Tag Archives: Research

Salem Women’s Lives in the Phillips Library

As they are now, Salem women were really, really busy in the near and more-distant past, and the records in the Phillips Library are a testament to both the range and intensity of their activities. At this moment, the PEM is highlighting all of the powerful women whose work and lives are featured in their 2018 slate of exhibitions, including Georgia O’Keeffe, artist and facilitator Angela Washco, photographer Sally Mann, and a succession of Qing Dynasty empresses of China. In her post, Lydia Gordon writes about “multiple feminisms” and observes that to operate in feminist modes is not just advocating for women’s issues, but rather to take on the human issues within social, cultural, economic and political arenas of our lives. To be a feminist is to be human. I couldn’t agree more, and while it is wonderful to have all these exhibitions on view here in Salem, once again I am struck by the burying of the local past by an institution which is focused primarily on the more global present. For the collections of the PEM’s Phillips Library are full of women tak[ing]on the human issues within [the] social, cultural, economic, and political arenas of [their] lives, and I’m afraid we’re never going to hear their stories–or see their faces.

Woman Pierce PEMThe lovely Catherine Johnson Pierce, who we do get to see in Salem: anonymous American artist, c. 1828-29, Peabody Essex Museum.

So many activist “Republican Mothers” in nineteenth-century Salem! Here’s just a sampling of women’s association papers in the Phillips Library: the Salem Female Charitable Society Records (1801-2001; MSS 359—still active today!), the Dorcas Society of Salem (1811-1875; MSS 113), The Seamen’s Widow and Orphan Association (1833-1960; Acc. 2011.008); the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Records, 1834-1866; MSS 34—fortunately digitized by the Congregational Library and Archives), the Salem Female Employment Society (1861-1875; MSS 113) and the Salem Thought and Work Club (1891-1974), headed by the famed author and activist Kate Tannatt Woods, who deserves her own archive. In her 1977 article in the Essex Institute Historical Collections, then-curator Anne Farnam outlined the workings of the Salem Female Charitable Society early in the nineteenth century, and also reads between the lines to illustrate what can be gleaned from the more opaque entries, such as the vote of the SFCS on September 2, 1801 from the first published list of subscribers of the society. Mrs. West was in the process of a bitter divorce, and one would like to have heard that discussion. As the century progresses, Salem women’s organizations continue to serve as charity stewards, and widen their social scope to include abolition, temperance, education and immigration.


WOMEN PEM collage A published sermon for the Salem Female Charitable Society, 1815; and records of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society as digitized by the Congregational Library & Archives.

And then there are so many stories of individual women in the Phillips: far too many to include an exhaustive list here. One could: follow a Salem sea captain’s wife along as she accompanies her husband around the world in 1837-38 (Log 405), reconstruct several long-distance marriages by delving into the correspondence between captain’s wives who stayed in Salem and their roving husbands, perceive how several Salem women, from different stations in life, assessed the world around them and their own lives during short and long stretches of time in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through their diaries; appreciate the contributions of the extraordinary women of the Remond family (MSS 271), assess the interesting lives and careers of the “Misses Williams” of Salem, two spinster sisters who made, taught, collected and sold art in Salem, and traveled to Italy and elsewhere recording their observations and purchasing items for resale back in their Salem studio/gallery (MSS 253); read cookbooks annotated with notes and suggested variations (MSS 483); examine the unsuccessful restoration of the Qing Dynasty in China from the perspective of three missionaries present at the time (MSS 0.650), learn so much more about the lives and work of so many accomplished Salem women, including Sophia and Rose Hawthorne (MSS 69), educator Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (MSS 474), author, illustrator and educator Lydia Very (MSS 83), authors Kate Tannatt Woods and Mary Harrod Northend (Fam. Mss 1119 and MSS 0.016) and artist and entrepreneur Sarah Symonds (MSS 0.016).

Women PEM Collage 3

Photograph of Waters family members, undated, MSS 92 Volume 4

Women PEM Williams Sisters Studio

Women PEM Very


Women PEM Woods


Synchronicity Sarah Symonds

Studies of the intersection of maritime and gender histories have been trending for some time–but where do the rich collections of the Phillips Library fit in? Women of the Waters Family–all dressed up and ready to go where? (Phillips MH 12); The Studio of the Misses Williams of Salem (Phillips Library photograph from Jacqueline Marie Musacchio’s “The Misses Williams in Salem and Rome: Women Making and Marketing Art and Antiquities.” In The Art of the Deal: Dealers and the Art Market on Both Sides of the Atlantic, 18601940, ed. Lynn Catterson, 59-8 (2017)An illustration by Lydia Very, who bequeathed her Federal Street house to the Essex Institute (MSS 83); Kate Tannatt Woods, Out and About (1882); What Salem Dames Coked, the cookbook published by the Esther C. Mack (another amazing woman) Industrial School in 1910, 1920, and 1933 and reprinted by Applewood Books; The “Colonial Studio” of Sarah Symonds on Brown Street, in a building now owned by the Peabody Essex Museum.

As I think about these Salem women on this particular day, in the midst of this particular Women’s History Month, I am dismayed and disheartened when I should be inspired. The sources for women’s history in the Phillips Library are so rich that I have no doubt that they will be discovered and dispersed by a succession of scholars, as many have already (and the digitized catalog and finding aids will facilitate that process), but the prospects for public presentation and engagement seem bleak. As the Phillips collections take up residence in an inaccessible factory, with no obvious digitization plan in place or apparent institutional interest in historical interpretation, it is difficult to see how the people of Salem—or visitors to our “historic city”– will be able to face its history in any meaningful way, like the little girl below.

CurryPhotoTwo-year-old Parker Curry facing Michelle Obama’s portrait by Amy Sherald: a photograph taken by museum visitor Ben Hines which went viral last week, Washington Post.

A Thin Veneer of Heritage

Six weeks into the struggle to convince the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum to return its Phillips Library to Salem, I find myself with lost faith and many learned lessons. The phrase “broken trust” has been applied to the PEM’s actions many times over these past weeks, but that is too legal a concept for me: I prefer to think in terms of faith, encouraged by Victor Hugo’s lovely observation that A library implies an act of faith which generations, still in darkness hid, sign in their night in witness of the dawn. Under the guise of preservation and with a consistent disdain for accessibility and accountability, the PEM leadership broke faith with the community of Salem, and now I have lost faith in them. I’m trying to separate the leadership from everyone else who works at this large Museum, in effect the Museum itself from the policy regarding the Library and its collections, but that’s tough to do when such an all-encompassing feeling as faith is in play. Working on it.

PEM East India Room collageThe interior of the East India Marine Hall past and present, and before the installation of the PEM’s newest exhibition, Play Time.

I’ve learned many lessons over these past weeks but I think the most important one is about prejudging in general and my own prejudices in particular. I’ve been concerned about the commodification of history in Salem for quite some time (as regular readers are all too aware!) and assumed that this trend was driven exclusively by the many tour guides in town, who were presumably more concerned with #tourismmatters than heritage. Now I know that that predisposition is largely incorrect, as I have seen and heard tour guides take earnest and public stances in support of the return of the Phillips while established heritage institutions have stood silently on the sidelines, taking no position and choosing not to exercise their more considerable influence. I remain impressed, and heartened, by the power of history to unite a broad spectrum of people, although at the same time I realize that history, or the perception of one’s history, is also intensely personal.

Essex Institute 1980

Phillips RizviThe Collections of the Essex Institute in the Phillips Library Reading Room, 1980, and the library collections reinstalled, 2008, Rizvi Architects.

I’ve been having difficulty separating the personal from the professional in my reaction to the PEM’s policy towards the Phillips ever since the “announcement” was made—actually I don’t even think I can get past the “announcement”, or lack thereof! But I better try, because obviously no apologies will be forthcoming; instead PEM CEO Dan Monroe offered only the assertion that there was an expectation by a number of people that we had a responsibility to consult with them about what would be done with the Phillips collection…an expectation we didn’t particularly share or understand in last week’s Boston Globe article. I certainly wasn’t expecting a consultation, but an announcement might have been nice, especially as the PEM’s last official word on the Phillips was that it would be returning to Salem in……..2013.

Thank goodness, when confronted with such adversity, healthy instincts of self-preservation begin to take over, and so I’ve started to privilege the professional over the personal in my considerations. When I look at the situation from the former perspective it is clear to me that I don’t need the Phillips Library in Salem or even in Rowley. I have a car, a Ph.D., and a flexible schedule so I can probably gain access to the new warehouse library during one of the 12 hours a week or so that it will be open (well maybe not, after my running commentary over these past weeks) if I want to. In any case, I’m an English historian, fortunate to be equipped with academic databases and dependant on repositories that have made the accessibility of their collections a priority. Local history is just a lark for me, right?  Unfortunately, private priorities only work for a while: when I start thinking about all those records relating to Salem people, places and institutions, and all those Salem donors, I find myself right back in the realm of public history.

Actually, I do have three presentations coming up this year on the intersection of the Colonial Revival and historic preservation movements here in Salem—all of which were scheduled just before the temporary Phillips facility closed down on September 1, ostensibly so that materials could be readied for the big move to Rowley (which was not, of course, announced at that time). I was looking forward to using the library’s collections intensively for the first time in my career, an opportunity that will sadly not come to pass. I’ll have to make do, and I will make do, with the help of other institutions that have made their materials more accessible and lots of secondary sources, but I fear I will only be scratching the surface of this Salem story without the Phillips sources.

Colonial Stairway Wallis 1887

Colonial Frank Wallis Stairs 1887

Colonial Frank Wallis 1887

Colonial Seating collage

Colonial Tables Wallis 1887

Colonial Doorway Salem Wallis 1887

Colonial Gates Wallis 1887And I really fear I’ll be too reliant on the detailed-yet-romantic work of Maine-born architect Frank E. Wallis, whose reverence for Salem is all too apparent! Plates from Frank E. Wallis, Old Colonial Architecture and Furniture. Boston: George H. Polley & Co. Publishers, 1887. 

Everything for the Garden (Historian)

I had a lot to do yesterday (including gardening) but still managed to devote quite a bit of time to the digital collections of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library at the New York Botanical Garden–a very enticing resource that represents only a fraction of the larger Library’s vast holdings, encompassing over 555,000 volumes in its General Research Collection, along with botanical art and manuscripts. I confined myself to only one category of the digitized materials–nursery and seed catalogs–and still managed to kill some serious time; I can only imagine the hours that would be lost to old journal articles, collector’s notebooks, and “Great Flower Books”! There were quite a few Massachusetts growers represented among the nursery catalogs, which dated primarily from the 1890s through the 1920s, including Salem’s very prominent horticulturalist and landscape architect Harlan P. Kelsey and the “Seed King” of Marblehead, James J.H. Gregory. (Both men were very energetic civic activists as well as horticultural entrepreneurs–I plan to focus on their comparative paths a bit later on, when I have more time). These catalogs are such great sources for the history of horticulture, garden design, “homemaking”, as well as advertising and marketing: they just suck you (me) right in–their nostalgic aesthetic appeal is quite powerful too. Here are a few of my favorite covers, but you can access the entire texts online via the Mertz Digital Collections.

Everything for the Garden Henderson 1905

Everything for the Garden Henderson 1918

Everything for the Garden Johnson 1907

Everything for the Garden Elliotts 1894

Everything for the Garden BRECK NYBG

Everything for the Garden Kelsey

Everything for the Garden Maloney 1917

Everything for the Garden Payne 1917

Everything for the Garden Allen 1917

Everything for the garden and “Dreamwo[r]ld” indeed: American nursery catalogs from the LuEsther T. Mertz Library’s Digitized Collections at the New York Botanical Garden.


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