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

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 fa├žade.   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.


Sunday, March 9, 2014


It has been quite a long time since my last post thanks to the demise of my old computer and, arrival of a new computer. This milestone was followed by a less than smooth transition from my old familiar workhorse to a state of the art monster that was overwhelming as all my photos, documents and emails were transferred from one to the other.  The last straw was getting locked out of my own computer.  It would have been less expensive to get a locksmith to open my door than to have a technician get me back into my computer.

For most of my life one of the things I have most liked to do is to attend an auction.  From a very young age tagging along with my mother and her friends to an auction was great fun for me.  Even when very young and quite shy, I was never too shy to raise my hand if there was something I really wanted and had enough money to buy.

In those days most country auctions took place on site at the house where the goods originated.  A tent might be set up in the yard but not always.  Sometimes there were chairs and sometimes you brought your own.  The sale items were carried out the door in random order and offered up by the auctioneer.

Another favorite hobby was collecting antique dolls.

My first antique doll was found in a shabby backyard antiques shop in my hometown.  It was a rainy Saturday afternoon, the roof of the building was leaking. In the corner was a doll all in pieces, unstrung with her clothes in a pile on top of her.  I pestered my mother until she was quite annoyed and finally let me buy the doll for $1.50.

At home I washed her, strung her with new elastic (cut from an undergarment) and put her clothes back on.  She had beautiful “paper weight" eyes and long hair that I rolled up with small curlers. She had a cute little closed rosebud mouth and  pierced ears.

Cosette with the paperweight eyes

More importantly, on the back of her head it said “Tete Jumeau”.  On her body it said “Medaille d’or, Paris".

At this point my mother began to register a little more interest in my new treasure.  She even named her Cosette after Cosette in Les Miserables because she was a little French girl.  A bit more research and it seemed that I had found a particularly nice old doll.

A real beauty from Paris! 
Soon after, we attended an auction in Fitzwilliam, NH.  In the auction were a number of doll heads never attached to bodies.  Some had blue eyes and some were brown.  They appeared to have been imported and never made into complete dolls.  On the back of these heads it said “Armand Marseilles 390”.  That sounded like a French name to me so I bought one with brown eyes and an identical head with blue eyes.  This was too good to be true!  More French dolls.  And it was too good to be true.  Armand Marseilles dolls are German and not in the same league and my Parisian darling.

By this time I was hot on the trail of old dolls.

As the word spread around my small town a few people gave me their dolls some of which were very good.

One elderly lady, when faced with going to a nursing home, gave me her black china headed doll from 1870 with a trunk full of clothes made by this lady’s mother in the 1870s.  The wardrobe of clothes with every conceivable garment from the period plus sheets, pillowcases and shams, even a quilt and bedspread was very special and wonderful.  The doll’s name is Amy Fiske.

Amy Fiske is wearing one of her summer dresses
and holding her summer straw hat in her lap.

Amy Fiske made her national debut last month when she was featured in an eleven page spread in DOLL NEWS magazine, the magazine of the United Federation of Doll Collectors.  She now has many new friends and fans.

In this photo Amy is posing with her
Jenny Lind trunk and wearing her winter
coat, muff and pillbox hat with faux fur.

My dedication to this collection has been sporadic.  The dolls will be packed away for years and then brought out when some new doll or other inspiration renews my passion for dolls.

But there is one doll that I always wanted and never owned. While almost all antique dolls came from Germany with a few from France and wax dolls from England, very few were made in  America.  One exception was the Greiner doll, a doll I coveted but that constantly had eluded me.  

Greiner dolls, the first dolls to be patented in America, were the papier-mache headed  dolls, created and patented  in 1858 by Ludwig Greiner, a German immigrant in Philadelphia. There were other dolls being made in this mid-century period but the numbers were small in comparison to the vast numbers of dolls being imported from Germany.

So what could be more exciting to me than an auction with many dolls for sale.

This “dolls at auction” scenario came true this week in a nearby town.  Among the dolls to be auctioned was the coveted Greiner doll…the doll that had eluded me during a lifetime of interest in dolls.  Sometimes I couldn’t afford them; sometimes the condition was too bad, and at other times they were over-restored with their battered faces garishly repainted.  

The doll to be auctioned was advertised as "composition".  To be sure it was really a Greiner I sent the auction photo to an expert in this field of doll collecting, Edyth O’Neill in Texas.  Edyth, after enlarging the photo assured me it was most likely a Greiner.  With doll prices having bottomed out, I thought this might be the the time, this might the place and this might be the doll for me. 

I arrived early to look for the label on the doll.  There it was, “Greiner’s, Improved Patent Heads, Pat. March 30th ‘58”. (as in 1858)

The Greiner label is clear and crisp dating the doll to 1858

Having the doll come up for bid very late in the auction, I refrained from buying any of the other dolls offered, saving my money for the Greiner.  So I waited and waited for several hours.  By the time the doll was auctioned in was late in the auction and many had left.  None of the dolls had brought any fancy prices. In fact, the prices were pathetic.  The Greiner didn’t bring a fancy price either.  I won the doll for $125.

Penelope is very somber as she surveys her new home

She was dressed in some nice garments.  Some were probably hers and other ill-fitting garments were too big or inappropriate for her.  She does need a proper dress.

A beautiful blouse, another chemise and a large petticoat will be passed on to other dolls.

A friend asked me what her name was.  I hadn't even thought about that!

"I think her name should be Penelope", responded my friend.  So Penelope it is.

Please meet the new kid at my house...Penelope!

This dress has to go.  It is the wrong style and the wrong size but the best we could do
on short notice.

Here are some of the extras that came with her but not fitting.

Front of blouse with nice detail
Back of blouse with tiny buttons

Here are a two more of the extra garments.                       
Another chemise

Petticoat for a large doll

Thinking that I had covered this story I prepared to post it today, Sunday.  The post had been written for at least ten days but never published because the computer problems interfered.  But another bizarre chapter was about to be written.

A long time friend and intermittent doll collector from another town came to visit yesterday: Saturday.  I proudly presented Penelope and went on a great length about the disastrous prices at this auction and how doll prices had bottomed out.  As we drove away from my house to attend an evening event I was still going on and on about the distressingly low prices.  I then urged my friend not to even think about selling any dolls right now. Then I remarked, "You still have all of your dolls, I hope."  To which my friend responded, "No. You just bought one of them."  What?  I could hardly comprehend what my friend was saying.  It was true. All those dolls sold at auction belonged to my friend.  The collection built at great expense over time at the top of the market had been forfeited for peanuts.  Penelope was the Greiner doll my friend had bought but I had never seen.  

I was so upset I could hardly drive my car.  No, it wasn't my loss.  In fact, it was my gain but that didn't make me feel any better and I am still in shock.  I kept wondering whose dolls they were that were being offered and sold  for such low prices but would never have guessed.. 

As I sat there in the auction hall I was distressed for the owner of this collection of good dolls that were on the auction block in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Little did I know....

But for Penelope there is a happy ending.  She will get a new dress.  That is the least I can do for the doll I waited fifty years to own.

Thanks for reading.