicated to his family’s story and memory that he just want to be where they were. And except for a few professional events I had to attend at the Peabody Essex, I have not visited the museum since December of 2017, when the non-announcement was made that its Phillips Library, encompassing the majority of Salem’s written history, would be removed to a new Collection Center in Rowley, Massachusetts. Over time I realized that I was only hurting myself, as the Peabody Essex is indeed a treasure house, and the historical references of new Director Brian Kennedy and media reviews of the new wing and the #newpem infused me with hope, and so I was excited to return, but also a bit anxious. (There was also a big food truck festival in Salem but don’t expect me to report on that!)

20190929_104959

20190929_144507

 The Remonds in the morning, and the new PEM Wing in the afternoon!

As exasperated as I can often get with Salem, you must know that it is an entirely engaging city and place to live, always, but this weekend was particularly intense. If the famous PEM neuroscientist Dr. Tedi Asher had affixed monitoring devices to me I would have given her readings off the charts, I am sure! I was nervous about going into an institution which I have been so critical of over these past few years–not to exaggerate my influence, it was just an internal feeling. I have friends and acquaintances who work at the museum and it never felt good to criticize the place where they worked. Everything seems different now, with the new Director, Brian Kennedy, acknowledging Salem, community, founders, even slavery (i.e. historical realities rather than cultural idealizations, and potential engagement or even interest in historical interpretation!) with every passing press report. Expectations can make you anxious too though, and I was anxious to see what role the new dedicated Phillips Library gallery in the new wing would play, as an expression of priorities, as an indication of respect for the old (dry) texts which always require a bit more effort to make them shine. So here I go into the PEM, heading straight for the new wing, with all of my anxieties and expectations. What do I see first?

20190929_152615

20190929_152205

A wall! And an amazing N.C. Wyeth mural titled Peace, Commerce, Prosperity–both of which I loved. Before I looked at anything, I was struck by that wall: the side of the East India Marine Hall which I had never really seen; it must have been alongside the former Japanese garden but I never noticed it for some reason. Maybe I was just focused in my mind on the back wall of Hamilton Hall which borders my own garden, which I stare at all the time and think of the Remonds working on the other side, but all I could see when I entered the new wing was this wall. It might also have been my admiration for the Georgian Pickman House, which formerly stood in the same spot I was standing in—-maybe I was trying to conjure up its orientation—but for whatever reason, I stood staring at that wall for quite some time. (Yes, Salem’s history is weighing on me, just a bit). Then I snapped out of it, spent some time looking at the lovely Wyeth mural, and moved into the new Maritime gallery, where I was caught. There’s no other word for it, caught. I was transfixed by everything, and as soon as I got to the trio of paintings of ships in various stages of “tragedy and loss” by the Salem deaf-mute artist George Ropes, I realized that I wanted–or needed– to come back to this very intimate gallery every day, or as often as possible. Such a clever installation with its angled walls, ensuring that you discover something new around every corner, and everything so very evocative of the perils and promise of the sea. And such a thoughtful mix of old exhibits and new, including the venerable glass-encased ships’ models we can see in all the old photographs of the Peabody Museum. I saw many things that I had only seen in pictures before, but also “old friends”. There were texts, not just paintings and objects. Stunning, substantive, respectful: I was very impressed.

20190929_150104

20190929_150851

20190929_145818

20190929_145727

20190929_145423

20190929_150433

20190929_150947

20190929_150526

20190929_150342-1The treasures of the new Maritime Gallery: the George Ropes paintings are STUNNING; I can’t possibly capture their beauty here. Lovely to see many East India Marine Co. artifacts plus texts and sketchbooks; Ange-Joseph Antoine Roux, Ship America at Marseille, 1806; a reverse glass painting by Carolus Cornelius Weytz, c. 1870; Ship Models and dashing Salem Sea Captains John Carnes and Benjamin Carpenter by William Verstille; Vases by  Pierre Louis Dagoty, c. 1817.

The Asian Export Gallery on the second floor of the new wing was extremely well-designed as well, with an entrance “foyer” covered entirely in c. 1800 Chinese wallpaper from a Scottish castle showing us just how cherished, and integrated, products from Asia were in the west. This opened up into a spacious gallery, providing a vista for what can only be called a “Great Wall of China”! This space was delightful aesthetically, but it was also a teacher’s toolbox for me: all of our introductory history courses are focused on global connections and trade, so I was able to photograph about three PowerPoint’s worth of photographs, for which I am very grateful. Then it was upstairs to the new wing’s third floor, where Fashion and Design reigned—particularly the former, so many mannequins. I have to say that compared to the other two galleries, this one left me cold, but I’m sure that I’m in a minority as it was the most crowded space of my afternoon. We all respond to different materials in different ways of course, but I was struck by the contrast of the rather “old-fashioned” display of Iris Apfel’s ensembles with the modernity of the actual clothing: draped sheets à la eighteenth century with bespectacled mannequins in front? To me it looked inartful, kind of like a throwaway installation, but maybe I’m supposed to notice the juxtaposition? I’m not sure: there were just too many mannequins—it was a crowd for me. There was a readily apparent flow, or connection, between the objects in the Maritime and Asian Export galleries below, but here I could not link the fashion and non-fashion items into any semblance of a story. But again: it was crowded, so I’ll have to go back and try again.

20190929_151510

20190929_151827

20190929_152029

20190929_152125-1

20190929_153537

20190929_154325-1Perfect place to text, no? LOVED this painting of Two English Boys in Asian Clothing, c. 1780 by Tilly Kettle, “the first prominent British artist to work extensively in India”; the “Great Wall” in its partial entirety and detail; the Fashion and Design gallery on the third floor of the new wing.

By this time, I was running out of time (chiefly because I spent so much time in Maritime World) but I wanted to see how some older spaces were impacted by the addition of the new wing—namely the adjacent East India Marine Hall—as well as the heralded dedicated Phillips Library gallery. Here disappointment began to kick in, so read no further if you want a fluffy, disengaged appraisal: that’s not what I do here. The old hall, so stunning and so missed by me, was all dark, reduced to background for artist Charles Sandison’s digital projections of words and phrases from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ship captains’ logs. I had seen this before, as PEM’s first “FreePort” installation a decade or so ago, so I was surprised to see it again. I really liked it before: it was definitely immersive. It was not what I wanted to see now; I was hungry for real words and texts after their authentic integration in the Maritime gallery and so these fleeting, ephemeral images felt fleeting and ephemeral. But this is a temporary installation so I’m not going to go on and on about it; I’m looking forward to what’s next for East India Marine Hall.

20190929_152746

20190929_152938

20190929_152822Charles Sandison: Figurehead 2.0.

On to the new Phillips Library dedicated gallery space! I was anxious, so maybe I wasn’t thinking clearly, but it actually took quite a while to find it. My very handy Visitor Map, which was handed out to everyone as we entered the PEM, indicated that it was right behind East India Marine Hall on the same floor, but because the circular staircase in the rear of the building was blocked off you couldn’t quite get there from where I was without going up, down and all around for some reason. Again, it might have been me, I was going by sheer sensation here, but the difficulty of access seemed to combine with the closet-like room I eventually found to give me a profound impression that the Peabody Essex Museum really didn’t want to showcase the collections of the Phillips Library. Here was an afterthought, thrown in behind the restrooms. I hate to rain on this parade, but that is what I felt. The “Creative Legacy of Hawthorne” exhibit seemed uninspired to me as well, but to be honest, I couldn’t really take it in, I was so disappointed by this sad space. I’ll have to go back and look at it again, if I can muster the willpower. I know that the new Phillips Librarian is happy to have this space, and I’m sure he and his staff will do as much with it as they possibly can, but there’s no way that I can say that it was anything other than a great disappointment to me, right now. The contrast between this disposable space, and all of the wonderful, powerful, thoughtful and spacious galleries I had just seen was almost unbearable: I just had to walk away. There was a large panel which gave a brief history and description of the Library and an introduction to its new reading room in Rowley which I couldn’t quite capture with my camera so I made a collage of different sections: there was no filter with tears, “broken” and “recoil” didn’t look quite right, so I settled for worn.

pixlr-4

20190929_160511

Well let’s try to end on a high note, shall we? No one likes a killjoy. The whole opening of the new wing was handled wonderfully by the curators and staff of the PEM: everyone was on hand, all weekend long, to help, and guide, and answer questions. The Visitor Map (and these cute buttons for all of the new galleries, except, of course, for the Phillips Library) is great. There was a wonderful spirit about the place. Not only is the new wing impressive architecturally: it offers some interesting views of Salem from its upper stories. The new garden is a thoughtful space: I’m looking forward to seeing how the plant material fills in. It was good to be back in the Peabody Essex Museum after my long absence. Salem’s mayor, Kimberley Driscoll, shared her reactions to the opening of the new wing on social media and someone forwarded her post to me. She was clearly as excited as the rest of us and why not: it was, again, a big weekend for Salem. Mayor Driscoll wrote that As we enter these doors we’ll know more about 16-year old sea captains who sailed around the globe and brought back treasures and trinkets to their hometown. Humankind is amazing when it comes to rising up to challenges. We tell those accounts, see those treasures, wonder what it was like and how it came about, marvel at the possibilities….we do all that here. In this space. In our city. Yes in our city, in Salem: but we can’t tell those accounts if we don’t have our history: trinkets and treasures are not enough. And we don’t have to wonder, we could actually learn and know, if we had our history, but we don’t: it’s not here, in our city, in Salem.

20190930_102513

20190929_154845

20190929_153255The Phillips Library Gallery is #206 on the Visitor Map + adorable buttons; the new garden; view from the third floor of the new wing.


Parachuting Perspectives

Every day this summer, I have seen relatively large groups of tourists right next door at Hamilton Hall, and heard their tour guides telling them stories—the same old stories every day, which of course are new to these tourists, but not so to me. I think there is a proclivity for historical narratives in Salem, established in large part by the Witch Trials which are understood best through the prism of personal relationships. Local history is necessarily an exercise in “truffle-hunting” to use the analogy of the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who famously divided all historians into camps of truffle-hunters, searching every little detail out in the archives, and parachutists, who summarized all those details into the big picture, exposing trends and patterns. But both truffle-hunters and parachutists aim to discover, not just tread over the same territory again and again. There’s a tendency to tread over familiar ground in Salem, but the Salem story looks different if it is viewed as only part of a much larger picture. In my academic work, I always try to balance the anecdotal and the general, but blogging definitely favors the former—so every once in a while I take a deep dive into some texts hoping to broaden my frame of reference: after all, I started this blog not only to indulge my curiosity about Salem’s history, but also to learn some American history, which I last “studied” as a teenager!  This summer, I have been slowly working through a pile of recently-published books which offer wider, comparative perspectives on colonial history: most offer the perspective of an Anglo-Atlantic world, in which Salem played a role, but not always a large one. These parachuting perspectives are not from very high up (as the Atlantic World was hardly exclusively Anglo, after all), but just high enough so we can see some things that are not apparent on the ground.

Slavery

Sean D. Moore’s Slavery and the Making of Early American Libraries is an astonishing book, forging connections between the histories of the slave trade and the book trade over a century, and drawing upon the records of the Salem Athenaeum. The impact of the slave trade is multi-dimensional, and here we see its cultural impact, from both transatlantic and local perspectives.

 

book collage

Building Collage 2

Atlantic history can be very tangible as these recent offerings in the robust field of Anglo-American material cultural demonstrate. I picked up Zara Anishanslin’s extraordinary Portrait of a Woman in Silk earlier this year when I wanted to find some context for the portraits of the silken-garbed Lynde ladies of Salem; the collection of essays in A Material World include two with a Salem focus: by Emily Murphy, Curator at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and Patricia Johnston, formerly my colleague at Salem State and now at Holy Cross. Even more expansive views of the material Atlantic world, in terms of topics, time, and places, are Building the British Atlantic World, an anthology edited by Daniel Maudlin and Bernard L. Herman, and Robert DuPlessis’s The Material Atlantic.

 

Books Inn Civility

Well obviously Inn Civility is one of the best titles ever! I haven’t read this book yet, but anyone with only the slightest knowledge of the American Revolution (such as myself) knows that taverns played a key role, and I’ve always been fascinated with Salem’s many taverns, so I’m looking forward to delving in.

 

Books winship-m_hot-protestants

Another great title, but more importantly a much-needed transatlantic history of Puritanism (I see that David Hall has another Atlantic history of Puritanism coming out in the fall, but Winship was first). I’m going to use this book in my Reformation courses, and I wish everyone in Salem would read it, because the general view of Puritanism here is strictly simplistic and stereotypical. In our secular society, it’s not easy (or particularly pleasant) to get into the mind of a Puritan, but you’ve got to try if you want to understand seventeenth-century Salem society.

 

Climate change

1086224_1_07-15-cities-boston_standard

And finally, views that are somewhat removed—though elemental– and closer at hand: climate and comparative history. Environmental history has always been an underlying theme in my teaching, as the “Medieval Warm Period” and “Little Ice Age” are key factors in medieval and early modern European history: I haven’t read any American environmental history so thought I would start with Anya Zilberstein’s A Temperate Empire. And Mark Peterson’s City-State of Boston has been by my bedside ever since it came out for a very parochial reason: everyone knows that Boston’s rise is Salem’s fall.


%d bloggers like this: