Tag Archives: Shopping

Winter White Houses

This passing year has been one of little ailments; I actually feel grateful they were not BIG ailments. I strained my right hamstring early last week and have been laid out ever since, meaning that I missed one of my very favorite Salem events: the Christmas in Salem house tour of this past weekend, the major fundraising event for Historic Salem, Incorporated. I was just too shaky and sore to go for it; I’m still a little shaky and sore. It was beautiful bright weather and several of the houses on the tour I had not seen before, so this was a real missed opportunity and I was downcast all weekend. I sent out my husband, and friends sent pictures, so I really have enough for a post but they’re not my pictures so they don’t feel like my story. Nevertheless, they are really spectacular, so I think I’ll feature them in a bit–along with my own decorations when I can get to them–but for right now I just don’t feel that merry and bright so I’m going to feature some stark winter white. As my world was confined to my laptop for several days, I discovered some new and new-to-me artists who conjured up images of winter house which more suited my mood. I was inspired by one of my favorite houses up in my hometown of York, Maine: it always looks a little lonely, and that’s how I felt this past weekend.

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The winter houses of artist, illustrator, and photographer Deb Garlick immediately captured my mood this past weekend: the first two are acrylics, but you can order the last as a print, along with other images, on her website. I find her work both elegant and accessible: she has some adorable “mini-portraits”, and, as befitting her name, also works in food photography and illustration!

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WW wm_thisoldhouseThe Old Farmhouse; The Edge of the Lake; This Old House.

Then I went for a touch more color in the watercolor washes of Kate Evans: her red barn was about as much red as I could handle this past weekend! She has beautiful forests and structures, highlighted in stark relief against all that negative space/snow.

Winter House Barn

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Red Barn and Woodcutter’s Cabin.

Winter landscapes can be very romantic, of course, but those views were not what I was looking for this past weekend: no horse-drawn sleighs, skating rinks, or cozy cottages. I didn’t want snow that looked even slightly fluffy. This eliminated artwork from much of the nineteenth century in my curation quest but things got bleaker in the twentieth, of course. I really enjoyed discovering the work of the Belgian landscape artist Valerius de Saedeleer (1867-1942) whose works looks inspired by both the Northern Renaissance and twentieth-century realism at the same time. The “gloaming” of de Saedeleer’s second painting below is also evident in one of Edward Munch’s winter landscapes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Whenever I indulge in Munch, I get a bit depressed, and I was already pretty dour, so I turned tail and looked at some slightly sunnier views of winter houses among the works of Swiss artist Cuno Amiet (1868-1961)—-got to get some yellow in here and I aspire to sled!

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Winter House Munch MFA

screenshot_20191209-155337_chromeView of Tiegem in Winter, c. 1935, Christie’s; Winter Landscape, c. 1920, Mutual Art; Edward Munch, Winter Landscape, c. 1898, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Cuno Amiet, Winter House.


My December 2019 Book List

I generally post a book list around this time of year: my favorite books of the past year, books I want for Christmas, books I’m reading or assigning for my spring courses, books I want to read over the holiday break. This list is all of that except for the first category: I haven’t read much this past year because I’ve been working so hard—writing myself, teaching, and reading to teach—and so I really can’t play favorites. This was not a leisurely year and there is very little fiction on this list, and even very little history unrelated to my teaching: very little American history in particular. To a certain extent, this blog has been an exercise in discovering the American history which I avoided from high school: I’ve learned a lot but now I’m kind of done—it seems a bit repetitive to me. Other worlds call, and new books in my own fields are piling up! I’ll never be done with the histories of architecture (structure and landscape) and material culture though—and folklore, though nothing of that genre caught my eye this year. So proceeding in chronological order, here are the books which did.

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Book Elizabethan Globalism

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These books are all for my courses and an endless writing project which I hope to bring to fruition in the coming year. Simon de Montfort is one of those guys like Sir Philip Sidney: a glamorous representative of his age, in this case the thirteenth century, who has a very dramatic story which students love and which can also represent the best (anti-absolutism) and worst (antisemitism) of the time. I’ve read everything about de Montfort, and this book, by University of Lancaster Lecturer Sophie Thérèse Ambler, is very good, full of details and analysis which will enhance my teaching. I will be reading Renaissance Futurities and Gardens for Gloriana for pleasure and for context for own work over the break, and I am considering Walter Ralegh and Elizabethan Globalism for sections and courses on European expansion in the early modern era, although the latter is also an absolutely gorgeous book that could double as a more casual coffee-table text. Climate history is absolutely essential right now, as as the periods I teach encompass both the “Medieval Warm Period” and the “Little Ice Age” I’m always on the hunt for fresh environmental perspectives: Nature’s Mutiny is a potential adoption for several of my courses but I have to read it over the break to gauge its accessibility.

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These are all books I WANT or want to read: I think Inventing Boston would inform my understanding of Salem craftsmanship in the same key era, Mark Girouard’s classic Life in the English Country House has been reissued in a stunning edition by the Folio Society this year with photographs from Country Life and a binding illustration by architectural artist John Pumfrey, and I collect Penguin clothbound editions by Coralie Bickford-Smith. I’m not sure I buy into Orlando Figes’ themes of European unity and modernity in the nineteenth century, but that is an era with which I need to engage, again. I’ve always been fascinated with Frank Lloyd Wright’s professional and personal life, and who doesn’t want to read about English Country House parties? Oh, and in addition to Sandition, I did want to read one other novel this year if only for the local reference in its title, but no, I cannot read Lucy Ellman’s 1000-page Ducks, Newburyport at this particular time: I just don’t have the ability (or the time) to dwell on a strung-out sentence of rambling thoughts, as experimental and interesting as it/ they may be. Maybe next year, or the year after.


Built by a Master Mason

On a sunny afternoon last week, I had to the opportunity to go inside Two Oliver Street on Salem Common, a grand brick Federal house built in 1811 and currently for sale (so you can go in too, if you want). I hadn’t been in the house for a while, maybe a decade or so, and while there have been some alterations made to the more utilitarian spaces, the historic “public” rooms remain perfectly preserved, including the Zuber & Cie wallpaper in the dining room. There is a beautiful double parlor, very large center halls on all three stories, a sweeping serpentine staircase, and countless bedrooms—I really lost count, though three third-floor rooms have been combined to make a large poolroom, rec room, man cave, whatever you want to call it (it’s not very cave-like). There is also a wine cellar, a lovely deck overlooking an enclosed garden, and a carriage house with a second-floor apartment! All of these features are wonderful, but for me, the key attraction of the house was its combination of modernized facilities and systems combined with historical “texture”: I don’t like it when age-old plaster looks too smooth. Well see for yourself: here are my photographs of the exterior and first, second, and third floors.

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20191106_161151Another Rumford Roaster! I really believe that Salem can lay claim to being the city with the most Rumford Roasters.

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20191106_155921Beautiful views over Oliver Street on one side of the house, and the Common on the other.

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I love old basements—-if they are clean, which this one definitely was (unlike mine). On our way back upstairs from the wine cellar (just below), we popped in to see the “unfinished” part of the basement, which is really quite impressive. Combined with all of the exterior aspects of the building, it really reinforces the sense of masonry craftsmanship. Yes, the woodwork is beautiful too (as you can see above) but I walked away thinking about brick.

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Generally I write about the occupants of historic houses, but as I walked away from Two Oliver with all that brick on my mind I wanted to research the builder: I knew it was Joshua Upham, who also built Old Town Hall and part of Derby Square, but that was about all I knew about this “talented” (I found this adjective in several places) mason. Fortunately his son published a biography: even though it’s a bit more focused on Upham’s faith and activism (he was a Deacon of his church and a very passionate abolitionist) we also get to read a bit about his long career, which began in Boston as a mason’s apprentice. After a fallout with his fellow apprentices, he went down to the docks to catch a ship for Newburyport (as there had just been a fire) but wound up in Salem instead. This was in 1803, just before Salem’s Federal building boom, and in the words of his son, “in the reckless runaway, with his one shirt, one pair of duck trousers and a spencer, it would have needed a prophetic eye to see the most successful master mason in town, under whom the larger part of its ancient brick dwellings and stores were erected.”  Two Oliver Street was built for merchant Joseph White Jr., who lived in the house for only five years, until his death in 1816. There followed a long occupancy by Benjamin H. Silsbee and family in the middle of the nineteenth century, after which the house became the parsonage of the Tabernacle Church on Washington Street and the long-time residence of several generations of the Clark family. Joshua Upham’s spectacular building career was followed by an equally spectacular second career as an inventor of fire “annihilators” designed to protect buildings under the auspices of the Salem Laboratory on Lynde Street, and when he died in 1858 he was still in the possession of several patents.

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Joshua Upham, the builder of 2 Oliver Street/33 Washington Square North, which is now for sale through J. Barrett & Company.


Falling for Folk Art

This week I’m focused on spectacular examples of folk art. On Sunday I was up in my hometown of York, Maine, where I heard a great talk at the Old York Historical Society by Karina Corrigan, the curator of Asian Export Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, and then wandered through the small Remick Gallery showcasing the Society’s collections. There were some very unique items on view, representing both “high” and more vernacular styles, and I was much more drawn to the latter, because, let’s face it, I have high style stuff all around me in Salem (the Maine girl in me would be annoyed at this snobby statement, but I think the Massachusetts woman has snuffed her out, as I have now resided in Massachusetts for longer than I lived in Maine). I was particularly struck by this coat-of-arms for the Sewall family of York, because it looks so very unheraldic to me! The bees have been on the Sewall coat of arms for several centuries—and we can see them on Nathaniel Hurd’s 1768 engraving of the Reverend Joseph Sewall (son of Salem Witch Trials Samuel Sewall because there’s always a Salem connection)—but who are those people, and what is that creature? My class was split between lion and bear when I showed it to them, although several thought it was the Devil.

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Folk Art Hurd MFA

Sewall Family Coat-of-Arms, Old York Historical Society; Benjamin Hurd engraving of the Reverend Joseph Sewall, 1768, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

I don’t know if they qualify as art as they are really tools (for combing out flax fibers) but these hetchels looked very creative (and menacing) mounted on the wall; I have never seen them exhibited this way. There are a variety of spellings, but the name for one who  wields a hetchel came to be know as a heckler, and I think there is some sort of connection between the hetchel’s sharp (angry) “teeth” and the modern heckler’s sharp angry taunts. Most of the hetchels that I have seen have long handles, so they resemble brushes, and I always though they must have been the perfect tools for the ascetic practice of (self-) mortification of the flesh.

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But I am digressing……when I got home, despite a stack of papers awaiting me, I indulged in my favorite procrastination pastime of browsing through online catalogs of upcoming auctions, and when I got to Sotheby’s Sculptural Fantasy: The Important American Folk Art Collection of Stephen and Petra Levin I lingered over every lot. This auction is happening today, so we’ll see what prices these amazing objects fetch. I had an immediate, visceral reaction to the elephant, because pachyderms formed my very first “collection” accumulated from a very young age. I now have boxes in the basement and need no more elephants, but this particular “walking” or parading elephant, presumably Jumbo, has always enchanted me: I have it on placemats, notecards, and bookplates. The amazing painted eagle carved by John Haley Bellamy of Kittery Point, Maine, is surely as impressive as anything a Massachusetts craftsman could produce! A large pair of early 20th century dice—what more can I say? I dressed up with a childhood friend as a pair of dice for Halloween one year in York, and based on the estimates given, these are probably the only things I could afford in this auction. There are plenty of great trade and travel signs (along with weathervanes and whirligigs) so it was hard to choose, but I love the hats and the crocodile, and the “double” eye clock, of course.

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Folk Art Eagle

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Select lots from Sculptural Fantasy: The Important American Folk Art Collection of Stephen and Petra LevinSothebys.


The Pope said Nope

Last night we went to see Six at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge; I bought the tickets, but my husband accompanied me willingly. I simply could not resist a musical about the six wives of Henry VIII and it did not disappoint in its fluffy, fun feminism. The performance was certainly not a deep (or long) dive, but it was interesting in its distillation of the essential character of each woman, whether based on fact or fiction. Each queen had her say (or song), but the entire performance was a collective concert; midstream my husband said it reminded him of Josie and the Pussycats! The musical’s writers, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, are younger than us so they were inspired by different pop princesses: Beyonce, Avril Lavigne, Adele, Rhianna, Ariana Grande, Alicia Keys.

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WivesBeard Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Henry and his six wives have been the focus of many popular culture expressions for decades, even centuries: none of them will ever die. What’s interesting to me about re-envisioning is how it reflects on the society which is doing the re-envisioning and what gets distilled down as the universal “truth” of whatever or whomever is being recalled. In the case of the former, the King is nowhere to be seen on the Six stage: obviously he is the elephant in the room but he’s not there in this #metoo moment, this “her-story” (I hate that word; I almost lost the job I now hold because I told the hiring committee I would not teach a course on the books titled “Herstory” as history was about people). It’s all about the women and even though they look and sound very contemporary their characterizations are pretty traditional: Catherine of Aragon is the steadfast queen who says “no way” to Henry, Jane Seymour is “the only one he really loved”, Anne of Cleves is the one who got away, with a very nice annulment settlement, Katherine Howard is the precocious teenager with very poor judgement owing to an abusive past, and Katherine Parr is the grown-up survivor. I’ve heard this all before many times, and there’s a nice spotlight on the court painter Hans Holbein, including the old yarn in which he is sent to Germany to paint the miniature portrait of Anne of Cleves before her betrothal to Henry, and falling in love with her, made her more beautiful than she really was and so raised the King’s expectations to an extent that she could not meet, as well as entire song, “Haus of Holbein,” right in the middle of the performance. The one Queen I did not recognize was Anne Boleyn: she’s a plucky party girl in Six, with many, many references to her unfortunate death, including her showcase song, “Don’t Lose Ur Head”. She does get one of the best lines of the night when narrating her long road to royal marriage, when “the Pope said nope” to the annulment of Henry’s first marriage. But there’s no conviction in Anne, or any of the wives really: it’s hard to inject religion into a pop concert. The conceit of the show was that these women would compete—through their stories–for the title of who suffered the most at Henry’s hands, but near the end they decided they were all in it together, so we didn’t get to clap for our favorite Queen. I was relieved, as I was torn: I know Henry’s first queen suffered the most, but my very favorite, forever, is his last.

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Six Poster

Six Wives BookAll the wives, plucky Anne, personal Tudor history from the last century, and Hans Holbein re-envisioned by Alys Jones.


Historical Habitation

A couple of months ago, I decided that this would be the Summer of The Secretary: I’ve been wanting to purchase an antique secretary for my front parlor for quite some time, and as “brown furniture” seems positioned for a revival after the mid-century modern mania we’ve been in for a while I think that prices will start to climb back to the level where they were when I first started to furnish my home. I have the perfect, slightly-recessed spot and I think a secretary will really complete that room, which I can never seem to get right. So I’ve been looking at all of the auction listings, and the other day I saw a piece that looked vaguely familiar in a Skinner Country Americana Auction. The description confirmed my suspicion: this secretary, along with several other pieces in the same auction, came from the colonial house in South Berwick, Maine which serves as the subject of Paula Bennett’s book Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America through History, Food, and a Georgian House.

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Imagining Ichabod Secretary

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Bennett and her husband owned the Goodwin house in South Berwick for over a decade, during which time she pursued every possible avenue to create an ambiance as historical as possible in their home: research into the textures, furnishings, food and events of the era in which the two Ichabod Goodwins lived (1740-1829), through primary and secondary sources, archaeology, and what I like to call “shopping research” ( in which I indulge often) via period houses, auctions, and antique shops. Imagining Ichabod details this very personal and material journey in words, pictures, and recipes, as Bennett is an enthusiastic cook—indeed, one gets the impression that she is enthusiastic about everything! After this complete immersion, it was off to a Boston condo for the Bennetts, which is why their Georgian furnishings ended up at Skinner.

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Imagining Ichabod Table Skinner

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Imagining Ichabod Entrance Table

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Imagining Ichabod Marble Table

The cumulative and intensive effort to create a perfect eighteenth-century (-esque) house, only to dismantle and leave it after a relatively short period, is interesting to me, as I wonder about the constraints of “period living”, and by that I mean aesthetic constraints rather than practical ones, as even the most passionate antiquarians have indoor plumbing! Everyone I know in Salem lives in an old house, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but no one furnishes their homes in an exclusively period style: it’s generally a melange of old and new, with some nods to the era in which the house was built and a lot more comfortable furniture. When I first purchased my current house, which was built in 1827, I went about it much like Paula Bennett: I wanted period furniture, period drapes, period plates, period lighting, period wallpaper, and period hardware; I was particularly obsessed with finding the correct switch plates, but of course no switch plate is “correct” in an 1827 house. After about a decade of that design philosophy, I grew tired of the constraints and loosened up considerably, and now my house is a mix of past and present, as it no doubt appeared in 1927, 1877, and even the year it was built. But I still want a secretary—and the Bennett’s Georgian one is too early.

Sandy Agrafiotis photographs in Paula Bennett’s Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America Through its History, Food, and a Georgian House (Bauer and Dean, 2016). I never attempted period cooking like Paula Bennett, but I’m always on the lookout for a good rum punch, and the idea of roasted oysters intrigues, as both my father and husband are oyster aficionados.


Salem as America’s Attic

I might be pushing it a bit with my title, but since I’ve returned from Winterthur earlier this Spring, I’ve been obsessed with exploring “Salem as source” for antiques and collectibles in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, when the passion for antiquing emerged. This is another avenue into Salem’s influence on the burgeoning Colonial Revival; I think its architectural influence has been established, by a succession of architects coming to town to sketch starting as early as the 1870s. It was during that Centennial decade that a group of Salem ladies put together a collection of regional “relics” for display both at the Essex Institute and the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, a visual representation and projection of “Old Salem” that was also published for a national readership in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (for January 22, 1876) .I just don’t see how items such as the baby-clothes worn by Judge Curwen who tried the Salem Witches, chalice made of the woodwork of a house still standing, which was built by Roger Williams in 1635 and is known at the Witch House, wine glass used by General Washington while in Salem, and an Elizabethan wainscot cupboard which has been stored away for the past fifty years in a barn could have failed to capture the American imagination!

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I pursued a variety of texts to support my thesis of Salem’s central role as antiques destination/influencer, including secondary texts such as Elizabeth Stillinger’s The Antiquers (1980) and Brian G. Greenfield’s Out of the Attic (2010) and texts from the first era of antiquing such as the Shackletons’ Quest of the Colonial (1907) and Walter Dyer’s Lure of the Antique (1910). I was not disappointed by either the historical or the contemporary view, and I love the older texts. Robert and Elizabeth Shackleton remark that Salem is “dear to memory, not only from its treasures of the past but from being the place where, Westerners that we at that time were, we first saw a grandfather’s clock ticking away, in a private house, in the very corner in which it had ticked through the Revolution,” and Walter Dyer’s book is filled with Salem treasures, captured by the camera of Salem’s very own Mary Harrod Northend.

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20190602_151257_20190602152523730A Treasure Trove of Silver in an old Salem house, from Walter Dyer’s Lure of the Antique (1910).

All of these texts, and others, point to several key factors which made Salem a collector’s paradise: the famous collections of individuals like Henry Fitzgilbert and George Rea Curwen and the Essex Institute, with its period rooms assembled by George Francis Dow, the photographs and texts of Frank Cousins and Miss Northend, and the perception of the sheer antiquity of the city, whether shaped by Nathaniel Hawthorne or the witch entrepreneurs, or both. In assembling his influential period rooms (largely drawn from Curwen’s bequest, and which have become historic “objects” themselves—I believe they are going to be reassembled in Plummer Hall by the PEM), Dow followed the lead of the Centennial ladies and focused on the humanity or “everyday life” of colonial dwellers, in order to enhance their accessibility. Dow clearly felt that he was in competition with more entrepreneurial purveyors of “old Salem” when he remarked in 1916 that Salem used to be viewed and “visited as a monument, a shrine—-something to be studied. Now the visitor lightly pauses, here are there, butterfly-like, or is whirled through the streets in an automobile, while on the running board a small boy “guide” delivers an extraordinary distortion of fact plentifully soused with fiction.” (Essex Institute Annual Report 1916: OMG what would he think NOW!!!). But, more visitors to Salem meant more visitors to Dow’s period rooms and historic houses at the Essex Institute, and eventually to his Pioneer Village, and to Caroline Emmerton’s House of the Seven Gables, and to Salem’s growing number of antique shops: tourism, then as now, is a double-edged sword. Periodical and ephemeral evidence points to a healthy number of antique shops in Salem in the first half of the twentieth century, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s.

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Boston_Herald_1918-01-27_27Amazing photo of a lady (perhaps Mary Harrod Northend?) at the original location of the Hooper-Hathaway House (now on the House of the Seven Gables campus) inspecting some Old Salem wares in Dyer’s Lure of the Antique. The caption reads: “Don’t expect to buy these old treasures for a song. You are lucky to get them at all.” Once the Ward House was relocated and opened, it became the workshop of Sarah Symonds, who “perpetuated antiques” in the form of plaster-cast doorstops and mementos of famous Salem structures (Boston Herald, January 17, 1918). I think the days of buying antiques from guileless Salem homeowners were gone even by 1910, and in the next few decades the number of shops advertising in periodicals exploded.

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Antiques 1930s HNESalem Antique advertisement from the 1922 volume of the magazine Antiques, and from the collections of Historic New England.

There is one antique dealer from this era who really stands out, at least to me, but I think also in general: Miss A. Grace Atkinson, who kept a “shabby” shop at the “Old Witch House” on Essex Street right up until its conversion into the Witch House of today. Not only is Dyer’s book filled with items from the “Atkinson Collection”, but according to the long correspondence between her and Henry Francis du Pont, she was also a source for Winterthur. I think Miss Atkinson might have been the sister of James Almy’s second wife Emma, because of her residence at 395 Lafayette Street, the Colonial Revival mansion built by Mrs. Almy after the dearth of her prominent storeowner husband, but I can’t confirm that. She was by all accounts a shrewd collector and dealer, however, and did not hesitate use the witch connection to advance her business.

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wp-1559507355444.jpgAtkinson’s Advertising, and her shop on the left-hand side of the Witch House, in photographs from the New Bedford and Cambridge Historical Societies, via Digital Commonwealth; Some items from the “Atkinson Collection” in Dyer: she was particularly known for her selection of Lowestoft.


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