Tag Archives: Salem Willows

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.


What they Wore

My previous #SalemSuffrageSaturday posts have been pretty wordy—and pretty serious; I think we all just need to see some Salem women of that gilded, reforming era at the end of the nineteenth century. Ever since that Phillips Library digitized part of their large collection of glass plate negatives created by photographer Frank Cousins I have been pouring over these images at the Digital Commonwealth looking mostly at streets and structures. But Cousins captured people as well—lots of people—even if they were not always his primary (or secondary) consideration. Sometimes he lets them pose; often he captures them unobserved, mostly on busy Essex Street. Now that I know how active Salem women were, for abolition, suffrage, temperance, and other causes, I’m wondering if they also embraced dress reforms, but I’m not enough of a sartorial scholar to tell! The other issue is dating: Cousins’ photos date roughly from 1880 to 1915, but very few are dated precisely, and fashion changed within these decades.

Dress Reform CollageUnreformed dress and reformed suit, from Abba Goold Woolson’s  DressreformA Series of Lectures Delivered in Boston, on Dress as it Affects the Health of Women, 1874.

Of course the women on the streets of Salem, going about their business, or striding or sitting on a Willows avenue or beach, are not going to represent either the “ideal” corseted and bustled or sturdy-suited model figures above, but something in between, clad for their real lives. I don’t see a lot of “tight lacing” in the photos below, but I definitely discern corsets, and the skirts are only shorter for the girls. I’m a bit wary of extreme photo manipulation (photographs are sources) but I have no problem with extreme zooming!

At Salem Willows: the first images is dated 1880; not sure about the rest—but I believe that draped skirts of the second photograph are from the later 1880s.

WTW Willows Pavillion 1880 (2)

WTW Willows 2 (2)

WTW Willows Hospital Point (2)

WTW Willows (2)

Streetwear, 1890s? Again, the first image is dated—it is Columbus Day, 1892—but the rest are not. Young women were always allowed to wear shorter skirts, apparently (like the girls in front of the old Salem Hospital on Charter Street and the Pickering School on North Street). Shop windows (like Cousins’ own Bee-Hive) and signs are also clues for evolving fashion. Lots of parasols on the streets of Salem, in rain or shine. The “leg of mutton” sleeves worn by ladies in the last two photographs clearly date to the later 1890s: sorry she is so blurry, but my very favorite anonymous “bicycle girl” on Essex Street seems like a perfect match for the famous Gibson Girl.

WTW Columbus Day 1892 (2)

WTW CHarter Street Hospital (3)

WTW Pickering School (2)

WTW Bee-Hive (3)

WTW Beehive2 (2)

WTW 207 Essex (3)

WTW Essex 153 (2)

WTW Brooks (2)

WTW St Peter Essex (4)

WTW Gardner Street (2)

WTW Margin Street (2)

pixlrFrank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives at the Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth +ephemera at the Library of Congress.


Color Full Days

A very full weekend in more ways than one: eating, drinking, shopping, gardening, sailing, events all around me. The weather has been nothing short of perfect: sunny in the low to mid-80s without a trace of humidity. We will pay later if we don’t get some rain, but at this point green still reigns, with lots of other colors competing–a veritable rainbow for Pride parade weekend, which was also Cancer Walk weekend and the occasion of countless outdoor activities. I spent much of Saturday at a large outdoor market up in Salisbury and Sunday afternoon sailing with friends, and in between I managed to do tons of yard and deck work (still cleaning up after chimney, roof, and carpentry projects–I think I’ll be picking up shavings of shingles all summer long, maybe for years) effortlessly just because it was so beautiful outside. This Monday morning, I’m sunburned and sore, which are always signs of a good Summer weekend.

The Last Weekend in June, 2016: at the Vintage Bazaar at Pettengill Farm, Salisbury, Massachusetts:

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Pettengill Door

Back in Salem, more colorful than usual:

Salem Door Essex Street

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One color to avoid while in Salem is RED: the newly-painted red line does NOT take you to historical sites but rather to sites like the Witch Dungeon Museum on Lynde Street, which occupies neither the structure or the location of the original Salem Gaol. Do you think the Red Line is there for the (also newly-painted and looking great) Rufus Choate and Mary Harrod Northend Houses next door? It is not.

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Back to more pleasant sites and colors: a beautiful Sunday afternoon sail (with another sailboat passing by VERY closely!), and sunset at the Willows.

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Color 25 Cocktail Cove

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Save


Labor-free Weekend

I’m now in the last day of a very relaxing Labor Day weekend: the weather has been glorious but the fact that we started classes before the holiday rather than after has definitely contributed to my more peaceful state of mind. Instead of fine-tuning my syllabi I have been gardening, shopping, boating, bicycling, walking, eating and drinking. Salem is full of tourists; everyone is commenting that if seems more like October than September. However, they seemed quite spread out to me: never in the way but filling the shops and restaurants with festive energy. September means the weddings resume next door at Hamilton Hall (no air conditioning over there, thank goodness, which makes for very peaceful summers for us) but even yesterday’s wedding was small and tasteful (as compared to over-capacity, purple-clad bridesmaids, and a unicorn plastered on the horse harnessed to a festoon-clad carriage). We have a couple of new shops in town, including one called Hauswitch which looked so attractive that I had to go in even though I disdain anything kitschy witchy and they have spell kits (among lots of other things) for sale! Gorgeous store–the polar opposite of kitschy–it definitely put a spell on me. And even though, sadly, I can’t eat cheese, I had to go into the brand-new Cheese Shop of Salem which was packed with both cheese (among lots of other things) and people. We finally made it out to the now-accessible Baker’s Island (more in my next post), and skirted the fringes of the Gloucester Schooner Festival on the way back. Alas, I do have to work a bit today.

Labor Day Weekend in Salem 2015: a tale of three gardens– flowers from the still-vibrant late-summer garden at the Ropes Mansion, the fading herb garden at the Derby House, and mine, kind of in-between; Hauswitch and the brand-new Cheese Shop of Salem, absolutely packed on Saturday afternoon, the new coffee shop on Derby Street, the fishing pier at Salem Willows; approaching, on (looking back at Boston), and departing Baker’s Island.

Labor Day Weekend Ropes Garden Flowers

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A Willows Cottage

I was sad to see a request for a waiver of our city’s Demolition Delay ordinance on the agenda of the Salem Historic Commission this week, sad but not surprised. The request was made by owners of a beautifully-sited cottage in the Juniper Point neighborhood of Salem Willows. This is a neighborhood of once-seasonal Victorian cottages that were  occupied only in the summer, but are now primarily homes to year-round residents. This transition has been hard on the architecture:  people need more room if they are living in a house year-round, and they need more amenities. Given the neighborhood’s proximity to the water, people also want their homes to facilitate better views, thus they build them up and out. I’ve seen some terrible things done to Willows cottages: complete demolition, not-very-sensitive additions, and roof dormer windows filled in to create a top-heavy house that looks like it might topple over at any moment. But in the case of this cottage the culprit was a late-summer fire: it has looked forlorn ever since.

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The house was built about 1885 according to the inventory on MACRIS, and due to its location–on a corner lot adjacent to beach, park, and ocean, it features prominently in many turn-of-the-century postcards: the beginning of the residential Willows. Its basic outline remains unchanged–until the fire.

Juniper Point-001

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Demolition 3-001

Location, location, location. The sun was struggling to come out when I took these pictures the other day in the park just beside the cottage. You can see its views: of the Willows park with the ocean and Cape Ann beyond. Bakers Island, ostensibly part of Salem but quite a separate world altogether, is “glistening” in the fragile sun offshore.

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Christmas at the Willows

This weekend’s Christmas in Salem tour is focused on Salem Willows, for the first time (I think!) in this storied event’s 33-year history. The tour has developed its large following by opening up historic homes in the city’s central historic districts (McIntire, the Common, Derby Street), but every once in a while it branches out to showcase an outlying neighborhood: North Salem a few years ago and now the Willows. Eight homes are on the tour, all decorated for the season. By the time you are reading this, it’s too late to purchase tickets online, but they will be available at the Bentley School (25 Memorial Drive, Salem) on Saturday and Sunday. Christmas in Salem is the major fundraiser for Salem’s preservation organization, Historic Salem, Incorporated, and as such, it enables HSI to continue its preservation advocacy and outreach.

In terms of preservation, the Willows (or more formally the Juniper Point residential neighborhood, which is adjacent to the historic Willows municipal park) has been a bit vulnerable in recent years, given its desirable coastal location, its lack of historic district restrictions, and the transformation of its summer cottages to year-round residences. There have been some rather aggressive additions and an unfortunate teardown a few years back.  But the majority of the neighborhood’s close-knit Victorian and early twentieth-century dwellings appear perfectly preserved, and they provide a nice backdrop for a seaside Christmas stroll.

Willows Salem State

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Willows SSU

A Craftsman cottage (not sure if this is on the tour–it’s just one of my favorite houses) in Salem Willows, framed by two early 20th century doctored postcards from the archives of Salem State University.


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