About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Wednesday, April 23, 2014



Col. James Swan by Gilbert Stuart
One of the great stories of old New England, perhaps not so familiar to many, is the story of Col James Swan of Boston.  This story has long captured my interest.  I hope you will find these events as fascinating as I do.

James Swan was from Scotland.  He arrived in Boston in the mid 1760s.  In business he succeeded.  He married  Hepzibah Clarke of Boston who came from wealth.  They had four children; a son and three daughters. One daughter, Christiana, called Kitty, will be highlighted later in this post.
Hepzibah Clarke, Gilbert Stuart, 1808
Before long Swan was one of the Sons of Liberty, friend of Paul Revere, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and every important figure from that time.  He was also acquainted with LaFayette.  As a financier he was successful at least for a time.

Swan's portrait was painted by Gilbert Stuart and Hebzibah’s portrait was also painted by Gilbert Stuart several years later.  Both are now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. (MFA)

In 1787 at a time when his business in Boston was not doing so well he went to France.  His wife and children accompanied him and they were there at the time of the French Revolution and the tragic end of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI.

Sketch of  the house on Tremont Street
In the 1790s they returned to Boston where they built a house on a hill in Dorchester   The new neoclassical house has been thought to have been designed by Charles Bullfinch but I am not sure this has been authenticated although it seems likely. Sadly, the Swan house is no longer standing.

Swan House
The Swan summer house in Dorchester
Swan returned to France around 1798 without his family and was able to obtain royal furniture to furnish the new house back home.

In 1808 after a dispute over a small sum of money that Swan denied owing he was thrown into jail, a debtor's prison.  He could have paid up but chose not to.  With money a prisoner could live quite comfortably in jail and that is where Swan was content to stay.  And stay he did!  He remained in jail for an incredible 22 years.  Upon his release in 1830 he remained in France briefly but died shortly in 1831 without ever returning to Boston.

James Swan Jr., Thomaston, ca. 1810
James Swan, Jr.
During  these years, in his absence, Hepzibah built a new house at 20 Chestnut Street on Beacon Hill and then built three row houses across the street also on Chestnut Street, numbers 13, 15, and 17 for each of their three daughters.

13,15,and 17 Chesnut St., Beacon Hill, Boston
The Swan’s only son married Caroline Knox, a daughter of Gen. Henry Knox and moved to Thomaston, Maine to live at Montpelier, the Knox estate.
Montpelier Home of General Henry Knox
Montpelier, home of Gen. Henry Knox, Caroline Knox  and James Swan, Jr
Of interest to us here on Cape Ann is Swan’s daughter, beautiful Christiana Keadie Swan, known as Kitty.

Christiana Keadie Swan Sargent

In Gloucester in the 18th and 19th centuries one of the most prominent families was the Sargent family.  Winthrop Sargent was a wealthy merchant.  His son, Winthrop became the first governor of the Mississippi territory and built his estate, Gloucester Place, in Natchez, still standing today.

Another son, Fitz William was the grandfather of of John Singer Sargent and other notable descendants.
Winthrop Sargent's daughter, Judith, married merchant, John Stevens, and they built the elegant Georgian mansion that is now the Sargent House Museum in Gloucester.

Sargent House Museum
Sargent House Museum, Gloucester, MA
After the death of Stevens Judith married Rev. John Murray, who was invited to Gloucester by Judith’s father, Winthrop, where he founded the first Universalist Church in America with the backing of the Sargent family. 

Another Sargent daughter, Esther married John Stevens Ellery and they likewise built a great Georgian house just down the street from Judith’s on the corner now occupied by the YMCA.  (More about that house in a future post).

Toward the end of the 18th century both the Ellerys and the Murrays relocated to Boston where they lived in style on Franklin Place, a crescent designed by Charles Bulfinch.

Franklin Place,
Charles Bulfinch
Another Gloucester Sargent family, Daniel Sargent and his wife, Mary Turner Sargent, also relocated to Boston.  Daniel was a younger brother to Winthrop, Sr. and an uncle to Judith and Esther.  His young wife, Mary, became a close confidante of Judith.  Their house was on what is now Main Street in Gloucester and stood somewhere near Walgreens and the police station.

 Mrs. Daniel Sargent (Mary Turner Sargent) - John Singleton Copley
Mary Turner Sargent by Copley, mother-in-law of Kitty Swan Sargent
In Boston Daniel and Mary’s son, John Turner Sargent, married the lovely Kitty Swan.  One of John Sargent and Kitty Swan Sargent’s sons was Rev. John Turner Sargent, Jr. a Universalist minister and an abolitionist.

Hepzibah Swan died in 1825 and her possessions including the treasures from France were passed down to her heirs.

Meanwhile, back in Gloucester, Judith Sargent Murray’s house became a duplex and eventually fell on hard times.  Major museums tried to buy the beautiful architectural elements from the house such as the elegant staircase.  Fortunately this never happened.  The house was restored and  objects belonging to various Sargents and other occupants of the house, were contributed to form the collection housed in the new museum. The fine assembled collection of heirlooms came from the Sargent, Hough and Gilman families in general whether or not the owner had actually lived in the house.
Among the items at the museum contributed by a descendant of Kitty and John Turner Sargent was an elegant French bergere (an upholstered chair)and a pair of beautiful French andirons for the parlor fireplace.  These two items came with the straightforward provenance direct from the Swans through Kitty and John Turner Sargent to their son, Rev. John Turner Sargent.

John Turner Sargent
Rev. John Turner Sargent, Jr.
and finally to the donor, Franklin Havens Sargent, grandson of Kitty Swan Sargent and John Turner Sargent.  These were royal pieces straight from the court of Marie Antoinette sent to Boston by James Swan.

Franklin Havens Sargent, heir to the French chair and
andirons, given to the 'Sargent House.
The gilded French begere was somewhat controversial as some doubted its authenticity or simply found  the chair especially out of place with the fine pieces of American furniture with which the house was furnished.  The chair was marked Sene, the name of a well documented cabinet maker known to have made royal furniture. ( Jean-Baptiste-Claude-Sene, French, 1787)

Restored Sene bergere at MFA, mate to the one
belonging to the Sargent House Museum in
Gloucester, MA
Clearly the elegant chair was different from the other American pieces furnishing the rooms of this beautiful house but I see the situation this way.

There have been times when all things French were admired and it was a sign of refinement, culture and good taste to have French items in one’s home.  Following the French Revolution Thomas Jefferson was in France and sent quantities of French furniture and accessories back home to adorn the rooms of Monticello.

"Susan Stein, in The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, writes about Jefferson "Shopping for a Lifetime" in France. He bought furniture, kitchen utensils, candlesticks, teapots, tablecloths, fabric and many other items. When he arrived back in America he would eventually have 86 packing crates shipped to him from Paris."

Closer to home, John Adams obtained a suite of royal furniture which he too sent back home.

Judith Sargent Murray whose first cousin had married Kitty Swan was a very cultured lady and a social climber.  During her marriage to John Murray and while living in Boston she and Murray visited with John and Abigail  Adams.  Judith must have seen and admired this evidence of taste, refinement and wealth as expressed by the French furniture in the Adams’ possession.  Do you think for one minute that Judith would not have coveted  the same for her house?  My personal opinion is that I think Judith would have been green with envy!
Long Room of the Old House, west view
French furniture in the parlor of John Adams
To settle any questions about the provenance of the disputed chair an authority on the subject from the MFA was summoned to Gloucester to authenticate the chair.  The result; not only was the chair authentic but was a part of a larger suite owned by the MFA.  In fact, the chair at the Sargent House had at one time even been on loan to the MFA and displayed  with the other pieces of the suite.  At that time it had been reupholstered by Atwill Furniture, a company in Lynn, MA noted for restorations and reproductions.


Although the chair was authenticated, the choice of fabric used to upholster the chair was deemed less than appropriate and although it looked very presentable, the chair did need conservation, authentic reupholstering and re-gilding after two hundred years. In 1975 Antiques Magazine featured the story of Col. James Swan written and researched by Eleanor DeLorme who acknowledged the Gloucester chair.

The chair remains at the Sargent House Museum.  What a history!  What a provenance!  How fascinating that right here on Cape Ann we have these physical spoils of the French Revolution and  tangible evidence of this wild scene from the world stage right here on a local and personal level.

The entire story with all the available details is way too much for a blog post but worth researching.  What is presented here is just the barest of facts, enough I hope to wet your appetite.

M y acquaintance with the chair and the story dates to about 1990.  In doing some research for this post I discovered that the ten pieces at the MFA have since been restored after being flown to California for regilding and then flown to France for reupholstering.  If chairs could talk....! Here is the fascinating sequel to the story. It is long but worth reading.


January 12, 2003 - The Boston Globe

PARIS - Ten newly restored pieces of the Swan collection of 18th-century French royal furniture were recently unveiled in the Evans wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, making the MFA one of the most important hubs for furniture of this kind in the United States.

Created for the French musketeer Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville d’Avray in the late 1700s, the set of furniture later crossed the Atlantic, bound for Dorchester on the boat of a swashbuckling opportunist named James Swan.

The restoration - a four-year process that saw the furniture leave Boston on cargo planes bound for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles for regilding, then to France to be worked on by three expert firms - has been marked by important discoveries about 18th-century French furniture as a whole.

Tracey Albainy, MFA project coordinator and curator in the museum’s Art of Europe department, says, “This will be one of the premier collections of 18th-century French furniture in the country. This project ... sets a new standard for upholstery conservation.”

The story begins in 1787, when the pieces (a bed, two armchairs, four side chairs, a bergere armchair, a kneeling chair, and a fire screen) were commissioned by Thierry de Ville d’Avray, a musketeer who became the general administrator of the crown furniture for Louis XVI. The Parisian apartment of such an official had to be decorated with the finest furnishings of the day.

Unfortunately for Thierry de Ville d’Avray, he took office just before the French Revolution, and once the monarchy was abolished, he, Louis XVI, and many other members of the French royal court were jailed, put to trial, and sentenced to death.

The cash-strapped new French government then used independent firms to sell or barter royal treasures for food and war supplies from countries such as the United States.

Enter Swan.

Scottish-born and raised in the United States, Swan had his fingers in many pies in America and France. In Massachusetts, he was a Son of Liberty at the Boston Tea Party, a captain who fought at Bunker Hill, and later a member of the Massachusetts Legislature.

After a series of real estate deals gone sour, however, Swan set sail for France and finagled his way into a partnership in the firm of Dallarde, Swan et Compagnie, one of the firms specializing in furnishing supplies to the new French government.

Through his dealings, Swan became a very rich man, and he built a French-style pavilion for his family in Dorchester that became the new home for the furniture set.

When a French business partner filed a small suit against him in 1808, Swan, ever the eccentric, chose to go to a high-class debtor’s prison instead of settling the claim. He stayed there for 22 years and died in 1831,  just one year after his release.

Swan’s furniture was passed down to his descendants, and between 1921 and 1953, the entire set - in various states of repair - came into the possession of the MFA. Pieces were reupholstered with different fabrics and occasionally displayed at the MFA or lent out to other museums.

The idea of regilding, reupholstering, and reuniting all of the pieces started percolating in the early 1970s with the support of Ellen Jaffe. A member of the museum’s board of overseers, Jaffe provided much of the financial support for the restoration.

For the gilding work, the MFA chose Cynthia Moyer, a Los Angeles specialist who had worked on gilding French objects for the 1997 opening of the Getty. Moyer took on the 11/2-year project as a private conservator.

The pieces were also worked on by three French firms with 465 years of experience between them: fabric maker Tassinari & Chatel, founded in 1680; trimming specialists Declercq Passementiers, founded in 1818; and upholsterers Jacques Brazet, founded in 1943. The reputation for quality at each firm brings them together again and again on such restoration projects. Their combined client list reads like a who’s who in the worlds of museums, chateaus, and monarchs.

Using original fabric samples sent to Paris by the MFA, experts Xavier Bonnet and Remy Brazet, an upholsterer with the firm of Jacques Brazet, made important finds about 18th-century French furniture.

“What we’ve found changes our understanding of 18th-century techniques,” says Brazet.

Looking at original fabric pieces and examining the stitching allowed Brazet and Bonnet to recreate the padding more accurately, rendering, for example, non-traditional rounded corners instead of a sharper corner on the chairs. “You can actually be comfortable in these,” jokes Brazet.

Brazet and Bonnet also discovered that the fabric on the chair seats (not just the backs) depicted human figures, something that experts had previously thought was taboo in that day.

Tassinari & Chatel took on the re-creation of a complex woven fabric called lampas for the project. The company is perhaps best known in the United States because of John F. Kennedy’s order of fabrics for the Blue Room and the Yellow Room in the White House.

Originally designed in 1785 for Napoleon’s gaming room at Fontainebleau, a pale turquoise, cream, and taupe “Cyclops Forger” lampas was re-created by Tassinari & Chatel using more than 27,000 new loom cards - akin to early computer punch cards - to create the patterns for its motifs: forgers, river gods, sea horses, and dogs. The lampas has a density not normally associated with fabric and a textured smoothness like sculpted marble. The daily output when creating this lampas was measured in centimeters, and the entire weaving took about nine months.

Such work-in-centimeters style is also familiar to the firm of Declercq Passementiers, which needed almost a year to create the furniture trim. The company is run by Claude Declercq, his son Jerome, and his daughter Elisa. Their factory is filled with scores of ancient looms whirring away, pulling at racks of loom cards or guided by experts enveloped by the machines.

To find a color match to make rope for the bed fringe, Elisa demonstrates Jerome’s maxim: “We buy only thread, then we create.” As if blending colors on a palette, she grabs an armful of spools with similar colored threads and tries different combinations to match the lampas color.

By spinning several lengths around her hand, she creates one consistent color. “There’s an osmosis between the fibers that creates the colors and makes them come out more supple and stronger,” she says.

Most impressive at the factory are the hand looms used to make trim for the chairs. Operators climb into the looms and sit on a saddle seat that leaves them tipped so far forward that their upper bodies are suspended by wide leather straps. Spiderlike, they pass shuttles back and forth between their hands and operate pedals with their feet, constantly changing configurations and adding twists, turns, or different colors to incredibly complex patterns.

They aren’t reading from a notebook, however, and there are no loom cards hanging over the machine. When asked where their pattern is, Jerome grins and points to his head.

“To learn the trade,” says Elisa, “it takes one year to train, then three to four to really become a good worker, but a lifetime to know it all.”

She continues, speaking of the craftspeople involved: “We are the only people left in the world who know how to do this type of work.”

The newly restored Swan collection is on display in the MFA’s Evans Wing. The furniture is accompanied by a pair of Sevres vases, eight 1770 gilded boiseries panels designed by C. N. Ledoux, and portraits of Swan and his wife, Hepzibah, painted by Gilbert Stuart.

Sunday, April 13, 2014



In my previous post, “At the Auction”, I talked about becoming a doll collector inspired by finding a French Jumeau doll in a dilapidated back-yard antiques shop.  As the word got around that I was interested in antique dolls, several people gave me their childhood dolls.  Some of the dolls that came my way were 
particularly nice.
French Jumeau, Cosette, found in a back
yard junk shop for $1.50.
Ada Carleton (left) and Amy Fiske (right)  Ada is a fine doll sometimes
called a "china Greiner" dating to the 1850s.  Amy dates to 1870 and
with her extensive wardrobe just appeared in Doll News magazine.  Both
dolls were gifts from neighbors and friends,
Over the course of many years the dolls would take a back seat only to re-emerge because of collector friends who would inspire me at least temporarily.

In the fall of 2013 my life changed in a single day.  Here is what happened.

A lady whom I had never met came to Cape Ann from Texas for a three week vacation.  My friend,  
Peggy, found her a place to stay although they had never met either. 

However, we knew a bit about this lady; her reputation as a doll collector, dealer in antiques and hooked rug designer, just for starters, had preceded this talented lady. I was persuaded to unpack some of my dolls for Edyth to see.

Peggy and Edyth arrived for a tea party and an afternoon of playing with dolls.  Dolls were scattered all over my living room.  It was an afternoon that changed my life.
Peggy (left) and Edyth (right) surrounded  by dolls and snacks in my cluttered living room
taken over by dolls.
As we got better acquainted it became clear to Edyth that for Peggy doll making and collecting was a primary interest and that my area of expertise was old houses.  Edyth declared that Peggy and I must have blogs, just as she has.  This was the last thing on my mind.  I hadn’t paid attention to blogs or followed any blogs. 

By the following day Edyth had contacted her friend, Dixie, in Maine who set up two new blogs.  Suddenly Peggy and I both had blogs!  It seemed to me that things were moving faster than I could digest but, what the heck, I jumped in anyway.  My first blog was posted in October and less than six months later I have thirty seven posts under my belt and still writing, writing, writing.

My interest in dolls has also been revived and I actually added a new doll to my collection for the first time in years.  (See “At the Auction”).

Penelope, a papier mache doll, patented by
Ludwig Greiner in 1858.  Notice that her style
matches Ada ( above)  Same style, different
material. Same age.
But Edyth was not through yet!  

One of my dolls mentioned in “At the Auction” was a doll named Amy Fiske.  Amy was so named by her original owner who received the doll for her birthday in 1870.  Amy is remarkable because of her extensive wardrobe of beautiful handmade garments.

Amy Fiske, 1870
Upon returning to Texas Edyth alerted her contacts at Doll News magazine about my special doll, Amy.   Before I knew it Amy was going to be featured in the January (2014) issue of the quarterly magazine.  At 144 years of age Amy made the big time in a multi-page spread in this most beautiful magazine of special dolls.  I couldn’t be more proud and appreciative of Edyth’s intervention.

Nor could I possibly have imagined the speed with which my blog traveled to the farthest corners of the planet with the nicest comments contributed by readers.

Recently one of the comments came from a childhood friend, Susan, with whom I shared a playhouse. After an Internet search I found her number and called her.  We had a heartwarming conversation. (See “Childhood Impressions Can Last a Lifetime”.)

I urge you to check out Edyth’s blog called “My Red Cape”. (edythoneill.blogspot.com) and Peggy’s blog, “Dolls in the Neatest Manner". (peggyflavin.blogspot.com)  Just as I deviate from houses to talk about dolls, Peggy likewise, delves into old houses.  Edyth’s blog talks about dolls, houses, gardening and all the the things that we enjoy and you probably enjoy similarly.
Edyth's blog logo, "My Red Cape"
You will also realize that Peggy’s house is the Oliver Griffin cottage that appeared in my post on gambrel roofed cottages houses of Cape Ann.  You will be able to get a peek of the inside of this charming house if you take a look at Peggy's blog.
Two of Peggy's meticulous made-by-hand
dolls, Eliza and Jane, in the style of Izannah Walker
If you enjoy my blog you surely will want to add these two blogs to your favorites.  You won’t be disappointed.

As always, I appreciate your responses.  The number of "hits" and the far off places from which they originate boggles the mind.  It has been an exciting trip and it all began with a tiny but mighty lady from Texas who took charge and led us down this  road.

Thank you, Edyth.

Thursday, April 3, 2014



The obvious way to date a house is to do the deed research, discover the chain of title to ascertain when a house appeared on the previously vacant land.  Right?

Only partially right!  Here is why this doesn't always work.

Deeds follow the land not the buildings.  Simply relying on the the chain of title we look for the words "dwelling" , "buildings" or "house".  We are elated as we go back through the deeds and the reference to a house on the lot is still there.  Often this leads us to an early date.  Everyone wants their house to be OLD and better yet, even OLDER.  So what is wrong with that?

When a deed refers to a house on the site you have no idea what the house looked like or if it is even the same house that is there now.  Chances are it isn't the same house.  Houses were replaced with better houses doing away with an early settler's cottage or even a substantial house.  Houses burned.  Chimney fires set the wood roofs on fire destroying a house. In other cases the lot was subdivided with a newer house built on the new smaller lot.

One day a lady told me she was researching her house. I knew her house, it was similar to my own house and I commented that I thought it was built around 1860.  I will never forget her retort.  She said, "I'm here to tell you that I am back before 1840 and still going."  I knew what had happened because I just happened to have researched the older house right next door.  I knew that the lot had been subdivided about the time her house was built and her house, the newer house, was built on the newly created lot.

The lesson here, although this process may seem oversimplified, is to take a hard look at the house and estimate how old you think it is.  The house in this instance was a pre Civil War Gothic revival.  The house next door with a center entrance was full of fireplaces.  Hers had none.  The house next door was obviously older. This is a common mistake.. Her research had taken her back to the time when there was one bigger lot with one older house before the lot was subdivided and her house was built.  She was now researching the wrong house, the house next door!

Tracing a lot back to the late 17th or early 18th century and still finding a house on the lot does not mean that the house is necessarily a first period house.  A first period house (built before approximately 1725) would have a decorated frame with chamfers on the beams that were meant to be exposed.  If the frame is undecorated there is no way that it is a first period house no matter how much the owner wants it to be and no way that it was built in the 17th or early 18th century.

Therefore it is not sufficient to rely on the deeds alone. There has to be a correlation between the deeds and the physical evidence.  Both need to be considered.  Often if you can estimate a date based on the physical evidence and then look at the chain of title you can sometimes discover possible clues to substantiate the evolution of the house.  The deeds can reveal dates such as when it was sold to a new family who may have replaced the earlier house.  The concept of "tear downs" is not necessarily new. Or perhaps there was a marriage or a death signaling change in the ownership that often coincides with a major change in the house.  New owners, just as today, will remodel or rebuild. So look for milestones in the ownership of the house to see if they correspond to changes in the house or perhaps a house that is entirely new.

Here in Gloucester we do a fair amount of research before approving a plaque for a house.  It is not that we are imposing restrictions on the style or the age of an acceptable house  but rather we are committed to getting the correct date on the signs. As I travel around New England I observe signs proudly displayed on houses that are blatantly incorrect.

In one instance, as a Realtor, I sold a house with a 17th century date that was at least thirty or more years earlier than it really was.  The conscientious owner, upon realizing that the date was incorrect,  removed the plaque from the front of the house and put it in the cellar. The house was sold and the new owner immediately put the incorrect sign back on the house and there it is to this day nearly twenty years later.

So what can an owner do to "get it right"? There is one accurate way to date a house although pricey. It is called dendrochronology or "dendro" for short.  It is a study of tree rings.

Tree rings to the waney edge

For each year a tree grows a ring.  If it is a drought year the ring is small.  If it is a wet year the ring is wider. This pattern of the rings can be correlated to coincide with the weather pattern over the years for a particular geographic area.

The house frame  in a timber framed house is raised very shortly after the trees for the frame are felled. So being able to determine quite precisely when the trees were felled it follows that the construction of the house won't be far behind.

In order to have some degree of accuracy the beams tested must be intact out to the bark layer, the waney edge. The bark need not be present. Samples are taken from the timbers and there will be considerable consistency throughout so that a consensus can be arrived at, pinpointing the construction date with amazing accuracy. Dendro can also reveal additions, repairs or changes that are not part of the original frame. (This is a great oversimplification of the process but you get the idea.)

There is another factor causing some houses to be mis-dated.

In the colonial period nothing was squandered so that pieces of an earlier house were often recycled into the new house.  The presence of an occasional chamfered beam in a house does not mean that the house is first period but simply that the remains of an earlier house on the site or from elsewhere were utilized in the new construction.  No house should  not be dated based on a stray beam here and there. Sad to say, this happens all the time.

On day I viewed an old farmhouse with a 1686 construction date.  As I went through the house I didn't get any sense of first period or even second period.  The size of the rooms, the height of the ceilings, the appearance of the fireplaces and woodwork said circa 1800 to me.

Finally, we reached the cellar and there holding up the circa 1800 house was a magnificent summer beam with quarter round chamfers...a piece of the 1686 house for sure.  After returning to the main floor I happened to look into the cooking fireplace.  I was surprises to see that the lintel of the fireplace was a reused beam with mortise pockets in it.  A quick look around and I saw that the lintels in other fireplaces were reused beams with mortise pockets left over from their previous life. The spacing of the mortise pockets was consistent with 17th century joist spacing.  I can think of several other similar scenarios that I have seen and each house displaying the date of the early beams that were reused.  Incorporating a first period beam into the underpinning of a much later house does not make it a first period house!

In another documented case a significant beam is part of a garage.

Simon Bradstreet, a Massachusetts colonial governor, and his wife, Anne Dudley Bradstreet, the first American poetess, lived in North Andover, MA after moving from Ipswich. They owned more than one house over time.  One of their houses burned and is the subject of one of Ann Bradstreet's famous poems.
T o read her sorrowful poem on the loss of her home follow on this link.


In the mid 18th century a commodious house was built  by the Phillips family. (Phillips Andover Academy) It has been strongly suggested that one of  Simon Bradstreet's houses was located on this Phillips property. There is an ell attached to the rear of this Phillips house now converted into a garage.  Spanning the ceiling of this garage is the most beautiful decorated summer beam.  The size of the chamfer and the mortise pocket spacing denotes a 17th century house.  As you stare at the magnificent and ancient beam in this modern setting it is hard to picture Ann or Simon Bradstreet sitting under this great beam in front of their fireplace in a house that is no more!  But this stray beam is just a fragment.  It doesn't mean that this Phillips house is 17th century.  It is simply a reused beam.

These are some of the pitfalls of trying to date a house.  Don't jump to impetuous conclusions.  And please understand that being older does not always mean better in this apparent competition to own the oldest house.  Each house should be judged on its architectural merits: who lived in it and what happened  to it rather than getting hung up on a "my house is older than  your house" syndrome.

Other helpful sources can assist you along the way.

Old maps often show the footprint of the house and even may produce a name on the house. These maps (often from the period 1850 to 1900) can reveal to you whether or not  the footprint matches the house and is the name on the lot the same as the name in your chain of title for that time frame.  Is there a match?

Assessors' records for your community can be helpful if available.  They may indicate if there is a building on the lot. A sudden increase in the assessment suggests changes.  These records can also indicate hints such as "new house" or "unfinished house".

It is also helpful to know that more and more information is coming online all the time.  Here in Essex County, MA deeds from 1640 to the present are now online.  Probate records including wills and inventories are also online up to 1842 with more to come.  A researcher hardly needs to leave home to get at the official information. This is huge!  In addition, old maps and atlases are also on line.  One of the best sources is the Leventhal Map Collection at the Boston Public Library with maps for all areas.  Copies of early maps can be purchased from Historic Mapworks. (historicmapworks.com)

These are some of the tools available to you that are often accessible from the comfort of your home.  All should be utilized and checked until you are confident that you have an appropriate construction date.

Strive for accuracy.  Don't be like the people I know that suspect that their house is mis-dated but like it the way it is and don't want to rock the boat to get to the truth. Trying to pass a house off as older than it is will always be recognized by those who know the difference.

Enjoy your old house and accept it for what it is.  If you are planning to place a plaque on your house or replace be sure to get it right!

Thanks for reading.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014


In the middle 1970s I was living in Newburyport, MA but spending summers on Cape Ann where I now live full time. In Newburyport I had friends that lived in an 18th century house down near the Merrimac River with a large walk-in fireplace.

On Cape Ann I knew a family who frequented the same small family beach where my family spent long summer days.

The acquaintance from Cape Ann fancied herself to be psychic.  I saw her reading books on the subject as she watched her kids on the beach.  I have to say I was pretty skeptical about the whole subject and this person in particular. She couldn't be serious!  I did not know that these two couples were acquainted with one another until my Newburyport friend told me this strange tale

The couple from Cape Ann were invited for dinner in Newburyport at the house with the large fireplace. After dinner the two couples sat around the fireplace chatting until right out of the blue the psychic from Cape Ann insisted that there was an old shoe in the fireplace. At this point  members of the group gathered at the opening of the fireplace and began to poke around either on the sides or up in the mouth of the flue.  (I'm not sure of the details).  And sure enough:  there was the shoe!  A very old shoe it was.

What a story.  I could hardly believe it.  Certainly the credentials of the Cape Ann lady as a psychic were substantiated.  There was no way I could forget this strange incident.

Many years went by, I would say at least twenty five.  During these years I had been increasingly involved in old houses.  Little by little I began to hear stories of ancient shoes being pulled out of chimneys or walls until eventually it was acknowledged that this was more than mere coincidence.  How many shoes were found and tossed into the trash or dumpster before it was recognized that this was happening on a regular basis?

Richard Irons, restoration mason, can vouch for many having been unearthed as he restored ancient chimneys and their fireplaces.

One day Richard Irons and his crew arrived at the home of a  friend in Gloucester to go to work on the chimney as the house was being restored.  Half serious and half in jest, my friend said to one of the workers, "Let me know when  you find the shoe."  Not long afterward the worker appeared and said to my friend, "Here's your shoe!"

 Here is what the typical shoe removed from it hiding
place in the chimney looks like after so many years
Actually it probably would not have looked  much
  better when it was secreted because they would not
bury a wearable shoe.
It is now an accepted fact that shoes were concealed to ward off evil spirits when the house was constructed. In the intervening years I have heard many, many such stories and seen a fair number of the  old shoes.

As might be expected, back in the 18th century, nothing was squandered or wasted.  Hence, the concealment shoes, when brought into the light of day for the first time in 250 years, give or take a few years, are pretty battered and worn; partly from age but mostly because any shoe that they sacrificed would have been completely worn out or they would not have been relegated to the chimney.

There is some variation, however.  Shoes could also be found in the wall near a window or beneath the floor.  Many were baby or children's shoes.  Women's shoes can be found more frequently then men's.

Strangely enough, although this custom can be documented back to Europe and England, until fairly recently there had been little written about the custom or attention given to the regularity and frequency in which it occurred. The average person, even preservationists had never heard of such a thing,

The early settlers around here had roots mostly in East Anglia.  Wikipedia shows a photo of many shoes found in the region and there is even a Northampton Museum featuring concealment shoes.  Even National Geographic has acknowledged them.  This long forgotten tradition from an earlier more superstitious time is no longer a secret.

In April 1999 the magazine, Early American Homes, published the following. It sums up the tradition that was right under our nose but the story of concealment shoes literally "fell through the cracks".

Considering how  widespread and long lasting this folk belief has been, it is curious that nowhere was it described in writing until references began to appear in  mid-twentieth century archaeology literature in scholarly journals. Some speculate the tradition of hiding shoes was a male superstition, kept secret almost out of fear that telling about it would reduce its effectiveness. Others feel contemporary writers did not describe it since superstition ran counter to  prevailing religious beliefs and the Puritans punishment of witchcraft and magic was well-known.

When removing walls  especially around windows and doors, under roof rafters and behind old chimneys,  homeowners should be aware of the possibility of turning up concealment shoes. While most are found in eighteenth and nineteenth century homes, a find hidden as late as 1935 has been reported. If shoes are found, they should left exactly as they were discovered and photographed. Items found with the shoes are as important as the shoes themselves and should also be saved.

If you are restoring an old house or even just the chimney be aware that you may find a shoe. You may be shocked at its worn, dilapidated and twisted condition but don't let your contractor toss it in the trash.  How would they know or think that it was an archaeological treasure unless you tell them to look?

Think of the thousands upon thousands that have been thrown out as trash.

If you have an old shoe story please share it!

Happy hunting,


NOTE:  Here are more concealment shoes found right here in Gloucester at the Sargent House Museum.  See links in comment section below. Thank you Kimberlee.

Any more shoes out there that you would like to share?
Shoes at the Sargent House Museum here in Gloucester.

Monday, March 17, 2014



The gambrel roofed story and a half cottages that dot the shoreline from Manchester to Cape Ann and all the way around our cape are the signature houses of  Cape Ann.  This is what the average family lived in while the merchants and sea captains lived in the larger versions in the Harbor Village in Gloucester.

These dwellings were small and snug but in spite of their small size often housed very large families.
Some were only a half house with a front door on one side and a large room on the other side of the front façade.   Others had a central entrance with rooms on both sides either built that way or a smaller house to which there was an early addition.

The Oliver Griffin homestead in Annisquam.  The main block
of the house depicts what these cottages consisted of before additions.

Because of their small size and hard use many have disappeared, been added onto or merged into a larger house with hardly a trace showing on the exterior.
Here is a full-fledged two story center entrance house.  The only hint of changes
is the location of the chimney below the ridgepole.  It began life as a gambrel cottage.
Today there is another large addition.

The first building period on Cape Ann, and all over New England, extended from the first settlements until about 1725 at  which time the post medieval styles of the Pilgrim Century were left behind.

In Gloucester this second period lasted from approximately 1725 or 1730 through the rest of the 18th century.  Cape Ann housewrights
embraced the gambrel roof, a change from the steeply pitched roofs of the first period. 

In Gloucester's Middle Street neighborhood, beginning in the late 1730s, many large, refined, gambrel roofed houses were built for the wealthy inhabitants of the town but the fishermen farmers lived in the vernacular cottages we now know as “Cape Ann Cottages”.

Two story full- blown Georgian house with a gambrel roof.

 In fact, a cape style house with a gambrel roof is now recognized throughout the country as a “Cape Ann Cottage”.

These tiny houses sometimes consisted of a center entrance, central chimney plan with small attic-like rooms above the main floor tucked under the gambrel roof.  Often they were just “half houses” with a door and chimney at one end.  This version could be added onto at a later date as money permitted and space was needed.
This Rockport cottage is very symmetrical including the pair of dormers
on the roof.  

This is a house which is almost a center entrance house but
there is only one window bay on the left side so that the
cottage is somewhat asymmetrical.
The windows had small panes and were double hung.  Leaded casements were still available but very old fashioned and not used in these houses.  The roof was sometimes punctuated by small dormer windows but this was not always the case.  Perhaps most of these dormers were installed later.

Another example of one dormer window in the room of this cottage
This is known as the old Tarr Cottage in Rockport, also with one dormer.
There is evidence that many were not even finished on the interior.  The proof of this is in the existence of whitewash still visible if one looks behind the plaster.  These were finished off at a later date and houses built later in the 18th century had more formal finishes on the interior from their date of construction.

Add here is the old Tarr cottage again, as it appeared ion the 19th century.
This photo is from Swan's history of Sandy Bay (Rockport)
Here is a gambrel cottage without its chimney.  Later it gained a saltbox
lean-to with a Beverly jog (so-called)  More than 100 years ago a  large
Victorian  addition was built that  dominates.
When the Cape Ann Cottages were finished on the interior they reflected the finishes in the larger, finer houses of the Harbor Village.  The fireplace walls were paneled, there were paneled doors and decorative elements.  In most cases, however, the staircase was enclosed and very narrow and steep.  The floors were pine, as was all of the woodwork. The floors remained unpainted and unfinished.

Here is another example of "the tail wagging the dog".   If you
look at the left side  you can see the gambrel cottage, the oldest
 part of the house to which  the main part was added

The rooms were frequently 16 feet in depth and contained a fireplace.  The kitchen fireplaces were very large with a bake oven built into the interior of the firebox.  A parlor fireplace was smaller and if there were fireplaces on the second floor they were diminutive.

Sometimes the woodwork was left unpainted but not by choice.  As soon as there was enough money and paint was available, the interior was decorated.

The larger houses of the period were of summer beam construction but the story and one half cottages did not have the traditional large summer beam holding up the second floor but rather a series of beams. Some of the later examples were of more typical summer beam construction.
Center entrance cottage by with evidence inside of alterations and changes
making it a center entrance.
It was said that on Cape Ann there were approximately 350 of these small cottages scattered all the way from Manchester to Gloucester Harbor and throughout North Gloucester and Rockport.  Strangely, there aren’t any in Essex, two in Ipswich and an occasional cottage here and there in Essex County.  The vast majority were right here, on Cape Ann.

By 1800, the small vernacular houses once again were being built with pitched roofs although not a steep as in the first period.  The new finishes  reflected the Federal period and no more gambrel roofed cottages were built.

In many cases the owners were poor.  These were the homes of fishermen and farmers. The houses were soon too small and they became vulnerable.  Many burned or were replaced by finer houses at a later date.
Here is the Master Moore cottage showing the profile
from the side with several additions.
Today there remain about sixty of these cottage houses.  Most of these are not intact, some are just fragments.

This cottage is known as the Master Moore house.  The right
side of the house is an addition.

Here are some of the scenarios which took place.

Often these small houses became the ell of a larger house such as the house on the corner of Essex Ave. and Lincoln Street in West Gloucester.  Rather than destroy  the house, it became an incidental appendage to the new house.

Some were so swallowed up in newer houses that they virtually disappeared.  In West Gloucester on the corner of Magnolia Ave. and
Essex Ave. is a Victorian house which shows just the corner of its original Cape Ann Cottage peeking out of the back left hand corner.
This house on Knowlton Square was moved here
from a unknown location

This tiny cottage with a big addition is in West Gloucester..  A missing chimney
might suggest that it was moved to this location.
Many were just picked up and plunked down somewhere else.  The cottage at 3 Winchester Court was moved a short distance to the back yard when the new house was built.  It began  a new life as a separate entity, unattached to the new house.
This wonderful cottage on Winchester Court was moved from the site next door when it was replaced by a Victorian.
It has bee said that the outline of the original foundation of this house remains in the cellar of the other.

  The Cape Ann Cottage on Knowlton Square was moved to that site but no one has discovered where it came from.
This sweet cottage had fallen into very bad repair but now  has
been restored.

Several were torn down in recent years and replaced with modern construction such as the one on Western Ave. opposite Hesperus Avenue and the one on Eastern Ave. just after Harrison Ave.
One cottage in Rockport  on South Street which looked almost beyond salvation has recently been saved.

Others have been enlarged with a lean-to on the rear such as the example on Gee Ave.

This small cottage house on Gee Avenue was expanded with a lean-to and
 yet another 
Sadly, the fact remains that most of them are gone.  Those that remain are very special and need protection.
The appealing Cape Ann Cottage is truly the signature house of Cape Ann.

The Thomas Riggs cottage, one of the best known cottages, has an earlier  piece on the right hand
side but the gambrel roof was added in the 1750s at the height of the popularity of this style
While working on this post I was not at home with my own collection of photos.  The photos in this post were found in public records on the Internet as assessor's records or inventory photos from Massachusetts Historical Commission.  In some cases the houses have been restored.  None are up to date. but perhaps I can replace some of them.