Nathaniel Hawthorne Birthplace, Salem, Mass

The house at 27 Union Street in Salem, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

This house is known today as the birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorne, but the house itself is actually significantly older than that. It was built sometime around the 1730s, and was originally the home of Joshua Pickman, a ship captain from Boston. He commanded a variety of merchant ships throughout the first few decades of the 18th century, and as late as 1737 he was the captain of a ship owned by Peter Faneuil, the namesake of Boston’s Faneuil Hall. However, he evidently moved to Salem soon after, and lived in this house until 1745, when he sold the property to blacksmith Jonathan Phelps.

In 1756, Phelps’s daughter Rachel married Daniel Hathorne, a mariner who would later serve as a privateer during the American Revolution. They would have eight children, including Nathaniel Hathorne, who was the father of the famous author. Daniel purchased this house from his father-in-law in 1772, and owned it until his death in 1796. His son Nathaniel was married a few years later, to Elizabeth Clarke Manning, and the couple lived here in this house along with Rachel. Like so many of the other members of his family, Nathaniel was also a mariner, and he was at sea on July 4, 1804, when his second child and oldest son, Nathaniel Hathorne, Jr., was born in the second floor of the house.

The Hathornes ultimately had three children, although the elder Nathaniel never saw his youngest, Maria Louisa, who was born on January 9, 1808. He had left Salem a few weeks earlier, on December 28, 1807, as captain of the Nabby, but he died of yellow fever while at Suriname in early 1808. Soon after, his widow Elizabeth and the three young children moved out of this house and into her parents’ house, located on the next street over at 10 1/2 Herbert Street. It was practically in the backyard of their old home, and is still standing in the present-day scene – it is the three-story house on the left that is partially hidden behind a tree.

The Hathornes lived with the Manning family in the Herbert Street house, on and off, for many years. Young Nathaniel, who would later change the spelling of his last name to Hawthorne, spent much of his boyhood there, aside from a few years living in Maine with his uncles. It was a modest house, crowded with many of his relatives, and Nathaniel had a room on the third floor, with a window that overlooked his birthplace. He would later refer to the Herbert Street house as “Castle Dismal,” although it was also the place where he wrote many of his early works. Writing in 1840, when he was still in the midst of establishing himself as an author, he described his room in the house with his characteristic dark and gloomy tone:

Here I have written many tales—many that have been burned to ashes, many that have doubtless deserved the same fate. This claims to be called a haunted chamber, for thousands upon thousands of visions have appeared to me in it; and some few of them have become visible to the world. If ever I should have a biographer, he ought to make great mention of this chamber in my memoirs, because so much of my lonely youth was wasted here, and here my mind and character were formed; and here I have been glad and hopeful, and here I have been despondent. And here I sat a long, long time, waiting patiently for the world to know me, and sometimes wondering why it did not know me sooner, or whether it would ever know me at all—at least till I were in my grave.

In the meantime, while Hawthorne was in the process of becoming one of the greatest American writers of the 19th century, his birthplace here on Union Street had a variety of residents. By the time the first photo was taken around 1900, it had been nearly a century since four-year-old Nathaniel and his family had moved out of the house. It was owned by William White, a 60-year-old Irish immigrant who worked as a day laborer. He had owned the house since at least 1897, and the 1900 census shows him living here with his wife Margaret, their adult children Robert, William, and Mary, and his sister, Ellen Grady. They also rented a portion of the house to shoe repairer David Pierce and his wife Elizabeth.

The house would remain in the White family throughout the first half of the 20th century. By 1940, it was the home of William’s younger son, William, Jr., and his wife Catherine. William died later that year, but Catherine continued to live here until her death in 1957. The house was subsequently purchased by The House of Seven Gables Settlement Association, and in 1958 it was moved about a quarter mile east of here to Hardy Street. There, it joined several other historic houses, including the House of Seven Gables, which had been made famous by Hawthorne’s 1851 novel of the same name.

More than 60 years later, Hawthorne’s birthplace is still open to the public as a museum, at its new location on Hardy Street. Its exterior has been well-preserved, and it does not look significantly different from its appearance when the first photo was taken, although the rear ell – partially visible on the right side in the first photo – was not moved with the rest of the house. During this time, though, the former site of the house here on Union Street has remained vacant, and it is now part of the backyard of a house on Herbert Street.

Derby-Ward House, Salem, Mass

The house at 27 Herbert Street, at the corner of Derby Street in Salem, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2017:

This house was built around 1735-36, and was originally the home of Richard Derby, Sr., a mariner who would go on to become a prosperous merchant and the patriarch of one of Salem’s leading families. He moved into this house when he was in his early 20s, around the same time as his marriage to Mary Hodges in 1735. The following year he made his first voyage as captain, commanding the sloop Ranger, which he sailed to Spain with a cargo of fish and returned with oil, fruit, and handkerchiefs. He would spend the next two decades as a captain, taking many voyages to Europe, the West Indies, and other destinations, before retiring from the sea in 1757.

By this point, Derby had become a wealthy man, with ownership interests in a number of ships, and he began operating as a merchant here in Salem. Then, in 1762, he began construction of Derby Wharf, which would eventually become the largest wharf in the harbor. He did lose a few ships during the French and Indian War, and his business was further affected by the Sugar Act of 1764, which placed a tax on the molasses trade. However, Derby still continued to prosper, and was actively involved in the merchant business until the early 1770s.

Richard and Mary Derby raised six children here in this house: Richard, Jr., Mary, Elias, John, Martha, and Sarah. Both the younger Richard and John became ship captains, with John achieving some fame for the role he played at the start of the American Revolution. The war started on April 19, 1775, with the battles of Lexington and Concord. However, in the days when transatlantic news traveled only as quickly as the ship that carried it, the accounts of the battles would take time to reach England. The Patriot leaders recognized the value of being first to bring the news to the British people, since it would allow their version of events to influence public opinion, so John Derby was given the responsibility of carrying these reports. He departed Salem on April 29 aboard the Quero, and arrived in London on May 28, nearly two weeks ahead of the ship that brought the official British account of the battles.

However, the most prominent of Richard Derby’s children was his son Elias Hasket Derby, who took over control of the family merchant business after Richard’s retirement.  Like the rest of his family, he was a staunch Patriot during the war, and owned a number of privateers that preyed on British shipping. He profited from these successful privateers, and his fortune continued to grow after the war, as Salem ships began trading with the East Indies, China, India, and other distant ports. By the 1790s, he was among the wealthiest men in the country, and lived in an elegant mansion on Washington Street, near the center of Salem. This period coincided with Salem’s height of prosperity as a seaport, when it ranked as the seventh-largest city or town in the country, and the wealthiest on a per-capita basis. Derby had much to do with this, and some 50 years after his death he was referred to as “King Derby” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his introduction to The Scarlet Letter.

Richard Derby died in 1783, leaving this house to Elias, who rented it out to several different tenants between 1785 and 1795. Then, in 1795, he sold the house to lumber merchant Miles Ward, who subdivided the property and lived in this house with his wife Hannah. Ward died just a year later, but the house would remain in his family for many years. His son, Joseph Chipman Ward, later inherited the property, followed by his son Miles Ward. As late as 1897, the house was owned by Frances L. Ward, who was the widow of Chipman Ward, another of Joseph’s children.

The first photo was taken a few years later, around 1906. By this point, the house was being rented by Thomas and Anna Rock, two Irish immigrants who were in their 60s at the time. They lived here with two of their adult children, Mary and Thomas, both of whom were employed as clerks. This was a significant difference from a century and a half earlier, when it had been the home of one of Salem’s wealthiest merchants, but this reflected the changes that the city had undergone in the 19th century, as its once-prosperous shipping industry steadily declined. However, the house is still standing today, more than 280 years after the newlywed Richard and Mary Hodges first moved in, and its exterior has seen few changes since the first photo was taken.

Custom House, Salem, Mass

The Custom House at the corner of Orange and Derby Streets in Salem, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

In a city with countless historic buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, one of the landmarks is the Salem Custom House, which was built in 1819 at the corner of Orange and Derby Streets. At the time, Salem was one of the busiest seaports in the country, with ships arriving with a wide range of cargoes from around the world, and the Custom House was located directly across the street from Derby Wharf, the largest of the many wharves in the harbor. It was also situated in the midst of many fine mansions, including the home of shipbuilder Benjamin Hawkes, which can be seen on the right side of both photos.

The imposing design of brick Custom House represented the presence of the United States government here in the port. Long before income tax and other direct taxes, the vast majority of the federal revenue came from duties on imported goods, so this building had an important role in the nation’s finances. For example, in 1819, the year that this building was completed, the customs duties across the country amounted to over $20 million, which comprised more than 80 percent of the total federal revenue of $24.6 million. By 1832, this had risen to nearly 90 percent, and included some $543,000 in revenue that was collected here in Salem. Although only a tenth of the revenue that was collected in Boston during that year, it was enough to rank Salem sixth among all customs districts in the country.

Today, despite its architectural value and its importance to Salem’s maritime history, the Custom House is probably best known for its association with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who immortalized the building in the introduction to his 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. A native of Salem, Hawthorne returned to his hometown in 1846 when he was appointed Surveyor of the Port of Salem, with an office here in the Custom House and a salary of $1,200 per year. By this point, the 41-year-old Hawthorne had achieved only moderate success as a writer, and this job provided some much-needed financial stability for him and his growing family.

Hawthorne had managed to obtain the position thanks to his close friendships with leading members of the Democratic Party, including future president Franklin Pierce. However, the job – which involved weighing and measuring incoming cargoes – interfered with his literary career, and he did very little writing during his time as surveyor. The position proved short-lived, though, thanks to the Democratic loss in the 1848 presidential election. The victorious Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor, took office on March 4, 1849, and just three months later Hawthorne was dismissed from the Custom House.

Embittered by this dismissal, and with plenty of spare time on his hands, Hawthorne poured his emotions into his writing. From the late summer of 1849, until February 1850, he wrote The Scarlet Letter in the third-floor study of his home on Mall Street. This novel proved to be his literary breakthrough, and helped to establish him as one of the leading American authors of the era. The dark themes and bleak ending of the novel likely reflected his mood during this period of his life, but he was also more explicit in showing his anger. The novel begins with a lengthy introduction, titled “The Custom-House.” It takes up nearly 20 percent of the entire novel, and yet has very little to do with the actual plot of the story, aside from explaining how the present-day narrator discovered the 17th century story of Hester Prynne and the scarlet letter here in the Custom House.

However, this explanation comes as almost an afterthought at the end of the introduction, which is otherwise a long, semi-autobiographical polemic against both the Custom House and the city of Salem as a whole. By the time Hawthorne had taken his position here at the Custom House, Salem had seen a significant decline in its shipping industry. It had peaked in prosperity during the first few decades of the 19th century, around the time that this building was opened, but by mid-century the waterfront area featured rotting wharves and a Custom House building that was far too large for the modest amount of commerce in the city. In his introduction, Hawthorne described the area surrounding the Custom House, writing:

In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf—but which is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps, a bark or brig, half-way down its melancholy length, discharging hides; or, nearer at hand, a Nova Scotia schooner, pitching out her cargo of firewood—at the head, I say, of this dilapidated wharf, which the tide often overflows, and along which, at the base and in the rear of the row of buildings, the track of many languid years is seen in a border of unthrifty grass—here, with a view from its front windows adown this not very enlivening prospect, and thence across the harbour, stands a spacious edifice of brick.

He went on to describe the exterior appearance of the building, giving particular attention to the carved eagle above the main entrance:

Its front is ornamented with a portico of half-a-dozen wooden pillars, supporting a balcony, beneath which a flight of wide granite steps descends towards the street. Over the entrance hovers an enormous specimen of the American eagle, with outspread wings, a shield before her breast, and, if I recollect aright, a bunch of intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw. With the customary infirmity of temper that characterizes this unhappy fowl, she appears by the fierceness of her beak and eye, and the general truculency of her attitude, to threaten mischief to the inoffensive community; and especially to warn all citizens careful of their safety against intruding on the premises which she overshadows with her wings.

Later in the introduction, he described the interior, noting that “The edifice—originally projected on a scale adapted to the old commercial enterprise of the port, and with an idea of subsequent prosperity destined never to be realized—contains far more space than its occupants know what to do with.” It is in one such space – a large, unfinished room on the second floor – that the narrator of The Scarlet Letter discovers the story of Hester, along with the old scarlet letter that she once wore. These had once belonged to the fictional Surveyor Pue, who had preceded the narrator in his position at the Custom House, and were said to have provided the inspiration for the novel.

Neither Surveyor Pue, nor Hester or her scarlet letter, actually existed, but otherwise the introduction provides a fairly accurate – if rather jaded – view of Salem and the Custom House in the middle of the 19th century. The building did see some renovations only a few years later, from 1853 to 1854, and included finishing the rooms on the second floor that Hawthorne had described, along with adding a cupola to the roof. However, the decline of the city’s shipping industry continued over the next few decades, until overseas trade had effectively ceased by the 1870s.

When the first photo was taken around 1906, the building was still in use as a custom house. It had been painted yellow a few years earlier in 1901, but otherwise looked much the same as it had in Hawthorne’s day, aside from the cupola. Even the carved eagle, which had been installed in 1826, was still perched atop the building, and would remain there until it was removed in 2004 and replaced with a fiberglass replica. However, by this point the number appointed officials here in Salem had steadily dwindled. The position of naval officer was abolished here in 1865, followed by that of the surveyor a decade later. Finally, in 1913, Salem’s customs district was absorbed into Boston’s district.

Although no longer in a separate district, the old Custom House continued to be used by the Customs Service until 1936. It was then transferred to the National Park Service, becoming the centerpiece of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. This park, which was formally established in 1938, was the first National Historic Site in the country, and today includes a number of historic structures along the Salem waterfront. The old Custom House has seen few changes during this time, and still looks essentially the same as it did when the first photo was taken, aside from the removal of the yellow exterior paint. The building is now open to the public, featuring a restored interior along with exhibits on the Customs Service, including the original eagle from the roof.

Benjamin Hawkes House, Salem, Mass

The house at 4 Custom House Court, just off Derby Street in Salem, on June 27, 1940. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

The house in 2017:

This house was originally intended as the home of Elias Hasket Derby, a prominent merchant who was among the wealthiest men in the country during the late 18th century. He had previously lived in the brick house on the right side of the photo, which his father Richard Derby had built for him in the early 1760s, but he had moved out of the house by the late 1770s. In 1780, he began construction on this large, wood-frame house, hiring noted Salem architect Samuel McIntire to design it.

However, the house was only partially completed by 1782, when Derby changed his plans and purchased the former home of merchant Benjamin Pickman on Washington Street. Derby hired Mcintire again, this time to make alterations to the Pickman House, and this half-finished house sat vacant for nearly two decades. In 1800, a year after Derby’s death, local pastor and diarist William Bentley described the house in his September 23 diary entry, noting that,

On this Land in 1780 Mr. Derby raised a Great House which he never finished. The third story was as high as the first & higher than the second. The pediment was lost in the roof & the Cupola which was finished was without any good effect. The back part was finished but the front only covered with boards & was very rotten. It was sold this day to the Carpenters for 600 Dollars. A more uncomely mass was never piled up for a building. The Lot under it sold for above 2,000 D. It has now stood 20 years as a monument of folly.

The “monument of folly” was ultimately sold to shipbuilder Benjamin Hawkes in 1801, who had the house completed later that year. The original design was altered somewhat, including the removal of the cupola that Reverend Bentley had described, and the interior of the massive house was converted into a two-family home. It seems unclear exactly how much of McIntire’s original design was retained for the completed house, and whether the architect was involved in its completion, but either way the house became a good example of the Federal style that was common in Salem around the turn of the 19th century.

The house is located directly across the street from Derby Wharf, the longest wharf in the city. Because of this, it was right at the center of Salem’s busy port, where fleets of early 19th century sailing vessels arrived with valuable cargoes from around the world. Benjamin Hawkes’s shipyard was just a short walk from his house, at the site of present-day Kosciusko Street, and in 1819 the Salem Custom House was built directly adjacent to the house, just out of view on the left side of this scene.

Benjamin Hawkes lived here during the peak of Salem’s prosperity as a seaport, but by the middle of the 19th century the city’s shipping industry was in decline. However, many of the elegant mansions from this golden age are still standing today, including the Benjamin Hawkes House. After years of being used as a duplex, it was acquired by the National Park Service in the late 1930s, becoming part of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Established in 1938, this was the first National Historic Site in the country, and the first photo shows the house as it appeared just two years later. Very little has changed in this scene since then, and the house is now used as administrative offices for the park.

Clifford Crowninshield House, Salem, Mass

The house at 74 Washington Square East, at the corner of Forrester Street in Salem, on May 12, 1941. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

The house in 2017:

This house was built between 1804 and 1806 for Clifford Crowninshield, a merchant who was a member of one of Salem’s most prominent families. It was the work of noted Salem architect Salem McIntire, and featured a Federal-style design that was typical for mansions of this period, including a symmetrical front facade, three stories, and a hip roof that was originally topped by a balustrade. Crowninshield had the house built around the same time as his marriage to Elizabeth Fisher, the daughter of Nathaniel Fisher, who was the rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. There was a considerable age difference between the two, with Clifford about 44 years old and Elizabeth only about 20 at the time of their marriage in 1805.

Ultimately, though, neither of them lived in this house for very long. Elizabeth died in March 1806, less than a year after their marriage and possibly before the house was even completed, and Clifford died three years later in 1809. However, their short marriage did manage to cause significant controversy within the Crowninshield family, and not necessarily because of their age difference. Writing in his diary on the day after Clifford’s death, local pastor William Bentley explained the circumstances surrounding their marriage:

In this wealth & unmarried he [Crowninshield] attracted the notice of N. Fisher . . . & was persuaded to marry his only daughter, who soon deceased after marriage. This alliance was displeasing to his 6 sisters who had no advantages from education, & many of them scanty means, & an open alienation from their Brother ensued with continued three years till within a few months of his death.

Fisher had evidently hoped that Crowninshield’s estrangement from his sisters would give him access to the family fortune, but Bentley went on to explain that, after he and his sisters reconciled shortly before his death,

This reconcilliation excluded the Rector & disappointed his hopes who had removed into one of the houses of his Son in Law & had indulged great expectations. In the last hours all intercourse ceased & the Rector has been left to lament his numerous indiscretions & ill placed confidence, in the serious evils of his affairs.

In the end, Crowninshield’s mansion was inherited by his sister Sarah and her husband James Devereux. He was, like so many of Salem’s other upper class men of the era, a ship captain and merchant. In 1799, his ship, the Franklin, became the first American ship to sail to Japan, and he subsequently developed a lucrative trading business with Europe, Southeast Asia, the West Indies, and South America. His company specialized in commodities such as coffee, pepper, and sugar, and included one 1808 voyage from which the Franklin returned with a cargo of over half a million pounds of coffee.

Sarah Devereux died in 1815, only a few years after inheriting the house from her brother, but James lived here until his death in 1846. His daughter, Abigail, then inherited the property, and lived here with her husband, William Dean Waters. They were both in their 40s at the time, and had six children, four of whom were at the house by 1850. That year’s census shows their sons William, James, Edward, and Clifford, whose ages ranged from 20 to nine, and they also lived here with Abigail’s sister Elizabeth and a servant.

Abigail died in 1879, followed by her husband a year later, and the house was then inherited by their son, William Crowninshield Waters. He sold the property in 1892, ending almost 90 years of ownership by the same family, and it was purchased by Zina Goodell, who was a machinist and blacksmith. Goodell made some alterations to the house, including moving it closer to Forrester Street. This made room for a second house on the lot, which was built just to the right of the house, at 72 Washington Square East.

Goodell lived here until his death in 1920, but the house would remain in his family for many years. His daughter Mary and her husband, George Patterson, were living here when the first photo was taken in 1941, as part of the New Deal-era Historic American Buildings Survey. Today, more than 75 years later, the house has since been converted into condominiums, but the exterior has not seen any substantial changes from this angle, aside from the loss of the balustrade atop the roof. It is now a contributing property in the Salem Common Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

Francis Boardman House, Salem, Mass

The house at 82 Washington Square East in Salem, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2017:

This elegant Federal-style house was built over the course of seven years, between 1782 and 1789. It was the first of many mansions that were built along what would later become the Salem Common, and it is said to have been designed by noted Salem architect Samuel McIntire and his brother Joseph. The large, ornate house reflected the wealth of its owner, Francis Boardman, a ship captain who was in his early 40s when the house was completed. He lived here with his wife Mary and their children, which included daughters Elizabeth, Mary, and Sarah, along with sons Francis and John. John died in 1791, at the age of five, and Captain Boardman died a year later while at Port-au-Prince in Haiti.

Although he died only three years after the house was completed, the house would remain in Francis Boardman’s family for many years. In 1798, his daughter Elizabeth married Nathaniel Bowditch, the famous mathematician who, a few years later, published The American Practical Navigator. They lived here in this house for a short time after their marriage, but Elizabeth died just seven months later, while Bowditch was away at sea. Elizabeth’s sister Mary would also marry a into a prominent Salem family when, in 1804, she married Benjamin W. Crowninshield. He would go on to have a successful career in politics, including serving as Secretary of the Navy from 1815 to 1818, and in the U. S. House of Representatives from 1823 to 1831.

Captain Boardman’s youngest daughter, Sarah, married Zachariah F. Silsbee in 1810. He also came from a notable family, and was the younger brother of Nathaniel Silsbee, a merchant who served in both the U. S. House of Representatives and the U. S. Senate. Zachariah was also a merchant, working with his brother in the firm of Stone, Silsbee, & Pickman. Along with this, he was involved in other business ventures in Salem, including serving as a director for the Merchants Bank and the Newmarket Manufacturing Company, and as the president of the Salem Savings Bank.

Both Zachariah and Sarah lived here in this house after their marriage, and would remain here for the rest of their lives. Sarah died in 1852 at the age of 64, but Zachariah outlived here by more than two decades, before his death in 1873 at the age of 89. The last census before his death, taken in 1870, lists him as a retired merchant, with real estate valued at $10,000 and a personal estate of $17,000. At the time, he was living here with 41-year-old Mary Silsbee, who was presumably his daughter, and they employed three Irish-born servants who lived here in the house.

By the early 1880s, this house was owned by Lucy Bowdoin, the widow of dentist Willard L. Bowdoin. They had been married in 1867, when he was 46 and she was 30. It was the second marriage for both of them, but they were only married for a few years before Willard’s death in 1870. Within a decade, Lucy had moved into this house, along with her mother, Mary Harwood, and her son from her first marriage, Abel Proctor. Lucy was still living here when the first photo was taken during the 1910s, and she would remain here until her death in 1920.

The house was over 120 years old when the first photo was taken, and the exterior was still largely in its original condition at the time. The small porch at the front entrance had been added in the late 19th century, along with the bay window above it, but overall it retained most of its Federal-style decorative elements, such as the quoins on the corners and the balustrade on the roof. These have since been removed, and there is now a rooftop deck on the rear of the house, so it has lost some of its original architecture. However, it still stands as one of the many large mansions that encircle the Salem Common, and it is a contributing property in the Salem Common Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.