Tag Archives: Women’s History

Suffrage in Salem: a Big Election!

I always tell my students that history is not necessarily linear: movements and ideas move forward and then fall back and “progress”, however you choose to define it, is always a result of struggle. The struggle for women’s suffrage is a case in point, played out on a national stage as well as a local one. I’ve had to piece together the history of the Salem Suffrage movement from a variety of sources, as the records for its main organization have disappeared, but I think I have it down now, and it was definitely characterized by fits and starts. The connection between the abolition and suffrage movements before the Civil War is very clear: while a petition calling for universal suffrage was submitted to the Massachusetts legislature in 1850 by a group of active Salem reformers, both women and men, abolition was the higher priority during the following decade and the suffrage initiative remained on hold during the Civil War and its aftermath. The debate over the 15th Amendment caused a schism in the national suffrage movement, with some leaders (Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton) opposing the enfranchisement of black men before women had achieved the vote and others (Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone) favoring a more incremental approach to suffrage with the enfranchisement of black men as a first step. This split resulted in the formation of two associations, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) of Anthony and Stanton, and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), led by Lucy Stone, as well as a cascade of regional, state, and local associations. Supporters of suffrage in Salem, both women and men, were firmly in the Stone camp, and we can follow their efforts through Stone’s weekly newspaper, the Woman’s Journal. Even though the 1870s started with division, there was also an air of optimism in the air: women in Wyoming and Utah won the vote in 1869 and 1870, so why couldn’t reformist Massachusetts be next?

20200114_110638Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library.

The Woman’s Journal reports that yearly conventions were held in Salem, generally at the Lyceum, along with regular meetings of the Salem Woman Suffrage Club, which included woman and men and were clearly as much social occasions as strategy sessions. The editors of the Journal  seem to have favored an approach that was not only incremental but “pleasant”, as the account of the 1874 convention (below) illustrates: much praise for the food and flowers, and an observation that “other clubs may take a lesson from this of Salem, which draws members by pleasant means—clergymen, lawyers, judges, editors and not least in influence, women. What remains to do now is the steady and continuous circulation of tracts as a means of enlightenment, and with the light will come the end”. Yet there were several women in Salem who made it clear that tea parties and the dissemination of pamphlets was not enough, writing letters to the editor that expressed the general opinion that while the Salem club was popular, it wasn’t actually doing anything: such expressions seem to be coming from those women who were also involved in other causes like temperance, settlement, and the “moral education” of “fallen women”. As was the case before the Civil War, suffrage was interwoven with other calls for reform.

Suffrage Collage 1874

But maybe the “pleasant” approach was working. In 1879 the Massachusetts legislature passed a “school suffrage” bill, enabling Massachusetts women the right to vote in school committee elections. This definitely seems like a big step forward, but apparently it was an action that represented the traditional belief that education matters were within the realm of female expertise more than any desire to move towards universal suffrage on the part of Massachusetts legislators. Nevertheless, Salem women offered up four female candidates and really turned out at the polls in December of 1870, with the result that all four women were elected to the Salem School Board, the highest number in Massachusetts. The Boston Globe reported that there was “great activity at the polls” with “undertain” results on Election night (December 9), but on the next day the election of the four women was confirmed.

Suffrage Boston Globe December 9, 1879 (2)

Suffrage 1879 Election Library of Congress (2) Boston Globe headline, December 9, 1879; Library of Congress.

And suddenly there was a brand new School Committee in Salem! The four women elected were Mrs. Mary G. Ward of Federal Street, a noted activist for suffrage and temperance in the city, Dr. Sarah E. Sherman, who I believe was Salem’s first female physician, Emma B. Lowd, very active in veterans’ affairs as an officer in the National Woman’s Relief Corps Committee, and Mrs. Lurana N. Almy, the wife (and partner, really) of James. F. Almy, the founder of Salem’s famed Almy’s, Bigelow and Washburn store. Unfortunately Mrs. Almy died before she could take up her seat on the committee, but the other three women served for several years, paving the way for more women members. The ground-breaking year of 1879 was capped off by the submission of a suffrage amendment petition to the U.S. Congress by the Salem Woman Suffrage Committee, signed by the men who could vote in one column and the women who could not in another.

SUffrage School Committee Colored

SUffrage Sarah Sherman 1877 Salem Directory (2)

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SUffrage petition CUNYSalem School Committee Annual Report, 1880; Official Souvenir Program of the 24th National Encampment, Boston, MA, 1890……also the Eighth Annual Convention of the Woman’s Relief Corps;“Petition from the Citizens of Massachusetts in Support of Women’s Suffrage,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed February 21, 2020, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1683.

But two (or three or four or five) steps forward were followed by several steps back. In typical contrary Massachusetts fashion, the multi-layered suffrage movement provoked a counter-movement in the form of the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women, established in 1895 and with a Salem branch headed by Miss Anna L. Warner and Miss Ellen B. Laight. Two Massachusetts suffrage referendums were soundly defeated—in 1895 and 1915—before the Commonwealth ratified the 19th Amendment on June 25, 1919.


Sarah Symonds of Salem

When I was a perpetual antiques hunter and picker some time ago, I would run into cast iron doorstops and plaster wall plaques with chipped paint depicting houses and gates and various interior details everywhere: they did not appeal to me and I passed them right by, but I remember seeing them often, in Maine, New Hampshire and western Massachusetts. When I moved to Salem I realized they were Sarah Symonds pieces, crafted right here by a very entrepreneurial artist. To be honest, I remained rather immune to their charms, even in my intense Salem collecting phase, and I still don’t really appreciate them, but I see that many other people do as their prices have certainly increased dramatically. I do have deep appreciation for Sarah the businesswomen, though, and the artistic ambassador of “old Salem,” along with her contemporaries Mary Harrod Northend and Caroline Emmerton.

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Screenshot_20200203-095432_ChromeSarah Symonds pieces from the archive of sold lots at Worthpoint; if I was going to purchase one it would definitely be the Gardner Pingree House.

Sarah (1870-1965) was a ninth-generation Salem resident, descended from the John Symonds (c. 1595-1671) who emigrated from East Anglia in the 1640s. He was an experienced joiner who trained his sons James and Samuel in the cabinet-making trade. The Symonds shop excelled and flourished, and its products are among the most valued pieces of early American furniture today: a small valuables cabinet made by James was purchased by the Peabody Essex Museum for nearly two and half million dollars in 2000. Successive generations of the Symonds family turned to other occupations, but they remained in Salem, and a street named after them testifies to their long residence. Sarah seems to have spent her whole life in Salem: she graduated from Emerson College in Boston (to which I assume she took the train) and later vacationed in a summer cottage in Marblehead but other than these forays she seems very bound to Salem, and to her work. I’m not sure exactly when she first started making bas-relief sculptures and plaques—most likely in the 1890s, and perhaps influenced by the careers of the Salem sculptors Louise Lander and John Rogers—but she received several mentions for her Hawthorne pieces in the press coverage of the centennial commemoration of his birth in 1904. And then she was launched, making and selling pieces in the recently-moved John Ward House on the campus of the Essex Institute, at the Snug Harbor Shop adjacent to the House of the Seven Gables, for a gift “shoppe” at the Hawthorne Hotel, and ultimately at the “Colonial Studio” in the Bray House on Brown Street. As you can see below, she also fulfilled orders by mail.

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There are several folders of Sarah’s business records in the Phillips Library and when I started going through their contents I became very fixated on the copyright registration certificates she filled out for each of her sculptures: in my real job I’m a sixteenth-century historian, so I’ve never used sources like these! They are so detailed, written in her own hand, and it occurred to me that seldom do we see artists describe their work so matter-of-factly. No doubt her applications were prompted by the passage of the 1909 copyright law, which extended protections to “works of art; models or designs for works of art”: her first certificates date from just after the passage of this landmark law (which replaced a law made in 1790!)

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I like to blame Daniel Low for the increasing prominence of the Salem witch, emblazoned on anything and everything, but to be fair, Sarah expanded her witch offerings over the first half of the twentieth century consistently: that category grows and only rivals “Salem’s Colonial Doorways” on her price lists. You can kind of feel some of her Colonial Revival contemporaries (especially Mary Harrod Northend) shirking away from the witch, but Sarah ran with it, producing round witches, tall witches, witches on brooms, witches with cauldrons, witch plaques and freestanding “statuettes,” witch medallions, and ink-well witches. Oh well, a lady has to make a living—and give her customers what they want.

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20200121_133608Sarah Symonds papers at the Phillips Library, Rowley:  MSS 0.202; The library also has some price lists. There’s an article about Sarah’s bas-reliefs by Barbara Morse White in the Antiques Journal (1976), and you can also read a short biography by Salem preservation architect John Goff here


Sisters in Arms

I’ve been searching high and low for Salem suffragists, and I have found some, but it’s been a difficult search as there are no extant papers of the “Woman Suffrage Club” of Salem that I can find: newspaper articles, a few flyers, references in diaries and other texts, that’s about it. There are records of many other women’s organizations—charitable groups, religious groups, fellowship groups—which met over different decades of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and among them are the minutes and correspondence of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society (SFASS), one of the country’s earliest female abolition societies. Looking at all these records, I see familiar names turning up again and again, and as I suspect there were concentric circles of female activism in nineteenth-century Salem, most especially among those women advocating for abolition and suffrage, I am especially grateful that the SFASS archives have been digitized through a partnership of the Congregational and Phillips Libraries. I had a student who worked with these records a year ago for her capstone research and she deemed them “boring”, but I find them fascinating in terms of both content and tone: expressions of a sisterhood of mutual aid and activism pervade even the most administrative of notations.

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Records of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, 1834-66, Phillips Library MSS 34: available at the Congregational Library. Meeting minutes & Correspondence from William Lloyd Garrison.

Before I get into the activities of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, I need to write about Clarissa Lawrence, again. An African-American schoolteacher who lived on High Street in a house that still stands, Lawrence was committed to what was obviously for her an intertwined mission of aid and abolition: she established the first female Anti-Slavery Society in 1832, the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, which consisted solely of free women of color. This organization was folded into the integrated Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1834, but in the interim year, Lawrence also revived and reformed the dormant Colored Female Religious and Moral Society of Salem. This woman was tireless, and relentless, and on fire. She served in the leadership of the SFASS, and was a delegate to the third Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in Philadelphia in May of 1839. On the last day of the convention, Lawrence rose to make a memorable speech, recorded in its proceedings and frequently referenced and reprinted. Yet despite her renown among her peers and historians, she is largely forgotten in the Witch City.

Speech-1839

I hope that Mrs. Lawrence felt supported in all of her efforts by her sisters in the newly-formed Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, all 130 of them, including officers, managers and members. I assume that her election as Vice-President means that she was. The women were very serious about their organization, their meetings, and their minutes. Their first task was to draw up and ratify a constitution, after which they held regular meetings at Mechanic Hall, Creamer Hall, the Masonic Hall, and the Howard Street Church: sub-committee meetings were held at members’ homes. There is one reference to the expenditure of ten dollars for the “privilege of holding our meetings for the enduring year (1837) in the Anti-Slavery Room–occupied by the anti-slavery  gentlemen of this city as a reading and debating room”: I have no idea where this might have been, but it conjures up an image of gentlemen reading and debating while the women are doing. Every meeting started with prayers, and decorum was always observed: one young lady who shall remain nameless was asked to resign for her use of “profane” language and she complied. Most of the work of the Society consisted of fundraising in order to support several missions: the purchase of memberships in the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society for those that could not afford them, sending representatives such as Clarissa Lawrence to conventions, supporting “refugees from slavery”, and underwriting William Lloyd Garrison and The Liberator. There were occasional requests for support of vulnerable members of Salem’s free black population—which were answered—but you can tell that the ladies’ primary focus was on those who had escaped from the South. Fundraising primarily took the form of holding fairs, in which the other female anti-slavery societies in the area—in Boston, Marblehead, and Danvers—would contribute, with reciprocation from Salem: the bonds of sisterhood definitely crossed municipal boundaries as well as state lines.

Female-FairSalem Register, 1841

Recording Secretary Eliza J. Kenny (sometimes spelled Kenney) was a fascinating woman in several ways, and she will get her own Salem Suffrage Saturday post in the near future: her influence, as well as long-serving President Lucy G. Ives, seems to be behind the lecture series sponsored by the SFASS from 1844-1860, which brought many famous abolitionist advocates to Salem: William Lloyd Garrison seems always ready to speak in Salem, but Wendell Phillips, O.B. Frothingham, William H. Channing and others also came to speak at the Lyceum. The lecture that received the most attention in the press by far was that of “fugitive slave” William Wells Brown, who came to Salem on his first tour as an agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, at the beginning of a brilliant career. When asked if he could “represent the real condition of the Slave” Brown replied that he could not: your fastidiousness would not allow me to do it; and if it would, I, for one, should not be willing to do it;—–at least to an audience. Were I to tell you the evils of Slavery, to represent to you the Slave in his lowest degradation, I should wish to take you, one at a time, and whisper it to you. Slavery has never been represented; Slavery never can be represented. What is a Slave? A Slave is one that is in the power of the owner. He is chattel; he is a thing; he is a piece of property. A master can dispose of him, can dispose of his labor, can dispose of his wife, can dispose of his offspring, can dispose of everything that belongs to the Slave, and the Slave shall have no right to speak; he shall have nothing to say. The Slave cannot speak for himself, he cannot speak for his wife, or his children. He is a thing. Brown’s words were by all accounts riveting, so much so that his Salem talk was issued in print, with the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society right there in the title, on the cover, a great example of the Society’s increasing focus on communication in its second and third decades.

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Female Anti-Slavery Society 1847Salem Observer, 1847-48; Henry M. Parkhurst’s “phonographic report” of Mr. Brown’s Lyceum Speech.

Eliza Kenny led me to the intersection of abolitionism and suffrage: she was the first Salem woman to sponsor a petition, “that the right of suffrage may be extended to women” to the Massachusetts legislature in 1850, right after she attended the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester. I saw lots of familiar names among the 25 women who signed the petition: her anti-slavery sisters. Eliza went down a spiritualist route that made her a less effective (and committed) advocate for either abolition or suffrage later, but her decades of activism are commendable, as are those of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery, which disbanded in 1866, their objective realized at long last. But there were still battles to be waged.

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Kenny petition for the Harvard Anti-Slavery Petitions of Massachusetts Dataverse; The Female version of  Am I Not A………., first used in George Bourne’s Slavery Illustrated in Its Effects upon Women (1837).


A Feminine Focus

The Reverend William Bentley’s Diary is justly famous as a detailed source of much of Federal-era Salem’s history, but I think that three memoirs written by Salem women deserve a bit more storied reputation as sources: Marianne C.D. Silsbee’s Half Century in Salem (1886), Eleanor Putnam’s (the pseudonym of Harriet Bates) Old Salem (1886), and Caroline Howard King’s When I Lived in Salem 1822-1866 (1937). Of these three reminiscences, I find myself returning to Silsbee’s Half Century again and again, so I thought I would feature her on my third Salem Suffrage Saturday post. She is of the next generation, and in a much more enviable position, than the Hawthorne sisters of last week’s post: I think she was also a working woman (like all women!), but by choice rather than necessity.

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20200114_111551_20200120094207958A Half Century in Salem, and two photographs of Marianne Cabot Devereux Silsbee from her 1861 photographic album at the Phillips Library in Rowley (PHA 58): the first dated 1851 and the second 1861.

Marianne Cabot Devereux was born in Salem in 1812 to Eliza Dodge Devereux and Humphrey Devereux: I believe that her father, who had been captured by the British during the War of 1812 and imprisoned on Bermuda, was not present at her birth. Upon his release and return, Humphrey eventually moved his family into a Chestnut Street mansion, but Marianne’s early life was spent elsewhere: I’m not sure exactly where her childhood residence was, but she remembered spending a lot of time at her maternal grandmother’s house on Front Street. Around the time that the Devereux family moved to Chestnut Street, Humphrey commissioned a pair of portraits of himself and his wife by Gilbert Stuart: I was thrilled to discover the latter in the collection of the Rehoboth Antiquarian Society, but I could only find a heliotype copy of Mr. Devereux’s portrait in the The Pickering Genealogy. 

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Silsbee Humphrey Devereux Pickering Genaology Vol 1 (2)

Mrs. Devereux looks rosy-cheeked in her Stuart portrait, which apparently pleased her very much (her dress apparently was not as pleasing, so the artist Chester Harding later repainted the ruff and drapery) but she was in fact an invalid, and died eleven years after this portrait, when Marianne was sixteen. I’m on the precipice on the dreaded psycho-history here, but I think that Marianne’s reverence for older women, so apparent in A Half Century as well as other works, might stem from her mother’s illness and death. I’m on stronger ground stating that the early years covered in A Half Century were based on her mother’s letters to Marianne, rather than her own reminiscences. So you kind of get a double feminine focus in this text, which dwells on food, shops, schools, entertainments, dress, homes—the life of women, or should I say relatively wealthy women—as well as “external” events: Lafayette’s visit in 1824, when the first steamship line commenced trips to Boston. The book is much more focused on personalities than events however, and women really pop out: the honorable Elizabeth Sanders (who will definitely be the subject of a later post), the charming Mrs. Remond, who catered all the meals at her beloved Hamilton Hall.

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Marianne Cabot Devereux Silsbee expressed herself a bit more publicly, but she was a traditional woman of her time, focused on her family and friends. She married Nathaniel Silsbee Jr., son of a U.S. Senator and later two-term Mayor of Salem in 1829 and moved into the Silsbee mansion on the Common (now undergoing a major renovation and expansion). They had five children, two of whom, George and her namesake Marianne, died in childhood. The Silsbees left Salem for Boston in 1862 when he became Treasurer of Harvard, and there was another move to Milton following his retirement. Throughout this time she wrote poems and reminiscences, some published, some not. Her first publication, Memory and Hope, a compilation of mourning poems edited and introduced by her, was issued anonymously in 1851 (one can understand her interest in this topic given the early deaths of two children), and thereafter there are published children’s rhymes, a handwritten journal of poetry entitled My Grandmother’s Mirror, A New England Idyll (a reference to her maternal Dodge grandmother, who was a Pickering), a book about the Boston Ladies Club, and finally A Half Century in Salem. 

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20200121_111833The Silsbee Mansion on Salem Common in 1884, George H. Walker; Memory and Hope (1851); Title page of My Grandmother’s Mirror (Essex County Collection, Phillips Library, E S585.3 1878).

Much of her writings dwell on home life, social life, all the little things that surround one’s daily existence: one poem in My Grandmother’s Mirror creates a scene in the old Pickering house, while another is written from the perspective of a woman who dwelt within the border, of the town of peace and order, Our pleasant little Salem, on the margins of the sea surrounded by her children and children’s children. Yet Mrs. Silsbee was also an active and engaged woman: a mayor’s wife who carried on a long personal correspondence with abolitionist Lydia Maria Child and whose personal photograph album compiled in 1861 contains as many photographs of soldiers and politicians as it does her own children and grandchildren. Most of the men in uniform are her own family, including her older brother, George H. Devereux, former adjutant general of Massachusetts, and his soon-to be heroic sons, Arthur F. Devereux, commander of the Salem Light Infantry and later the Massachusetts 19th at Gettysburg, and John F., a Captain in the 11th Massachusetts Infantry, as it was perhaps impossible to separate the private and public spheres at this particular time. Several photographs of President Lincoln are included, but also an image of what I can only presume to be the family cat! When it was over, once can hardly blame Marianne Silsbee for desiring to look back to a dimmer, and thus more pleasant past.

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The private and the public: Mrs. Silsbee’s poetry and President Lincoln in her photograph album: Phillips Library E S585.3 (1878) and PHA 58 (1861).


The Hustling Hathorne Sisters

I wanted to start my Salem Suffrage Saturday posts with a focus on two lesser-known members of one of Salem’s most conspicuous families: the Ha(w)thornes. Generally we hear about either the Witch Trial Judge, John Hathorne, of the seventeenth century or the famed author (who added the w) of the nineteenth, but I’m going to look at two women who lived in between these towering figures: Mary (1742-1802) and Sarah (1750-1804) Hathorne. Nathaniel had multiple familial connections to the Salem Witch Trials on his paternal side: besides the infamous judge, both of his great uncles married granddaughters of Philip English, who was accused in 1692 along with his wife Mary but managed to flee to New York. Captain William Hawthorne married Mary Touzel, the daughter of Philip’s and Mary’s daughter Susannah Touzel, in 1741 and they had seven children, among them Mary and Sarah. I do believe that the girls and their siblings grew up in—and likely resided later—in what is generally referred to as the Benjamin Marston House on the corner of Cambridge and Essex Streets, which was passed down to their parents by Philip English: this was a very old house with a “modern” addition grafted onto the front in their time, when it was generally referred to as the Hathorne House.

benjamin-marston-house-salem-massachusetts (4)_LIThe Marston/Hathorne House on Essex & Cambridge Streets, drawn by John Robinson in 1870, just before its demolition.

I don’t think their father made much money: the fact that both they—and their Hathorne-Touzel cousins—are living and working in this old “mansion house” over much of their lives gives one that impression, as does the fact that their mother, Mrs. Mary Hathorne, kept by all accounts a well-stocked shop. As neither Mary or Sarah married, they had to fend for themselves to a certain extent–albeit in the midst of family, connections, and what remained of the English inheritance. I’m starting my year of Salem women by looking at Mary and Sarah because they were working women: the hardest nut to crack. It’s really hard to get a window into the lives of women in general before the twentieth century, but single working women are particularly elusive though much more representative of the population at large than many of their more well-documented peers. Generally there has to be some conspicuous event, some legal procedure, something that happens to them—to give us insights. I was able to learn something about the life—or should I say death—of a Salem mill girl much later in the nineteenth century only because she suffered a severe workplace injury. But there are some Salem sources which can illuminate a bit of the working lives of Mary and Sarah Hathorne at the turn of the nineteenth century: a conspicuous “eulogy” by the every-chatty Reverend William Bentley following the death of the former, and an account book of the latter, preserved in the collection of the PEM’s Phillips Library.

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20200114_110044Entry for March 25, 1802 in the Reverend William Bentley’s Diary; Phillips Library MS 1577.

I am sure you can understand why I could not ignore that Bentley statement! Wow–a lot to unpack there. Bentley has a lot to say about everyone, of course,  but he devoted quite a bit of space to Miss Hathorne (and her mother as well). The $40,000—which is repeated by others, including Sidney Perley. I don’t know how to verify, but there are other contemporary statements attesting to Mary (often referred to as Molly) Hathorne’s wealth, enterprise, crudeness, intemperance, and lack of femininity. I’d like to know more about the precise nature of conducting business as a “pedestrian trader”, but we have evidence of Mary’s shop (at the corner of Cambridge and Essex, of course) and considerable property investment via outstanding mortgages. From the deed research that I’ve engaged in, I know that real estate was a popular enterprise for those Salem women who had the means and the opportunity in the nineteenth century; apparently the eighteenth as well. Dr. Bentley informs us that Mary’s mother (also named Mary) who died at the venerable age of 80 three years after her daughter acquired property in peddling from Salem in the neighboring towns, by a parsimony almost unexampled among us and was also characterized by the family “intemperance”.

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Hathorne Mortgages2_LI (2)Salem Gazette.

I wish I could get inside the “shop of Miss Mary Hathorne” to gain some insights into her business as a “pedestrian trader”, but so far, no luck. However, her younger sister Sarah did leave us an account book which sheds some light on the nature of her more feminine occupation: that of a seamstress. The day book, covering transactions from 1794-96, is literally covered in computations—not an inch of paper is wasted, inside or outside. Within we can see all of Sarah’s suppliers and the materials she purchased for her work: a lot of cotton and buckram, linen, silk, gauze, cambric, calico, chintz, baize, flannel, “nancain” (nankeen). We see some familiar Salem names with whom she is doing business: Bott, Symonds, even a man named “Samuel Mackentier”! Of course I’d like to see more details about her commissions and the general management of her business, but I love this inventory of eighteenth-century fabrics—and her apparent preoccupation to get the numbers right.

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20200114_105739Pages from Sarah Hathorne’s Day Book, Phillips Library MS 1577

Sadly there are no portraits of these two: unlike the Hathorne males in their line and the well-heeled merchant’s wives of their time. European artists had been interested in anonymous working women for some time, however, so I’m including two of my favorite portraits of a shopkeeper and a seamstress, just because they are period-perfect, and the anonymous shopkeeper’s small smile reminds me of Molly Hathorne’s characterization.

British School; The Woman Shopkeeper

Wybrand_Hendriks_-_Interieur_met_naaiende_vrouwAnonymous, A Woman Shopkeeper, c. 1790-1810, Glasgow Museums; Wybrand Hendricks, Interior with Woman, c. 1800-1810, Rijksmuseum Twenthe.


Salem Suffrage Saturdays

In honor of all those women who struggled for decades to become enfranchised, here in Salem and across the United States, I am dedicating Saturdays in 2020 to stories of Salem women as my own personal commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment. I am going to follow the example of the Salem Woman’s Suffrage Club, which met both monthly and annually in the second half of the nineteenth century: the monthly meetings were reserved for newsworthy speakers and expedient strategy, but the annual meetings were all about highlighting women’s contributions to many realms, over time: culture and even “daily life”, not just politics. So on Saturdays I will be featuring some prominent suffragists, but also artists, authors, businesswomen, educators, housewives, and socialites and women who defy simple characterization. I’ve already written about quite a few women on the blog over the past nine years (just click on the “Women’s History ” category in the lower right-hand corner) but there are many more whose stories remain untold. I don’t think I’ll have any problem filling my Saturday posts (although please forward suggestions!) and today’s post is a preview of what (or who) is coming.

US-ENTERTAINMENT-ROSE PARADE2020 Suffragists in the Rose Bowl Parade, Getty Images.

Artists & Artist-Entrepreneurs: I’ve posted about quite a few women artists, including the famous Fidelia Bridges, but there are more to be discovered. I am on the trail of a Salem silhouette artist, a Salem miniaturist, and an early Salem photographer, and I already have all I need to write about a succession of early twentieth-century artist-entrepreneurs, including furniture restorer and stencilist Helen Hagar, the very successful Sarah Symonds, and Jenny Brooks, who taught embroidery and sold “ye olde” cross stitch patterns at the turn of the century. Like Mary Harrod Northend, these women were selling Salem craftsmanship and artistry, in sharp contrast to their near-contemporary Daniel Low, who was peddling witch wares.

Women Helen Hagar

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Women of Salem Jenny Brooks 1910 Hagley (2)Helen Hagar in 1915, courtesy the Local History Resource Center at the Peabody Institute Library.  After her graduation from Peabody High School that year, Miss Hagar moved to Salem and lived there until her death in 1984, working for the Society of the Preservation of New England Antiquities and then the National Park Service to live in and conduct tours of the Derby House. She became an expert on traditional stenciling, and lectured and taught on its history, as well as producing some of her own stenciling work on tole and wooden objects and partnering with various antique dealers like Ethelwyn Shepard (flyer courtesy Historic New England). A cross stitch pattern by the Jenny Brooks Company, located at One Cambridge Street, Hagley Museum & Library.

I’ve written about several Salem female novelists (notably Katherine Butler Hathaway and Maria Cummins) but no authors of nonfiction I believe, or diarists. Right now I am fascinated by the formidable Elizabeth Elkins Sanders, who was surely the most vocal critic of Andrew Jackson and defender of Native Americans in 1820s Salem. She was at the forefront of an emerging progressive tradition in Salem, and more than that, she was an early feminist: her Conversations Principally on the Aborigines of North America (1828) is written in the form of a dialogue between mother and daughter.

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So many Salem businesswomen! In the seventeenth century, the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century, and the twentieth (and now, of course). It will be hard to showcase them all; I’ll just have to follow my sources. Many dressmakers and milliners, laundresses, bakers, and shopkeepers. I’ve just scratched the surface of the entrepreneurship of the amazing Remond family: while the famous abolitionist Sarah (who gets all the attention, understandably, but still) was in England and Italy her hardworking sisters (and her mother) were back here, baking, catering, hairdressing, completely dominating the wig industry in Massachusetts, all while serving on abolitionist and suffrage committees. So they need more attention, for sure—and I really hope to illuminate Caroline Remond Putnam’s particular role in the suffrage movement. There are a succession of female tavern-keepers I’m trailing, and also the various enterprises of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s unmarried cousins, one of whom died in possession of an estate valued at $40,000 by the Reverend William Bentley.  Famed female shopkeepers appear in memoirs from the later nineteenth century—Mrs. Bachelder’s, Mrs. Harris’s, Miss Plummer’s (the social center of Salem in the 1890s according to James Duncan Phillips) and in the early twentieth century, there seems to have been a significant subset of women antique dealers. And of course we must not forget Salem’s first woman printer, Mary Crouch, short-lived as her time in Salem might have been.

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Women of Salem 269 Essex StreetGoldthwaite & Shapley, Dressmakers, 269 Essex Street, Salem. Andrew Dickson White Architectural Collection, Cornell University Library.

Educators: another huge category, incorporating teachers in private dame schools, public schools, and of course the “Normal School” for teacher education established in 1854, now Salem State University. I’ve posted on the first African-American educator in Salem, Clarissa Lawrence, and on Lydia Very, but I still don’t have a full grasp of all the private schools for women that existed in Salem in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, overseen by a succession of widows and spinsters: Mrs. Rogers, Mrs. Higginson, Mrs. Dean, Miss Savage, Miss Oliver, Miss Draper. There were the very “select” schools of Sarah Fiske Stivours on Essex Street and the “Misses Phillips” on Chestnut Street. Charlotte Forten, a graduate of Salem Normal school and the first African-American teacher of white children in the Salem public schools, has a whole committee and park devoted to her so I don’t think there is much I could add: a nice summary of her life and accomplishments is here. A traditional career for women, teaching could also open up other opportunities: after a very successful career teaching in the Salem Public Schools, Martha L. Roberts went on to earn both law and Ph.D. degrees, and became one of the first women to be admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1897. She also lived very openly with her partner Martha O. Howes, who worked in the City Clerk’s office in Salem. Together, they built one of my favorite houses in South Salem: Six Forest Avenue.

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20200109_144027Needlework Sampler by Naby Dane (b. 1777), Sarah Fiske Stivours School, Salem, Massachusetts, Dated 1789, Sotheby’s; 6 Forest Avenue, Salem.

As is always the case with me, things lead me to ask questions and seek stories: a sampler, a house, a dress. There are two wedding dresses in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, that will yield some interesting stories for sure: an actual dress made of Spitalfields silk worn by Mary Waters of Salem for her wedding to Anthony Sigourney in 1740 and then remodeled for their daughter, also named Mary, to wear to her wedding to James Butler in 1763. Like so many things in the mid-18th century, this robe à l’anglaise seems so trans-Atlantic to me: the Spitalfields silk industry in London was established by French Huguenot émigres in the later seventeenth century—and perhaps members of the Sigourney family were among them. The photograph (daguerreotype really) shows Martha Pickman Rogers of Salem in her more conventional (to our eyes) wedding dress worn for her marriage to John Amory Codman of Boston in the 1850s. She was the great-granddaughter of Elias Hasket Derby, and the mother of Martha Codman Karolik, the collector and philanthropist.

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screenshot_20200109-141058_instagramWaters-Sigourney Dress and Southworth Hawes Daguerreotype, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Then there are stories about the suffrage movement itself, so intertwined with the struggle for abolition and other reform movements in Salem as elsewhere. Three very different Salem women went to the first meeting of the National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester in October of 1850: Eliza Kenney, a very passionate reformer who later became an equally passionate spiritualist, and housewives Delight (yes, that was her name!) Hewitt and Sarah Wilkins. Their stories are easy to access, but a lot of women’s history falls into a “black box” which can never be opened unfortunately: there just isn’t any evidence. For example: I’d love to find out about two very different Salem women, who lived at two very different times, but all I have are brief mentions in newspapers, centuries apart. The first story relates the tragic death of an African woman who wanted to return to her country in 1733, and in a desperate attempt took her own life. The second refers to an anonymous German sympathizer during World War I whose name I have not been able to uncover. Just two anonymous Salem women, each part of Salem’s long history.

Women of Salem Slavery Suicide Boston Gazette May 29 1733 (3)

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2020: the Commemorative Year

One of the major themes of this blog has been how we remember history: what we choose to remember, what we choose to celebrate (or exploit), and what we choose to forget or ignore. This year promises to be very interesting in the realm of “anniversary history”, with two big commemorations crowding the calendar: the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower in Massachusetts and the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment enfranchising American women after a long, long struggle. I don’t think anything else—certainly not the 200th anniversary of the Missouri Compromise (1820) or the 300th anniversary of the South Sea Bubble (1720)— can compete with these epic events. Yet looking ahead at the succession of initiatives and events designed to commemorate these two markers, I am struck by one notable difference: the Suffrage Centennial seems to be a truly national movement, with major events in Washington, D.C., every single state, and many localities as well, while the Mayflower anniversary seems much more restricted: to Massachusetts, and even to the descendants of the Pilgrim passengers. This might just be my American perspective: the Mayflower commemoration certainly has a broader geographic scope, incorporating Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the Wampanoag Nation, encompassing the Aquinnah and Mashpee tribes. My perception might also shaped by the fact the Suffrage Centennial is already very much in full swing, so we shall see.

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Plans for the Suffrage Centennial have clearly been in the works for years, and their most dramatic manifestation was three major exhibitions in Washington: Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote at the National Archives Museum (May 10, 2019- January 3, 2021), Shall Not be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote at the Library of Congress (June 4, 2019-September, 2020), and Votes for Women: a Portrait of Persistence  at the National Portrait Gallery (March, 2019-January 5, 2020). As you can see, the last exhibition ends this weekend, but there is a companion catalog with wonderful essays and images. These exhibitions are just the beginning of a wave of suffrage remembrance and interpretation, washing over the nation: the website of the Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative is a great place to go for events and resources but every state seems to have its own central site as well, linking to institutional and local initiatives. Here in Massachusetts, Suffrage100MA, the Women’s Suffrage Celebration Coalition, sponsors features like the “Suffragist of the Month” at the Commonwealth Museum, but is hardly the extent of commemorative activity: the Massachusetts Historical Society had a very visual exhibit entitled “Can She Do It?” Massachusetts Debates a Woman’s Right to Vote up over last summer, the Boston Athenaeum has an ongoing “Eye of the Expert: (Anti) Suffrage program focused on items from its collection, the Schlesinger Library at Harvard will feature Seeing Citizens: Picturing American Women’s Fight for the Vote from March 23 to October 3, 2020, and there are local events all around me commencing next month. This very layered exploration of the coming of universal suffrage has been extremely comprehensive, examining the complexities of the struggle, divisions of class and race, and all sorts of attendant aspects (and materials!)—and there’s a lot more to learn and see.

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pixlr_20200101133156977Ace of Spades card (verso and recto) from a c. 1915 deck published by the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Co., Boston Athenaeum.

By contrast, the coming commemoration of the Mayflower’s arrival doesn’t seem very layered or very national: there are no events in Washington that I could find. The official US website for the commemoration is Plymouth400, Inc., which reports that the April 24 Opening Ceremony will be a two-hour event of historical content, musical headliners, interpretive readings, choreographed movement, original productions, and visual narratives to create a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. The Plymouth 400 Legacy Time Capsule will be introduced, and the first items will be placed inside by special guests. Honoring the past and celebrating the future, each of the commemoration themes – exploration, innovation, self-governance, religious expression, immigration, and thanksgiving – will be presented in creative ways. Invited participants include state and federal officials, representatives of the UK, The Netherlands, colony partners, and many more. Besides this extravaganza, it’s all about the ship: the Mayflower II (1957), which has been under repair in Mystic, Connecticut for several years. The newly-restored ship will sail to Boston for a maritime festival in May (docking right next to the Constitution, which should look cool), and then proceed home to Plymouth via Provincetown for more festivities in both ports. I do see references to attendant exhibitions on Pilgrim women and the Wampanoags on the Plymouth400 site, but nothing like the diffusion of inspired initiatives associated with the commemoration of suffrage.

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screenshot_20191231-154733_chromeThe Mayflower II seemed to be more of a national story in 1957; on the stop in Provincetownfrom Boston to Plymouth, there will be a “reenactment of the signing of the Mayflower Compact and VIP reception”.

The Plymouth400 website might not be comprehensive but it is all we have to go on; it is also, very decidedly, not a resource, with minimal effort toward edification. When compared to the much more impressive official British commemoration website Mayflower400 it is exposed for just what it is: a Chamber of Commerce production. After watching all of the poignant expressions of remembrance associated with the commemoration of each and every phase of World War One over the past few years, I am not surprised to see the sophistication, earnestness, and creativity of the British commemoration of the Mayflower voyage, which will include the opening of a Mayflower Trail through and outside Plymouth, multiple exhibits, public art and music projects, living history events, a muster, festivals, illuminations, a religious history conference, and even sporting events. The website links to resources and is itself a resource, with digital maps exploring the sites associated with the Mayflower itself and every single passenger and crew member. It brings all these people to Plymouth and then to America ( some via Leiden): why can’t we have something similar that shows where they went once they got here? As I am not a Mayflower descendant, I am forming the opinion that if I want to feel a real connection to those who left England in 1620 I had better make my way to Plymouth in Devon rather than Plymouth in Bristol County.

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screenshot_20200101-153517_chromeThe official British program and interactive maps on the Mayflower400 website, which also includes artwork that has been seldom seen (over here, at least), like Anthony Thompson’s 1938 painting The ‘Mayflower’ Leaving Plymouth, 1620 @Essex County Council.


The Sculptor’s Mother

I’ve been working my way through all of the artists who were born or lived in Salem since I began this blog so many years ago, but one very notable and successful artist whom I have yet to cover is the sculptor John Rogers (1829-1904), chiefly because I don’t really care for his work. They have not aged well, but the “Rogers Groups” were important expressions of American material culture in the later nineteenth century: often Rogers is referred to as the Normal Rockwell of sculptors, and plaster castings of his best-selling works, depicting sentimental scenes of a young couple about to proclaim their marriage vows before a country parson and a convivial games of checkers “up at the farm,” sold thousands of copies for $15.00 each from 1860 to 1890. Even though Rogers studied in Paris like so many aspiring American artists, he firmly rejected the neoclassical sculptural style of his teachers—-and his time—in favor of a more accessible “vernacular” approach. He wanted to be a successful, popular artist more than an artist: he told his mother so, many times, in letters we can read at the New York Historical Society. The mother of John Rogers was Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers (1805-1877), and she is really my interest and my focus; but I can only get to her through him. And my interest in her started with a dress, the beautiful, ethereal, dress seemingly spun from air and mica (but really Indian muslin and silver) which she wore to her wedding reception in 1827.

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20191031_153222Indian Muslin and silver wedding reception dress of Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers, 1827, Peabody Essex Museum (Gift of Miss Jeannie Dupee, 1979).

This dress is in the stunning new Asian Export gallery of the Peabody Essex Museum. Since its opening about six weeks ago, I have snuck into see it (and several other things) about three or four times: I’m obsessed with it (and several other things)!  The dress is beautiful, but I feel a connection to Sarah largely through her younger sister, Mary Jane Derby (Peabody), who was an artist and the author of a hand-written and -bound journal composed for her grandchildren which a lovely lady from Maine bought at a yard sale and sent to me: I know that I should turn this little book over to her family, or an archive, but I’ve held on to it simply because I cherish it. In the journal, Mary Jane writes about her wonderful childhood in the large mansion on Washington Street that she depicts in one her most alluring paintings. This is the mansion to which Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers would return after her marriage to John Rogers of Boston, and the birthplace of her son John Rogers (Jr.) in 1829.

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Pickman Derby House 70 Wash

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Sara Rogers Salem Literary and Commercial Observer June 9 1827

Mary Ellen Derby, the Pickman-Derby Mansion at 70 Washington Street, c. 1825; Detroit Institute of Arts; a Moulton-Erickson Photograph from the 1880s, Cornell University Library—the house was demolished in 1914 for the present Masonic building; The Margaret, co-owned by Mary Jane’s and Sarah Ellen’s father John Derby, was one of the first American ships to reach Japan, in 1801, Old-time Ships of Salem, Essex Institute, 1917; The Rogers wedding announcement in the Salem Literary and Commercial Observer, June 9, 1827.

Mary Jane and Sarah Ellen Derby seem to have had a perfect Salem childhood growing up in this mansion during Salem’s most prosperous period, the granddaughters of Salem’s most prosperous merchant, Elias Hasket Derby, and the daughters of John Derby, Esq, part-owner of The Margaret, one of the first American ships (and THE first Salem ship) to dock in Japan. I’m so dazzled by her childhood (and her dress) that I make the cardinal historical mistake when I look at the post-marriage life of Sarah Ellen: I judge this life by my own standards and perspectives, rather than hers. By all accounts Sarah and her husband had a happy marriage (they had eight children, after all, of whom John Jr. was the second-eldest) but their lives together don’t seem to have been as comfortable as her Salem life. Despite his Harvard degree and Boston Brahmin pedigree, John Sr. was not a very good businessmanshortly after John Jr.’s birth in 1829 the young family was off to Cincinnati where Mr. Rogers attempted to establish a sawmill (and where Mary Jane met her husband, the Reverend Ephraim Peabody, while visiting her older sister) after this failed it was back to (western) Massachusetts for a silkworm enterprise, which also failed after a few years. There was a brief stint in New Hampshire, and then the (now much larger) Rogers family settled in Roxbury, with John Sr. taking up a post (a political appointment?) at the Boston Custom House which he held for the rest of his life. There was no Harvard for John Jr.: he was briefly established in a Boston apprenticeship before he ran off in pursuit of an artistic career. Perhaps this background explains his entrepreneurial attitude towards that career. All of this makes me feel sorry for Sarah: all those moves,, all those children! Did she have any help? Did she look back at her wedding reception dress and think: how did I get here?  But I’m just projecting my own feelings on to her: she had a large and by all accounts happy family and a successful son who addressed all of his letters to that family to her, at its center, or heart (and it looks like despite all of those children, she still might have been able to fit into that dress).

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Sarah Rogers NYHS

Sarah Rogers Checkers

Checkers photograph Essex Institute

Rogers Marketing

Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers and her family, New York Historical Society Rogers Collection and the archived online exhibit John Rogers: American Stories where you can see more photographs, get more context, and read letters from John to Sarah; Checkers at the Farm—the second most popular work of Rogers—Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of John Rogers and Son; photograph of “Checkers”, Smithsonian via Essex Institute Lantern slide: E24240; Advertisement for “Checkers”, Harper’s Weekly 3 (March 18, 1876): 235.


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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Antiques Witch House New Bedford

Antiques Witch House 1918 Cambridge Historical Society

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.


Mrs. Crowninshield goes to Washington

A colorful, albeit a bit light, source for women’s history is the collection of letters written home by Mary Boardman Crowninshield (1778-1840), the wife of Benjamin Crowninshield, a congressman and Secretary of the Navy under Presidents Madison and Monroe. On the surface, Mary’s and Benjamin’s marriage looks like a typical Salem mercantile merger, but not so typical was her decision (or maybe it was their decision) to accompany her husband to Washington in the fall of 1815. The letters describing their trip, by carriage and steamship, and residence in Washington over the next few months were published by Mrs. Crowninshield’s great-grandson, Francis Boardman Crowninshield, in 1905, and they yield some interesting insights into the Washington social scene in the immediate aftermath of the British occupation of the city and burning of the White House in general, and what everyone was wearing (most prominently First Lady Dolley Madison) in particular.

Mary Crowninshield

Mrs. Crowninshield was clearly an observant and detail-oriented woman, but her lengthy descriptions of the dress of the women whom she encountered really stand out in comparison with her briefer assessments of events or her surroundings. Almost as soon as she arrives in Washington, she calls on Mrs. Madison in the Octagon House, where she takes note of the blue damask curtains and finds the First Lady dressed in a white cambric gown, buttoned all the way up in front, a little strip of work along the button-holes, but ruffled around the bottom. A peach-bloom-colored silk scarf with a rich border over her shoulders by her sleeves. She had on a spencer of satin in the same color, and likewise a turban of velour gauze, all of peach bloom. She looked very well indeed. You can’t expect Mrs. Crowninshield to get excited about the architecture: she hailed from Samuel McIntire’s Salem! But one would like to see some mention of the rebuilding of Washington, the slaves who lived in the Octagon House along with the Madisons, maybe a bit of politics: but no, it’s really all about who wore what where and when.

The Octagon Peter Waddell

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20190325_170000Historical artist Peter Waddell’s depiction of the Octagon House in Washington, Mary Boardman’s childhood home on Salem Common, and the Salem house of the Crowninshields, where they entertained President Monroe in 1817, now the Brookhouse Home for Aged Women.

Well, if that’s what she wants to write about let’s go with it; these are her letters after all! She seems to be almost as impressed with the dresses of Mrs. Monroe as Mrs. Madison: the former is “very elegant”, dressed in “very fine muslin lined with pink” on one occasion and  “sky-blue striped velvet” on another, both times with velvet turbans embellished with feathers. Mrs. Crowninshield clearly is intimidated/impressed by all these velvet turbans in Washington: she has insufficient velvet and no feathers at all, and as they are very dear she combs her braided hair as high up as possible and weaves in flowers and ornaments—including a golden butterfly which Mrs. Madison actually admires. There is great concern about trim: Mrs. Crowninshield orders some very nice dresses from a Washington mantua-maker but implores her mother to send some red velvet trim from Salem along with Judge Story—–a Supreme Court Justice—when he makes his way back to Washington! And he does. This seems like the most insightful detail of Mrs. Crowninshield’s letters: imagine a Supreme Court Justice as a clothing courier!

Boardman The-Splendid-Mrs-Madison White House Peter Waddell

7-CaptureOfCityWashington24Aug1814_fullPeter Waddell’s recreation of one of Dolley Madison’s “Wednesday Squeezes” with many turbans and feathers in evidence, White House Historical Association; the capture and burning of Washington in 1814, New York Historical Society. Mrs. Madison continued to be an active hostess in her temporary quarters, which Mrs. Crowninshield tells us all about, but she does not have much to say about the post-war state of Washington.

But back to Dolley Madison, of whom Mrs. Crowninshield has the most to say, as she attended several events over the holidays in December of 1815 and January of 1816 hosted by the First Lady. Mrs. Crowninshield admires everything about Dolley—her demeanor, her apparent kindness, her ability to converse with ease—but above all, her clothes. Either Dolley rescued her famous wardrobe from the burning White House along with George Washington’s portrait or she replenished it with purpose. At a New Year’s Day reception, Mrs. Madison was dressed in a yellow satin embroidered all over with sprigs of butterflies, not two alike in the dress; a narrow border in all colors; made high in the neck; a little cape, long sleeves, and a white bonnet with feathers. That’s quite a close observation. At a Wednesday night levee, Mrs. Madison was adorned in muslin dotted in silver over blue and a beautiful blue turban with feathers. Mrs. Crowninshield noted that I have never seen her look so well and was clearly very pleased that Dolley had remarked that they “thought alike”, as she was dressed in blue as well. The last description of Dolley’s dress refers to a more elaborate dinner party, in which she was dressed in black velvet trimmed with gold [and] a worked lace turban in gold with a lace and gold kind of thing over her shoulders and looked “brilliant” in Mrs. Crowninshield’s worshipful estimation. Not long after this event, Mary Crowninshield returned to Salem, where the Reverend Bentley seems to have visited her immediately, in search of all the Washington gossip as well as her opinions of both the President and the First Lady. In her last letter, to her husband who remained in the capitol, she admits that I think I never shall want to go from home again.

Dolley's Buterfly gown

Dolley Dress 1934

Dolley Madison’s yellow silk “butterfly gown (s)” ? at the Smithsonian: the First Ladies Hall and a 1934 Curt Teich postcard.


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