Life & Labor over four centuries at The house of the seven gables

THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES is a product of labor over the past four centuries. From the early paint treatments to the nineteenth century furniture to twentieth century restorations and repairs, a working human made each of the historical objects possible. Temporary labor such as the chopping of firewood exists only for a moment in time. Other forms of work leave traces we don’t often consider. The codfish the Turner family brought around the Atlantic are long gone, but examples of goods brought back to New England still exist.

The hard-working Puritan is part of the national myth of the United States. Only recently has an evolving story been shared about unfree labor in New England. There can be no denying that the Turners, who built The House of the Seven Gables must have been enterprising, smart, and hard-working to establish their network of wealth and property, but contributions to that success by indentured servants and enslaved people need to be shared.

As the house passed through generations, new forms of labor shaped the neighborhoods around it. The period following independence from Great Britain saw Salem’s commerce expand across the globe. This expansion and new opportunity for profit required innovative types of work. The Industrial Revolution in America changed life and work in unexpected ways at the turn of the nineteenth century, just as the Digital Revolution continues to change today with advances in computer and internet technology.

The story of labor at The House of the Seven Gables is ever-evolving. The mansion was saved for posterity in part to present the story of the Puritan work ethic to a new generation of Americans. Caroline Emmerton, the organization’s founder, opened the museum in 1910 to help fund her educational work. It is a tradition and mission maintained today for all Americans in the twenty-first century.


There was much work to be done in the 1600s to establish a more perfect English society in New England. Colonists cleared land and built houses and farms. Many of the settlers had skilled trades such as metalsmithing and carpentry. Those in coastal communities like Salem often made their living fishing, salting, and shipbuilding.

By the late 1600s, Salem was a well-developed community. The land where The House of the Seven Gables was built in 1668 had already been cleared by another settler three decades before. The builder of the house, John Turner, amassed a great fortune as a mariner and merchant. When Turner died in 1680, his merchandise made up slightly more than a third of his estate, while his ships comprised another third. His houses, land, warehouses, and household goods made up the rest. More than two thirds of his wealth was represented by his commercial assets.


The House of the Seven Gables was an impressive house when it was built in 1668. Its newly married young owners, John and Elizabeth Turner, were among the wealthiest people in town.

Building a house in the 1600s was a collaborative effort, as it is today. The trees were felled. Sawyers trimmed the wood to the needed sizes with saws. Carpenters added features, such as mortises and tenons necessary for joining the wood together and carved the wood further. When the frame was ready the whole community gathered together to assist in erecting it into place.

A line engraving of sawyers in a saw pit from “The Book of English Trades, and Library of the Useful Arts” printed for C. & J. Rivington, London, 1827.

Skilled workers contributed to the finish of the house. Brick-makers made bricks for the chimney and walls which bricklayers laid. Carpenters worked boards for floors and cut shingles and clapboards. Blacksmiths made nails and hardware for the doors and windows. Plasterers made plaster for the interior finish. Glaziers made glass for the windows.


Women in colonial Salem were almost always at work. Managing a household required skilled work and hard labor on a constant basis. Women raised and prepared food, made and mended clothing, and tended to their children. Women’s work was vital to the economic output of early New England. Besides their domestic responsibilities, women also engaged in agriculture, trade, service work, and manufacturing.

With their wealth, three generations of Turner women assumed a more supervisory role within their household, overseeing the work of servants and enslaved persons. When John Turner died young, his widow Elizabeth managed the estate and her family on her own for four years before remarrying. Mary Kitchen, who married John Turner II in 1701, survived her husband by 26 years and never remarried. At the time of her death in 1768, she divided the estate equally between her four children, ensuring that her three daughters would also receive equal portions.

A portrait of Mary Turner Sargent painted by John Singleton Copley in 1763. She was the daughter of John Turner III.


Indentured servants, who worked to pay off a debt or the cost of passage to New England, were an early and common form of unfree labor in New England. Contracts for indentured labor often lasted from four to seven years, though numerous infractions – including pregnancy for female servants - could extend the term. These contracts were transferable between employers, but indentured servants were not considered property. Indentured servants had few legal rights.

Former servants could go on to have prosperous lives. Robert Turner, the father of John Turner, came to Boston as an indentured servant and became a hat maker after his indenture.

John Turner had contracts with indentured servants. John Darby worked for seven months and Robert Haly worked for ten years to pay off debts owed to John Turner. Joan Suiflan (Sullivan) an immigrant from Ireland, originally worked for the Turners to pay her passage. Eventually, her contract was sold to another merchant, Thomas Maule.

Endorsement certificates, which served as references for indentured servants and apprenctices, signed by the Selectmen of Salem. The certificates are for William Chandler, 1777 (top) and Martha Pynchon, 1786 (bottom)


Enslaved people formed another class of unfree labor in New England. They had fewer legal rights than indentured servants and were seen conflictingly as both property and people.

Initially, Massachusetts colonists traded Native American captives from conflicts as slaves. The earliest known enslaved Africans in New England were brought to Boston from the West Indies aboard the ship Desire in February of 1638. They had been received in exchange for Pequot captives from the Pequot War (1636-1638).

The enslavement of Africans became more common in New England at the beginning of the 1700s, and the Massachusetts slave trade peaked from 1740 to 1769. Slavery was widely considered illegal in Massachusetts after two enslaved persons successfully sued for their freedom in 1781. Still, many people in Massachusetts remained enslaved in everything but name into the 1800s. Salem’s merchant ships continued to covertly trade in slaves even after federal law prohibited the international slave trade in 1808.


At least five people were enslaved by the Turner family between 1728 and 1768. Because of probate records and other documents we know their names. Unfortunately, little information is known about their daily lives and work duties.

In March of 1728, Titus was baptized at the Second Church of Salem. In 1731, the intention to marry of Titus and Phillis, both listed as “servants” of Col. John Turner II, was published in Salem.

When John Turner II died in 1742, three enslaved people are mentioned in his probate inventory, a document made to assess his estate: Titus, Rebeckah, and Lewis.

When Mary Kitchen Turner, the wife of John Turner II, died in 1768, she left £80 to her son John Turner III for taking three slaves – Titus, Rebeckah, and Jane – “as his owne property & he engages to support them during their lives.” By then, Titus had been enslaved in the family for at least 40 years.


In coastal New England, independence from British trade restrictions after the American Revolution allowed merchants to trade around the world. Salem quickly became a major player in international trade, opening American commerce with regions like Russia and Indonesia before the year 1800.

Wealthy ship-owners financed voyages and made the majority of the profit while the crew earned either wages or a percentage of the cargo’s profit. Shore-based trades such as shipbuilding, sail-making and cord-making grew in response to rising demand. The keeping of chandleries and shops to sell imported goods were also key to the success of Salem’s maritime economy.

Women were not allowed to pursue careers at sea though Captain’s wives and other female family members sometimes accompanied their husbands on voyages. The wives of sailors typically engaged in work such as mending, washing, selling goods, and running taverns or boarding houses while their husbands were at sea.


In the second half of the 1700s, numerous technological advances such as new machines and increased fuel efficiency, gave rise to new systems of production, consumption, and work. Shortly after the American Revolution, New England began to industrialize.

A photograph of Joshua B. Grant’s leather shop on Boston Street, where leather workers would meet in the late 1800s.

In 1785, the first cotton mill in the United States opened in the neighboring town of Beverly. In 1847, the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company opened in Salem as the nation’s first steam-powered cotton manufactory. By the early 1900s, it was the largest employer in town. The work force was largely Polish and French Canadian. In 1933, workers participated in a strike without union approval, fighting against layoffs and research into worker efficiency. The strike lasted 11 weeks and eventually the mill yielded to their requests.

The mid- to late-1900s was a period of de-industrialization in New England, as factories and mills moved to other parts of the country or overseas.

A photograph showing a woman working at a warping machine at Pequot Mills, 1949.


In 1883, Elizabeth Upton, purchased the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion. Henry Upton, her husband, made his living as a musician and dancing instructor, though early in their marriage he was also a gas fitter. Henry’s father had been a musician as well, while Elizabeth’s father was a laborer.

The Upton family lived in the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion for 25 years. Their son, Henry J., became a pianist and their daughter, Ida, became an artist. Another daughter, Henrietta, attended Emerson College and taught oratory in the house. The Uptons were solidly middle-class though Turner Street was a largely working class neighborhood.

Two women on their end of the Turner street worked as nurses. Occupations for the men included five carpenters, two painters, a shoemaker, a currier, a lather, a mason, a baker, a teamster, an engineer, and the Keeper of the Derby Wharf Light.


Increased immigration to Salem in the early 1900s inspired the creation of a settlement house which provided services to the immigrant poor. The House of the Seven Gables was opened as a museum in 1910 to raise money for this community resource. The primary audience served by the settlement was the working-class Polish community in the Derby Street Neighborhood, many of whom worked at Pequot Mills or in the city’s leather tanneries.

The workers in the settlement house were mostly middle-class women who had received training as social workers or teachers. The activities of the settlement workers focused on Americanization, or integrating the immigrants into American society and traditions, and teaching vocational skills such as cooking, sewing, and woodworking. Most settlement workers were specialized educators, teaching subjects such as “domestic sciences,” gymnastics, or music.

A cooking class given as part of The House of the Seven Gables Settlement’s programming. Most classes were given at cost, but the cooking class required a small fee.
Shown here are boys practicing sloyd (a Scandinavian technique of woodworking education)


Captain Samuel Ingersoll died at sea in 1804. His property and business were left to his widow, Susanna Hathorne Ingersoll. Following her death in 1811, the estate was left to her daughter and namesake. Susanna is known for maintaining the family estate for 47 years as well as entertaining her cousin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and inspiring his famed novel, The House of the Seven Gables.

As a land owner and business woman, Ingersoll defied the “spinster” definition of the nineteenth century. She maintained her father’s business for some time, though much of her work was devoted to real estate. Research from the Essex County Probate Court indicates that the single, middle-aged woman acted as an agent that who purchased and sold property around Salem and Danvers, as well as providing mortgages.

Susanna remained unmarried throughout her life. However, she did have an adopted son, Horace Connolly, to whom she bequeathed her estate.


Caroline Osgood Emmerton was born April 21, 1866. Emmerton was influenced by her upbringing in Salem—a city transitioning from a shipping port to a manufacturing center, bringing in new people and technologies at a rapid pace.

Emmerton was motivated by her family’s philanthropic work in Salem. In 1908, she purchased the Turner-Ingersoll mansion and hired Joseph Everett Chandler to plan for a major restoration. In 1910, The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association opened with a unique dual mission—to preserve the building that inspired an American literary classic and to fund educational programs for Salem’s newly arriving immigrant population.

Emmerton said, “. . . should not this settlement excel whose home is the ancient House of Seven Gables, the foundations of which were laid by the first immigrants who came here long ago, strangers in a strange land?” Today, the organization upholds Emmerton’s influential mission and continues the legacy of preservation and education started more than a century ago.


Work in a Colonial Seaport

Bailyn, Bernard. The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century. Harvard University Press, 1979.

House Construction in Colonial Salem

Cummings, Abbott Lowell. The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay. Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1979.

Wilbur, C. Keith. Homebuilding and Woodworking in Colonial America. Globe Pequot Press, 1992.

Women’s Work in Colonial Salem

Norton, Mary Beth. Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society. Vintage, 1997.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750. Vintage, 1991.

Indentured Servitude

Hofstadter, Richard. America at 1750: A Social Portrait. Knopf, 1971.

New England Slavery

Warren, Wendy. New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America. Liveright, 2016.

Dunn, Richard S. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Work in the Great Age of Sail

Vickers, Daniel. Young Men and the Sea: Yankee Seafarers in the Age of Sail. Yale University Press, 2007.

Bolster, W. Jeffrey. The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail. Belknap Press, 2014.

The Industrial Revolution in Salem

Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution. The New Press, 1968.

Dublin, Thomas. Transforming Women's Work: New England Lives in the Industrial Revolution. Cornell University Press, 1994.

Settlement Work

Ehrenreich, John H. The Altruistic Imagination: A History of Social Work and Social Policy in the United States. Cornell University Press, 1985.

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