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

Sunday, April 13, 2014



In my previous post, “At the Auction”, I talked about becoming a doll collector inspired by finding a French Jumeau doll in a dilapidated back-yard antiques shop.  As the word got around that I was interested in antique dolls, several people gave me their childhood dolls.  Some of the dolls that came my way were 
particularly nice.
French Jumeau, Cosette, found in a back
yard junk shop for $1.50.
Ada Carleton (left) and Amy Fiske (right)  Ada is a fine doll sometimes
called a "china Greiner" dating to the 1850s.  Amy dates to 1870 and
with her extensive wardrobe just appeared in Doll News magazine.  Both
dolls were gifts from neighbors and friends,
Over the course of many years the dolls would take a back seat only to re-emerge because of collector friends who would inspire me at least temporarily.

In the fall of 2013 my life changed in a single day.  Here is what happened.

A lady whom I had never met came to Cape Ann from Texas for a three week vacation.  My friend,  
Peggy, found her a place to stay although they had never met either. 

However, we knew a bit about this lady; her reputation as a doll collector, dealer in antiques and hooked rug designer, just for starters, had preceded this talented lady. I was persuaded to unpack some of my dolls for Edyth to see.

Peggy and Edyth arrived for a tea party and an afternoon of playing with dolls.  Dolls were scattered all over my living room.  It was an afternoon that changed my life.
Peggy (left) and Edyth (right) surrounded  by dolls and snacks in my cluttered living room
taken over by dolls.
As we got better acquainted it became clear to Edyth that for Peggy doll making and collecting was a primary interest and that my area of expertise was old houses.  Edyth declared that Peggy and I must have blogs, just as she has.  This was the last thing on my mind.  I hadn’t paid attention to blogs or followed any blogs. 

By the following day Edyth had contacted her friend, Dixie, in Maine who set up two new blogs.  Suddenly Peggy and I both had blogs!  It seemed to me that things were moving faster than I could digest but, what the heck, I jumped in anyway.  My first blog was posted in October and less than six months later I have thirty seven posts under my belt and still writing, writing, writing.

My interest in dolls has also been revived and I actually added a new doll to my collection for the first time in years.  (See “At the Auction”).

Penelope, a papier mache doll, patented by
Ludwig Greiner in 1858.  Notice that her style
matches Ada ( above)  Same style, different
material. Same age.
But Edyth was not through yet!  

One of my dolls mentioned in “At the Auction” was a doll named Amy Fiske.  Amy was so named by her original owner who received the doll for her birthday in 1870.  Amy is remarkable because of her extensive wardrobe of beautiful handmade garments.

Amy Fiske, 1870
Upon returning to Texas Edyth alerted her contacts at Doll News magazine about my special doll, Amy.   Before I knew it Amy was going to be featured in the January (2014) issue of the quarterly magazine.  At 144 years of age Amy made the big time in a multi-page spread in this most beautiful magazine of special dolls.  I couldn’t be more proud and appreciative of Edyth’s intervention.

Nor could I possibly have imagined the speed with which my blog traveled to the farthest corners of the planet with the nicest comments contributed by readers.

Recently one of the comments came from a childhood friend, Susan, with whom I shared a playhouse. After an Internet search I found her number and called her.  We had a heartwarming conversation. (See “Childhood Impressions Can Last a Lifetime”.)

I urge you to check out Edyth’s blog called “My Red Cape”. (edythoneill.blogspot.com) and Peggy’s blog, “Dolls in the Neatest Manner". (peggyflavin.blogspot.com)  Just as I deviate from houses to talk about dolls, Peggy likewise, delves into old houses.  Edyth’s blog talks about dolls, houses, gardening and all the the things that we enjoy and you probably enjoy similarly.
Edyth's blog logo, "My Red Cape"
You will also realize that Peggy’s house is the Oliver Griffin cottage that appeared in my post on gambrel roofed cottages houses of Cape Ann.  You will be able to get a peek of the inside of this charming house if you take a look at Peggy's blog.
Two of Peggy's meticulous made-by-hand
dolls, Eliza and Jane, in the style of Izannah Walker
If you enjoy my blog you surely will want to add these two blogs to your favorites.  You won’t be disappointed.

As always, I appreciate your responses.  The number of "hits" and the far off places from which they originate boggles the mind.  It has been an exciting trip and it all began with a tiny but mighty lady from Texas who took charge and led us down this  road.

Thank you, Edyth.

Thursday, April 3, 2014



The obvious way to date a house is to do the deed research, discover the chain of title to ascertain when a house appeared on the previously vacant land.  Right?

Only partially right!  Here is why this doesn't always work.

Deeds follow the land not the buildings.  Simply relying on the the chain of title we look for the words "dwelling" , "buildings" or "house".  We are elated as we go back through the deeds and the reference to a house on the lot is still there.  Often this leads us to an early date.  Everyone wants their house to be OLD and better yet, even OLDER.  So what is wrong with that?

When a deed refers to a house on the site you have no idea what the house looked like or if it is even the same house that is there now.  Chances are it isn't the same house.  Houses were replaced with better houses doing away with an early settler's cottage or even a substantial house.  Houses burned.  Chimney fires set the wood roofs on fire destroying a house. In other cases the lot was subdivided with a newer house built on the new smaller lot.

One day a lady told me she was researching her house. I knew her house, it was similar to my own house and I commented that I thought it was built around 1860.  I will never forget her retort.  She said, "I'm here to tell you that I am back before 1840 and still going."  I knew what had happened because I just happened to have researched the older house right next door.  I knew that the lot had been subdivided about the time her house was built and her house, the newer house, was built on the newly created lot.

The lesson here, although this process may seem oversimplified, is to take a hard look at the house and estimate how old you think it is.  The house in this instance was a pre Civil War Gothic revival.  The house next door with a center entrance was full of fireplaces.  Hers had none.  The house next door was obviously older. This is a common mistake.. Her research had taken her back to the time when there was one bigger lot with one older house before the lot was subdivided and her house was built.  She was now researching the wrong house, the house next door!

Tracing a lot back to the late 17th or early 18th century and still finding a house on the lot does not mean that the house is necessarily a first period house.  A first period house (built before approximately 1725) would have a decorated frame with chamfers on the beams that were meant to be exposed.  If the frame is undecorated there is no way that it is a first period house no matter how much the owner wants it to be and no way that it was built in the 17th or early 18th century.

Therefore it is not sufficient to rely on the deeds alone. There has to be a correlation between the deeds and the physical evidence.  Both need to be considered.  Often if you can estimate a date based on the physical evidence and then look at the chain of title you can sometimes discover possible clues to substantiate the evolution of the house.  The deeds can reveal dates such as when it was sold to a new family who may have replaced the earlier house.  The concept of "tear downs" is not necessarily new. Or perhaps there was a marriage or a death signaling change in the ownership that often coincides with a major change in the house.  New owners, just as today, will remodel or rebuild. So look for milestones in the ownership of the house to see if they correspond to changes in the house or perhaps a house that is entirely new.

Here in Gloucester we do a fair amount of research before approving a plaque for a house.  It is not that we are imposing restrictions on the style or the age of an acceptable house  but rather we are committed to getting the correct date on the signs. As I travel around New England I observe signs proudly displayed on houses that are blatantly incorrect.

In one instance, as a Realtor, I sold a house with a 17th century date that was at least thirty or more years earlier than it really was.  The conscientious owner, upon realizing that the date was incorrect,  removed the plaque from the front of the house and put it in the cellar. The house was sold and the new owner immediately put the incorrect sign back on the house and there it is to this day nearly twenty years later.

So what can an owner do to "get it right"? There is one accurate way to date a house although pricey. It is called dendrochronology or "dendro" for short.  It is a study of tree rings.

Tree rings to the waney edge

For each year a tree grows a ring.  If it is a drought year the ring is small.  If it is a wet year the ring is wider. This pattern of the rings can be correlated to coincide with the weather pattern over the years for a particular geographic area.

The house frame  in a timber framed house is raised very shortly after the trees for the frame are felled. So being able to determine quite precisely when the trees were felled it follows that the construction of the house won't be far behind.

In order to have some degree of accuracy the beams tested must be intact out to the bark layer, the waney edge. The bark need not be present. Samples are taken from the timbers and there will be considerable consistency throughout so that a consensus can be arrived at, pinpointing the construction date with amazing accuracy. Dendro can also reveal additions, repairs or changes that are not part of the original frame. (This is a great oversimplification of the process but you get the idea.)

There is another factor causing some houses to be mis-dated.

In the colonial period nothing was squandered so that pieces of an earlier house were often recycled into the new house.  The presence of an occasional chamfered beam in a house does not mean that the house is first period but simply that the remains of an earlier house on the site or from elsewhere were utilized in the new construction.  No house should  not be dated based on a stray beam here and there. Sad to say, this happens all the time.

On day I viewed an old farmhouse with a 1686 construction date.  As I went through the house I didn't get any sense of first period or even second period.  The size of the rooms, the height of the ceilings, the appearance of the fireplaces and woodwork said circa 1800 to me.

Finally, we reached the cellar and there holding up the circa 1800 house was a magnificent summer beam with quarter round chamfers...a piece of the 1686 house for sure.  After returning to the main floor I happened to look into the cooking fireplace.  I was surprises to see that the lintel of the fireplace was a reused beam with mortise pockets in it.  A quick look around and I saw that the lintels in other fireplaces were reused beams with mortise pockets left over from their previous life. The spacing of the mortise pockets was consistent with 17th century joist spacing.  I can think of several other similar scenarios that I have seen and each house displaying the date of the early beams that were reused.  Incorporating a first period beam into the underpinning of a much later house does not make it a first period house!

In another documented case a significant beam is part of a garage.

Simon Bradstreet, a Massachusetts colonial governor, and his wife, Anne Dudley Bradstreet, the first American poetess, lived in North Andover, MA after moving from Ipswich. They owned more than one house over time.  One of their houses burned and is the subject of one of Ann Bradstreet's famous poems.
T o read her sorrowful poem on the loss of her home follow on this link.


In the mid 18th century a commodious house was built  by the Phillips family. (Phillips Andover Academy) It has been strongly suggested that one of  Simon Bradstreet's houses was located on this Phillips property. There is an ell attached to the rear of this Phillips house now converted into a garage.  Spanning the ceiling of this garage is the most beautiful decorated summer beam.  The size of the chamfer and the mortise pocket spacing denotes a 17th century house.  As you stare at the magnificent and ancient beam in this modern setting it is hard to picture Ann or Simon Bradstreet sitting under this great beam in front of their fireplace in a house that is no more!  But this stray beam is just a fragment.  It doesn't mean that this Phillips house is 17th century.  It is simply a reused beam.

These are some of the pitfalls of trying to date a house.  Don't jump to impetuous conclusions.  And please understand that being older does not always mean better in this apparent competition to own the oldest house.  Each house should be judged on its architectural merits: who lived in it and what happened  to it rather than getting hung up on a "my house is older than  your house" syndrome.

Other helpful sources can assist you along the way.

Old maps often show the footprint of the house and even may produce a name on the house. These maps (often from the period 1850 to 1900) can reveal to you whether or not  the footprint matches the house and is the name on the lot the same as the name in your chain of title for that time frame.  Is there a match?

Assessors' records for your community can be helpful if available.  They may indicate if there is a building on the lot. A sudden increase in the assessment suggests changes.  These records can also indicate hints such as "new house" or "unfinished house".

It is also helpful to know that more and more information is coming online all the time.  Here in Essex County, MA deeds from 1640 to the present are now online.  Probate records including wills and inventories are also online up to 1842 with more to come.  A researcher hardly needs to leave home to get at the official information. This is huge!  In addition, old maps and atlases are also on line.  One of the best sources is the Leventhal Map Collection at the Boston Public Library with maps for all areas.  Copies of early maps can be purchased from Historic Mapworks. (historicmapworks.com)

These are some of the tools available to you that are often accessible from the comfort of your home.  All should be utilized and checked until you are confident that you have an appropriate construction date.

Strive for accuracy.  Don't be like the people I know that suspect that their house is mis-dated but like it the way it is and don't want to rock the boat to get to the truth. Trying to pass a house off as older than it is will always be recognized by those who know the difference.

Enjoy your old house and accept it for what it is.  If you are planning to place a plaque on your house or replace be sure to get it right!

Thanks for reading.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014


In the middle 1970s I was living in Newburyport, MA but spending summers on Cape Ann where I now live full time. In Newburyport I had friends that lived in an 18th century house down near the Merrimac River with a large walk-in fireplace.

On Cape Ann I knew a family who frequented the same small family beach where my family spent long summer days.

The acquaintance from Cape Ann fancied herself to be psychic.  I saw her reading books on the subject as she watched her kids on the beach.  I have to say I was pretty skeptical about the whole subject and this person in particular. She couldn't be serious!  I did not know that these two couples were acquainted with one another until my Newburyport friend told me this strange tale

The couple from Cape Ann were invited for dinner in Newburyport at the house with the large fireplace. After dinner the two couples sat around the fireplace chatting until right out of the blue the psychic from Cape Ann insisted that there was an old shoe in the fireplace. At this point  members of the group gathered at the opening of the fireplace and began to poke around either on the sides or up in the mouth of the flue.  (I'm not sure of the details).  And sure enough:  there was the shoe!  A very old shoe it was.

What a story.  I could hardly believe it.  Certainly the credentials of the Cape Ann lady as a psychic were substantiated.  There was no way I could forget this strange incident.

Many years went by, I would say at least twenty five.  During these years I had been increasingly involved in old houses.  Little by little I began to hear stories of ancient shoes being pulled out of chimneys or walls until eventually it was acknowledged that this was more than mere coincidence.  How many shoes were found and tossed into the trash or dumpster before it was recognized that this was happening on a regular basis?

Richard Irons, restoration mason, can vouch for many having been unearthed as he restored ancient chimneys and their fireplaces.

One day Richard Irons and his crew arrived at the home of a  friend in Gloucester to go to work on the chimney as the house was being restored.  Half serious and half in jest, my friend said to one of the workers, "Let me know when  you find the shoe."  Not long afterward the worker appeared and said to my friend, "Here's your shoe!"

 Here is what the typical shoe removed from it hiding
place in the chimney looks like after so many years
Actually it probably would not have looked  much
  better when it was secreted because they would not
bury a wearable shoe.
It is now an accepted fact that shoes were concealed to ward off evil spirits when the house was constructed. In the intervening years I have heard many, many such stories and seen a fair number of the  old shoes.

As might be expected, back in the 18th century, nothing was squandered or wasted.  Hence, the concealment shoes, when brought into the light of day for the first time in 250 years, give or take a few years, are pretty battered and worn; partly from age but mostly because any shoe that they sacrificed would have been completely worn out or they would not have been relegated to the chimney.

There is some variation, however.  Shoes could also be found in the wall near a window or beneath the floor.  Many were baby or children's shoes.  Women's shoes can be found more frequently then men's.

Strangely enough, although this custom can be documented back to Europe and England, until fairly recently there had been little written about the custom or attention given to the regularity and frequency in which it occurred. The average person, even preservationists had never heard of such a thing,

The early settlers around here had roots mostly in East Anglia.  Wikipedia shows a photo of many shoes found in the region and there is even a Northampton Museum featuring concealment shoes.  Even National Geographic has acknowledged them.  This long forgotten tradition from an earlier more superstitious time is no longer a secret.

In April 1999 the magazine, Early American Homes, published the following. It sums up the tradition that was right under our nose but the story of concealment shoes literally "fell through the cracks".

Considering how  widespread and long lasting this folk belief has been, it is curious that nowhere was it described in writing until references began to appear in  mid-twentieth century archaeology literature in scholarly journals. Some speculate the tradition of hiding shoes was a male superstition, kept secret almost out of fear that telling about it would reduce its effectiveness. Others feel contemporary writers did not describe it since superstition ran counter to  prevailing religious beliefs and the Puritans punishment of witchcraft and magic was well-known.

When removing walls  especially around windows and doors, under roof rafters and behind old chimneys,  homeowners should be aware of the possibility of turning up concealment shoes. While most are found in eighteenth and nineteenth century homes, a find hidden as late as 1935 has been reported. If shoes are found, they should left exactly as they were discovered and photographed. Items found with the shoes are as important as the shoes themselves and should also be saved.

If you are restoring an old house or even just the chimney be aware that you may find a shoe. You may be shocked at its worn, dilapidated and twisted condition but don't let your contractor toss it in the trash.  How would they know or think that it was an archaeological treasure unless you tell them to look?

Think of the thousands upon thousands that have been thrown out as trash.

If you have an old shoe story please share it!

Happy hunting,


NOTE:  Here are more concealment shoes found right here in Gloucester at the Sargent House Museum.  See links in comment section below. Thank you Kimberlee.

Any more shoes out there that you would like to share?
Shoes at the Sargent House Museum here in Gloucester.

Monday, March 17, 2014



The gambrel roofed story and a half cottages that dot the shoreline from Manchester to Cape Ann and all the way around our cape are the signature houses of  Cape Ann.  This is what the average family lived in while the merchants and sea captains lived in the larger versions in the Harbor Village in Gloucester.

These dwellings were small and snug but in spite of their small size often housed very large families.
Some were only a half house with a front door on one side and a large room on the other side of the front fa├žade.   Others had a central entrance with rooms on both sides either built that way or a smaller house to which there was an early addition.

The Oliver Griffin homestead in Annisquam.  The main block
of the house depicts what these cottages consisted of before additions.

Because of their small size and hard use many have disappeared, been added onto or merged into a larger house with hardly a trace showing on the exterior.
Here is a full-fledged two story center entrance house.  The only hint of changes
is the location of the chimney below the ridgepole.  It began life as a gambrel cottage.
Today there is another large addition.

The first building period on Cape Ann, and all over New England, extended from the first settlements until about 1725 at  which time the post medieval styles of the Pilgrim Century were left behind.

In Gloucester this second period lasted from approximately 1725 or 1730 through the rest of the 18th century.  Cape Ann housewrights
embraced the gambrel roof, a change from the steeply pitched roofs of the first period. 

In Gloucester's Middle Street neighborhood, beginning in the late 1730s, many large, refined, gambrel roofed houses were built for the wealthy inhabitants of the town but the fishermen farmers lived in the vernacular cottages we now know as “Cape Ann Cottages”.

Two story full- blown Georgian house with a gambrel roof.

 In fact, a cape style house with a gambrel roof is now recognized throughout the country as a “Cape Ann Cottage”.

These tiny houses sometimes consisted of a center entrance, central chimney plan with small attic-like rooms above the main floor tucked under the gambrel roof.  Often they were just “half houses” with a door and chimney at one end.  This version could be added onto at a later date as money permitted and space was needed.
This Rockport cottage is very symmetrical including the pair of dormers
on the roof.  

This is a house which is almost a center entrance house but
there is only one window bay on the left side so that the
cottage is somewhat asymmetrical.
The windows had small panes and were double hung.  Leaded casements were still available but very old fashioned and not used in these houses.  The roof was sometimes punctuated by small dormer windows but this was not always the case.  Perhaps most of these dormers were installed later.

Another example of one dormer window in the room of this cottage
This is known as the old Tarr Cottage in Rockport, also with one dormer.
There is evidence that many were not even finished on the interior.  The proof of this is in the existence of whitewash still visible if one looks behind the plaster.  These were finished off at a later date and houses built later in the 18th century had more formal finishes on the interior from their date of construction.

Add here is the old Tarr cottage again, as it appeared ion the 19th century.
This photo is from Swan's history of Sandy Bay (Rockport)
Here is a gambrel cottage without its chimney.  Later it gained a saltbox
lean-to with a Beverly jog (so-called)  More than 100 years ago a  large
Victorian  addition was built that  dominates.
When the Cape Ann Cottages were finished on the interior they reflected the finishes in the larger, finer houses of the Harbor Village.  The fireplace walls were paneled, there were paneled doors and decorative elements.  In most cases, however, the staircase was enclosed and very narrow and steep.  The floors were pine, as was all of the woodwork. The floors remained unpainted and unfinished.

Here is another example of "the tail wagging the dog".   If you
look at the left side  you can see the gambrel cottage, the oldest
 part of the house to which  the main part was added

The rooms were frequently 16 feet in depth and contained a fireplace.  The kitchen fireplaces were very large with a bake oven built into the interior of the firebox.  A parlor fireplace was smaller and if there were fireplaces on the second floor they were diminutive.

Sometimes the woodwork was left unpainted but not by choice.  As soon as there was enough money and paint was available, the interior was decorated.

The larger houses of the period were of summer beam construction but the story and one half cottages did not have the traditional large summer beam holding up the second floor but rather a series of beams. Some of the later examples were of more typical summer beam construction.
Center entrance cottage by with evidence inside of alterations and changes
making it a center entrance.
It was said that on Cape Ann there were approximately 350 of these small cottages scattered all the way from Manchester to Gloucester Harbor and throughout North Gloucester and Rockport.  Strangely, there aren’t any in Essex, two in Ipswich and an occasional cottage here and there in Essex County.  The vast majority were right here, on Cape Ann.

By 1800, the small vernacular houses once again were being built with pitched roofs although not a steep as in the first period.  The new finishes  reflected the Federal period and no more gambrel roofed cottages were built.

In many cases the owners were poor.  These were the homes of fishermen and farmers. The houses were soon too small and they became vulnerable.  Many burned or were replaced by finer houses at a later date.
Here is the Master Moore cottage showing the profile
from the side with several additions.
Today there remain about sixty of these cottage houses.  Most of these are not intact, some are just fragments.

This cottage is known as the Master Moore house.  The right
side of the house is an addition.

Here are some of the scenarios which took place.

Often these small houses became the ell of a larger house such as the house on the corner of Essex Ave. and Lincoln Street in West Gloucester.  Rather than destroy  the house, it became an incidental appendage to the new house.

Some were so swallowed up in newer houses that they virtually disappeared.  In West Gloucester on the corner of Magnolia Ave. and
Essex Ave. is a Victorian house which shows just the corner of its original Cape Ann Cottage peeking out of the back left hand corner.
This house on Knowlton Square was moved here
from a unknown location

This tiny cottage with a big addition is in West Gloucester..  A missing chimney
might suggest that it was moved to this location.
Many were just picked up and plunked down somewhere else.  The cottage at 3 Winchester Court was moved a short distance to the back yard when the new house was built.  It began  a new life as a separate entity, unattached to the new house.
This wonderful cottage on Winchester Court was moved from the site next door when it was replaced by a Victorian.
It has bee said that the outline of the original foundation of this house remains in the cellar of the other.

  The Cape Ann Cottage on Knowlton Square was moved to that site but no one has discovered where it came from.
This sweet cottage had fallen into very bad repair but now  has
been restored.

Several were torn down in recent years and replaced with modern construction such as the one on Western Ave. opposite Hesperus Avenue and the one on Eastern Ave. just after Harrison Ave.
One cottage in Rockport  on South Street which looked almost beyond salvation has recently been saved.

Others have been enlarged with a lean-to on the rear such as the example on Gee Ave.

This small cottage house on Gee Avenue was expanded with a lean-to and
 yet another 
Sadly, the fact remains that most of them are gone.  Those that remain are very special and need protection.
The appealing Cape Ann Cottage is truly the signature house of Cape Ann.

The Thomas Riggs cottage, one of the best known cottages, has an earlier  piece on the right hand
side but the gambrel roof was added in the 1750s at the height of the popularity of this style
While working on this post I was not at home with my own collection of photos.  The photos in this post were found in public records on the Internet as assessor's records or inventory photos from Massachusetts Historical Commission.  In some cases the houses have been restored.  None are up to date. but perhaps I can replace some of them.


Sunday, March 9, 2014


It has been quite a long time since my last post thanks to the demise of my old computer and, arrival of a new computer. This milestone was followed by a less than smooth transition from my old familiar workhorse to a state of the art monster that was overwhelming as all my photos, documents and emails were transferred from one to the other.  The last straw was getting locked out of my own computer.  It would have been less expensive to get a locksmith to open my door than to have a technician get me back into my computer.

For most of my life one of the things I have most liked to do is to attend an auction.  From a very young age tagging along with my mother and her friends to an auction was great fun for me.  Even when very young and quite shy, I was never too shy to raise my hand if there was something I really wanted and had enough money to buy.

In those days most country auctions took place on site at the house where the goods originated.  A tent might be set up in the yard but not always.  Sometimes there were chairs and sometimes you brought your own.  The sale items were carried out the door in random order and offered up by the auctioneer.

Another favorite hobby was collecting antique dolls.

My first antique doll was found in a shabby backyard antiques shop in my hometown.  It was a rainy Saturday afternoon, the roof of the building was leaking. In the corner was a doll all in pieces, unstrung with her clothes in a pile on top of her.  I pestered my mother until she was quite annoyed and finally let me buy the doll for $1.50.

At home I washed her, strung her with new elastic (cut from an undergarment) and put her clothes back on.  She had beautiful “paper weight" eyes and long hair that I rolled up with small curlers. She had a cute little closed rosebud mouth and  pierced ears.

Cosette with the paperweight eyes

More importantly, on the back of her head it said “Tete Jumeau”.  On her body it said “Medaille d’or, Paris".

At this point my mother began to register a little more interest in my new treasure.  She even named her Cosette after Cosette in Les Miserables because she was a little French girl.  A bit more research and it seemed that I had found a particularly nice old doll.

A real beauty from Paris! 
Soon after, we attended an auction in Fitzwilliam, NH.  In the auction were a number of doll heads never attached to bodies.  Some had blue eyes and some were brown.  They appeared to have been imported and never made into complete dolls.  On the back of these heads it said “Armand Marseilles 390”.  That sounded like a French name to me so I bought one with brown eyes and an identical head with blue eyes.  This was too good to be true!  More French dolls.  And it was too good to be true.  Armand Marseilles dolls are German and not in the same league and my Parisian darling.

By this time I was hot on the trail of old dolls.

As the word spread around my small town a few people gave me their dolls some of which were very good.

One elderly lady, when faced with going to a nursing home, gave me her black china headed doll from 1870 with a trunk full of clothes made by this lady’s mother in the 1870s.  The wardrobe of clothes with every conceivable garment from the period plus sheets, pillowcases and shams, even a quilt and bedspread was very special and wonderful.  The doll’s name is Amy Fiske.

Amy Fiske is wearing one of her summer dresses
and holding her summer straw hat in her lap.

Amy Fiske made her national debut last month when she was featured in an eleven page spread in DOLL NEWS magazine, the magazine of the United Federation of Doll Collectors.  She now has many new friends and fans.

In this photo Amy is posing with her
Jenny Lind trunk and wearing her winter
coat, muff and pillbox hat with faux fur.

My dedication to this collection has been sporadic.  The dolls will be packed away for years and then brought out when some new doll or other inspiration renews my passion for dolls.

But there is one doll that I always wanted and never owned. While almost all antique dolls came from Germany with a few from France and wax dolls from England, very few were made in  America.  One exception was the Greiner doll, a doll I coveted but that constantly had eluded me.  

Greiner dolls, the first dolls to be patented in America, were the papier-mache headed  dolls, created and patented  in 1858 by Ludwig Greiner, a German immigrant in Philadelphia. There were other dolls being made in this mid-century period but the numbers were small in comparison to the vast numbers of dolls being imported from Germany.

So what could be more exciting to me than an auction with many dolls for sale.

This “dolls at auction” scenario came true this week in a nearby town.  Among the dolls to be auctioned was the coveted Greiner doll…the doll that had eluded me during a lifetime of interest in dolls.  Sometimes I couldn’t afford them; sometimes the condition was too bad, and at other times they were over-restored with their battered faces garishly repainted.  

The doll to be auctioned was advertised as "composition".  To be sure it was really a Greiner I sent the auction photo to an expert in this field of doll collecting, Edyth O’Neill in Texas.  Edyth, after enlarging the photo assured me it was most likely a Greiner.  With doll prices having bottomed out, I thought this might be the the time, this might the place and this might be the doll for me. 

I arrived early to look for the label on the doll.  There it was, “Greiner’s, Improved Patent Heads, Pat. March 30th ‘58”. (as in 1858)

The Greiner label is clear and crisp dating the doll to 1858

Having the doll come up for bid very late in the auction, I refrained from buying any of the other dolls offered, saving my money for the Greiner.  So I waited and waited for several hours.  By the time the doll was auctioned in was late in the auction and many had left.  None of the dolls had brought any fancy prices. In fact, the prices were pathetic.  The Greiner didn’t bring a fancy price either.  I won the doll for $125.

Penelope is very somber as she surveys her new home

She was dressed in some nice garments.  Some were probably hers and other ill-fitting garments were too big or inappropriate for her.  She does need a proper dress.

A beautiful blouse, another chemise and a large petticoat will be passed on to other dolls.

A friend asked me what her name was.  I hadn't even thought about that!

"I think her name should be Penelope", responded my friend.  So Penelope it is.

Please meet the new kid at my house...Penelope!

This dress has to go.  It is the wrong style and the wrong size but the best we could do
on short notice.

Here are some of the extras that came with her but not fitting.

Front of blouse with nice detail
Back of blouse with tiny buttons

Here are a two more of the extra garments.                       
Another chemise

Petticoat for a large doll

Thinking that I had covered this story I prepared to post it today, Sunday.  The post had been written for at least ten days but never published because the computer problems interfered.  But another bizarre chapter was about to be written.

A long time friend and intermittent doll collector from another town came to visit yesterday: Saturday.  I proudly presented Penelope and went on a great length about the disastrous prices at this auction and how doll prices had bottomed out.  As we drove away from my house to attend an evening event I was still going on and on about the distressingly low prices.  I then urged my friend not to even think about selling any dolls right now. Then I remarked, "You still have all of your dolls, I hope."  To which my friend responded, "No. You just bought one of them."  What?  I could hardly comprehend what my friend was saying.  It was true. All those dolls sold at auction belonged to my friend.  The collection built at great expense over time at the top of the market had been forfeited for peanuts.  Penelope was the Greiner doll my friend had bought but I had never seen.  

I was so upset I could hardly drive my car.  No, it wasn't my loss.  In fact, it was my gain but that didn't make me feel any better and I am still in shock.  I kept wondering whose dolls they were that were being offered and sold  for such low prices but would never have guessed.. 

As I sat there in the auction hall I was distressed for the owner of this collection of good dolls that were on the auction block in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Little did I know....

But for Penelope there is a happy ending.  She will get a new dress.  That is the least I can do for the doll I waited fifty years to own.

Thanks for reading.


Friday, February 21, 2014



Have you ever thought back to things you admired as a child and what a favorable and long-lasting  impression they made on you?  In retrospect do you say to yourself, “How could I…?

Way back during the 1940s my best friend at the time, Susan, and I decided to create a playhouse in the second floor of their garage.  We had set it up nicely when her mother decided she had her own plans for the space and asked us to move.  

After getting permission to use a single car garage at my house we planned a moving day.  This meant lining up the boys in the neighborhood with their wagons (we called them carts back then) to load up our stuff and transport it some distance up the street from her house to my house.

Here we really settled in.  A pair of army cots made twin beds.  An oak Victorian commode fit nicely between the beds.  A mounted deer head from the attic hung above the commode over a window.  My wooden table- top Bendix radio sat on top of the commode.   A huge spool made a round table encircled by four orange crate chairs.  We painted them white and I think there were yellow daisies on the top.

It got better.  A porcelain sink was propped up with a hole in the wall for a drain pipe.  (No running water.)  An old doorbell was hooked up by one of the neighborhood boys.  It ran on a dry cell battery and was rung by pressing a piece of tin from a can against a screw head.  The piece de resistance was a galvanized cooler from Susan.  It was probably the first cooler anyone had ever seen.  Since this was still the era of the iceman, we got chunks of ice delivered for our cooler/refrigerator as the ice truck passed through the neighborhood.

When there was a rummage sale on the town Common we were there with our pennies.  I bought a tiny bowl and pitcher to take back to the playhouse. The pieces had panels of flowers interspersed with scenes of lovers in beautiful outfits. I loved this little set.  Was it a tiny wash bowl and pitcher or was it an individual creamer and sugar?  I still don’t know.
Tiny bowl and pitcher from a rummage sale in the 1940s

We also made and sold dolls’ hats to raise money.  We then went to an auction and bought a box of dishes.  This included a small set of blue and white Delft style dishes with windmills made in Japan.  I also remember an old glass cruet in the box.

During the summer I traveled around with my mother and her friends to antique shops.  That is how I found a plate to match the bowl and pitcher.  The antiques dealer told me it was Dresden.  At that point I knew I just loved Dresden. (Meissen)

Plate from New Hampshire antiques shop in the 1940s also

Recently, I attended an auction.  At the pre-sale viewing I noticed a pair of similar Meissen  shallow bowls but passed right by them.  Late in the auction they came up for bid.  When there wasn’t any response from the audience there was a little coaxing from the auctioneer. Suddenly, up shot my hand!  “I love those bowls,” I thought,  My companions just looked at them with indifference.  “Doesn’t everyone like these?” I thought.  Of course not!  Meissen is very elegant. It’s not something that is wildly popular these day, at least not in my circles..

Nevertheless, I was the only bidder.  I won and brought the two shallow bowls home.  Next I dug out my three pieces from long ago to admire my little collection.
Auction, November, 2013
Companion piece, auction 2013
In reality it is hard for me to be objective about them because I don’t want to let go of the memory of thinking they were so beautiful. Nor do I want to admit that they are not something that I would covet today.  Or maybe I just don’t want to admit that I had a ten year old's taste when I was ten years old!

For better or worse, the new pieces have joined the old pieces and will all be together in my cupboard.  If having 5 pieces makes it a collection, then, I have a new collection.  Maybe it’s being stubborn and not wanting to give up on something...a fond memory.  Or maybe it’s defensive loyalty to old choices.  Whatever the case may be or whatever the explanation,  impressions formed in childhood die hard!

The same goes for houses.  There were houses that impressed me when I was young.  One such house was the local historical society house in my hometown.  It was a brick Federal.  When revisited with a friend a few years ago she looked into the parlor and said, "Now I know where your taste comes from!"   And in retrospect she was right.  It never had occurred to me that the "look" I love was etched into my subconscious brain way back then.

Narragansett Historical Society
I think it also depends on how old you are, too.  For example, I don't like bathtubs on legs or black iron kitchen stoves or matchboard wainsccoting.   People who are younger than I am think they're cool.

No matter how old we are, childhood memories and experiences are the foundation for what we admire years later because early impressions are lasting and really do die hard.


Friday, February 14, 2014


Philemon Warner, Jr

The post is a continuation of the previous story of the ancient Warner house on Mineral Street in Ipswich.  This second post tells the remarkable story of the Warner houses occupied by this family in Gloucester.

Meanwhile, back to the Warner family and Philomon Warner, the blacksmith, who left Ipswich for Gloucester. The Warner family settled right in the center of what is now the modern business district on the corner of Main and Pleasant Streets,  the location of the new Bank Gloucester.  His blacksmith shop was just down the street from his house.

I am presuming that his house probably burned in one of the several devastating fires that occurred here during the 19th century when the business section of Gloucester was devastated by at least two terrible fires when Main Street was pretty much obliterated.

Elder Philomon Warner died in 1778.  He is buried in the ancient First Parish Burial Ground, one of the oldest buriel grounds in the country, with this long epitaph. The title "Elder" meant that he was an elder of the church.
The grave stone of Elder Philomon Warner
Elder Philemon Warner's stone reads: "Here rest in hope of a glorious Resurrection the Remains of Elder Philemon Warner who for many years discharged with Fidelity to the Public & Reputation to himself several important Offices both in Church & State. Industry & Fidelity in his calling, Honesty & Integrity in his dealings, Sincerity in his Profession & Humility in his Deportment were the ornaments of his life & the Doctrines of the Gospel which he firmly believed & on which alone his Hope was founded were his support in Death. He was born Jan 7, 1698 & died April 14th, 1778. AE 81. In faith he died, in dust he lies. But faith foresees that Dust shall... When Jesus with..." 

 Philemon Warner, the son, built his Gloucester house in the mid 18th century right behind his father's house, a short distance back from Main Street on a side lane now know as Pleasant Street. There is some record that even this house received damage during one of the fires so it's easy to believe that this is when the father's house disappeared, being right in the path of the fire.

Elder Warner's house had a gambrel roof as did most of the houses built in the Harbor Village in the mid 18th century.  And like most of the houses in this part of town and frequently throughout New England, it faced south.  In this case it faced the water of the inner harbor on the south, not because of the view but because of the southerly exposure.

Here is the Warner house in Gloucester when it was intact and looking like many other fine houses in the
neighborhood dating to the mid 18th century.  This photo is from the Cape Ann Museum collection.
Over time the house became a back to back duplex.  Since the gable end of the house faced Pleasant Street, the new division led to two deeds with the property line running with the ridgepole of the house.  A new front door and yard were created on the north side for the second household.  This arrangement prevailed until just after the turn of the 20th century.

At this time the left or south side of the house was sold. What happened next must have stunned the residents on the north side of the house and probably the entire community.  The new owner, a printer, tore down his half of the old house!  The north side of the house stood there with it other half  missing.  In its place the printer built a brick commercial building and attached it to the side of the more than one hundred and fifty years old Warner house.  Now the old half of the Warner house bulged out of the side of the new brick building like a strange wart.

Here is what is left of the Warner house after half of it was removed and left it attached to
a new commercial building.  This photo is also from the collection of the Cape Ann Museum.

That was not the end of the dismembering of the old Warner house.  The first floor eventually became a commercial space.  Its strange appearance was further exacerbated when it became a Christian Science Reading Room with huge plate glass windows located on a 20th century angled, somewhat modernist  facade. Part of the old fencing seems to have become a balustrade on the new flat roof.

At this time there is a mostly new first floor with a slanted facade
beneath the overhang,  The roof balustrade seems to be the
original fencing from the former front yard.
Now all that was left of the old Warner house was one quarter of a gambrel roofed house sitting atop  the modern addition below and looking as though it was clinging for life to the side of the brick building next door.

It became a curiosity.  It was even written up in Preservation Magazine, the publication of the National Trust on Historic Preservation.  Each issue of this magazine contained  an example of outrageous alteration in a monthly column called "Yikes!"  So what was left of the Warner house became nationally publicized on the Yikes page of Preservation Magazine . We now sometimes refer to the house as the "Yikes house" and friends always know just what house we're referring to

After the Christian Science people closed their doors the house was sold for private residential ownership. The new owners turned the space, including the intact rooms on the second floor into an  unbelievably stunning  home with a tiny, secluded garden in the rear; all right in the heart of the city. There are even two remaining working fireplaces left from the old house to give the space a period charm.  It is a magical space.
To the throngs of shoppers that pass the front of this building daily there is no hint of the serene, secluded and gracious living space that lies beyond the threshold of that recessed front door.  Once inside the hustle and bustle of the city is left behind in the peace and quiet of this special dwelling.

The old house clings to its brick neighbor.
Even a small storefront filled in the small yard that had existed on the northerly half of the  house so that this inner city block consisted of an unbroken line of contiguous buildings

These buildings are now in the very heart of the central city.  Passersby don't always look up but when they do this fragment of an 18th century house surprises them.  What they see is truly one of the curiosities of Gloucester, America's oldest seaport.
Every inch of space has been developed.  This samll store front occupies what
was once what was left of the tiny front yard of the right hand side of the duplex.
Once again, the old Warner house was threatened when a fire devastated the newer brick commercial building that is attached to the old house.  The Deacon Warner house had a very close call but was saved while only the shell remained of the brick building.  Valuables, particularly art work, in the Warner house along with the cat, were rescued as helping hands from the Cape Ann Museum located diagonally across the street hurried to carry possessions to the nearby museum where they were out of harm's way.
Attached brick building burns
The brick building has been rebuilt and the Deacon Philemon Warner house is intact, (if you can call 1/4 of a house intact) and the drama swirling around this house for two hundred  plus years has abated. Stability has been restored on Pleasant Street.
Commercial building now rebuilt after a devastating fire.

In spite of so much turbulence, two out of the three early Warner houses are miraculously still standing and providing extremely attractive and comfortable shelter to their occupants.  They are the ultimate survivors!

Thanks for reading.