Tag Archives: New England

Etching Salem

This is generally a beautiful time of year to take photographs around Salem but it’s been rather cold and dreary for the past few weeks, with the exception of a few isolated days. I’m sure that when everything dries out we will be living in a lush and green world, but for right now I’m more predisposed to take out a book than go outside. So after I finished my grading (always a celebratory moment), I curled up with some old architecture and photography books and soon realized that one “Salem artist” whom I have never featured is Philip Kappel (1901-1981), an etcher and book illustrator who spent several years working with Philip Little and in his waterfront studio off Derby Street. Kappel was not really a Salem artist: he was born in Connecticut, educated in New York City, and as he was employed by several steamship lines over his career, he traveled the world six times over, gathering materials for his etchings everywhere he went. But he did publish a lovely book in 1966 titled New England Gallery with several Salem images inside, as well as some interesting commentary on his time here.

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20190514_142244 See what I mean about the weather? But Kappel’s Ropes Mansion and Witch House hint at brighter and warmer days, even with no color!

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Little Studio

20190514_161348The Custom House (which is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year) Derby Wharf Lighthouse, The Little Studio (just above the compass star)–where both Philip Little and Philip Kappel worked, in different seasons—and the House of the Seven Gables.

Kappel relates the standard histories of most of the Salem structures presented in New England Gallery but is more effusive about Chestnut Street because that is where his friend and mentor, Philip Little, lived. Little summered on MacMahan Island off Boothbay Harbor every year, and during a visit to the mainland he chanced upon a small exhibition of Kappel’s drawings and sought the young artist out. Kappel was teaching art in Boothbay, but Little thought he should and could do better, and offered him his Salem studio on Daniels Street Court, “hard by Salem Harbor, in the heart of the area which made Salem a great seaport in its heyday.” There, Kappel reveals, “inspired by its moods and reveling in its historic past, I never worked harder or produced more work. Every summer passed too quickly.” Kappel’s depiction of the Little house at 10 Chestnut Street includes the entrance pillars of Hamilton Hall, which gives him an opportunity to pass along a charming little anecdote:  Many years ago Philip Little took me on a tour through Hamilton Hall. As we were descending the long flight of stairs that led to the second floor from the first, I notices a series of large white circles painted on the top step, and a similar treatment accorded the last step. (I have since learned that the circles have been removed.) When I asked the purpose of this unusual feature, Philip Little forthrightly informed me that the circles served as warning signals for those who might have “sipped too long and too much at the punchbowl,” alerting them to the impending dangers of a fall when taking the first step into the space, the circles on the last step indicating that all was well; a successful landing had been effected. There is carpet on those stairs now, but having been to one or two enthusiastic events at Hamilton Hall over the years, I’m wondering if we should put those circles back!

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20190514_161311Chestnut Street


Codfish Aristocracy

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

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

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

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

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


Reverence for Ruzicka

I’ve long admired the prints of Bohemian-born Rudolph Ruzicka (1883–1978), both pictures and fonts—both are characterized by the “optical ease” which he sought for all of his work. Ruzicka migrated to the United States as a child, and received his art training in Chicago and New York City before launching his career as an engraver and designer: he operated his own shop but also worked for the Mergenthaler Linotype Company for his entire professional life, as well as for Merrymount Press in Boston. His body of work includes several portfolios of prints of New York City, Newark and Boston, at least four typefaces (including the classic Fairfield which I use a lot), and a beautiful book of calligraphic fonts titled Studies in Typeface Design (1968). Ruzicka’s pictorial work looks to my untrained eye like the perfect combination of early to mid-twentieth-century central European and American aesthetics (they have that WPA look before the WPA!), and I love that he obviously loved New England: he moved to Massachusetts in 1948 and then to a farm in Brattleboro, Vermont. While he portrays an obvious appreciation for the “pictorial aspects” of New York (and Newark as well) his scenes of greater Boston are beautiful. And as a bonus, the series of greeting cards designed by Ruzicka and produced by the Merrymount Press from 1911-1941 include several prints of notable Salem landmarks, which you can see below.

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ruzicka beacon hill view

ruzicka charles street church

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ruzicka granary burying ground

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ruzicka frog pond carnegieRuzicka’s views of Boston (including the old Cornhill and swimming in Frog Pond) above, and of greater Boston (including Peacefields in Quincy, Walden Pond in Concord, McIntire’s Gore Place in Waltham and Derby summer house in Danvers, and the House of the Seven Gables and Old Town Hall in Salem) below.

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ruzicka quincy

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ruzicka market house carnegieAll images from the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art; the Harvard Museums also have a large collection of Ruzicka prints.


Mid (19th)-century Thanksgiving

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Thanksgiving was a very different holiday in some ways, but familiar in others. It did not become a national holiday until 1863: before that the Salem papers (I’m using the Salem Register in this post) note with each passing year how many governors have issued proclamations adopting the “joyous festival, so long the ‘peculiar institution’ of New England”. How jarring to see this phrase applied to Thanksgiving—when I thought it was an exclusive reference to slavery!  I’m not sure I’m really comfortable with the phrase “Universal Yankee Nation” in this 1847 article either.

Thanksgiving 1847 collage

Apart from the provincial pride, Thanksgiving was also a busy public holiday, rather than merely a family gathering. It was both sacred and secular, and everyone was out and about in the morning (for church services) and the evening (for concerts and dances). I assume they ate their Thanksgiving dinners in between, as there were lots of advertisements for various foodstuffs  in the weeks before the big day, which was always in November in Massachusetts despite some December dates chosen by other states. Provisioning and preparations were very important: not just for family meals, but also for the meals that were prepared by different civic groups for orphans, prisoners, “inmates of the Alms House”, and (during the Civil War) soldiers.

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Thanksgiving 1852 collage

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These advertisements from the Salem Register (from 1847-75) give some semblance of what Thanksgiving festivities were all about in mid-nineteenth-century Salem but are an under-representation: people really wanted to give thanks in as many ways as possible, especially during the Civil War. But they also wanted to celebrate: Thanksgiving is always referred to as a “festival”. Turkey–and other fowl– was definitely on the menu as you can see from the “warning” to Salem’s resident birds, and cranberries as well. I remain extremely impressed by the entrepreneurialism of Mr. John Remond, an African-American man who served as the resident manager and caterer of (a very busy) Hamilton Hall while also running several provisioning businesses downtown: he arrived in Salem from the West Indies in 1798, all alone and only ten years old, and seems to have transformed himself into one of the city’s major players by the 1820s. He and his wife Nancy (who also had her own business–and they had eight children) were also active abolitionists and do not seem to have suffered the handicaps faced by most African-Americans in the nineteenth century, but then again, advertisements only reflect one small sliver of their lives. But they can tell us that year after year in Salem, oysters, whether individually or in pies, were much in demand for Thanksgiving.


A Turnkey Homestead

I’m using the expression “turnkey” in typical contrary fashion here: it’s a real estate term which generally means a house that requires no repairs or refurbishment, just turn the key and you are home in your new purchase. The Rundlet-May house in Portsmouth struck me as a turnkey house in another sense: Ralph May, the fourth of his generation to live in the house, donated it to Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation for New England Antiquities) in 1971 and now when you enter the house (or turn the key, in a sense) it seems as if you are within a space that he just left. This is an imposing Federal, made less so by the lived-in ambiance of a home to four generations of the same family.

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Rundlett May 18The Rundlet-May House (1807) and views out back from its second and third floors.

Even though the house itself is an extravagant construction on large urban acreage, everything about its interior speaks to Yankee thrift: from the original peach damask wallpaper in one of the front parlors to the original Edison light bulb in a fixture on the second-floor landing–which is turned on once a year. It’s the perfect old-money house. John Rundlet, the self-made man who built (and apparently designed?) the house purchased and commissioned the best of everything (including a Rumford Roaster and a Rumford Range) and his descendants seem to have changed very little other than altering the use of its rooms to suit their activities and professions.

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Rundlett May 9First-floor parlors, hall and kitchen (with Rumford Roaster) and fire buckets, of course. I found several early 20th-century postcards of the house which referred to Samuel McIntire as the carver of the right parlor’s mantle (above), but I think this is just an illustration of the Salem architect and woodcarver’s fame in the midst of the Colonial Revival era.

There’s probably too much furniture–beautiful as it all is—in the house: tables and dressers and painted chairs. Should a beautiful card table be situated just inches away facing an even more beautiful Portsmouth bureau in a narrow window nook of an upstairs bedroom? No necessarily, but this placement allows us to see both of these pieces. There’s also a lot of stuff. But it’s their stuff and their home, and we are all privileged to be able to enter within!

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Ralph MaySecond and Third Floors, including Ralph May’s 3rd floor study, with all of his stuff. Below: this “musical” decorative motif ran through the house—it caught my eye because the same motif is on one of my Fancy chairs. (the last photograph).

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Fancy Chair


A Viking Ship, Two Black Hats, and One Special Street

Despite the fact that I am a middle-aged woman rather than an adolescent boy, I was absolutely determined to see the reproduction Viking ship Draken Harald Hårfagre as it sailed into Plymouth Harbor yesterday. Plymouth is just one of the stops on the ship’s east coast tour, and it was the most convenient for me in terms of time and geography, so down to the South Shore I went. It was a humid day and all was gray as we waited for a pending storm and the ship, which slid into Plymouth Harbor very gracefully. I had hoped to see it under sail, but of course that wasn’t going to happen in the wide, calm harbor. You (and I) will have to see it under sail here. I always enjoy seeing the juxtaposition of “old” and new vessels; of course Plymouth has that all the time with the Mayflower II in the harbor—but the Draken is so much more “alien”.

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Well, that’s it for the ship (which will be in port until Friday evening and then it’s going down the coast). Both before and after its arrival I occupied myself in my usual way: looking at old houses and comparing Plymouth to Salem as a tourist destination and purveyor of local history. Even though they are very different places, I can’t help making comparisons between these two New England ports, put on the map by their seventeenth-century origins and happenings as symbolized by two omnipresent black hats: of the Plymouth Pilgrim and the Salem Witch. Indeed, Salem and Plymouth have both been on the heritage map for quite some time, whether it be for educational or tourism purposes.

MA MAP 1966Colonization in America visual wall map, 1966, prepared by the Civic Education Service, Washington, D.C.; David Rumsey Map Collection.

In terms of physical size, Plymouth is one of the largest towns in Massachusetts, whereas Salem is among the smallest cities. Plymouth’s population is actually larger, I was surprised to realize, but Salem’s is much more concentrated. Salem is urban and closer to Boston; Plymouth doesn’t quite feel “suburban” to me but I guess it is. Both places are county seats and have vibrant downtowns and tourist-based economies. Both towns are “historic” but in very different ways: Salem’s history is predominately commodified while Plymouth is more committed to public history. As a heritage destination, Plymouth is what Salem would be if the Peabody Essex Museum had not absorbed and essentially obliterated the Essex Institute: its Pilgrim Hall Museum (founded in the very same decade—the 1820s–as the Essex Historical Society, one of the Essex Institute’s founding organizations) and Plymouth Antiquarian Society serve as public repositories and interpreters of the history of “America’s Hometown”. This makes for a very different projection. I’m not trying to pass judgement here (although regular readers will know how I feel): Plymouth seems to have preserved quite a bit of its “ye olde” parochial identity whereas we all know that the Peabody Essex Museum is a very sophisticated, global institution.

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Plymouth Adventure 13The Jabez Howland House is presented much like Salem’s “Witch House”, as a singular survivor and link to the seventeenth-century past.

Both Plymouth and Salem have impressive inventories of historic structures, although their waterfronts were altered considerably by twentieth-century state and federal initiatives designed to highlight their maritime heritages, ironically: the preparations for Plymouth’s tercentenary in 1919-1920 cleared out its unsightly wharves and created Pilgrim Memorial State Park while the Salem Maritime National Historic Site was created in a similar (but less radical) manner in the next decade. Salem has more concentrated historic districts but Plymouth has several special streets too: on this particular trip I could not get enough of Leyden Street (below) in particular. So many brick- or shingle-ended houses! And so few Federals, both compared to Salem and even the towns just to the north, Kingston and Duxbury. Both Plymouth and Salem had spectacular Tercentenary pageants and parades, and Plymouth is definitely gearing up for its 400th in 2020: Salem, I’m not so sure.

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Plymouth Adventure

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Plymouth adventure 12Leyden Street, with the storm coming in.


Unobstructed Views

My self-education in historical architectural photography is now quite stalled in the realm of the photogravure, and I just can’t see enough tonal prints of old buildings, preferably but not necessarily of the New England variety. There is a slim volume titled Under Colonial Roofs by Alvin Lincoln Jones with forty stunning photogravures from negatives by Charles Webster that I keep by my bedside but I like the Internet Archive copy even better because it is annotated by a snarky little anonymous note facing the title page: the first good photographic study of New England’s historic houses was Alvin Lincoln Jones’ Under Colonial Roofs which appeared in 1894. The pictures, which are of a high quality, show us many buildings that have since disappeared. The picture of the Paul Revere House, when compared to a modern view, gives us some idea of how drastic the 1907 restoration must have been. Jones’ picture leads me to conclude that it is very easy to over-restore a building. I wonder what he/she thought of the coincidental restoration of the House of the Seven Gables! The 1894 version of the Paul Revere house is in fact very revealing, as is that of the Wells-Adams House, also in the North End, which would come down in the very same year that Under Colonial Roofs was published.

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Jones showcases only two Salem houses, a very un-restored Corwin/Witch House, which he calls the Roger William House as it is several years before Sidney Perley disproved that connection, and the Pickering House, which looks then pretty much like it looks now. There are so many more I wish he had included! But images of Salem’s “ancient” houses were being dispersed far and wide by Frank Cousins in the 1890s, so I can understand his sparing coverage. There are lots of Essex County houses in the volume: I was particularly drawn to the Cobbett House on East Street in Ipswich, which appears to be no longer with us, the striking image of the Whipple House (again–in its un-Colonial-revivalized state) and the Peaslee Garrison House up in Haverhill, which looks like it could have been built in East Anglia.

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Jones takes us to all of the usual houses in Lexington, Concord and Duxbury, but does not venture onto the Cape or “out west”. Perhaps the anonymous note-inserter is correct: there is something about the untouched, organic images of two houses that I am familiar with—the Abbot house in Andover and the Peter Tufts House in Medford (which Jones calls the “Cradock House”) that are so very revealing, even more than the photographic technique. These houses would survive the twentieth century: not so the Barker House in Pembroke, then boarded-up, overgrown and abandoned.

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undercolonialroo00jone_0223 Cradock House

undercolonialroo00jone_0343 Barker House Pembroke


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