Tag Archives: weather

Change in the Weather

The weather actually did change very perceptibly here, at about 9:30 or 10:00 yesterday morning, from muggy late summer into breezy crisp fall. In about a half hour: I felt it, and everyone I ran into yesterday felt it too. But I still have weather history on the brain, so my title is referring to a volume by the amazing antiquarian of a century ago, Sidney Perley: Historic storms of New England : its gales, hurricanes, tornadoes, showers with thunder and lightning, great snow storms, rains, freshets, floods, droughts, cold winters, hot summers, avalanches, earthquakes, dark days, comets, aurora-borealis, phenomena in the heavens, wrecks along the coast, with incidents and anecdotes, amusing and pathetic (1891). What a title! And it does not disappoint.

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I have written about Sidney Perley many, many times here before as his works are the starting place for anyone interested in Salem history and culture—and often the culmination of inquiries as well: that’s how good he was. Perley (1858-1928) was lawyer by profession but an historian by passion—I’ve met many people like this over my career but Perley managed to somehow excel at both pursuits simultaneously, publishing a steady stream of books (History of Boxford, 1880, Poets of Essex County, 1889, History of Salem, 1924, and all those invaluable articles in his Essex Antiquarian along with many texts on probate law) over the course of his career. Quite logically he was an expert in utilizing the will and the deed as a historical source, but he clearly mined any and every source he could find for essential “anecdotes”. When I begin to delve into the history of a Salem house I always start with Perley, a practice that began long ago when I first moved here and started researching house histories for Historic Salem, Incorporated. He remains an essential guide to the history of Salem for me, and I thought about him a lot last summer, when Proctor’s Ledge was formally recognized and memorialized as the execution site of the victims of the Salem Witch Trials—culminating a process that began in the 1920s with his advocacy for this site. With the inaccessibility and closure of the Phillips Library it is apparent to me that his works are probably our best connection to Salem’s early history. The other day I found an old copy of his Historic Storms on my bookshelf, opened it up, and just like that, several hours went by in what seemed like a minute. It’s one of those books that is quite easily read intermittently but I had lots of other less interesting stuff to avoid so I just settled in and read about the weather.

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Because the book is focused on weather events, you come away with a perception of very dramatic weather, and maybe it is just because the crisp coming-of-October breeze was coming through the windows of my study while I was reading, but it seemed to me, anecdotally, that October had the most changeable weather of all: severe drought and rain, snow, thunder, lightning, shipwrecks, earthquakes, Indian Summers, and above all, excessive winds. The first of the famous “Dark Days” (of 1716 and 1780, now attributed to forest fires in the north, then very mysterious and perhaps the wrath of God), occurred in October, the second in May, another very changeable month. During the “great” Dark Day of 1780 in Salem, the Reverend Nathaniel Whittaker’s congregation heard that the gloom was divine judgement of their cumulative sin, while out in the streets, [drunken?] sailors paraded about, “crying out to ladies who passed them by, ‘now you may off your rolls and high caps'”. A bit over a century later, Perley serves as his own source in his account of the less famous “Yellow Day” of September 6, 1881: On the morning of “the yellow day” there was no apparent gathering of clouds, such as occurred on the dark day 0f 1780 but early in the morning the sun and sky appeared red, and towards noon every part of the sky assumed a yellow cast, which tinged everything, buildings, ground, foliage and verdure, with its peculiar novel shade. All things were beautiful, strange and weird, and it seemed as if nature was passing into an enchanted state. It was at first intensely interesting, but as the hours dragged on, and but slight change occurred the sight became oppressive. The wonderful spectacle will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. Love that line, all things were beautiful, strange and weird. Perley was also, it should be acknowledged, a very good writer.

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Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel 1875 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903

Scenes from the first crisp Autumn day of 2017 in Salem cast in darker, yellowish hues—as preparations for our annual neighborhood party were ongoing across the street in the Chestnut Street park + James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel (1875, Tate Museum), just because.


Storms of the (Seventeenth) Century

I’m only teaching two broad surveys this semester, a welcome departure from the more topical and graduate courses of the spring and summer. Surveys can be tricky: you can easily get lost—or lose the students–in a stream of narrative if you don’t impose an illustrative theme. The theme I chose for my Introduction to European History course —turning points—was not serving me well: it was simultaneously too loose (it was taking me forever to lay the foundation for my chosen turning points, which were not the predictable ones) and too constrictive, and also much too History-Channel-ish (cue dramatic music signally important EVENTS, primarily related to the rise and fall of the Third Reich, when the swamp people are not on, of course). So the other day I navigated a midstream change of course and plunged my students headfirst into environmental history: we were approaching the end of the Medieval Warm Period anyway! As we go forward into the devastating (weather-wise, and in other ways too) fourteenth century—and then further still into the seventeenth century, another time of dramatic climate change, I think this focus on environmental changes will highlight corresponding changes in how men and women viewed the world they lived in—plus I can take advantage of my students’ focused attention on all the weather in the news.

My approach to environmental history is more oriented towards human perceptions and responses than the scientific, structural changes which provoked expressions of the former–it is an extension of my academic interest in the concept of pre-modern wonder, or the physical manifestation of God’s power–and will. In the seventeenth century, for example, “wonderful” weather—storms, winds, floods—were all perceived as punishment for the sins of mankind, until, quite later in the century, they were not quite. The terrible floods in the west country in 1607 (possibly caused by a tsunami) were portrayed in quite a fearful manner in contemporary pamphlets, but the floods of 1674 were relayed in the form of a ballad, to be sung in the taverns and streets:  still, lives should be “amended” lest a worse thing befall us. Then as now, the details of human suffering and responsive heroism are offered up: water-men were forced to row up and down the streets with their boats, to take men, women, and children, out at their windows, and to save little children that swam in their cradles. Nature gets a bit less mysterious and a bit more objective as time goes by, though maybe we are returning to a time which emphasizes its wrath–and our requisite amendment–yet again.

Famous English floods of the seventeenth century in 1607, 1651, 1655 & 1674: I found only freshets (a word I just learned last month!) on this side of the Atlantic (at least in NEW England).

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Flood 1651 Anon-A_true_relation_of_the_great_and-Wing-T2959-2900_02-p1

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Lamentable Newes out of Monmouthshire in Wales, 1607; More strange nevves: of wonderfull accidents hapning by the late ouerflowings of waters, in Summerset-shire, Gloucestershire, Norfolke, and other places of England, 1607; A True Relation of the Great and Terrible Inundation of Waters, 1651; A Sad and Dismal Year, or, England’s Great and Lamentable Flood, 1655; A True Relation of the Great Flood that happened in many part of England in December and January last, to the undoing of many the drowning of cattell and driving down of bridges and houses the drowning of people and washing up by the roots which was the means of rising the prices of corn in and about the City of London; with a warning for all people to amend their lives lest a worse thing befall us. The tune is, aim not to high, 1674, all accessed via Early English Books Online. 


Ice Melt

Yesterday was one of those wonderful winter days when it wasn’t too cold, all of the old dirty snow was coated with a fresh dusting of new, and the sun occasionally peeked out of the light gray sky to transform the trees into glistening statues. Against the light-gray and white backdrop, contrasts were everywhere: I love the contrast of warm brick and cool snow/ice especially, and that can be found anywhere and everywhere in Salem. That dark, gothic, “colonial brown/black” and white looks pretty cool too. The light was so changeable: a bright vignette one moment could be a stark one in the next.

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In the middle of the afternoon, you could see and hear ice melting everywhere, including the ice sculptures assembled for the annual “Salem’s So Sweet ” chocolate and ice sculpture festival last weekend–a record 25 this year. Winnie the Pooh looked so woeful, melted and forlorn in front of the Museum Place Mall, that I couldn’t even take his photograph (you can see a portfolio of all the ice sculptures, in the day and night, here). Some of the hardier statues were still holding their shape, but alas, not poor Pooh.

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A February Day in Salem, 2017.


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).


Snowy Salem Saturday

A welcome snow day today, imposing calm on everyone–or at least me! I’ve always enjoyed winter, but the SuperWinter of two years ago, in which something like 11 feet of snow was dumped on us in February, tempered my appreciation for this particular season considerably. The snow was all around the house, the snow was in the house, and I plodded to work every day in tunnels of yellow snow. I felt a little vulnerable, especially when I woke up in the morning to see the latest damage inflicted on my plaster ceilings by ice dams. But all of that is fixed now, and we spent last year, with its relatively light winter, rebuilding our chimneys, sealing our windows, and putting on a new roof. Now I feel impenetrable, at least for this first snow storm. I’m sure hardly anyone agrees with me, but I think winter is Salem’s best season actually–I like to see the city return to a car-less state: it’s as close as you can come to seeing it in its glorious past. There’s a timeless quality to a snowy day, and the contrast of nature and structure is never more apparent. Here’s a few photographs I took as I walked around a very calm city this afternoon.

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Chestnut Street, Essex Street, and the Common.

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Two notable Salem houses in varying stages of restoration.

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Gambrel roofs embellished by snow.

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Some contrast; Trinity does not really care for snow.


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:

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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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Colonial and Colonial Revival

Over the years I have encountered people who were opposed to historic districts for a variety of reasons, prominently property rights and the sense that such building restrictions created homogeneous “museum neighborhoods”. I appreciate both arguments: I’m a bit of a libertarian myself and I have lived in historic districts since my 20s primarily because I like to look out the window when I get up every morning and look at historic buildings. But when I walk around Salem’s historic districts, I don’t see homogeneity, I see diversity: of building materials, of size, and even of style. Though Salem is renowned for its Federal architecture, there are many buildings in the downtown historic districts that pre-date and post-date this era, and I am always struck by how many houses were built in the later nineteenth century in styles that are far from “Victorian”: these are Colonial Revival structures melding into the streetscape, for the most part. You definitely notice the differences when you view “Colonial” and “Colonial Revival” side by side–and there are many opportunities to do this in Salem. Everything is a little bigger and bolder in the later houses: windows, window panes, dormers, especially entrances. Of course, the Colonial Revival era is long (most authorities seem to date if from 1880 to 1955) and encompasses several sub-styles (Classical Revival, Georgian Revival, Dutch Colonial), but one particular feature I notice in several of Salem’s more prominent houses built in the last decade of the nineteenth century are semi-circular projecting bays on the front facade–these houses are literally bursting out of line–but still complementary to the older structures surrounding them.

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ABOVE: On upper Essex Street in Salem, the Clarence Clark House (built 1894) stands side by side the Captain Nehemiah Buffington House (built 1785) and across the street, the David P. Ives House features a very detailed Colonial Revival facade adhered to a much older (c. 1764) building.

BELOW: just a little further down (or up) Essex Street, I think the Emery P. Johnson house was the inspiration for all these bow fronts! It was built slightly earlier (1853) and thus is more Italianate than Colonial Revival, and was raised up on its mound in the early 20th century. It contrasts quite a bit with its colonial neighbors, but in a good way, I think.

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Beckford Street below: the section of Beckford Street between Federal and Essex is a real mash-up of Colonial and Colonial Revival! I love the juxtaposition of the very old and charming Joseph Cook House (c. 1700-1733) with the very high-style Georgian Revival William Jelly House (c. 1905) right behind it–and then the George Beckford House (c. 1764) next to the Jelly House. And there was a cat in a window, too.

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And at the end of Chestnut Street, my favorite contrast of Colonial and Colonial Revival:  William Rantoul’s Colonial Revival adaptation of the Georgian Richard Derby House on Derby Street and the Kimball-Fogg House on Flint.

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What I difference a year makes! It was a warm day yesterday, nearly 60 degrees when I was taking these pictures. By sharp contrast, this is the same Chestnut-Flint Street corner a year ago:

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