Tag Archives: writing

Home is Where Everything Is

I can’t get through the 2020 Year of Blogging on #SalemSuffrageSaturdays, historic houses, and the occasional book-inspired post alone: the most important place for everyone this year was the home, and so I need to show you more of mine to be true to its spirit. There were also some big changes to my home this year: for better, for worse, and just change. Now that we’re in the final months of this challenging year, my overwhelming sentiment is one of gratitude: I feel fortunate to have a safe and secure home, full of lovely things, and more than sufficient space for work, sleep, play, and procrastinating. So here are my three domestic themes:

The year of three cats:

About a month ago, I lost my cat Darcy, who was nearly 20 years old. He had been sick with kidney disease for quite a while—so I knew this was coming, but I was quite determined that he should die at home. He lived his whole life in our house, and he was not a social cat: he really only tolerated me. Actually I think he liked me, as every time I walked into a room he was in he would turn up his nose and give me a little trill (the only word I can come up with to describe that sound—it wasn’t quite a meow). Because of the pandemic, and then my book contract, I had a lot of time with Darcy over these past seven months: we would sit together and I would work and he would sleep or stare at me. Despite eating and wanting to eat constantly, he grew thinner and thinner, but he seemed very comfortable and I just hoped he would drift off, at home. I had experienced the deaths of two previous cats—Flannery and Moneypenny—through disruptive seizures and I craved a peaceful death for Darcy, but my vet convinced me that a crisis was imminent, so we had to put him down. Our other cat Trinity came to us shortly after she had given birth to her litter outside, been rescued, and fixed–while all of her kittens were put up for adoption. She has been making “nests” and crying for them for five years, so I always thought after Darcy was gone we would adopt a kitten: I knew she would not recognize the kitten as her kitten, but I though it would be at least a better age match—so I moved pretty quickly to adopt and now we have Tuck! Trinity is not pleased with this addition: for a while she seemed to have lost her own personality and become stand-offish Darcy incarnate but she seems to be reverting to form now: hopefully she just had to establish her “ranking” status. We have a bit more to work out, here at home.

One of Darcy’s last photographs, Trinity, Tuck.

The new kitchen!

We’ve needed a kitchen remodel forever; I don’t know why we moved forward in this particular year but apparently renovations are a big trend in this home-focused year. Kitchens in older houses are generally just boxes added onto the back; our house’s original kitchen is in the basement, and it looks pretty original. Our “modern” kitchen looked like it was put in in the 1950s or 1960s, but we found the bones of a much older kitchen when we ripped everything out; the new kitchen is completely new, except for the floorboards, which we found under three layers of vinyl. Thank goodness for them, because my pet peeve is new kitchens that don’t have anything to do with the rest of the house. We put a lot of thought—and spent quite a lot of money—connecting the kitchen to the rest of the house through materials and details, because it really wasn’t before. We commissioned a big slab of mahogany for our island because we wanted to balance the mahogany staircase in the front, and more practical quartz for the other counters. I think we succeeded in making the “box out back” more connected to the main house, but it took all summer: another reason why Darcy and I got to spend so much time together up on the third floor away from the dust and the noise! Here’s the whole process: before, during, after:

Stripping down and building back layers: that wattle & daub look is called “backplastering” and look at the floor “before”! Cabinets everywhere on the first floor for six weeks or so. The general contractor was our neighbor across the street, Leon Kraunelis, of Redwine Development, floors by Dan Labrecque , and mahogany table top by Alpine Woodworks right here in Salem. I changed up my jadeite for ironstone from my friend Betsy at Windy Hill Antiques

Living and working all over the house:

So I received my book contract in early July and went right to work: primarily in my third-floor study, a third-floor bedroom (because it had a bed for Darcy) and a second floor bay-window room that we call the “Nosy Room” because the previous owners did and it looks out over all of Chestnut Street. I taught a summer class, and now I’m teaching four classes in addition to writing. I find that I need to change my surroundings to be productive—and I can’t really go anywhere: not to my office, not to the library. So I’m basically working all over the house. I’ve been zooming everywhere, just to change it up for my students:  I decorated the double parlors this past weekend with the rationale that it was for them but it was really because I bought so much John Derian Halloween stuff at Target!  The only room I haven’t taught in yet is the kitchen: moving into there this week.

Various “studies”, and one of my big scores of the summer: a Salem Marine Society certificate! I have never been able to resist John Derian, so off to Target I went as soon as his stuff hit the stores. I bought three of those black cats.


Preservation by Pencil

I often get asked if I’m ever going to write a book about Salem—and I always feel like the subtext of the question is or are you just going to keep dabbling on your blog? I always say no, as I’m not really interested in producing any sort of popular history about Salem and I’m not a trained American historian. I have a few academic projects I’m working on now and at the same time I like to indulge my curiosity about the environment in which I live, because, frankly, most of the books that do get published on Salem’s history tend to tell the same story time and time again. First Period architecture is the one topic that tempts me to go deeper: not architectural history per se (again, another field in which I am not trained), but more the social and cultural history of Salem’s seventeenth-century structures—especially those that survived into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. How do they change over time? Why do some get preserved and others demolished? What was their perceived value, at any given time? Why do some houses get turned into memorials/museums/”monuments” and others disappear, forever forgotten? And (here’s the blogging angle): why are some of these structures preserved for posterity in photographic and artistic form and others not? This is a rather long-winded contextual introduction to my focus today: the wonderful house renderings of the Anglo-American artist Edwin Whitefield (1816-1892). Whitefield was an extremely prolific painter of landscapes and streetscapes, flora and fauna, and I’m mentioned him here several times before, but I recently acquired my own copy of one of his Homes of our Forefathers volumes, and now I need to wax poetic. I just love his pencil-and-paint First Period houses: they are detailed yet impressionistic, simple yet structural, and completely charming. I can’t get enough of them.

HFTitle Page

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HF 8 Coffin House

HF Gloucester

There are five Homes of our Forefathers volumes, published between 1879 and 1889, covering all of New England and a bit of Old England as well: Boston and Massachusetts are intensively covered in several volumes. Whitefield clearly saw himself as a visual recorder of these buildings and was recognized as such at the time (a time when many of these structures were doubtless threatened): An 1889 Boston Journal review of his houses remarked that “We cannot easily exaggerate the service which Mr. Whitefield has rendered in preserving them”. Even though the title pages advertised “original drawings made on the spot”, implying immediate impressions, Whitefield put considerable research and detail in his drawings, intentionally removing modern alterations and additions so that they were indeed the homes of our forefathers. His process and intent are key to understanding why Whitefield includes some structures in his volumes and omits others. He includes only two little-known Salem structures in Homes: the Palmer House, which stood on High Street Court, and the Prince House, which was situated on the Common, near the intersection of Washington Square South, East and Forrester Street. There were so many other First Period houses in Salem that he could have included–Pickering, Shattuck, Ruck, Gedney, Narbonne, Corwin, Turner-Ingersoll–but instead he chose two houses which were much more obscure, thus rescuing them from perpetual obscurity.

Preservation by Pencil Collage

Homes of our FF LC

Already-famous First Period houses in Salem, either because of their Hawthorne, witchcraft, or Revolutionary associations: the Turner-Ingersoll house before it was transformed into the House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne’s birthplace in its original situation, the Shattuck House on Essex Street, a sketch of the Corwin “Witch House” and the Pickering House. Whitefield’s single postcard of the Witch House in its original incarnation (it was then thought to be the residence of Roger Williams, an association that was later disproven by Sidney Perley).

The Palmer and Prince houses are mentioned in the Pickering Genealogy (Palmer) and Perley’s Essex Antiquarian articles, and apparently there’s a photograph of the former deep in the archives of the Phillips Library, but without Whitefield’s sketches they wouldn’t exist. He was drawn to them, I think, by both their age and their vulnerability: both would be torn down, with little notice, in the same decade that his sketches were published.

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HF Salem


The Fount of Penmanship

I don’t usually subscribe to those specially-designated days–you know, Boston Cream Pie Day or Talk Like a Pirate Day–preferring the old saints’ days of yore with all of their associated traditions and folklore, but I am acknowledging National Handwriting Day today simply because I like the written word almost as much as I like the printed one, and scripts almost as much as fonts. And I fear penmanship might be on its way out. This Day was established by an entity with a vested interest, the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association, all the more reason to ignore it, but they chose John Hancock’s birthday as the day and I welcome any occasion to acknowledge Mr.Hancock, one of my favorite founding fathers. I learned a lot about penmanship pedagogy a few years ago when I fell in love with a calligraphic cat and plunged myself into the world of nineteenth-century American writing manuals, but now I think the seventeenth century is a more important era in the development of writing instruction, at least in England. Influenced and inspired by continental influences like Jan van den Velde’s 1605 book, Spieghel der Schrifkonste (Mirror of the Art of Writing), English writing became penmanship, separated from “orthography” or grammar, segregated into a variety of hands and scripts, standardized through the dissemination of a succession of manuals and “copy books”. All those Victorian flourishes and calligraphic creations? Old news.

Mirror of the Art of Writing after 1620 met

Mirror of the Art of Writing 1605

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Above: writing samples from the early seventeenth century: a 1620 pen-in-hand engraving after Jan van den Velde, c. 1620, Metropolitan Museum of Art; a page from van den Velde’s influential Mirror of the Art of Writing, c. 1605; and title page of Martin Billingsley’s  The Pen’s Excellencie, or The Secretaries Delight (1618).

Below: in the later seventeenth century, it was all about “Colonel” John Ayres, master of a writing school in St. Paul’s Churchyard “at the sign of the hand and pen” in London, and the author of a series of copy books published in many editions between 1680 and 1700, including The Accomplish’d Clerk or Accurate Pen-man and The New A-La-Mode Secretarie or Practical Pen-Man (both 1682-83).

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Ayres_John-The_accomplishd_clerk_regraved-Wing-A4299-1376_05-p19p

Ayres_John-The_new_alamode_secretarie_or_Practical-Wing-A4303B-1805_05-p1p

Ayres_John-The_new_alamode_secretarie_or_Practical-Wing-A4303B-1805_05-p16p


Scholarship and Shopping

Few moments are more exciting for me than when my intellectual and material endeavors merge, and believe me, they are fleeting! One happened this past Saturday. I had been struggling with two pieces that I am writing for publication on Frank Cousins, Salem’s turn-of-the last century architectural photographer, and a passionate advocate for all thing Colonial. I know a lot about Cousins, and I have a lot to say about him (because no one else has said anything), but I am not a trained 1) American Historian; 2) Architectural Historian; or 3) Art Historian, so that is why I was struggling: could I place him in his proper context? It’s one thing to refer to his “imaginary walks through Salem” and lectures on “Old Architectural Salem” and quite another to assess his contributions to American architectural history and the Preservation movement. I had finished one piece and was thoroughly blocked on the other, when I decided to go over to the first ever (and hopefully not last) “Vintage Market” on Derby Square. I just love the idea of an antiques market in Salem, which has such a long tradition in this trade, and even though I appreciate our farmers’ market, I would rather buy things than vegetables in Derby Square! So off I went, and there was some great stuff: baskets, bottles, buttons, snowshoes, pottery, tins, bottles, and prints, lots and lots of prints, including an old box full of Frank Cousins prints. These were not the original albumen images, mind you, but large reprints made for resale at a mid-century Salem gift shop according to the man who sold them to me, who happens to run his own Salem tours. I bought quite a few, took them home, spread them out on the floor of my study, and waited for inspiration to strike. It took a while (more than a moment to tell the truth), but eventually I finished my article. I think there are two lessons here: 1) if you’re writing about someone who expresses himself visually, you must consider these expressions and 2) shopping always helps.

Close-up: offerings at the First Annual (?) Vintage Market on Derby Square in Salem, and my catch of Cousins photographs.

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Collectibles Collages Salem Vintage Market

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A Sentimentalist in Salem

For me (so far), blogging is a remarkably easy, even effortless activity; every post comes from 1) a walk or a drive; 2) a glance at the calendar; 3) reading–either for pleasure or class preparation; 4) looking at art-again, either for pleasure or class prep; and 5) stumbling around the web. Since I do all of these things daily blog posts naturally follow, without much consternation. But there is one more source of inspiration that is a bit less immediate: my digital folders of things (images, articles, news items) that catch my interest but are so singular that they don’t really call to mind some larger topical theme–even one sufficient for a fleeting post. Most of these items have no context, but if you keep collecting them, patterns emerge.

A good case in point is my rather bulging (if digital files could, in fact, bulge) file which I have labeled “Fading Salem”. In this file are a number of items and articles from national periodicals about how far Salem has fallen from the glorious heights of its commercial ascendency at the beginning of the nineteenth century. These items all date from the period 1850-1914:  the end date does not refer to the beginning of World War I (as it would for the rest of the world) but rather to the Great Salem Fire. There are references to crime and poverty, general malaise (one item is even titled “Dull Salem”) and the faded grandeur of “old Salem”. As the century turns, there is definitely an emphasis on the latter:  rather than looking at Salem as in decline, a succession of observers note how well-preserved it is, and how it serves as a bastion of tradition in a rapidly-changing world. There is one article that captures this transition perfectly, written and illustrated by a Canadian-born artist named Charles Henry White and published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in June of 1908. White (1878-1918) traveled around the country sketching and writing little impressions of a host of American cities for Harper’s in the first decade of the twentieth century; before he came to Salem he had produced articles on New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Charleston, Richmond, New Orleans, Boston and Philadelphia, and his view of Washington D.C., “Queer Folk at the Capital”, came a year after his “Salem” article.  Just before the war broke out, he was off to Europe, where he eventually died in 1918 at age 40.

White starts out with the traditional late-nineteenth century impression of Salem:  As you center Derby Street on your way to the Custom House, where, in more prosperous times, the main current of the commercial life of the city ebbed and flowed, making the streets ring with the cheerful din of business activity, and reach the deserted quays, you feel not unlike a stranger who has wandered into an abandoned theater and walks alone across the stage, picking his way gingerly through the tattered scenery, long after generations of actors who made the place echo with their laughter have departed. 

Frankly, his writing is a little dramatic for me but I do like his accompanying illustrations.

White etching of Salem wharf Harpers 1908

C.H. White, “Deserted Quays once Redolent with Foreign Spices”, 1908.

As he strolls around town, it does not take long for White to discover a more charming Salem. Just a step away from the rotting wharves, he finds himself continually stumbling across eloquent reminders of past splendor in the numerous old mansions of former Salem merchants, still marshalled in broken line, looking seaward, with their graceful porticos tufted with ivy, fluttering in the clear sunlight……and he goes on and on:  the streets, spanned by titanic elms, become cathedral naves; and through the lofty arch of whispering foliage steal at infrequent intervals into the cool depths below shafts of limpid sunlight, sifting across the splendid rows of Colonial mansions….and I could go on and on quoting him, but you get the general idea. And again, I think his etchings are more eloquent.

White etching of streetscape 1908 Harpers

White etching of Essex Street Salem 1908

C.H. White, views of Chestnut and Essex Streets, Salem,  1908.

Fortunately few of the stately mansions that White alludes to throughout his piece were swept away by the fire a few years later; but much later in the century the “titanic elms” were of course decimated by Dutch Elm Disease. So there is an aura of bittersweetness when one reads his words with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what was on the horizon for those trees, for Salem, for the world, and for White himself in five short years.

White etching of Lower Salem Harpers 1908

White etching of Bridge Street Salem Harpers 1908

C.H. White, “Lower Salem” and “An Old Corner”,  Harper’s Monthly Magazine, June, 1908.


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