Tag Archives: Theatre

Female Fancy-Dress, 1609-1980

I am so looking forward to Halloween night next Tuesday, not only because our long municipal nightmare will be over here in Salem for another year, but also because I actually do enjoy creative Halloween costumes, and they do appear on this night, glittering like stars in a sky of more generic garb. If an entire family is going to make the trek to Salem to trick-or-treat on Chestnut Street, they will often go all out, and in years past I’ve seen the Swiss Family Robinson, The Jacksons, the Addams Family (actually I think these three were all just last year), the Coneheads, the Jetsons, and a variety of historical characters, en masse and individually. I wish there were more conceptual costumes and less inspired by popular culture but that’s probably asking for too much for a holiday that is supposed to be for and about children. The most creative (and conceptual) costumes I have ever seen were made (or proposed) for masquerades or fancy-dress parties prior to 1920 or so, after which Halloween began to emerge as a major American holiday and the witches and the pumpkin-heads pushed out the nymphs and the sprites and the various ethereal forest creatures. Costumes begin with Queens, who were entitled to prance about in court masques long before actresses were, so I’m going to begin my portfolio with the Queen of the Amazons, one of many costumes designed by Inigo Jones for Ben Jonson’s Jacobean masques, which were commissioned by King James I’s (and VI’s) Queen Anne, my vote for bestdressed Queen of all time. Jonson’s The Masque of the Queens was presented at Whitehall Palace in February of 1609, the third masque written for Anne and the first to include an “anti-masque” featuring witches, of course, the opposite of the virtuous ladies played by the Queen and her ladies. Penthesilea, the Amazonian Queen, enters first (after the witches).

Costume Masques

Costume rowlandson500

Costume collage 3Inigo Jones’ Penthesilea costume for the Masque of Queens, 1609, British Library; Thomas Rowland’s Dressing for a Masquerade, British Museum;  Léon Sault’s designs for the House of Worth, 1860s: Eve with a snake and a Sorceress, Victoria & Albert Museum. 


A bit less custom, and a bit more commercialized, costuming commences in the later nineteenth century: more for fancy-dress parties than for Halloween. All sort of costumes can be found in pattern books from this era, such as Jennie Taylor Wandle’s Masquerade and Carnival. Their Customs and Costumes, published by the Butterick Publishing Company in 1892. As you can see, the Halloween archetypes (devil, witch, sorceress, little and big bat) are already popular. Women’s magazine also offer up lots of fancy-dress inspiration: below are some very……naturalistic costumes from the Ladies Home Journal in 1914 and a few more conventional examples from 1920.

Costume collage

Costume masqueradecarniv00wand_0053

Costume masqueradecarniv00wand_0114

Fancy Party Costumes LHJ Nov 1914

Costume collage 2

The transition from fancy-dress to Halloween costumes comes just around this time, 1920: I am marking it with an aptly-titled commercial publication,  Dennison’s Bogie Book, issued by the Dennison Manufacturing Company of Framingham, Massachusetts in 1920. This “book of suggestions for decorating and entertaining at Hallowe’en, Harvest Time, and Thanksgiving” contains lots of instructions, indicating that we’re at a moment where traditions are being invented. Of course all you need to have the perfect Halloween are Dennison products, which all seem to be made of orange and black crepe paper. It seems like full-blown commercial Halloween is right around the corner, but yet when I look at the photograph of Batgirl, St. Ann (wow, she’s the outlier here!), and Wonder Woman from New York city photographer Larry Racciopo’s Halloween (1980), it doesn’t seem like we’ve come that far at all.

Costumes 1920

Halloween Costumes 1980 Bat Girl, St. Ann, and Wonder Woman photographed by Larry Racioppo, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.


The Spring of Presentism and the Salem Witch Trials

My department has been co-sponsoring topical symposia for the past few years, first on the Great Salem Fire of 1914, and last year on northern slavery. These are day-long events, very much open to a very participatory public. This year, we are focusing on the Salem Witch Trials, in recognition and commemoration of its 325th anniversary, as well as the imminent dedication of the Proctor’s Ledge execution site. The Trials are a rather intimidating topic to take on, especially as we are attempting to focus not only on the well-established narrative of events but also on their comprehensive impact on Salem’s own history and identity: time and place. The symposium, entitled Salem’s Trials: Lessons and Legacy of 1692, is jointly sponsored with the Salem Award Foundation and the Essex National Heritage Area, and will be held on June 10: the registration will be live in a few weeks and I’ll post a link here.

Salem's Trials Card Cover Mockup Framed

The symposium committee has been meeting for a year and I think we have a great program: presentations and panels on the trials themselves, teaching the trials (a key challenge for educators in our region), some European comparisons and context, a panel on the making of Witch City, an opportunity for descendants of the victims to record their “testimonies”, the attendant expertise of Salem experts Emerson Baker, Margo Burns and Marilynne K. Roach, and a keynote address by Dr. Kenneth Foote of the University of Connecticut, author of Shadowed Ground. America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. It’s rather late in the game to add anything, but I keep thinking we’re missing something, something about the dreaded “pit of presentism” into which the discourse of 1692 always seems to fall. I suspect presentism will pop up in several places, however, and most definitely in the discussion on the development of the “Witch City” identity.  We had hoped to keep this discussion centered on a relatively distant past–the 1890s in particular–when you start seeing witches on everything coincidentally with the 200th anniversary of the Trials–but I’m realizing that we can’t stop there: we must proceed to the 1950s, when the solid foundation of witchcraft–presentism was laid with the sequential publication of Marian Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts. A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials (1949) and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). From that point on, psychological diagnoses, allegories, and moral judgements flow, and flourish. The 1890s Witch City projections are coming from inside Salem, and are strictly commercial, taking the form of logos and trinkets for the most part, but the 1950s projections are external and national, even international, derived from the massive popular reception of Starkey’s and Miller’s works–and all the publicity they both received. Just look at this lavish spread of photographs by Nina Leen taken for a feature article on The Devil in Massachusetts in the September 26, 1949 issue of Life magazine: Starkey with her cat and wandering around Gallows Hill, “the girls”, a Putnam descendant posing, the newly-restored Witch House. Salem as set piece.

Starkey 5

Starkey Gallows Hill

Starkey collage

Starkey 3

Starkey 10 Photographs by Nina Leen taken on August 8, 1949 for the September 26 issue of Life magazine, ©Time, Inc.

And onto this set strode Arthur Miller (who strangely does not credit Starkey), inspired to write the play that is continuously on stage and in print and is as much or more about his time as their time. The past as present for all time, it seems.


Arkham/Salem

I have never been a fan of H.P. Lovecraft but having spent most of my professional life in the company of 20-year-olds here in Salem I’ve definitely been exposed to the man and his works, especially as they (supposedly) relate to our gothic city. Many of my students believe that the Lovecraftian city of Arkham was modeled on Salem, and its Miskatonic University, our university. They might be right about the former, as the fictional Arkham does indeed have a lot of Salem features, but Lovecraft’s Miskatonic U. is a lot more ivy-covered than our concrete Salem State: most experts assert that is modeled after Bradford College, a now-defunct college up in Haverhill, or perhaps even Brown University, located in Lovecraft’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. We have a great nursing program but no medical school (to service our sanitarium) or Department of Medieval Metaphysics. Apart from the University, The Arkham/Salem connection seems so well-established that I’ve always been curious that Lovecraft has not been assimilated more comprehensively into the relentless Witch City campaign, but that seems to be changing now: I’ve seen Lovecraft walking tours and an exhibit over the past year, and for the next few weeks the Salem Theatre Company is staging an adaptation of The Thing on the Doorstep, the Lovecraft story most closely associated with Salem through its references to the old Derby house and the old Crowninshield place.

Thing on the Doorstep

One of my former students directed me to a site that really drives home the Salem/Arkham connection: The Miskatonic Railroad, 18821907. The centerpiece and absolute focus of this Arkham is Salem’s fortress-like train station, which was demolished in 1954. I don’t believe that Lovecraft ever mentioned the Salem Depot in his works, but it certainly appears Lovecraftian, both in photographs and as recreated for the model Miskatonic Railroad. Its creator, John Ott, doesn’t care much for the rest of Salem, but he is duly impressed by our long-gone station: “Salem today rates about a seven on the dreary scale—not much to see, despite its touristy cant. But up until about sixty years ago, Salem boasted the most spine-tingling eerie Gothic-Norman stone train station in North America”.  Apparently he doesn’t share Lovecraft’s affection for Federal architecture!

Salem Train Depot SSU

Salem Train Depot Razing SSU

Arkham Ott

Arkham Ott 2

Salem Train Depot side view LOC

Miskatonic RR Station

Photographs of the old Salem Train Depot from c. 1905, 1910 & 1954 (the razing!!!), from the Dionne Collection at Salem State University Archives and Special Collections and the Library of Congress interspersed with John Ott’s model Miskatonic Railroad Station. Many more images (and stories) of the latter here.


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