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.