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History Time: Salem's 'History of the World'

Posted by Amanda Stonely  November 23, 2011 10:00 AM

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Yokohama Prints 1870 Hand-colored woodblock prints on Japanese paper. (Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum)

As we can see from this print, featured in the current "Unbound" exhibit at the Peabody-Essex Museum (which opened November 12), Salem's worldwide trade spurred celebrations on both sides of the cultural exchange. With the arrival of the first Westerners in Japan, in 1854, Japanese artists were eager to record what Americans and Europeans looked like – in hundreds of woodblock prints like these they depicted the ship captains and their families.

"And indeed it was an experience for an imaginative child, to step from the prosaic streets of a New England town, into that atmosphere redolent with perfumes from the East ... fragrant and silent, with a touch of the dear old Arabian Nights about it. From the moment I set my foot in that beautiful old hall….  the hours were full of enchantment, and I think I came as near fairy-land as one ever can in this work-a-day world…."~Caroline Howard King
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Salem in the 19th century was a city devoted to the life of the mind–science, literature, learning, and the arts. Like other old New England towns, Salem displayed preoccupation with its history and genealogical heritage, and, like others, evidenced a strong undercurrent of ethnic and racial prejudice. Yet, due to a long tradition of devotion to education and culture, it is also true that Salem stands a bit apart from the mainstream. The East India Marine Society and Peabody Museum of Science lay at the heart of Salem's sense of its identity as a "superior," genteel cultural center, as did the venerable Essex Institute, organized in 1848 by the union of the Essex Historical Society and the Essex County Natural History Society.

So, how did a mariner's museum filled with "curiosities" and a genteel historical/literary organization come to define 19th-century Salem and contribute to the ways Americans saw their own culture compared to the societies of the world?

In 1799, Salem captains and mariners who had sailed beyond the Capes of Good Hope or Cape Horn formed a new (and quite exclusive) East India Marine Society. One of their goals was to establish a “cabinet of natural and artificial curiosities,” so, as a famous toast made in 1804 trumpeted, "That every mariner may possess the history of the world."

Whose world? Whose history?

In the opening decades of the 19th century, America's own historically-rooted political tensions roiled, successive waves threatening to capsize the "ship of state." In 1820 the Missouri Compromise held at bay the seething sectional arguments over slavery for yet a little while longer; in 1821 New York gave free Blacks the vote. A disputed election placed John Quincy Adams in the presidency; founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died within hours of each other.

In Salem, they marched triumphantly.

In a frequently-cited 1995 New England Quarterly article, James M. Lindgren sketched an unforgettable scene:

"A vast concourse of citizens … lined the streets" of Salem … on 14 October 1825 to watch a procession held by the shipmasters of the East India Marine Society (EIMS). The occasion was the dedication of a new building for the society's museum…. Winding its way past brightly decorated buildings, the cavalcade was preceded by an elaborate palanquin in which sat a Salemite dressed out as an Indian prince. Other mariners and merchants in Asian attire carried trade goods from the Orient or curiosities for the museum."

The prideful procession was followed by a lavish banquet, at which President John Quincy Adams, Boston's Mayor Josiah Quincy, and Justice Joseph Story went round and round with the others through forty-four toasts (the President wisely–or exhaustedly–quit after the 20th) accompanied by music, fanfare, and boozy self-congratulation on the importance of Salem's "Trade to India," to the Orient … and the wealth trade had brought to city and the country alike. 

This extravagant museum dedication and its lore has become part of Salem's idealized memory of its "glory days" ever since. Society members paraded annually for several years to "show off" new acquisitions.

Museums were becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. by the mid-nineteenth century, helping to shape broad societal attitudes about identity and "foreignness" in unexpected ways.

As Lindgren commented, "the society's museum is one of several grounds where the study of domestic and foreign societies meet. Through the nineteenth century the museum, with its bizarre artifacts and strange rituals, gave Salemites the opportunity to taste the wealth of faraway lands and vicariously experience the thrill of their conquest and the mystery of their aura."

And, he adds, "...the museum served a function in an emerging world system based on trade, capitalism, and European-American preeminence…. Salem's elite believed that the artifacts collected in its East India Museum would assist 'the philosopher' … in shaping not only 'the powers and faculties of the human mind' but society itself." Salem's Marine Hall contributed (and still contributes) to a romanticized view of Salem's historical identity, with sometimes surprising results.

By the end of the Civil War, aging members of the East India Marine Society considered selling the museum collection, even if to another city. George Peabody ("of London," born in Danvers, and on somewhat of a regional museum-funding mission) stepped in and purchased the East India Hall.

The museum's holdings merged with the ethnological and natural history materials held by the Essex Institute; the Peabody Academy of Science was born. The museum's focus shifted away from mariner's tales and exotic artifacts, yet visitors (numbering in the many thousands per year) still came to soak up the romantic salty atmosphere. By the early 20th century, the mariner's beautiful granite-faced pride and joy, feted so wildly in those heady early days, lost its exotic moniker and was renamed the Peabody Museum of Salem.

Next week: Our anniversary columns continue as we take a long peek another Salem gem: the famous Essex Institute.

Musician, educator and lecturer, Maggi Smith-Dalton is the president of the Salem History Society and author of “Stories and Shadows from Salem’s Past: Naumkeag Notations” (The History Press, 2010). She and her husband, Jim Dalton, are co-authoring a book on music in Salem's history and have recorded two new albums of 19th-century music for 2011. Reach her at http://singingstring.org. For information on joining the Salem History Society, go to http://salemhistorysociety.org.

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The exotic displays at the Peabody Academy of Science drew large crowds throughout the 19th century. This illustration from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, September 1869, gives us an idea of the atmosphere inside by mid-century.


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A view of the museum as portrayed in Here and There in New England and Canada: All Along Shore Moses Foster Sweetser, Boston and Maine Railroad, 1889.

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