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Thursday, February 6, 2014

February 6, 2014: House Histories: Caroline Osgood Emmerton

[Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851) is one of the 19th century’s most interesting historical novels—but the real House is full of significant American histories in its own right. This week I’ll blog about five such histories, leading up to a special weekend Guest Post from one of Salem’s foremost AmericanStudiers!]

On the unique and inspiring woman who made the house into the House.
Caroline Osgood Emmerton (1866-1942), whose grandfather John Bertram became one of Salem’s wealthiest and then one of its most philanthropic merchants in the Great Age of Sail, likewise used that family fortune in support of one of the most active and influential civic lives in the city’s history. She and her family endowed and funded countless Salem efforts, from the Public Library and Public Welfare Society to the Seamen’s Widow and Orphan Society and the Salem Fraternity Boys Club. She helped found the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, still going strong in the 21st century as Historic New England. But most unique and to my mind most impressive of all her endeavors was her creation and development of the city’s first settlement house.
Emmerton started her settlement house in 1907, nearly two decades after Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House in Chicago, so the idea itself wasn’t particularly radical (if still important and far from common across America’s communities). But Emmerton’s next step is what truly distinguished her settlement house—the house was located in a building across the street from what was then known as the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, and in 1908 Emmerton decided to buy that mansion and convert it into the historic and cultural site the House of the Seven Gables, the proceeds from which could support the settlement house’s activities and outreach. The new site opened into 1910, and to my knowledge it was a first—that is, just as there were already plenty of other settlement houses, so too were there lots of historic and cultural sites inspired by authors, artists, social and cultural leaders; but Emmerton’s house, combining remembrance and service as it did, was as far as I know one of a kind.
Hull House and Addams have been the subject of various and often convincing critiques in recent years, as has the “Americanization” movement to which settlements houses (including Emmerton’s) generally connected. But while that movement certainly could slip into prejudice or discrimination of various kinds, it also had the potential to recognize and embrace unifying American experiences across national, ethnic, and racial lines; and I would argue that Emmerton framed her effort in precisely that latter way, noting, “If, as is generally conceded, the settlements do the best Americanization work, should not this settlement excel whose home is the ancient House of Seven Gables, the foundations of which were laid by the first immigrants who came here long ago, strangers in a strange land.” I can think of few more compelling, nor more American, connections than of early 20th century immigrants to Salem’s 17th century settlers—and, as the next two posts will highlight, the House has continued to make and act on such connections.
Last House history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?


  1. Rob, Thanks for highlighting the ingenuity of Ms. Emmerton! I have not done a lot of research, but have a hunch she is probably one of America's earliest examples of a "social entrepreneur" and The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association one of the first true Social Enterprises? I'd be interested in your thoughts on that.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Kara! I agree that she was a pioneer in that kind of endeavor, and the linkage of the settlement movement to that kind of enterpreneurship does seem to differentiate her even from most of her contemporaries and peers.