Sunday, November 1, 2009

Historic Salem For the Day After Hysteric Salem

When October arrives in Salem -- and Halloween night in particular -- it is sometimes hard to wander the streets of this old city and remember that, beneath the once-a-month facade of crass capitalism and tasteless tourism, there lies an historically rich, relevant, and beautiful place. After making my way through the estimated 80,000-person crowd (packed into four square miles), I felt this week’s book would be an appropriate choice.

This week’s book has personal meaning to me, as a keepsake from my home town, but it is otherwise not incredibly rare or valuable. The title is Historic Salem in Four Seasons and the contents offer a sepia-toned journey along the streets of Salem in the form of a photo essay (or, as the title page puts it, “A Camera Impression”) by noted Marblehead artist-author Samuel Chamberlain (1895-1975) (the Peabody Essex Museum has some examples of his work in their Essex Image Vault). The book was part of the American Landmarks Series and was published by Hastings House of New York in 1938. The type (garamond font) was set by hand by craft printer Elaine Rushmore at the Golden Hind Press (1927-1963) in Madison, New Jersey.

The firm of Hastings House was founded in the mid-1930s by Walter Frese specifically to serve as an outlet for Chamberlain’s work; most of the firm’s four dozen books featured New England (and especially Salem) colonial architecture. A second firm -- Stanley F. Baker of Madison, NJ -- published the second issue of the edition. Interestingly, when Baker published his version, he simply stamped an ornate vine-and-leaf pattern over Hastings’s imprint on the bottom of the title page and then stamped his own name and address beneath that (see lower photo below). This is what is known as a "cancel imprint" and was sometimes done in the form of stamps, but also as stickers or tipped-in slips. It is surely significant that both the Golden Hind Press and Baker were located in Madison; indeed, a review of an admittedly incomplete bibliography of the Press’s output reveals the name of Karle Baker in 1927 (and several Rushmores as well). No subsequent editions were published.

The binding is paper-backed orange boards, lettered in white, with a white spine (it originally had a dust-jacket that mine now lacks). The pages measure 15cm x 18.5cm. The gatherings are rather irregular; the pagination runs from the title-page to the last page [1]-[74]. The front flyleaf is conjugate with the front pastedown; the pastedown and recto of the fly offer a panoramic shot of Pioneer Village in the snow. Likewise, the verso of the final leaf and the rear pastedown provide a panorama of historic Chestnut Street in the spring.

In the foreword, Chamberlain sets out the objective of his book (beginning, it seems, with a dig at Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf?):

No five foot bookshelf could hold the volumes which have been written about Salem. So many of them have done justice to their illustrious subject that a new book may seem almost presumptuous without a word of explanation. It is hoped that this pictorial volume on Salem will be justified for two reasons.
First, it is a contemporary record of historic Salem. Time passes quickly, even in Salem, and it causes startling and sometimes irreparable changes. The dated document has a certain value, be it an old engraving, a panoramic painting, a bird’s-eye sketch by a schoolboy or an old photograph. Secondly, though Salem has been treated handsomely by the printed word, good photographic records are rare indeed. Yet it is an American landmark of extraordinary significance, and frequently, great beauty. The observant visitor to Salem carries away a vivid mental picture which can be preserved, or at least refreshed, by good pictures. If this small book can serve this one purpose, without any pretense of being a guide or a history, it will be privileged indeed.

Chamberlain’s comments -- ironic, if not whimsical, to a modern reader -- go on to suggest that one must “wander” the city to find the best sites, and he settles on Essex Street, Federal Street, and Chestnut Street as the finest of the lot (he is interested in architecture, after all). He also avers that Salem’s “most beautiful moments are in winter, when few visitors see it” -- a sentiment the still rings true today and that has special sentiment as I write this on November 1st, the first day of Salem’s lengthy “down season”.

The contents of the book span more than just the three streets noted above, however, and span throughout the seasons. They include a mix of interior and exterior shots of places such as: the Custom House, the “Market House” (Old Town Hall), the “City Almshouse” (also in the photo is the old “City Insane Asylum”) on Salem Neck, Charter Street, Pioneers’ Village, Gallow’s Hill, the “Witch House” (Jonathan Corwin House), the Pickering House, the House of the Seven Gables and properties along with other Hawthorne-related sites, Derby Wharf (in the state of disrepair that characterized Salem’s maritime fortunes after the 1890s), the Derby House, Charter Street Burial Ground, the Essex Institute and its properties, the Peabody Museum’s East India Marine Hall, the Arbella replica and modern yachts, St. Peter’s Church, Washington Square, many houses around the Common, the Ropes House and carriage house, “Salem Doorways”, a number of houses from the McIntyre District, Hamilton Hall, and, of course, Chestnut Street. There is also a page of three gate-posts, with the accompanying bold claim that “It is perfectly safe to make the statement that Salem’s gate-posts and fences are the finest in the country” (Salem has a long tradition of building exquisite barriers between neighbors). As with so many other books offering historical photographs of places still in existence, much of the pleasure to be had in this volume lies in comparing and contrasting what was with what now is.

There are no owner’s marks or marginalia in my copy, but on the recto of the flyleaf there is a small sticker from a seller: “Old Salem Book Shop”, located at 319 Essex Street in downtown Salem (see above). I can’t find much information online about the shop. Its location is on the edge of the McIntyre District, across the street from the First Church -- not a spot typically thought of as commercial. The store was owned and operated for twenty years by Beverly resident Maxine O’Hara (1928-2008), though I have been unable to determine when specifically she was there and whether she founded it or it was in existence before her. As always, I invite my readers to help supply me with any more information if they happen to have it!

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