Tag Archives: Samuel Chamberlain

Samuel Chamberlain’s Salem I: Winter

Two notable architectural photographers of the twentieth century turned their lenses on Salem again and again: Frank Cousins (1851-1925) and Samuel Chamberlain (1895-1975). These men represent a continuum for me: Chamberlain picked up where Cousins left off: with a gap of about ten or fifteen years while the former was more focused on the Old World than the New, and on etching rather than photography. It’s a very interesting exercise to consider their views of the same structure side by side: this is one way that I’ve been teaching myself about photography. Chamberlain has much more of a trained eye–having studied both architecture at MIT and etching in France–but both seem as concerned with documentation as illustration to me. I’m impressed with the range of activities and entrepreneurship of both men–although clearly Chamberlain was more worldly, by choice and circumstance. Born in Iowa and raised in Washington State, Chamberlain’s time at MIT was interrupted by World War I and service as an ambulance driver in France, where he became entranced with the buildings around him and “decided he would prefer to record the picturesque rather than design it” according to 1975 obituary in The New York Times. He recorded picturesque architecture in France, England and America with his etchings, prints and photographs in over 40 published books and countless magazine pieces, as well as the first-ever engagement calendars featuring New England scenes.

Chamberlain collage Two perspectives on the Peirce-Nichols House:  Cousins and Chamberlain.

I grew up with Samuel Chamberlain books and when I moved to Salem I bought more: his vista included all of New England (and beyond) but as he lived in nearby Marblehead, he had ample opportunity to photograph Salem over a 30+ year period from the 1930s through the 1960s. Like Cousins before him, Chamberlain resolutely avoided all the “dull” parts of the city (anything industrial or utilitarian, Victorian or 20th century), and stuck to the historic districts for the most part, where he photographed both interiors and exteriors. I can’t get enough of the first of his three Salem-specific titles, Historic Salem in Four Seasons: A Camera Impression (1938), Salem Interiors: Two Centuries of New England Taste and Decoration (1950), and A Stroll through Historic Salem (1969) because of its rich rotogravure reproductions, which render pre-war Salem in very rich hues. I’m going to offer up some seasonal highlights of Samuel Chamberlain’s Salem this year, starting with winter, which he believed was the time of “Salem’s most beautiful moments…when few visitors see it”.

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Chamberlain Federal

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Chamberlain 4Essex Street, Church Street, the rear of the Andrew Safford House, the Retire Becket House, the Derby House, Federal and Chestnut Streets from Samuel Chamberlain’s Historic Salem in Four Seasons (1938). Both Chamberlain and Cousins deposited materials in the Phillips Library, which has been removed from Salem by the Peabody Essex Museum. 


Trudging Along

Yesterday was a beautiful winter day with everyone out and about cleaning up after the Saturday snowstorm, which was not as bad north of Boston as it was to the south.The streets of Salem were clear by mid-morning, if not before (I was sleeping in), and people were engaged in their regular Sunday activities. There were Sunday street-hockey players out my front windows, and hungry birds out back.

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I suddenly became curious about snow removal in the past–mostly because I didn’t want to go out and engage in my own snow removal in the present. I have–and have seen–quite a few historic photographs of winter scenes in Salem in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but none of them feature snow carts, snow plows, or snow removal. Salem has always been quite urban, and people needed to get around, how did they manage? What was the system then that so preoccupies us now? Both the New York Public Library and the Boston Public Library have quite a few photographs of various methods of snow removal in their collections, from simple shovel brigades to “snow rollers”–I’ve never seen anything like that for Salem: anyone out there have anything?

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Chestnut and Lafayette Streets in the 1870s in stereoviews by Charles G. Fogg. Carriages on the snow—not even sleighs! But it’s not too deep here.

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Chestnut Street in the 1890s, deeper snow, no signs of plowing–but these carriages do look like they are on blades. I’ve shown these before; they are from a family archive in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard.

My problem is that I don’t have any winter scenes of Washington or Essex Streets with tracks that needed to be cleared: Chestnut was and remains strictly residential. I still think people trudged around a lot more than we do now, however. Look at these two wonderful photographs of students from the Horace Mann “Training School” associated with the Salem State Normal School (now Salem State University, where I teach) and their teacher, visiting historic sites downtown in the snow.Look at her skirt: she’s not troubled by a little snow.

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E.G. Merrill photographs of Horace Mann students, 1904, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections

Like everything else, our toleration for snow in the streets changed with the automobile: we won’t settle for anything less than black the day after a snowstorm now. The wonderful book by Marblehead artist, photographer, and author Samuel ChamberlainSalem in Four Seasons (1938) shows winter streets cleared for cars and pedestrians. And he agrees with me: some of Salem’s most beautiful moments are in winter, when few visitors see it (though a lot more now, fortunately).

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Plowing Chestnut Street in the 1930s, from Samuel Chamberlain’s Salem in Four Seasons (1938).


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