Secrets of the Shrunken Heads

Hello! My name is Alexandra Brennan and I am an intern at the Salisbury House this summer. I have been working “behind the scenes” at the Salisbury House, learning about the unique position a historic home holds as a center for education, history, and culture. Although I only have a few weeks left until I leave to go back to school, I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to explore the Salisbury House’s history and collections over the past couple months.

Among all the objects in the Salisbury House’s collection, few are as mysterious as the shrunken heads. It is unclear when, where, and from whom the Weeks family acquired the heads; the only evidence of Carl’s interest in shrunken heads is a novel in the library written by a friend on the topic. When the ISEA moved into the Salisbury House in the mid-1950’s, the shrunken heads, also called tsantsas, became an integral part of the museum for school children. The heads were displayed in the Indian Room as curiosities—strange artifacts sure to stick in memories of young visitors. In recent years, the tsantsas have been in storage, partly due to the objects’ fragility and partly due to changing sensibilities regarding the display of human remains in museum settings. The shrunken heads remain among the most contentious, memorable, and gruesome objects in the Salisbury House, with their individual histories and even authenticity a matter of conjecture.

The only shrunken heads in the world come from the Jivaro peoples in Ecuador and Peru. “Jivaro” actually refers to a group of tribes with a shared language, though the many different tribes share cultural and religious beliefs. One of the shared beliefs between these Jivaro tribes is that a person’s soul is not fixed in one body, and that by killing others, a new soul may be imparted into the killer. Constant warfare, paradoxically, was meant to bring eternal life. It was because of this culture of killing that the practice of shrinking heads developed.

The first step to creating a shrunken head was to carefully peel the skin off the skull. The skull was discarded, and the skin was pulled over a wooden ball to maintain the shape of the head. Then, the skin was shrunk by boiling the head in a mixture of water and tannins. The head was dried with hot sand and rocks, and the skin rubbed with ash. Like Egyptian mummies, shrunken heads are preserved to last for centuries (one of the heads in the Salisbury House’s collection may be over 200 years old). However, Egyptian mummification took 70 days, and the entire process for shrinking a head took less than one week.

IMG_8846

Front cover of Tsantsa. New York: Brentano’s, 1932.

So how did such strange artifacts end up in the Salisbury House? Unfortunately, there are no neatly kept receipts or records to suggest how two shrunken heads came to Iowa. The only connection is through a bookseller and an author. From the 1920’s to the 1940’s, Carl Weeks bought many of his rare and antique books from a bookseller in New York City named Harry Marks. It was through Harry Marks that Carl acquired much of his collections of D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, as well as many of his letters from famous historical figures and old Bibles. Harry Marks was also the man who sold Carl books by a man named Isadore Lhevinne, an author and philologist who had studied and lived among the Jivaro people in Ecuador.

Lhevinne was born in Bobruisk, Russia in 1896. He attended school in Poland, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1920’s with a degree in philology. Although his earlier works focused on stories about the Jewish experience throughout the world, Lhevinne’s interest in foreign languages sent him to southern Ecuador. It was there, in the sparsely populated and thick jungles of Ecuador, that Lhevinne was first introduced to the Jivaro peoples. He spent part of 1931 living among the Jivaro people, studying their language and culture. It is unclear when Carl Weeks and Isadore Lhevinne met, whether it was before or after Lhevinne’s trip to Ecuador. What is certain, however, is that by 1932, the two men were close enough that Lhevinne dedicated Tsantsa to Carl Weeks.

Young Wings magazine

Note from Harry Marks to Carl Weeks, pointing out a story about Isadore Lhevinne in “Young Wings” magazine. Note says: “To C.W. See pages 9-4-5. Harry”

Tsantsa itself is not a scholarly work. Instead, it tells a story of a white American man who travels to Ecuador and falls in love with a 15-year old Jivaro girl. The novel is an adventure story filled with “fervent eroticism” and takes advantage of the exotic setting to shock readers. The novel includes scenes of head shrinking and drug-induced ceremonies, and the protagonist even kills a 15-year old girl’s husband in a duel. The book uses many of the prevalent stereotypes and prejudices of the era, depicting the Jivaro people in turns as independently noble and ferociously savage. Although it sold fairly well, today Lhevinne and Tsantsa are largely forgotten to time.

Perhaps it was through this close relationship between Isadore Lhevinne and Carl Weeks that the tsantsas came to the Salisbury House. Certainly, if Lhevinne spent time living among Jivaro people, he would have had access to shrunken heads. Today, the Salisbury House has very little remaining correspondence between the two men, so it is unclear if the tsantsas were gifts from Lhevinne.

IMG_8848

Story in “Young Wings” magazine about Isadore Lhevinne regarding his novel The Enchanted Jungle, 1933. “While he was in Ecuador, Dr. Lhevinne…traveled in a light canoe over dangerous water falls and swirling currents interrupted by an endless series of whirlpools. He hacked his way through the trackless jungle ants so thick there was no room to sit down; he traveled on horseback, muleback, and foot, and endured the never-to-be-forgotten experience of a siege by an enemy tribe while he was living among the Jibaros.”

In the early 20th century, shrunken heads became a popular tourist souvenir and collector’s item, and the thriving market led to an abundance of fake tsantsas made from monkeys, sloths, and other animals. According to some forensic researchers, “presence of sealed eyelids, pierced lips with strings sealing the mouth, shiny black skin, a posterior sewn incision, long glossy black hair, and lateral head compression are characteristic of authentic tsantsas.” According to these guidelines, one of the tsantsas in the Salisbury House may be real; the other’s lips are not sewn shut, but that may indicate that it was made only for trade purposes and not as a ceremonial war trophy. Another way to determine whether the heads are truly human is to look at the ears, which should simply appear to be smaller versions of human ears, since the many folds of the ear are hard to copy. Once again, the Salisbury House’s tsantsas appear to be authentic, although according to the Smithsonian, more than half of the shrunken heads in museums and private collections in the United States may be fakes. The most reliable method of determining whether shrunken heads are authentic is to do a DNA analysis. Perhaps one day we will learn who made these heads and how they came to be in Des Moines, Iowa. But for now, the secrets of the tsantsas remain hidden behind sewn-shut lips.

Shrunken

The tsantsas will be on display at our Night at the Museum event, August 24, 2017. Please visit our website or call (515) 274-1777 for tickets and more information.

The Piano

The Salisbury House piano is one of the most special pieces in our collection. First and foremost, you should know that this is no ordinary instrument.

It’s a Steinway.

Trademark

It’s a custom-built Steinway style D concert grand piano.

Grand

It’s a custom-built Steinway style D concert grand piano with genuine ivory and ebony keys.

Keys.jpg

It’s a custom-built Steinway style D concert grand piano with genuine ivory and ebony keys, encased in 16th century, hand-carved English oak.

Oak.jpg

And, as it has for the last 86 years, this custom-built Steinway style D concert grand piano with genuine ivory and ebony keys, encased in 16th century, hand-carved English oak, ornaments the southwest corner of the Salisbury House Common Room.

Common Room.jpg

As you begin to reel your jaw up from the floor, you may wonder how, how, did this magnificent instrument find its way to Des Moines, Iowa?

We’re glad you asked.

It began, of course, with Carl Weeks.

Carl and his wife Edith began building Salisbury House in 1923. Along the way, they made the acquaintance of William Rasmussen, a New York-based architect, who became involved in designing and furnishing the family’s new home. Rasmussen also played a role in bringing the Steinway to Salisbury House.

In early 1929, Carl and Rasmussen contacted Steinway & Sons in New York  to inquire about the creation of a piano especially for Salisbury House.

Feb 29.jpg

The accompanying sketch and note are lost to history, but it’s clear that by July 1929, Steinway was ready to proceed with the project.

July 29.jpg

It was decided that the case of 16th-century oak for the piano would be executed by Frederick Tibbenham, LTD., based in Ipswich, England, and then shipped to Steinway & Sons in New York.

20170505_093424.jpg

 

Estimate.jpg

Carl gave the go-ahead on September 5, 1929.

Carl ok.jpg

Steinway confirmation.jpg

Note the date of this order confirmation from Steinway to Carl –  September 9, 1929. Of course, Carl et al couldn’t have known it at the time, but the United States was forty-five days away from what became known as Black Thursday. On October 24, 1929 the stock market crashed to the tune of five billion dollars.

Despite the economic turmoil that gripped the country in general and businessmen like Carl Weeks in particular, work on the piano continued.

Work continues.jpg

The piano was completed in July 1930. According to Mr. Collins, Steinway’s sales manager, the instrument “is one of the finest toned ones we have ever produced, and therefore its beauty is comprehensive.”

Complete.jpg

A Steinway of this caliber didn’t come cheap. Costs for the piano, including the 16th-century English oak components milled by Tibbenham and Steinway’s own expenses for the instrument, totaled $5,927.28 (over $84,000 in 2017 dollars).

And this about eight months into the worst economic crisis in American history.

In September of 1930, Sales Manager Collins placed a delicate inquiry to Carl regarding his plans for taking ownership of his new piano.

Sept 1930.jpg

Carl responded promptly, and indicated that he and Edith would be in New York in early October. They would then arrange for the final inspection of the piano. Around the time of this visit, Steinway provided the Weekses with a full invoice for the project.

Invoice.jpg

A subsequent invoice indicated that Carl made a cash payment of $1,000 on November 6, 1930. Still, a balance of $4,927.28 carried over into early 1931.

Invoice 2.jpg

Another letter, noticeably testy in tone, arrived from Steinway for Carl in early January 1931.

Final.jpg

Here ends our archive’s extant correspondence between Carl and Steinway, but we can safely assume that payment was eventually rendered.

Today, we are left with an incredible, fantastic, one-of-a-kind piano and a remarkable story of Carl’s determination, in the face of mounting economic uncertainty, to faithfully render his family’s dream of Salisbury House.

David Ross, one of our long-time tour guides, plays the Salisbury House Steinway.

 

Beginning on May 10, 2017, learn how YOU can secure an opportunity to play the Salisbury House Steinway. Call our offices at (515) 274-1777 and ask about The Steinway Experience. 

 

Woven: A Survey of Salisbury House Textiles

A diverse collection of textiles were among the many fine furnishings and decorative arts acquired by Carl and Edith Weeks for Salisbury House. The collection spans an incredible breadth of space and time, from 1920s Navajo weavings to 16th century French tapestries.

Several pieces are currently on view that suggest the scope of our collection. These textiles, pictured below, are on display for the first time in many years.

Two textiles on display come from our unique collection of Navajo sandpainting rugs. Craftsmen typically incorporated into these weavings ceremonial designs  from the traditional Navajo sandpainting ritual. These pieces were produced for the tourist market in the late 19th century and into the first decades of the 20th century. Carl acquired the majority of his Navajo rugs from the Two Gray Hills Trading Post in New Mexico.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Navajo sandpainting rug, mid-1920s. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Navajo sandpainting rug, mid-1920s. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

In addition to several pieces from the Navajo tradition, the Salisbury House collection contains many Persian textiles. This Kerman pictorial rug was created in south central Iran, and includes some very interesting iconography.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Kerman pictorial rug, c. 1880. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

The Khamseh confederation rug pictured below dates to the mid-19th century. This “Khamseh confederation” was a loose grouping of tribes from southern Persia, and became heralded for their skills in rug-making.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Khamseh Confederation rug, c. 1850. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

Also from the mid-19th century, but from a different geographical location, is this Bokhara piece from Turkestan. These types of rugs, still produced today, are some of the most popular among collectors.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Bokhara rug, c. 1850. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

Tabriz, a city in eastern Azerbaijan, remains well-known for its rug production. This particular Tabriz pictorial rug dates to the first quarter of the 19th century and depicts a pastoral scene.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Tabriz pictorial rug, c. 1825. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

Our survey of Salisbury House textiles concludes with a piece from 1650s France. This verdure tapestry portrays several figures, including an individual on a horse, in a wooded setting. The popularity of French verdure tapestries eventually waned with the advent of wallpaper, which provided a lower-cost alternative for wall coverings.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

French verdure tapestry, c. 1650. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

These textiles are currently on view at Salisbury House. Visit us at salisburyhouse.org for tour times and information.

20160926_141302

 

A Detective Story at Salisbury House

One of the intriguing aspects of the collections at Salisbury House is the opportunity they present for research about the many interesting objects in the house.  A case in point is a very unusual prayer rug displayed in the first floor west hallway, outside the Dining Room.

The rug is a “saf” or “saph”, which is a family prayer rug – in this case, with six niches for a man and his five sons or other male family members.  In use, the points of the arches would be pointed toward Mecca.  Safs are fairly uncommon, and this layout of side-by-side niches is only one of the possible arrangements of the niches.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Prayer rug at Salisbury House

 

The rug has been hanging in this location since at least 1928.  It is listed in a 1928 appraisal inventory as 16th Century with “thousand knots gold field,” but with no location of origin specified  On the other hand, the standard object inventory for the house lists it as from Hamadan in western Iran, but dating from 1880.  That is almost 3 centuries difference – which is correct?


In addition to the design, I originally became interested in the rug when I noticed that the construction is extremely unusual. Nearly all Persian rugs are constructed over the entire surface with the so-called Persian knot with the ends of each knot forming the rug surface (Turkish rugs generally use a different knot).

 

Senneh

 

There are generally warp threads between the knots that help hold the rug together, but they are usually not visible from the front.  The construction of this rug is different in that only the figural design elements are knotted pile of this type, while the background is woven with a herringbone pattern of flat weave. 

In the image below, the raised pile design is in blue, faded red, and a line of light brown, while the woven background is clearly different.  Some of the lighter specks in the background are traces of metallic gold thread.  The rug clearly belonged to a wealthy man!

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Prayer rug detail – woven background and pile design

 

While on a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I noticed a so-called “polonaise” carpet which had many features in common with the rug in Salisbury House.  The palette was similar, the age was given as circa 1600 (nearly the same as one description of the Salisbury House rug), and the construction combined woven and pile elements.

There were differences, of course – the Victoria and Albert rug is not a prayer rug, it is silk rather than wool, and the background is a brocade rather than a weave.  Nonetheless, the similarities led me to contact the Victoria and Albert to see if they could clarify the background of the Salisbury House rug.


My email was very promptly answered by Dr. Moya Carey, Iran Heritage Foundation Curator for the Iranian Collections at the Victoria and Albert.  This was something of a surprise, in that Dr. Carey, a distinguished scholar of Iranian art, almost certainly experiences many demands on her time. After sending her some images of the Salisbury House rug, she sent me images of a 1986 museum catalog from the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, AustriaThis museum is known for its collection of oriental rugs.  The rug on the cover of this catalog is very nearly identical to the one in Salisbury House, as shown in the following image.  The Salisbury House rug is on the left.

 

Salisbury_Vienna_Prayer.JPG

Salisbury House Rug ~ Vienna Rug

 

 

Based on the catalog description of the Vienna rug, the flat woven background is not in a herringbone pattern, but the rug has the same combination of woven and pile techniques.  Clearly, the palette and design are nearly identical.As far as the dating discrepancy, the Vienna rug is a late 19th Century carpet from Khotan, which is in what might once have been called Eastern Turkestan on the Silk Road, in what is now western China. 

The two rugs are so similar that there is little doubt that the Salisbury House rug is also from 19th Century Khotan.Thus, the 1928 appraisal was incorrect.  Even the experts can be wrong!  But the object inventory is also wrong about where it was made, although the date is roughly correct, if a bit too specific. 

In all, it makes a fascinating detective story!  Salisbury House is fortunate to have such an interesting and unusual rug.The rug on the Vienna catalog cover also has an interesting history, which can be found here

I would like to again thank Dr. Moya Carey for providing the definitive research that solved this particular Salisbury House detective story.

Preservation Notes from Under the Oaks

Textile preservation is underway at Salisbury House. The pair of Louis XVI style armchairs currently residing in Edith’s Dressing Room has certainly seen better days. The sunshine from the nearby window has not been kind to these two lovely ladies over the years. With the new curtains being installed in this room by the end of December, it was time to stabilize the chairs’ upholstery and preserve what remains of it.

Pair of Louis XVI style chairs.

Pair of Louis XVI chairs from Edith’s Dressing Room. The one on the left has had its upholstery stabilized.

The upholstery of the chair on the left has already been stabilized and originally looked very similar to the one on the right, though more faded. We began with a gentle, low suction vacuum, carefully avoiding all areas of loose threads. Next, polyester organza in a soft buttercup color was inserted under areas of loss on the front of the seat and the top of the back. Using a curved needle and 100% cotton thread, loose edges of the original textile surrounding the loss area were stitched to this sheer underlay. Loose warp threads were straightened as much as possible and secured to the organza to prevent them from moving and retangling. A fine nylon net was then laid over the top and secured around the edges, essentially sandwiching the loss areas and stabilizing the rest of the textile. One more gentle vacuum and the preservation of this Louis XVI style chair was complete.

Close up of underlay
Stitching the historic fabric to the polyester organza underlay.

Two wonderful things about this textile stabilization is its complete reversibility and use of inert materials. If, for whatever reason, we needed to remove these repairs, it would be easy (if not time consuming) to do so and return the chair to the same state it was in prior to the stabilization process. Additionally, polyester organza and nylon are neutral materials that will not harm historic fabric, are inexpensive, and come in a variety of colors, which was perfect for this project. Though cotton thread is not chemically neutral, when paired with acidic silk it will fail before the silk will, provided that we continue to protect these pieces from light damage. After all, we would much rather our repairs fail than the historic fabric!

Before After

Left: Before stabilization and vacuuming. Right: After stabilization and vacuuming.


*Many thanks to Camille Myers Breeze (museumtextiles.com) and the Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies (campbellcenter.org) for their professionalism and excellence in preservation education and for providing me with the tools and knowledge to begin the journey of preserving the treasures of Salisbury House.

The War to End All Wars?

World War I decimated a generation. Fought from July 1914 to November 1918, the war’s poison gas, trench warfare, and horrific bloodletting tortured millions and made a mockery of Enlightenment beliefs in the progress of mankind. A classic war poem by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) poignantly illustrated the terrors visited upon those caught up in the Great War:

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.Owen
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen died during the final week of the war on November 4, 1918.

GasGas attack on soldiers, 1918

As the world approaches the conflict’s centennial, events of remembrance and historical interpretation are becoming more frequent. Our own collections here at Salisbury House include some remarkable pieces that connect with the story of The War to End All Wars. Carl Weeks, an inveterate collector of books, documents, and letters, acquired significant pieces that directly relate to the war. These items raise some intriguing questions as well.

First, correspondence from a hugely consequential German leader of the early twentieth centuries represents the most important World War I-era artifact in our collections. This letter, penned and signed by Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), dates to October 12, 1915.

Hindenburg Combined

Hindenburg envelope combined

We do not have a translation* of the letter, unfortunately, but the date is significant.  The years 1914-1915 saw several important German victories on the battlefields of Europe, and Field Marshall Hindenburg’s star was on the rise.

Hindenberg photoAlthough Hindenburg had retired from the military in 1911, he was called back into active service when the war broke out in 1914.  By the following year – around the time he wrote this letter – Hindenburg had established himself as a formidable commander of Germany’s forces on the Eastern Front. His command led successful campaigns at the battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes in 1914-1915.

One key member of Hindenburg’s staff grew increasingly close to him during these early years of the war. Erich Wilhelm Ludendorff (1865-1937) was assigned to Hindenburg as his Chief of Staff in 1914, and the two men constantly worked together. Indeed, Ludendorff and Hindenburg were jointly responsible for the German victory at Tannenberg and other key advances.

Together, the two men rose to the very height of the German command structure. The National Army Museum in London describes their ascent: “Through a combination of prestige, military efficiency and intrigues against rivals they gradually established themselves over the Kaiser and the German Parliament (the Reichstag) to become supreme warlords of Germany.”

Hindenburg,_Kaiser,_LudendorffHindenburg, the Kaiser, and Ludendorff, c. 1918

In addition to the letter penned and signed by Hindenburg, the Salisbury House collections includes correspondence and signatures by Ludendorff as well.Ludendorff combined

Here again, our lack of German language skills impedes our ability to more fully interpret the artifacts. These may date to around 1919, the year following the Armistice and the end of the war.

Still, despite our uncertainties, these letters written by Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff connect Salisbury House’s collections to two of the most consequential leaders of the German military during the entirety of the First World War.

After hostilities ceased in November 1918, Hindenburg and Ludendorff both advocated the “stab in the back” explanation for Germany’s defeat. In this rendering, the war’s loss was due to the unpatriotic machinations of socialists, communists, and Jews, among others, and not to the failure of the German high command (e.g. Hindenburg and Ludendorff).

By the 1920s, their careers veered apart. Ludendorff became increasingly involved in ultra-nationalist politics and was a prominent figure in the early Nazi party. In 1925, he ran as the Nazi presidential candidate, but received only 1% of the vote. Ludendorff’s politics and personal beliefs became increasingly unhinged and antisemitic.  He died in 1937 in relative obscurity.

Hindenburg, though, remained a prominent figure in Germany, beloved as a war hero. Convinced to stand as a candidate in the 1925 presidential election, he was elected to oversee  Germany’s difficult postwar governance. During the final years of his life and presidency, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor (1932), though Hindenburg remained president until his death in 1934.

Hitler_HindenburgPaul von Hindenburg and Adolf Hitler in Berlin, May 1933
 

At this point, it’s worth asking: when and why did Carl collect these objects? It is tempting to speculate. Given our lack of contextualizing information (a translation of the letters, for example, or historical sources that suggest Carl’s motives), the most responsible interpretation of these artifacts suggests that they were simply just a part of his broader collection. Perhaps Carl viewed the Hindengurg and Ludendorff letters along the same vein as his autographed letters from Charles Cornwallis or the Marquis de Lafayette: collectible documents whose worth rested on their creation by significant historical figures.

Another object from Salisbury House’s World War I-related pieces adds an additional layer to the story. A 1921 letter fromJusserand_Combined the French ambassador to the United States, Jules Jusserand, thanked George S. Murphy of Des Moines for his charitable donation to the postwar recovery efforts in France.

As this correspondence is in English, we have no language barrier, but questions remain. Did Murphy and Carl Weeks know each other? Probably. Murphy’s 1966 obituary indicates that he was a prominent business owner in Des Moines and belonged to several fraternal organizations, including the Kiwanis Club and the Freemasons. It is not unlikely that Weeks and Murphy knew each other through through these groups or business associates.

Was Carl also involved in providing charitable donations to war-ravaged France? Or did Murphy, knowing Carl’s penchant for acquiring letters and signatures of famous men, offer him the letter for his collection?

Here again, we have more questions than answers.

We hope that someday we will have the sources needed to more fully tell the stories of these documents.  Until then, however, they remain important, both  in their own right and as illustrations of the broader historical significance of our collections here at Salisbury House.

* Do you read German? We would welcome a translation of the letters included above. Reach us here.
 
Want more World War I history? Reserve your tickets now for our upcoming History Series lecture by author Michael Nieberg on May 1. His book, Dance of the Furies, explores Europe at the outset of the Great War.

Best Wishes for Xmas, (signed) James Joyce

The early weeks of December often bring a welcome variety to one’s mailbox: Christmas cards.  These envelopes, a nice respite from the usual junk mail and bills, reflect a long-held tradition of exchanging postal pleasantries at Christmastime.  The Weeks family, who built Salisbury House in the 1920s, kept this custom as well.  Our collections here at the museum contain a few samples of the Weekses’ own Christmas cards, and other cards and holiday greetings penned by well-known artists and writers of the twentieth century.

The exchange of Christmas cards was a practice first established in the mid-1800s.  A British businessman, Sir Henry Cole, is typically credited with producing the first commercial holiday card in 1843.  One of the Cole originals sold at auction in 2001 for over £22,000.

800px-FirstchristmascardSir Henry Cole’s Christmas Card, c. 1843

By the turn of the twentieth century, this December ritual had taken hold in Europe and the United States.  Indeed, a young Carl Weeks had his own Christmas cards printed around this time.  The card pictured below is undated, but the fact that the text includes only Carl’s name – and not Edith, whom he married in 1907 – suggests the piece was printed sometime around 1900 (though, as we will see, Carl did not uniformly include Edith’s name on the family Christmas card even after their marriage).

Just Carl undated

After the completion of Salisbury House in 1928, the family home often illustrated the Weekses’ Christmas cards.

Color CEW undated

CEW BW Xmas late 1930s_1940s

The Weeks boys also appeared in the annual Christmas card from time to time.  A handwritten date on the back of the card pictured below indicates that it was sent “around 1938.”  This is curious, given the inscription: “Holiday Greetings from the Three Bachelors of Salisbury House.”

First of all, the only unmarried Weeks man around 1938 was Lafe (the youngest son, standing in the image below).  William was married in 1935.  Carl, of course, was married to Edith.  Perhaps “Three Bachelors” was meant as a joke…but one wonders if Edith or Margaret (William’s wife) found it particularly funny!

Bachelors Reverse says ca 1938

In addition to sending out holiday cards, the Weekses also received them from a variety of friends and acquaintances.  Joseph Stella, a prolific Italian-American artist of the twentieth century, maintained a long relationship with Carl and Edith.  Correspondence over the years between the Weekses and the Stellas often included a Christmas greeting.

 More broadly, though, Carl and Edith were important patrons of Stella’s work.  Stella inscribed a 1926 photograph of himself in the process of painting The Apotheosis of the Roseone of his major works, with thanks to the Weeks family for supporting his artistic endeavors.  The Rose now hangs in Salisbury House.

Stella combined

The Weekses and Stella remained in touch.  From Paris in 1931, Stella penned the following letter:

Stella 1931 note

Paris – Dec. 14 – 1931

Dear Mr. Weeks,

For Christmas I send to you and to Mrs. Weeks my best wishes.

Cordially,

Joseph Stella

Another holiday greeting, addressed to Carl at his office, came from the writer Maurine Whipple in 1942.   Extant correspondence between Whipple and Weeks was quite extensive, and suggested a unique relationship that was reflected in her 1942 Christmas card.

Whipple 1942

Salt Lake City

Dec. 17, ‘42

Dear Bro in the Gospel:

Just a word of cheer and Season’s Greeting before I go back to my corner of the Lord’s vineyard.  Indeed I am blessed to have a corner to go back to! Since the invasion of the gentiles into our City of Saints the weather has turned so foul that truly I think the Lord is pouring out His wrath.  At any rate, I have had four wisdom teeth out and am completely recovered from last fall’s accident and am now ready to work fifteen hours a day for the Arizona Strip, of which you are slated to receive the first autographed copy! (If I hear from you someday, that is.  I am worried – Satan is abroad!)

Faithfully,

Sister Whipple

The year prior to this Christmas missive, Whipple’s The Giant Joshua, a novel about the Mormon religion, was published to widespread popular and critical acclaim.  This holiday letter from Whipple to Weeks took place at a time in which she was increasingly well-known on the national stage.

Additionally, the historical backdrop of the early 1940s is apparent within this exchange.  December 17, 1942:  the United States had been engaged in World War II for almost exactly one year.  The envelope that landed on Weeks’ desk advertised for war bonds and stamps:

Whipple 3 env

Yet another singular Christmas card arrived at Salisbury House in December 1948.  Mailed to the Weekses from Philip Duschnes, a prominent New York bookseller, the envelope included an astonishing supplement.  A leaf from a fifteenth-century manuscript, intricately illuminated on vellum, was enclosed in a paper mat.

Duschenes 1948

An inscription inside the card provided additional identifying information:

Dechenes xmas 2

Philip Duschnes became well-known during his career as a bookseller for offering high-quality pieces and also for the practice of selling single leaves from significant works.   Weeks, a devoted bibliophile, was clearly a good customer.

Duschnes often collaborated with Otto Ege, a dean at the Cleveland School of Art and lecturer at (Case) Western Reserve University in Cleveland.  One of their joint efforts, titled Original Leaves from Famous Books: Nine Centures, 1122 A.D. – 1923 A.D. remains in the Salisbury House collection today.  The collection, one of fifty made available for purchase, went on the market in 1949.  Leaves from the “famous books” were placed in a paper mat and included a brief description penned by Ege.

Leaves.1

This leaf came from a fourteenth-century manuscript of Aristotle’s Ethics, detailed below by Ege.

Original leaves 4 infor

As Ege notes, a secular writer likely penned this 1365 manuscript.  Compared to the leaf from the Book of Hours included in Duschnes’ Christmas card above, marked differences appear in the production of the manuscripts that suggest the secular versus the religious origins of each.

As amazing as the Duschnes, Whipple, and Stella pieces are, however, there is yet another object in the Salisbury House collections that takes the cool quotient up a notch.  The piece initially appears to be a fun, vintage-y Christmas postcard:

Joyce 1

 The back of the postcard reveals just how awesome this piece is:

Joyce 2

Your eyes do not deceive you.  Yes, this is a Christmas card signed by James Joyce and Nora [Barnacle] Joyce.

The massive geek-out does not stop there.  Attempts to date the postcard yielded a trove of information that takes this piece to epic levels of amazing.

We started with the stamp.  Although the postmark date remained illegible, we were able to track down some reliable-looking information about the stamp’s origins.  Issued in 1927 and dedicated to the French chemist Marcelin Berthelot, the commemorative stamp suggests that the postcard probably dates to the late 1920s.

There’s more.  The Christmas postcard is addressed to Mr. and Mrs. James Stephens.

James Stephens, like Joyce, was an Irish-born writer.  According to an article by Richard R. Finneran published in the James Joyce Quarterly, the two men did not immediately become friends.  Indeed, their relationship remained somewhat antagonistic until the 1920s.   Despite this early frostiness, Joyce and Stephens agreed around 1927-1929 that, should Joyce face insurmountable difficulties in completing Finnegan’s Wake, Stephens would finish the work for him.

This postcard, held here at Salisbury House, surely dates to this very time, during which Joyce and Stephens cemented their friendship and struck their agreement regarding Finnegan’s Wake.  

This postcard, held here in the Salisbury House collections, illuminates the story of one of the greatest literary creations of the twentieth century.

Merry Christmas.

Objects Come Home to Salisbury House

After a recent Chamber Music event at Salisbury House, two of our guests approached Deputy Executive Director Cyndi Pederson and offered her an envelope, asking her to open it while they were there. Much to her delight, the envelope contained a yellowed Christmas Card with an image of the Salisbury House north (front) door, signed by Carl and Edith Weeks, who built this house and amassed its extraordinary collections.

Cover of a Salisbury House Christmas Card, circa 1945.

Cover of a Salisbury House Christmas Card, circa 1945.

It was very kind of our guests to return this card to the House whence it originated, and we are grateful to them and so many others who have helped the Salisbury House Foundation recover lost or forgotten objects over the years. I have written before on this blog about the importance of objects in interpreting and presenting the human history of this and other historic properties, and new objects — while seemingly insignificant on their own — can often provide important insights when placed in their proper physical and chronological position.

While this card has no date on it, we can confidently state that it was mailed in the mid-1940s, because we have enough other images and data points to know that Carl and Edith habitually included the names of whichever of their four sons happened to be living at Salisbury House when they signed seasonal cards, so this piece is very likely from after 1940 (when Lafe left Salisbury House) and 1941 (when Hud and his wife moved into the Caretakers’ Cottage). Each and every small item like this provides us with another data point to track and hone our analysis of the family and their history here, and sometimes a single additional piece of information can provide a “eureka” moment to answering big questions or uncovering momentous matters.

Christmas greetings from Carl and Edith Weeks, after their boys had moved out of Salisbury House.

Christmas greetings from Carl and Edith Weeks, after their boys had moved out of Salisbury House.

One of the interesting aspects of having objects come home to Salisbury House is that it leads us to ponder the manner in which they left. Some of Carl and Edith’s art collections, papers, photos and memorabilia have been passed down to family members. Some art work was donated by Carl and Edith to sites such as the Art Center and Scottish Rite Consistory in Des Moines. Papers were donated by sons Hud and William to The University of Utah, documenting young Carl’s travels in Southwestern Utah around the turn of the 20th Century, while other papers relating to the Armand Company and books from Carl’s erotica collection now reside in the Special Collections Library at the University of Iowa.

Many objects left Salisbury House because Carl and Edith were both admirable, regular, well-traveled correspondents with a huge number of friends, acquaintances and admirers, so there are no doubt countless letters, cards and other ephemeral materials packed away in attics, trunks, antique shops and private residences around the country, if not the world. We have a mysterious 1930 note to Carl in our collection from Edith Bolling Wilson, widow of President Woodrow Wilson, thanking him for his “kindness in sending me the small package.” What was in the package? And what story would be able to tell if it came home?

What "small package" did Carl mail to President Wilson's widow? And what if it came home?

What “small package” did Carl mail to President Wilson’s widow? And what if it came home?

Other objects left the House when the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) had its headquarters at Salisbury House from 1954 to 1998, and renovated parts of the property to make it work for their purposes. The kitchen and scullery, for example, were dismantled and converted into office spaces, so the stove, refrigerator and dishwasher that were once used to feed Carl and Edith’s family members and guests have disappeared into the haze of history, barring a few photos. We do, however, have some original kitchen cabinetry stored in an attic and some counter fixtures that spent years rotting in a farmers’ pasture, and we have recently been contacted about a possible Salisbury House kitchen sink that’s installed in a currently unoccupied home. We hope that sink and other similar objects might come home as we work to restore the historic kitchen to at least an accurate facsimile of its original configuration, and that such a restoration effort will roust other lost objects from their hiding places.

Perhaps the most controversial object to leave Salisbury House was Joseph Stella’s monumental painting, Tree of My Life, which was sold by ISEA in 1986 to raise funds for much-needed deferred maintenance on the property. It is now in the hands of a private collector with a bequest intention to a major art gallery, so it is not likely to come home, ever. And at a very bottom line basis, the Salisbury House Foundation itself was created to ensure that such trade-offs never have to be made again, by creating new philanthropic and operational revenue streams to care for the house, so that its objects may stay here, in perpetuity, for the cultural and educational benefit of the public.

As we mature into our role as an established and trustworthy operator of an exceptional historic house museum, more people are demonstrating their willingness to bring their own Salisbury House or Weeks Family objects back to us, either to be donated into the permanent collection, or to be properly researched and digitally documented for our archives, to help us better tell our story to the next generation of visitors.

Do you have any of the objects that left Salisbury House? They could be papers, furniture, paintings, books, photographs, house decorations, fixtures, Armand or related commercial products, or other objects that we don’t even know exist at this point. If you have some of them, we would certainly love to talk to you about having them come home, maybe just for a short visit and study, or maybe even for good, as a philanthropic donation to the Salisbury House Foundation.

You have our word that they will be in good hands, and that they will be cherished, studied, and celebrated as important parts of the extraordinary Salisbury House history. Who knows what “eureka” moment they might bring?