Gordon College News Service
(This story appeared March 3, 2014, in the online edition of The Boston Globe, and March 5, 2014, in the print/online editions of The Salem News.)
SALEM—Some people think of The House of the Seven Gables as the home base for all things Nathaniel Hawthorne. Lucky patrons of the Gables—usually troops of elementary school students—may remember the historic house as a quaint destination where they climbed up the notable secret staircase. But this month, guests of the House of the Seven Gables will experience a different aspect of history: a Golden Age exhibit of high society and ornate handbags.
The exhibit, run by Karen Barter, the Gables’ director of development, will stage a variety of handbags dating from the early 20th century throughout the historic home. It opens March 4 and runs until March 17.
“These bags are little treasures,” said Barter. “If you got one of these for Christmas, you knew your husband loved you.”
Because the bags come from various eras and countries, each bag is unique. Several will be staged with backgrounds, like a grand piano, alongside other historical pieces like clothing and opera glasses.
The pocketbook, for instance, used in the “wedding” stage is covered in pearls, created by iconic French designer Paul Poriet. Predating Poriet’s pouch-style bag are others, including one made entirely of metal mesh. These laboriously crafted mesh pocketbooks were posh during the 1930s.
The unique accessories are a combination of two collections, one owned by Mary Lou Ferriero, and the other by Marion Powers, an art teacher at Manchester-Essex Regional High School who owns about 100 such pocketbooks.
“I have always loved art and history,” said Powers. “I see the pocketbooks as beautiful works of art, like small sculptures.”
Barter saw the pocketbook exhibit as a great opportunity to build on the Gables two-fold mission that began over a hundred years ago. Since 1910, Caroline Emmerton, then the owner of the Gables, opened the house as a transitional house for newly immigrated families where they could live and learn useful skills such as English. Ever since, it has been serving Salem’s immigrant population.
“Most people remember us as the place with the hidden staircase,” said Barter, who sees historical education and preservation as an instrumental part of the Gables. “Our other mission (has always been) to serve immigrant kids and families.”
Today, their service to immigrant families continues most notably through their Caribbean Connection program. Funded through a grant held by the Essex National Heritage Foundation and sponsored by PBS documentarian Ken Burns, Caribbean Connection helps kids of Caribbean descent discover how their ancestors helped contribute to Salem today.
In the Caribbean Connection, children do their own research, attend classes at the Gables and go on field trips. Kids learn about how the trade triangle of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in which all types of goods were exchanged between the Caribbean, Salem and England, makes them a part of Salem’s history.
“Two different immigrant mothers told me that they didn’t feel connected with Salem. They didn’t even want to go to parent-teacher conferences,” said Barter. “But this program is a fabulous connection for those families. It builds self-esteem.”
That mission is also part of the reason Powers decided to bring her collection of handbags to Hawthorne’s house.
“Aside from the beauty of the buildings, and its history, I appreciate what the Gables stands for,” Powers said.
And like the Caribbean Connection, Powers believes these pocketbooks also build bridges between the past and the present. In fact, as she prepared for the exhibit, Powers brought pocketbooks into the classroom for her students to draw. Even though the bags are from the time of their great, great-grandparents, she wants young people to experience their legacy and understand how such symbols can transcend cultures.
“I see these historical artifacts as inspiration for new creations,” said Powers.
The Antique Pocketbook Exhibit will be on display from March 4-17, 2014. The Gables is open from 10 AM to 5PM, excepting Wednesdays thru April 9. Admission for Gables’ Members is free. Non-Member price is $7 per adult and $3 per child (under 12).