A memory. I am at the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The museum’s roots date to 1799. Though relatively small, the library holds one of the country’s great maritime history collections, especially significant for understanding the period just after the American Revolution, when Salem was a thriving seaport that was growing rich in what was called the East Indies and Old China trades.
I had come to the Peabody Essex to look at logbooks of ships that sailed out of Salem in that era and also in a somewhat later time period, after the city’s fortunes had fallen and the local shipping trade had been eclipsed by Boston.
As part of the research for my book The Waterman’s Song, I wanted to see if Salem’s ship captains had mentioned enslaved African American seamen and pilots in those daily logs of their travels when they visited the Outer Banks and other parts of the North Carolina coast.
A graduate school friend accompanied me to Salem that day. Anna (I’ll call her), a brilliant scholar from Puerto Rico, was finishing up her studies at Harvard back then and she had generously offered to help me go through the vast collection of logbooks at the Phillips Library.
That day we spent most of our time reading the yellowed pages of the old logbooks. But when we finished, we turned to other things. We wandered the museum’s halls, and we also explored Salem and my family’s past.
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Salem is full of memories for me. My father grew up there. (He later met my mother down here in North Carolina when he was stationed at the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station in 1947.) My father’s father, my Dziadzia, was a Polish immigrant who settled in Salem. My father’s mother, my Nana, was the child of Polish immigrants that already lived in Salem when she was born.
At five o’clock, after the Phillips Library closed for the day, Anna and I walked the streets and I showed her some of the places that we used to visit as children on our trips to see my father’s family.
We went first to Mall Street, three blocks from the Peabody Essex. I showed her the house where my grandparents and my aunt Lucy lived when I was a child, as well as the house next door where Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The House of the Seven Gables.
After the American Revolution, Salem had been the sixth largest city in the United States, and one of the wealthiest.
But when Nana and Dziadzia were young, Salem’s days as a flourishing seaport were long gone.
By that time, Salem was once again a city of immigrants, as it had been in the 1600s and 1700s. In those earlier days, the immigrants had largely come from Great Britain, though they had also included a surprising number of forced laborers, men and women from the African continent.
But by the time Nana and Dziadzia lived there, the immigrants included especially large numbers of Poles, Lithuanians, French Canadians and Italians. My grandparents lived in the heart of a Polish neighborhood that made up roughly a third of Salem’s population.
Many of the Polish immigrants worked in textile mills, but many also worked in the shoe and leather industry. In the early 20th century, Salem and its neighboring towns– Lynn, Peabody, Beverly and others– comprised the world’s largest center of leather and shoe making. My grandfather made his living as a skilled leatherworker at one of the big factories.
Dziadzia lived well into his nineties, but he never really spoke much English. I guess he didn’t need to: he had a tight knit circle of friends, neighbors, co-workers and parishioners who all spoke Polish and remembered the Old Country (though often not fondly). He always seemed to get along pretty well. I remember him as a gentle, kind man with a cigar.
After Mall Street, Anna and I walked down to the harbor, past Derby Wharf and the old customs house where Hawthorne had his day job. Along the waterfront, we visited St. Joseph Hall, a social and fraternal club, now closed, that was once a hub of Salem’s Polish community. I remember my grandfather going there almost daily to have lunch and play checkers and dominoes.
In the old days, St. Joe’s was a hopping place. The club sponsored dances and sports teams, offered a helping hand to the down and out and did a hundred little things to support Polish immigrants as they worked to make a new home in Salem.
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When we finished looking around the waterfront, Anna and I walked up to St. John the Baptist, the Polish Catholic church behind the Peabody Essex.
When I was a child, we often attended Mass at St. John’s on our visits to Salem. In those days the priest still said the vernacular (i.e., non-Latin) parts of the service in Polish. I had not been there in many years, not since my Nana’s funeral, and it felt good to be back.
At the end of the day we drove down to the Willows. The Salem Willows is a lovely old park overlooking the ocean. The name comes from a long row of willow trees that were planted in 1801 so that the patients at a local smallpox hospital could have a shaded place to stroll during their recovery.
The Willows has rocky beaches, a fishing pier, an antique carousel, arcades and lots of take-out joints where you can find a hot dog, a chop suey sandwich or a box of saltwater taffy.
From the Willows you can look out to Big Misery and Little Misery and the waters where my father used to take us fishing.
While we were there, I told Anna about my father’s uncle, a lobsterman and sometimes rumrunner named Peter. In our family, Peter was especially beloved. He died long before I was born, but when I listened to the old people talk about him, they always had extraordinary fondness in their voices.
My elders remembered Peter for his warmth, good humor and generosity. He was especially known for his big heartedness. My aunt, for instance, often told me how Peter used to bring barrels of lobsters back to Mall Street when he had finished his day’s work and give them away to one and all, a gift that had to mean a special lot in the Depression years of my father’s childhood.
Peter died at sea. One day his fishing boat simply drifted into the harbor with no sign of him on board. He had apparently been checking his lobster pots, lost his balance and fell in, and then the water filled his waders and took him down, or so the other lobsterman guessed.
My father’s family naturally took Peter’s loss very hard. His mother, my great-grandmother, was especially overcome with grief.
According to one of my aunts, my great-grandmother never really got over his loss. She grieved that she could not give her son a Christian burial, and she prayed without cease to the saints that his body would be found. Until the end of her life, many years later, she walked the beach at the Willows looking for him.
One of my father’s sisters named her son after Peter, and my confirmation name is also Peter. My father and mother chose the name so that I would have Saint Peter as a special guide and protector in my life, but they also wanted to honor my great-uncle that lost his life at sea.
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Earlier that day, on a break from our library research, I also showed Anna my favorite part of the Peabody Essex. Most of the museum is now very modern, with lots of glass, a brightly lit atrium and modernist architecture, but my heart always goes out to the museum’s oldest exhibit space, the East India Marine Hall.
When the East India Hall was built in 1825, the museum wasn’t even called the “Peabody Essex” yet. That wasn’t until much later, when a number of local historical societies and libraries merged into one institution.
A group of Salem ship captains and supercargoes founded the East India Marine Society in 1799. The main qualification for membership: you had to have sailed a ship beyond the Cape of Good Hope (the southern tip of Africa) or Cape Horn (the southern tip of South America).
In a way the Society was a testament to Salem’s role in world shipping back in those days immediately after the Revolution. That of course is also the reason that the Peabody Essex is full of treasures from China, Japan and other distant parts of the world.
When they joined the East India Marine Society, new members pledged that they would bring natural history, ethnological or other artifacts from their sea journeys back to Salem. They would collect the artifacts and create, in the words of the Society’s charter, a “cabinet of natural and artificial curiosities.”
“Curiosity cabinets,” or “cabinets of curiosities,” were actually a thing, and by that time they had been for centuries. Many were actually wood or glass cabinets, some very simple, others ornate and opulent, often with a labyrinth of little drawers and tiny display shelves.
Most were simpler. They were really just a way of collecting and showcasing unusual and interesting objects– and in seaports many a scientist or amateur collector had a cabinet full of exotic, odd or interesting items that local sailors had brought home and shared with them.
Some of the old curiosity cabinets even focused on unusual medical specimens, as at the American Academy of Medicine’s Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, which is still open today. Originally conceived as a teaching tool for physicians, the Mutter’s cabinet displays have everything from Florence Nightingale’s sewing kit to Pres. Grover Cleveland’s jaw tumor.
In Salem, the East India Marine Society’s members housed their “natural and artificial curiosities” in the hall that Anna and I visited– laying the groundwork for what is now the Peabody Essex Museum.
When we visited the museum, the Phillips Library was across the street from East India Marine Hall, but they’re both part of one, much larger and thoroughly modern building now, the architect for the new parts of the museum having wed the old and new together.
The East India Marine Hall has not changed much though, and it is the most old-fashioned of the museum’s exhibit halls. I imagine it’s the one that contemporary museum specialists consider the most out of date– not interactive at all, no computer graphics and with scarcely any social history or historical context of any kind on the displays.
Yet as a child, I found that exhibit hall to be the museum’s most captivating, and I still feel that way today.
To me the hall still feels like a seamen’s curiosity cabinet. Beneath its 25-foot-high ceiling, the hall holds an entrancing array of scrimshaw, ship mastheads and sailors’ folk art. They are relics borne of voyages to the far corners of the world, and when I was a child, I found them absolutely enchanting, as I still do. Even at that young age, they stirred in me a deep and irrepressible longing to know more about the sea and the wonders of the world.