Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Longfellow jug and a Carlyle vase - literary bric-a-brac at the Peabody Essex Museum

I saw such odd things in the Decorative Arts section of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Just below the Hawthorne portrait, and a bit to the right, are a couple of Wedgwood memorial pieces, a Thomas Carlyle vase from 1882 and a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - what is it? a milk jug? - from 1883, both produced a year after the death of each author. * (See correction below)

The Longfellow whatsit is on the left. I can't find, and didn't take, a picture of the Carlyle vase. For some reason, the Longfellow souvenir does not seem nearly as ridiculous as the Carlyle knickknack, which featured the scowling author and a thistle motif, presumably because Carlyle was himself a sort of human thistle. I wish I had a picture of it.

The back of the Longfellow piece features a chunk of his long poem "Keramos" (1878):

Turn, turn, my wheel? Turn round and round
Without a pause, without a sound:
So spins the flying world away!
This clay, well mixed with marl and sand,
Follows the motion of my hand;
Far some must follow, and some command,
Though all are made of clay!

It's a poem about ceramics, printed on a piece of ceramics! How about that. And it's about death. Everything in one package. No idea why that question mark is there.

If the jug is not kitschy enough, take a look at this thing, "Why don't you speak for yourself, John," (1892) a plaster rendering of a scene from "The Courtship of Miles Standish." Big devil, maybe a foot high, more. I don't know what to make of these objects. They're a glimpse of a lost world, that's for certain. I do not regret that we no longer appreciate our authors in this manner.

The Peabody Essex Museum is not a conventional art museum. It is founded on the collections of early 19th century Salem merchants and ship captains, many of whom specialized in trade with China, Polynesia, and, eventually, Japan, and who did not necessarily have what would now be considered the best possible taste. Although many of the museum's pieces are of high aesthetic interest, many others are more like specimens. The museum does not attempt to hide this either. Their key collection is labeled "Asian Export Art."

And this is aside from objects like the first stuffed penguin ever exhibited in North America. Ratty thing. I'd love to spend more time in the museum, piecing together the story of who collected what and why.

* I misread the date somewhere. The Longfellow jug, as a friendly commenter points out, was produced in 1880, while Longfellow was alive. For more information, see Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning by Regina Lee Blaszczyk, 2002, John Hopkins University Press.


  1. I went to Salem years ago, in high school, but did not go here. (I did go to the house of seven gables, inside and everything, though I barely remember it.) The thistle motif sounds like a good reason to stop back in Salem, which I generally liked, if I ever get to go on the trip to New England I've been begging a certain someone to join me on. (First stop: New Bedford whaling museum!)

  2. Yes, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, I'd love to go there. I've hardly been anywhere in New England. Just through books.

  3. The Wedgwood jug wasn't produced after Longellow's death. It was given to him at Christmas 1880 by Richard Briggs, oner of the oldest china store in America at the time.

  4. Thanks a lot - I put a correction in the post.