Salem Massachusetts

Salem Massachusetts

One can love Salem Massachusetts for the simple beauty of its historic, 17th-century, clapboard, pitched-roof houses, its 18th– and 19th-century brick ship captain and merchant mansions and its initiative of turning the disadvantages of poor agricultural land and rugged, deep, rocky shoreline into a seafaring powerhouse that was the fifth largest, and of the wealthiest cities in the country at the beginning of the 19th century. Or you can hate it for its witch trials and its perpetuation of and prospering rom the slave trade.

You can learn about its entire history—warts and all—and explore the full depth of its history through the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. We explored much of the city’s historic downtown and port areas, and visited a number of its historic buildings and museums when we lived in Boston. This visit, however, gave us a chance for a short visit to the National Historic Site Visitor Center.

Salem Maritime National Historic Site Visitor Center

The Visitor Center provides guides to dozens of the city’s most important historic buildings and an introduction, through exhibits, presentations and materials, to its multi-faceted history.

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Salem began life as an agricultural community. But, after discovering the land’s limited suitability for growing crops, it soon recognized that its real future would come not from the land, but from the sea. The city’s seafaring history began in fishing, where its location provided access to the wealth of cod from George’s Bank. This led to the building of its own ships (especially schooners) for shipping fish and the emergent of merchants who traded dried and salted fish (including that to feed domestic and Caribbean slaves) for salt, sugar, molasses, rice, cotton and indigo. While they ventured all along the east coast and down into the Caribbean, the British prohibited American ships from international trade.

This, along with other irritations, prompted Salem to encourage and actively participate in the Revolution. It became the primary base for privateers, capturing more than 500 British ships (plus another 300 during the War of 1812) and became the only major American that was not controlled by the British during the Revolution.

After helping to gain U.S. independence, Salem was freed from its shipping shackles and quickly became one of the nation’s largest and wealthiest ports. It opened American trade with Russia and China and, during decades of European wars, became a global trading powerhouse by using its neutral port status to ship goods between these countries and their African, Asian and Polynesian colonies. Its shipping prosperity continued through the early American Industrial Revolution be shipping raw materials including lead, cotton and leather. Throughout this period, Salem had been one of the leading contributors of custom duties (the single largest source of early American government revenues) to the U.S. Treasury.

The city, however, enjoyed too much of a good thing. Its maritime success led to the building of more and more wharfs—up to 50 during the late 19th century. These wharfs ended up disrupting the sea’s natural currents and silting up the harbor. This brought the city’s trading days, not to speak of its prosperity to an end.

The museum also provides “highlights” of the witch scares of the 17th century and how, during its peak year in 1692, it resulted in the torture and execution of 20 women.

Image result for salem witch

It also discusses some of the city’s scientific and literary achievements. These included Nathaniel Bowditch’s Guild to American Navigation (a text that is still carried on all U.S. Navy ships) and how Nathaniel Hawthorne’s politically-motivated dismissal from his lucrative U.S. Custom Service job, led him to lambast the city in The Scarlet Letter, one of the country’s first novels. He then went on to pen more Salem-based novels, including The House of the Seven Gables. This house is now one of Salem’s six National Historic Landmarks.

Peabody-Essex Museum

The museum has always had a wonderful collection of Chinese and Japanese art from Salem’s history as the leading U.S. port for the country’s 18th-century Asian trade. Exhibits in these galleries briefly explain the role of the U.S., and especially of Salem’s ships in opening trade with each of these countries and provides examples from its wonderful collection of Chinese china, furniture and art and Japanese porcelain and lacquerware.

budahship mastheads

Empresses of the Forbidden City Exhibit

While these exhibits alone are enough to attract us to the museum, a special exhibit on Empresses of the Forbidden City, made this visit a particular pleasure. This exhibition focused on the Empresses of China’s last dynasty, the Cinq, the Manchu leaders who moved the Empire’s capital to present-day Beijing, and built the Forbidden City.

The exhibit begins with an explanation of how Empresses can come from anywhere:

  • The initial search for potential consorts was limited to those of high Manchu birth (never Han, despite this being the overwhelmingly largest segment of the Chinese population).
  • Her rank and status is then dependent on the Emperor’s whim and most importantly, of all, the woman’s “ability” to produce a male heir.
  • After a son is born, the mother, who may or may not be the Emperor’s wife, sees an immediate increase in her prestige and rank among seven levels of consort.
  • From there, her elevation is dependent on her skill in raising her son, the perception of the boy’s capabilities and merit and his likelihood of being named Emperor, the mother’s demonstration of the desirably motherly and wifely virtues, and of course, the Emperor’s affection.

Those whom nature and the Emperor’s favor, regardless of their initial background and rank, have the potential of becoming Empress. Those who are chosen are elevated to the highest level and showered with incredibly woven and embroidered imperial robes–some of which took up to three man-years to complete.

Empress Forbidden City clothingEmpress Forbidden City clothing 02

They are also given “Tools of her trade”, such as jade scepters and seals;

Empress Forbidden City seal

Furniture, tableware and resplendent jewelry;

Empress Forbidden City jewerly 02Empress Forbidden City jewerlyGuangzhou Artist Community 01

Incredible works of art.

Empress Forbidden City vase

These lavish treasures, which are on ample display throughout the exhibit, are enjoyed by the Empress throughout her life. None, however, become her own property. All are owned by the state and are returned to the state upon her death.

While most Empresses serve primarily as mothers and embodiments of womanly and motherly virtues, some were quite accomplished in their own rights. These accomplishments may range from art, poetry or calligraphy, to traditional male roles such as horseback riding, archery and even becoming an authority on matters of state.

A few Empresses achieved much more exalted positions and much greater power. Those whose husband’s die when his son is still a minor, may be named by the new Emperor as Empress Dowager. While these Dowagers generally maintain authority over traditional issues, such as the young Emperor’s education and selection of his consorts, some have played much greater roles, such as in selecting and guiding decisions of her son’s advisors, or even, as in the case of Empress Dowager Cixi, of staging a coup and effectively controlling the reins of power for 50 years.

The Ci-Xi Imperial Dowager Empress (5).JPG

She instituted many of the Dynasty’s most enlightened and profound social changes and entered into wars, including the Opium Wars which ultimately (shortly after her death) led to the end of China’s imperial rule and prompted the “Great Shame” from which China is still struggling to recover and which so influences much of the country’s current rhetoric and many of its actions. She also fundamentally altered Chinese perceptions of the intelligence, fortitude, capabilities and in some cases, the cruelty of women.

While the exhibit’s narratives and artifacts span the reigns of many Cinq Empresses, it is particularly focused on Empresses Xiaoke and Xioaxian and Empress Dowagers Chongqing and Cixi.

Wild Designs Exhibit

The museum is also staging another small, but very interesting exhibit named “Wild Designs”. Its focus is on the many lessons that scientists and engineers are learning from nature and other species, and how they are incorporating them into new capabilities and products. Among the many examples are those of how close examinations of:

  • The tiny hooks on the end of burrs led to the invention of Velcro;
  • Forests have led to the creation of vertical, forested high-rises (with trees, shrubs and plants on the exterior) can enhance lifestyles while simultaneously converting carbon dioxide into oxygen and water.
  • Coral, mollusks and bivalves use carbon dioxide to create solid structures (such as coral reefs and mollusk and bivalve shells) and how termite mounds make use of natural ventilation and how to incorporate these into human-made buildings;
  • Desert plants capture moisture from the air, and how to capture some of this moisture for human use;
  • The principles that allow geckos to climb smooth vertical walls led to creation of a strong, new bonding agent; and how
  • Small humps at the front of whale fins help them to make fast turns and how they can be used to improve (by about 10 percent) the efficiency of wind turbine blades.

Salem Area Restaurant

Woodman’s of Essex is a large, famed lobster and fried clam restaurant in Essex Massachusetts (north of Boston), where we have eaten multiple times when in the area. Since our appetites’ for New England shellfish knows few bounds, we settled on one steamed lobster (1.75 pound softshell) and a basket of fried clams. While the clams were somewhat fatter and better than those we experienced at the Kennebunkport Clam Shack, we were disappointed, not only in these but also the price and lack of taste of our lobster. Another institution falls off our list for a return.

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