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, November 26, 2014


No, I am not talking about myself.  I am talking about a very old doll!

For all of my life I have spent varying amounts of time in the summer on Cape Ann (Gloucester and Rockport, Massachusetts)  before becoming a permanent resident thirty five years ago.  These summer vacations were so special to me that it is no wonder that I and so many others like me eventually have found their way back and made this place by the sea, America's oldest seaport, their home.

In the late 1940s my mother and her friends would take frequent antiquing trips, often around the Monadnock region of New Hampshire; Fitzwilliam, Keene, Rindge, Peterborough and north central Massachusetts.  I was too young to stay home alone all day so had to accompany the ladies as they went from shop to shop.

On one of these outings I found an old doll in a corner on the floor.  After a lot of begging I got the doll for $1.50. This doll turned out to be a very special French Jumeau.  That event inspired me to keep looking for old dolls to collect.  My mother encouraged me and often made dresses for dolls acquired along the way.  None equaled the first one; it was surely beginners luck, but many more dolls, some better than others, came my way.

In the summer of 1950 we visited an antique shop in Rockport on Cape Ann.  The shop was in a very old house and was called "Saltbox Antiques" after the shape of the ancient house with its long sloping roof in the back and a huge chimney emerging from the ridgepole. The owner was a well known antiques dealer named Louis Polack.

The 1757 house built by Ephraim Shelden.  The saltbox was added by the Rowe Brothers circa 1787.
Inside the shop I found a very old china doll.  Her head was made of china, her black hair with a part in the middle was painted on with no wig.  Her body was cloth. Once again my mother consented and shelled out $10 for this doll.  The doll was wearing some undergarments but no dress.  My Mom made her a dress which now, more than sixty years later looks as old as the doll..Time has taken its toll on the fabric.

Brilliant blue eyes and pursed lips are the
distinctive features of the very old china doll.

Mother took my doll collecting seriously and each time Ifound a new doll she filled out an index card that went in a file box.  On the index card she stated the date and place where I found the doll, the cost, the value, the marks on the doll and any other pertinent information.  She also listed the name of the doll which in this case was simply "Saltbox"

Old index card from August 1950 describing the doll
Recently an acquaintance gave me the name and phone number of a lady in Rockport who lived in one of the oldest houses in the town.  She had some questions about her house.  Although I am no longer a Realtor, I was for many years, specializing in old and historic houses.  This mutual friend urged me to call her and look at her house.  The owner of the house, by the way, is a puppeteer..

Before going to meet the owners and see the house I did a little research to find out what kind of a house I was going to visit. You guessed it!  It was the old saltbox house; the same house from which I had acquired my old doll that long ago summer.

I called and made an appointment to meet the owners and see the house.  But first I unearthed the doll and my mother's index card with the date on which I had been there as a child.  It was August 1950.  I took the doll and the old card with me much to the delight of the homeowner.  As someone who loves dolls and puppets she was amazed that I had been in her house so many years ago and that the doll had been there, too.  Her first question was to ask the name of the doll.  For some reason she never did get an appropriate name.  I just called her "Saltbox".

We toured the house.  Then over a cup of coffee I reminisced and shared my memory of the house and what it looked like way back then in 1950.  I certainly couldn't recall too many specifics or even which room the doll was in when I found her.  But I could not forget the general appearance of what was  probably the oldest house I had ever been in at that time with its expanse of pine paneling and sheathing,  huge cooking fireplace and heavy beams.

Now that "Saltbox" is seeing the light of day for the first time in years she is comfortably seated  in a Windsor armchair in my house.  For the time being at least, "Saltbox" is out of her box and enjoying a place in my house just as I enjoy looking at her; a reminder of my happy childhood and that long ago summer vacation when I found her at the "Saltbox Antique Shop" in Rockport.

Old doll, circa 1850, from the saltbox house in Rockport. She has
lost one shoe but is still in hopes it will be found.

The plaque on the house says that it is the Zebulon Parsons house circa 1740 but a little research turned up new and different information.  It is the Ephraim Shelden house built after the land was purchased in 1757.  Shelden relocated to Woolwich, Maine in the 1780s and the house was sold to Ebenzer and Benjamin Rowe.  Apparently these two brothers added the saltbox in the rear with two cooking fireplaces to accomodate two families.

It has long been thought of as the Zebulon Parsons house, a nice old sounding name.  Zebulon Parsons, however, did not own the house until the late 19th century and was there until 1901.  The house had a long history before Zebulon came on the scene.

That is why with all of the new information available online many houses need to be checked.
Tradition can not always be equated with accuracy!

But whatever the name, it is a great old house!

Friday, November 21, 2014


It has been a little over a year since I began this blog and there have been changes in two of the houses about which I wrote that you might find interesting. .

First, there was the story about the two houses that we looked at in the early 1970s with the intent to buy one of them. They were both in Newburyport, MA where rehabilitation under urban renewal was just beginning to come to fruition. We had a hard time deciding which one to buy for investment.

One house was clearly the better buy for investment purposes.  It was a legal four family antique for $8,000. The other was a diamond in the rough but was legally only a two family. Last year I reported the price tag was $12,000.  (It may have been only $10,000)  The cheaper, larger, four family house was hands down the better investment.

Here is what I posted on October 12, 2013.

While looking for old photos for the blog I discovered I had a group of old faded Polaroids from 1972 when we purchased an old house for investment.

We had only been living back in Essex County for a short time in 1972; perhaps only a few weeks, when my husband heard about a circa 1750 house that could be bought for $8,000.  It was a legal four family house that was tenanted by one family with children.  It had been condemned twice in the past and condemnation was looming again.

This is the house we bought.
Old House about 1940.  This house has suffered.  The picture says it all..
We were looking for something to buy and had our eye on an old house that was a legal two family for $12,000.  The owner lived in two rooms on the second floor.  He agreed to show us the house on a Saturday afternoon in the winter.  As luck would have it there was a blizzard but we were too eager to be deterred.  We had to leave our car some distance away and trudge to the house knee deep in snow; the absolute worst possible conditions under which to look at a cold, dilapidated old house.

The front door opened and immediately the beauty of the hall and staircase and, as I said, made me weak in the knees!  The staircase was Georgian and approached through a beautiful arch.  Even the cold and the snow didn't diminish my enthusiasm for this house.

This is the same style of arch as in the house we didn't buy.  I don't know
what the post is on the left of the stair.  It doesn't seem to belong there.  This house
is no longer standing so the extra post doesn't matter any more.  The house I loved is still standing.
On paper, however, the $8,000 house made more sense for our purposes so we went ahead with that deal,  even though our hearts were with the other, the house with the beautiful staircase..

And, by the way, the house we didn't buy was also restored and I have been inside since restoration but not recently.  It is beautiful! The stair hall still makes me weak in the knees!

Nov. 2014

Just a few days ago I discovered that the house with the beautiful stair hall was on the market so I eagerly looked at the new photos.  I still love that house!  The hall still makes me weak in the knees.  So now I can share the pictures of the real hall with you instead of the look-alike hall (above) that I included last year.

The house is now $700,000,  Time and improvements have brought it a very long way.  I will include a few other recent photos from the Internet and give you the link to the listing. Who knows?  Maybe someone will be inspired to move to Newburyport, MA to live in a wonderful Georgian house on a quiet street.

Since the house is the oldest in the area it appears that the street it is on was originally the long drive to the house whose land extended down to the nearby Merrimack River.

It does need a fresh coat of yellow ochre paint on the exterior but there is nothing shabby inside.  Here is a peek.

Georgian splendor in Newburyport, MA

Step over the threshold into a beautiful Georgian interior

The piece de resistance, the hall and staircase
The hall bathed in a different light

A peek into the parlor

If you would like to see more, here is the link to the listing on www. realtor.com.



Last year on October 3rd I wrote about a little house that was being  bulldozed. (DEMOLISHED!) I was really upset that a house built  c.1860 was going to be destroyed.

Admittedly, the house was not very significant.  It was small and rather plain although it did have a lovely view of Ipswich Bay.  So why would anyone want to save this little fisherman's cottage?

To me it was important. Here's why.

It's all about the streetscape.This house was one in a long line of houses that were equally old or older. There hadn't been any intrusions for quite a distance.  The original owner was from the Lane family for whom this village, Lanesville,was named.  For over three hundred years the fishermen in this village had gone out to fish in the bay from the nearby Lane's Cove including the owner of this little house.
Lane's Cove
The house was demolished and the new house is complete.  To their credit the new owners oriented the house to the street with the gable end facing the street in a nod toward its neighbors who are mostly oriented the same way with the exception of several two hundred year old houses with a center entrance..

It is hard to define the new house architecturally but the old house didn't fall into any special category architecturally, either.  It was just a "cottage", a modest fisherman's house.

The new house although somewhat larger does not really overwhelm any of the others. In fact it resembles them!

To sum it up, it has some charming features and I think it will soon settle in and take its place in the neighborhood without destroying the rhythm of the streetscape that previously existed.  I wish that it was not the same color as the house next door but that is cosmetic and not really important.

The message that I am always trying to get across is that the streetscape is important and must be considered when replacing a "missing tooth". In this case the owners seem to have looked at the big picture and did nothing to dwarf or conflict with the houses that had surrounded it for 165 years and more.

The old house wasn't saved but some of my fears of a McMansion or something equally unsympathetic to the neighborhood were unfounded.  

The reality is that we can't save everything!

To combat the recent wave of tear downs (not in Ipswich but elsewhere) the town of Ipswich, a showcase of early houses has just passed and Architectural Preservation District, APD, in an attempt to insure that it doesn't happen in Ipswich.  It covers an area of the town that contains the largest concentration of old houses and prohibits the destruction of a significant house in the new district.  This is much stronger than a demolition delay ordinance that only slows down the demolition for a  period of time such as six month or a year.  This by-law does not get into cosmetics, or siding and such.  But it keeps the houses standing.  In this town that had previously rejected the idea of an historic district more than once, the APD was enthusiastically accepted.  Here is the statement of what Ipswich hopes to accomplish

"Purpose: The purpose of the bylaw is to preserve and protect groups of buildings and the characteristics of their neighborhood settings that are important to the architectural, cultural, economic, political or social history of the town of Ipswich. The bylaw is also intended to limit the detrimental effect of alterations, additions, demolitions and new construction on the character of such buildings and their neighborhood settings. Through this bylaw, alterations, additions, demolition and new construction may be reviewed for compatibility with the existing buildings, setting and neighborhood character. This bylaw seeks to encourage the protection of the built environment through a combination of binding and non-binding regulatory review."

Perhaps this concept should be considered by other communities in New England that have so much to lose and are watching their historical properties slipping away.

Something each town might want to think about.

Happy Thanksgiving to readers all over the world from New England .


First Thanksgiving, by Ferris
"The First Thanksgiving." Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930), unknown date.