Celebrating House of the Seven Gables Founder Caroline Emmerton’s 150 Year Legacy

Caroline Emmerton Creative Salem House of Seven Gables

by Joey Phoenix

2016 marks the sesquicentennial birthday year for one of Salem’s most significant historic personalities, Caroline Emmerton – acclaimed early twentieth-century philanthropist and the founder of the House of the Seven Gables. 

This momentous occasion will be enthusiastically celebrated this coming week with a number of programs and activities at Salem’s own House of the Seven Gables Museum. The event also corresponds with the recent opening of the new exhibit Caroline Emmerton: An Unbounded Vision, which will be on display in the museum’s visitor center from April 8th, 2016 - August 31, 2016. 

The Caroline Emmerton birthday festivities, special exhibition, and lectures are part of a year-long commemorative celebration, as The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association is the 2016 recipient of the Engaging New Audiences grant from Mass Humanities. The House of the Seven Gables is using these funds during Caroline Emmerton’s 150th birthday year to better engage with the community through modern settlement work, thus extending the legacy of Caroline Emmerton to reach Salem’s diverse twenty-first-century community.

Caroline Emmerton: An Unbounded Vision Exhibition Opening

Caroline Emmerton: An Unbounded Vision opened to the public the evening of April 8, 2016. The exhibition features a number of items unique to the life and legacy of the founder of House of the Seven Gables, including books, papers, images, and notable household items. Some of the objects on display were a page from Emmerton’s original Seven Gables tour script, a rare photograph which is thought to be an image of young Caroline and her sister Annie, and a preserved swath of wallpaper from Caroline’s Essex Street Home in Salem. 

Caroline Osgood Emmerton, born in Salem on April 21,1866, used the wealth inherited from her grandfather, the esteemed maritime trader John Bertram, for a number of philanthropic and culturally significant projects during her lifetime. In addition to her work with the Gables, she was also notably the founder the Bertram Home for Aged Men, the Salem Public Library, the Seaman’s Widow and Orphan Society, among others. She was also one of the founding members of Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now know as Historic New England. 

Her commitment to social service, particularly in her work at the House of the Seven Gables Settlement House to help the Polish, Irish, and Eastern European Immigrants of early twentieth century New England learn English and better assimilate into American life, has left a lasting imprint on the region. In fact, her reasons for purchasing the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion and opening it to the public was to generate the revenue necessary to continue her charity work.

“Caroline Emmerton’s philanthropic nature is her most significant contribution,” explains Julie Arrison-Bishop, special projects manager of the House of the Seven Gables. “Through her giving she was able to help a number of organizations in Salem and around the region, with preservation and education being two areas she seemed to be most passionate about. 

“The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association was truly the culmination of those passions. She saved the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion and used museum admissions to support her settlement and social work programs in the Derby Street neighborhood. This was her life’s work and passion.”

Caroline Emmerton at House of Seven Gables by Creative Salem

Although much is known about Caroline’s public life and contributions to the development of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Salem, very little is known about her private life. This is both due to historical circumstance, and the social expectations of the times. 

“The overall picture of her life is a bit of a mystery,” says Irene Axelrod – historian, lecturer, former research librarian at the Peabody Essex Museum Phillips Library, and Salem’s resident Caroline Emmerton expert. “In those days, a woman wasn’t supposed to publicize herself.”

This mystery surrounding her is also largely due to the fact that upon Caroline’s death, her estate was auctioned off, and along with it many clues to her personal life. 

Irene Axelrod, in her 1996 paper “No Small Matter: A Biographical Sketch of the Life and Times of Caroline Emmerton,” tells a bit more about this unusual historical gap: 

“Other than a few articles, some rough draft manuscripts, and her book The Chronicles of Three Old Houses, there is almost no information on her thoughts and feelings regarding her work. At the present time, there are no journals or correspondence of a business or personal nature available for research purposes.”

Now twenty years later, unfortunately, this fact still remains. 

“The lucky historian can occasionally come across the catalog of her items that was available. She was a collector of antiques and art, friends with local designers, and had a flair for fashion—namely hats,” Julie Arrison-Bishop remarks. “Through papers from public organizations we know that she was embedded in Salem’s society and sat on boards and committees that were dominated by men. She was a woman ahead of her time from what we can tell by the public record. We can only hope private correspondence and information might someday surface to give us a more full look at her life.” 

Despite the fact that many of the details of her personal life have been lost to history, and considering that she came from a world where women were supposed to live lives of quiet domesticity, Caroline Emmerton’s story is inspiring. 

“She never married, had no children,” Irene Axelrod explains. “And she was one of the first in her area to do the work that she was doing. She used the money her grandfather [John Bertram] left for her to found the House of the Seven Gables, and through that she was able to raise money for classes. She was also an ambitious community fundraiser for her social work, and committed to the preservation of local history. She always had a mind towards the future.” 

Caroline Emmerton’s Legacy Today

Caroline Emmerton’s primary purpose for founding the Settlement House was to provide educational and childcare opportunities to the underprivileged residents and new influx of immigrants who lived in the surrounding Derby Street Neighborhoods. With the completion of the restoration of the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion in 1910, the mansion became official Settlement headquarters. Class offerings during the period included, in addition to language assistance, knitting, gymnastics, embroidery, gardening, and various arts and music opportunities, as a start. 

Where the early twentieth century saw these opportunities provided to the Irish, Polish, and Eastern European immigrants, the twenty-first century is providing its own opportunities to the diverse residents who live in Salem now. 

In addition to making the yearlong commemoration of Emmerton’s life and legacy possible, the Mass Humanities grant has even further-reaching possibilities that directly correlate to Caroline Emmerton’s personal social mission. 

Caroline Emmerton at House of Seven Gables by Creative Salem

“This grant has allowed us to translate our exhibit panels into Spanish and will allow us to reach out to the community we serve through modern settlement work in the North Shore Latino community, “ Julie Arrison-Bishop excitedly discloses. “We will be working closely with the Latino Leadership Coalition to ensure that information about public programs are shared both English and Spanish.”

It’s also important to note that guided tours are always free for Salem residents.

“We encourage residents who have never toured or maybe haven’t toured in decades to come back and enjoy our history.” Arrison-Bishop continues. “Have a picnic on the Seaside Lawn. Bring your kids to a Living History Lab. Enjoy a lecture during our 7 Lectures at 7 Gables. We are multi-faceted with much to offer.”

Caroline’s Community: A Celebration for All

If Caroline Emmerton were alive today, she would be delighted to see that her unique legacy lives on. The House of the Seven Gables continues to provide exciting and engaging activities and programming that are both fun and educational for kids and adults alike. 

On April 21, the date of Caroline’s actual birthday, special Caroline Emmerton tours will take place throughout the day, followed by a free lecture by David Moffat titled “Caroline Emmerton: A Woman of Letters.” 

Then, Saturday April 23rd, from 10:00am - 5:00pm, there will be Caroline’s Community: A Celebration – a day long event to celebrate Caroline’s life and legacy. Guided tours are free for Salem residents and only $1.50 for the general public on a first come, first serve basis. 

Free activities include all day music ranging from James Rogers on the piano from 10:00 a.m - 12:00pm, Commonwealth Vintage Dancers from11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m., and the Carubia Brass Band from 2:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. 

There will also be birthday cake cutting on the hour from 12:00pm – 3:00 p.m where visitors can “meet” Caroline Emmerton, who will be portrayed by Irene Axelrod. 

Young visitors will also have the opportunity make Caroline Emmerton a vintage birthday card or visit our Living History Labs with Settlement Activities from 11:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. 

In addition to these fun activities, party goers can also enjoy the pop-up picnic tent with Ferreira Foods, a historic candy tasting with Ye Olde Pepper Candie Companie, and get a chance to see the exhibit Caroline Emmerton: An Unbounded Vision.

Joey Phoenix I Creative Salem

Joey Phoenix is a Salem-based, photographer and videographer and proud member of the Creative Salem team. @jphoenixmedia