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History Time: Salem takes pride in its culture

Posted by Amanda Stonely  October 26, 2011 10:00 AM

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A rich cultural legacy and thriving, active institutions were points of pride for Salem's 19th century residents...and an attraction for visitors.Most images: photos, msd. Image of East India Marine hall, lower right hand corner, from "Old Naumkeag" Webber and Nevins, 1877; postcard of Plummer Hall, collection of author. Collage by msd.

Salem Gazette editor Caleb Foote's son Arthur Foote, who would become the first American-born, American-trained composer to receive a Master's degree in music (from Harvard), and who enjoyed a long and illustrious career as composer, teacher, and musician, wrote in a 1937 issue of The Musical Quarterly:

"The town of Salem, Massachusetts, where I was born, March 5, 1853, was a quiet, prosperous, self-contained place, not dependent for music and theatre on Boston. It had tradition and cultivation; life there was simple and easy, and is a pleasant thing to look back upon in these restless, anxious days. Salem had a picturesque and stirring history, the rotting wharves being reminders of its vanished merchant shipping, and of the privateers of 1812."

Later, in his autobiography, he elaborated:

"Salem was then a city of about 20,000, a very good class of Irish being the only addition to the old inhabitants of English descent…. We had one series of first-rate lectures and another consisting partly of lectures and partly of good concerts….
We had a life of our own, and were not dependent upon Boston."

Foote would be educated and would need to build his career in Boston, but his words illustrate how pleasant life could be for comfortable families like the Footes in 19th-century Salem.

Salem's cultural life was an intense point of pride for her inhabitants and the landscape of that pride was molded as much by her cultural sophistication as in any material success or natural beauty she possessed.  

The Salem Atheneaum, incorporated in 1810, featured a library built on the collections of the Social and Philosophical Libraries, which resulted from an original purchase by the Social Evening Club in 1760-61 of a "handsome library of valuable books" from England, plus a collection which  represented part of the spoils from a captured schooner during the Revolutionary War.

Plummer Hall, on land bought with a bequest by Miss Caroline Plummer made in 1854, became the home of the Athenaeum and its library in 1857, thus supporting "the cause of literature, science, philanthropy and noble living." As has been noted in previous "History Time" articles, the site formerly hosted the boyhood home of historian William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859).

The Essex Institute, formed by the union of the Essex Historical Society and the Essex County Natural History Society, was organized in 1848. It remained a mainstay of intellectual life in Salem until well into modern times. The Institute sponsored and organized lectures, concerts, and commemorative events celebrating various historical anniversaries (all accompanied by orations, music, and, quite often, feasts and balls).  

The Historical Society, founded in 1821, was headed until 1829 by Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke (1728-1829). Holyoke was the son of Reverend Edward Holyoke, President of Harvard College from 1737 to 1769. He was also a founder of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (president 1814 to 1820), and a founder of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

The Historical Society could boast members who figured prominently, both locally and nationally, in the fields of literature, arts, sciences, and law (as, indeed, could nearly every organization in town). The Society was elitist, with members elected by ballot. "An entrance fee was required," and the membership remained small by design.

The Essex County Natural History Society, founded in 1833, became known for its exhibits and attention to matters of horticulture and natural science, the former being a common interest in what was, until the later nineteenth century, still a region predominately verdant and agricultural in nature.  

The two organizations combined in 1848 and the library and collections were moved to Plummer Hall. Scientific exhibits and collections were placed across the street at East India Marine Hall, under the care of the Peabody Academy of Science. The Academy, supported by a $140,000 bequest from George Peabody in 1867 to support "science and useful knowledge in Essex County," purchased the property and finished the new Hall in 1869.

The Peabody Museum was dedicated that year at the first meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, another connection to the larger United States culture.

The East India Marine Society was founded in 1801. Dedicated to preserve and present the fruits of the height of Salem's global sea trade by sea and with a charitable intent to support "widows and children of deceased members"–the members of the association being restricted to those who were shipmasters from Salem who had "navigated those seas at or beyond the Cape of Good Hope." Thus, in the center of town, a permanent reminder of Salem's global connections was established.

The Salem Lyceum, founded in January 1830, "for the purpose of mutual instruction and rational entertainment by means of lectures, &c" built its permanent home in 1831 at Lyceum Hall. The Lyceum movement may be understood as one of the most potent examples of democratic educational opportunities our country has produced. By 1834 there were over 3,000 Lyceums in America.  

Salem had one of the most prominent and respected of the numerous Lyceums in Massachusetts, which, in turn, had more than any other state. The Salem Lyceum hosted not only orations and concerts, educational programs and lectures, but scientific exhibits and demonstrations of all types. It drew an audience for speakers of nationwide–even worldwide–importance.

Next week: Railroading the Future

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 For information on joining the Salem History Society, go to

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