[In early May, with the lockdown closing in around us a bit, my sons and I took a daytrip up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where we walked around the historic waterfront area (masked and at a social distance from fellow visitors, natch). This week I’ll highlight a handful of histories from this multi-layered New England community, leading up to a special post on other NE historic daytrips!]
On the importance of remembering material culture histories, and why we also need to go beyond them.
A few years back, in this post on the (then) newly christened Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park, I highlighted for comparison another exemplary such park—the Salem (MA) Maritime National Historic Site. The centerpiece of Salem Maritime is the Derby (pronounced DAR-by) Wharf, a long walk out into Salem Harbor which features a reconstructed ship, numerous historic markers, exhibits, and other information for visitors. Yet across all those wonderful interpretative areas, there is (or was as of the last time I was there, anyway) just one brief mention of slavery, a corner of a historic marker that highlights the so-called triangular trade which brought goods to Salem in direct relationship to bringing enslaved people to the Caribbean. Yet in truth, not only was the triangular trade far more central to Salem’s industries than the Wharf indicates, but the trade also brought enslaved people to Salem, where their work was similarly instrumental to every aspect of the town’s commerce for much of the 17th and 18th centuries. Slavery isn’t the overt focus of Salem Maritime NHS, and I’m not arguing that it has to be—but it has always seemed to me that minimizing such human histories in favor of material culture exhibits (which is mostly what the recreated Derby Wharf features) means at best telling only a piece of the story, if not indeed separating pieces that are ultimately, entirely interconnected.
I had a similar reaction to the historic marker along the Portsmouth waterfront which highlights the Portsmouth Marine Railway. To quote from the marker’s intro, “In 1833 a group of prominent Portsmouth merchants organized The Marine Railway Company and installed a set of tracks from the water to the brick machine house still standing today near this site. When coupled with two horses, the machinery could, as the owners proclaimed, ‘draw vessels of 500 tons and upwards, entirely out of water, placing them in a situation where any part of their hulls can be inspected or repaired with great dispatch.’ The Portsmouth Marine Railway Company continued to operate until the mid-1850s. Thereafter the wealthy merchant Leonard Cotton bought it and ran it as a private venture.” The remainder of the marker includes H.F. Walling’s map of the waterfront in 1850, a recent photo of the building that served as the Railway’s Headhouse, an etching of a “careened” ship being worked on, and two paintings of ships, including one by yesterday’s blog subject Thomas P. Moses. Taken together, the text and images certainly create a multi-layered portrait of both the Railway and its historical and economic contexts, offering a lens into a part of the waterfront’s material culture that has largely disappeared (the Headhouse remains, but the tracks and everything else are no more).
I appreciate all those aspects of the marker and what it adds to my knowledge and understanding, but I can’t help but feel that something is missing from it: people! The intro text does feature those “prominent merchants” and later that “wealthy merchant,” so I suppose I mean something more specific: the working people who operated the Railway, repaired the careened ships, made this material and commercial enterprise happen. Even the caption for the careened ship image uses the passive voice to elide those workers: “ships were ‘careened,’” “This was done by attaching lines to their masts and rolling the vessels…” We learn about the two horses (and I don’t mean to downplay their role and labor in any way), but nothing about the human power that drove this Portsmouth innovation. By the 1830s and 40s those workers were not enslaved, so to be clear I’m not directly paralleling this to the Salem Maritime elision. But who were they? What do we know about their identities, communities, backgrounds, training, lives? Did any of them reflect upon either their work or this part of the waterfront commercial world? Were any injured or killed when a ship careened the wrong way? Those and many similar questions wouldn’t just add more of a human side to this marker—they are fundamental to the material culture and economic histories being highlighted there, and require much more awareness and engagement than they too often receive.
Last Portsmouth post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other historic sites or daytrips you’d highlight?
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