12 Lee Street: Historical Home Feature
From the opening of Salem’s bustling port in the late 1700s to the booming of notable families and local industries today, the North Shore has always been a cornerstone of American History. We fixed our lens on Marblehead to magnify one historical home we were privileged to photograph. Our tour began with a walk down Lee Street and a deep dive into the Marblehead Historical Commission’s resources to shine a spotlight on 12 Lee Street.
Built in 1725 and utilized on Marblehead’s commercial waterfront, this colonial home was converted into a private residence for tailor William Rodgers (also recorded “Rogers”) and his family in 1773. The home was designated historic locally in 1968 and nationally about twenty years later.
It was a challenge to uncover more about the Rodgers family even with Marblehead’s detailed historical resources (and Nathaniel Blaney was even more elusive). William Rodgers is listed in a tax document dated October 4th, 1787 and later on a receipt of payment to him from the city of Marblehead in April 1839 for the “repairing of shoes” – not exactly the exciting history we hoped to write about, but still very cool to see those primary sources preserved.
The Star of 12 Lee Street
As fun as old tax documents are, we kept digging knowing there had to be more. Luckily, we were onto something! We discovered that Ruth Rodgers – William’s daughter – made a name for herself in 18th century American folk art with her embroidery samples, which were textiles made by young women learning basic needlework skills. Some of these women expanded their skills well beyond sewing practice into a truly sophisticated art form, especially Ruth. One of Ruth’s samples was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1984.
The samples were usually made of linen and silk and featured the alphabet, bible verses, and religious themes. Samples featuring Adam and Eve were popular in the area at the time, but Ruth’s piece above is especially notable because it features design elements that originated in Boston, like the hexagonal pattern stitching. Our walk down Lee Street suddenly took a sharp turn down a rabbit hole of rich New England folk art history and the archive-digging paid off after all.
The second and possibly only other lasting Ruth Rogers sample, dated 1789, is in the safe hands of the American Museum of Folk Art in New York City. The museum noted that many young Marblehead women most likely had the same teacher, Martha Tarr Barber. Ruth’s 1789 sampler displays Marblehead techniques that may have originated at the Barber school. Boston Museum of Fine Arts curator Pamela Parmal found that more than one hundred embroidery teachers existed throughout Boston at the time, all with different styles and influences. Today, these samples mean so much more than a schoolgirl’s homework. Parmal wrote:
Even with the wide range of samplers produced within the city of Boston, taken as a whole, the schoolgirl embroideries produced in the period reflect the evolution of Boston from Puritan capital to wealthy merchant town and the changes that took place in the education of its young women over the course of a century.Pamela Parmal, “The Samples of Colonial Boston.”
Parmal wrote in depth about eighteenth century New England embroidery in her essay, “The Samples of Colonial Boston,” which accompanied a BMFA exhibition in 2001. Through Parmal, we discovered just how impactful this art form was. Ruth is not alone in her art history prestige; the young women of early New England needled their way into museums and home collections throughout the country. From family heirlooms to Etsy reproductions, this quaint schoolgirl activity holds a special place in history.
We might overlook the importance of Ruth’s work as we gush over original floorboards and exposed wood beams. Just as her father’s name is noted on 12 Lee Street’s historical plaque, Ruth has her name chiseled in American history (and featured in the Met, which is much cooler). We didn’t expect to stumble upon this on our Lee Street walk, but it’s no surprise now that Ruth Rodgers is the star we were hoping to discover!
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