Caroline Emmerton An Unbounded Vision

Explore the life of one of Salem’s most prominent citizens and generous philanthropists during the progressive era, and learn how she transformed a centuries-old home into one of the most well-known and beloved houses in the world.

Also, discover how Ms. Emmerton worked to shape her community and provide educational opportunities for those who needed them most. This is a legacy The Gables is proud to continue today.

Portrait of Caroline Emmerton, c. 1942

A Childhood Rooted in Salem

The birth house of Caroline Emmerton on Summer Street, today The Salem Inn.

Caroline Osgood Emmerton was born on Summer Street in Salem on April 21, 1866, in a house which is today The Salem Inn. Her paternal grandfather, Ephraim Emmerton, lived in a Georgian mansion next door. Her maternal grandfather, John Bertram, lived on Essex Street in an even larger mansion. Both grandfathers had been merchants involved in Salem’s maritime trade in the early 1800s. They made their fortunes sending ships to places like India, Zanzibar, California, and South America.

John Bertram, Caroline Emmerton's maternal grandfather. Portrait in the Salem Public Library

Emmerton grew up in a city that was transitioning from its past as a major shipping port to its future as a manufacturing center for both textiles and the leather industry. George Emmerton, Caroline’s father, worked in the growing chemical industry. The Salem that Caroline grew up in was the Salem of “The Gilded Age,” when advances in machinery led to economic growth, waves of immigration, and tension around class inequality. These trends influenced Emmerton’s career choice later in life.

Community Spirit

The Carpenter Street House, the site of Emmerton's first board position in 1894.

Caroline Emmerton’s family valued community service. Her grandfather, Captain John Bertram, gave $25,000 in 1873 to build Salem Hospital. His heirs donated his mansion on Essex Street to Salem to be the public library. Her mother, Jennie Bertram Emmerton, was well known for her charitable work with the Salem Society for Higher Education for Women and the Old Ladies’ Home. When Jennie Emmerton died in 1912, her obituary read: “She was the richest woman in Salem, well known for her charitable disposition and ever ready to extend a helping hand to those who were desirous of helping themselves, and to those who were unable to help themselves.”

The Salem Public Library as it looked in 1910. (Image from the Detroit Publishing Company, c. 1910. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

Emmerton grew up with the spirit of public service. In 1894, she was a board member at the Carpenter Street Home, a shelter for orphaned children, and at the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, today’s Historic New England. Emmerton was a founder of the Salem Fraternity, the first Boys and Girls Club to be established in Massachusetts.

The Progressive Era

The Music Room at The Breakers, Newport, R.I. An example of a Gilded-age mansion.

The inequality and corruption of “The Gilded Age” which began in the 1870s led to widespread support for social and political reform across American life beginning in the 1890s. This period, known as “the Progressive Era,” consisted of movements focused on the political and economic sphere, like ending monopolies and increasing government regulations. Other movements focused on improving the position in society of women and children. Immigrants were coming to the United States in large numbers, and many progressives focused on Americanization, trying to help immigrants adapt and integrate into American life.

The decades that followed the progressive victory of Prohibition saw a decline in the progressive spirit. The New Deal in the early 1930s, including the repeal of Prohibition, was considered the death knell of the progressive era. Many progressives, like Caroline Emmerton, lived until the time of World War II, and saw the legacy, for good and bad, of their reforms and organizations.

A Salem textile factory worker from the Derby Street Neighborhood. (Courtesy of the Nowak-Cosgrove Family)

The Settlement Movement

A needlepoint class at The House of the Seven Gables, taught by Settlement workers, circa 1920.

The first settlement house, Toynbee Hall, was formed in London in 1884. There, students from Oxford and Cambridge lived in the impoverished East End of London to learn about poverty firsthand. Canon Samuel Barnett, an organizer, noted the rationale of the settlement movement: “It is distance that makes friendship between classes almost impossible.”

Jane Addams in 1914. (Photograph by Moffett, Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

In America, people were immigrating in large numbers. Progressive leaders focused on “Americanization,” trying to help immigrants adapt. In 1889, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House in Chicago. Hull House became the model settlement house in America. Hull House offered a variety of services including classes, medical care, and recreational opportunities. Jane Addams elaborated three principles for settlement work: residence, research, and reform. Settlement volunteers worked closely with the neighborhoods they served, researched the causes of poverty and campaigned for legislative reforms to combat them.

Settlement houses were popular. Within a year of Hull House opening, 400 settlement houses were established nationwide.

Preserving the Past

Top: The interior of the Paul Revere House in Boston. The 1680 house was restored by Joseph Chandler and completed in 1908. (Image from the Detroit Publishing Company, c. 1909. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division); Lower Left: The Boardman House in Saugus, Massachusetts. The 1692 house was purchased by William Sumner Appleton in 1914. (Photograph by Frank O. Branzetti, 1940. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS MASS, 5-SAUG, 1--1); Lower Right: Caroline Emmerton’s interpretation of “Hepizabah’s Cent Shop” from the Hawthorne novel, The House of the Seven Gables, post-1910 restoration.

The Colonial Revival movement emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a romantic and idealized look back on American colonial forms. It was a movement that influenced many facets of American life including art, literature, architecture, interior decorating, and preservation. It was both a longing for the past and a reaction to industrialization and the rapid changes of the era. There was a concern that the finished products of an industrial society lacked the individualism of hand-made crafts.

The Colonial Revival movement was central to the early preservation movement. Old houses that had long been neglected took on a renewed importance. They were considered places that could teach Americans about their history and help immigrants learn about American culture. Money, time, and work were put into saving these structures that could have been destroyed. The popularity of historic house museums is a result of the preservation movement.

The House of the Seven Gables Settlement

Urban centers were home to large immigrant populations and high concentrations of poverty. Almost half of all settlement houses at the turn of the twentieth century were located in three large cities: New York, Chicago, and Boston. In 1908, Caroline Emmerton sat on a committee tasked with starting a settlement house in Salem. For the new organization, she chose as its location the Seaman’s Bethel at the bottom of Turner Street where The Gables’ seaside lawn is today. The Bethel was a church for sailors associated with the Young Men’s Bethel Society that formed in the 1820s.

The tea room at The House of the Seven Gables, with the Seaman’s Bethel in the background, c. 1920.

The early offerings of Emmerton’s settlement house included, “sewing...and some of the other handicrafts, dancing and gymnasium work.” Emmerton expanded the programs and services of the settlement house to the point that they exceeded the capacity of the Seaman’s Bethel. When Emmerton learned that the neighboring Turner-Ingersoll Mansion was up for sale, she purchased it as the settlement’s practical and collective center.

Emmerton wrote of her choice: “If, as is generally conceded, the settlements do the best Americanization work, 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?” Residents in the surrounding Derby Street neighborhood were the primary beneficiaries of the settlement house. The area was an enclave for Eastern European immigrants, especially from Poland and Russia. Other communities served by Emmerton’s work included the Irish, Italian, Syrian, and African.

The House of the Seven Gables displaying a Polish flag, circa 1980.

Today, The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association serves the modern immigrant communities of Salem through literacy, citizenship, college preparation, and cultural programming. Because of demographic shifts, the focus of the work has moved away from the Derby Street neighborhood, but the settlement mission remains the same: to provide educational and enrichment opportunities for the local immigrant community.

Saving The House of the Seven Gables

The House of the Seven Gables after restoration, circa 1910.

Caroline Emmerton purchased the Turner-Ingersoll mansion in 1908. Soon after, she hired Joseph Everett Chandler (1864-1942), one of the most prominent Colonial Revival architects in New England. His restoration of Boston’s Paul Revere House (1680) proved his abilities.

Emmerton and Chandler restored the mansion from its early twentieth century appearance to its perceived original look at the time it was constructed in 1668. Some parts of the restoration and interpretation were focused on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literary classic, The House of the Seven Gables. Hawthorne was a visitor to the house in the mid-nineteenth century and Emmerton knew this story would draw visitors. The House of the Seven Gables opened to the public in April 1910 and has seen millions of visitors since.

Emmerton continued to focus on saving threatened Salem buildings in her lifetime. The Hooper-Hathaway House (1682) was moved to the property in 1911. The Retire Becket House (1655) was saved in 1924. Today’s museum campus is a reflection of Emmerton’s dedication to preservation.

Working with Aroline Gove

The Lydia Pinkham Memorial on the corner of Derby Street and Hawthorne Boulevard in Salem, MA

The Plummer Farm School of Reform for Boys was founded in 1855 with a bequest from a wealthy Salem woman, Caroline Plummer. In 1910, Caroline Emmerton and Aroline Gove were appointed the first female members of its board of trustees. Today the Plummer Home is a placement organization for children in the Department of Children and Families system, assisting with both foster care and permanent adoption.

A well-baby clinic at New York Methodist Hospital, circa 1930

Aroline Gove was the daughter of Lydia Pinkham, a women’s health pioneer of the 1800s, who marketed tonics designed to help with menstrual pain and menopause. Emmerton and Gove set up well-baby clinics around Salem in an effort to reduce high infant mortality rates. Well-baby clinics were designed to care for babies and educate mothers who otherwise could not pay for medical treatment. One such clinic was at The House of the Seven Gables. Another, the Lydia Pinkham Memorial, survives today at the nearby intersection of Derby Street and Hawthorne Boulevard.

Remembering a Brilliant Force

A portrait of Caroline Emmerton, date unknown. (Courtesy of The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association)

Caroline Emmerton died on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1942. The Salem Evening News ran an obituary that day. It called her “one of Salem’s Best Beloved Citizens” and noted that she “gave freely of her time and money for the benefit of underprivileged children and adults, winning the admiration and respect of the entire community.”

Emmerton’s legacy can be traced all across the city of Salem. Her grave is in Harmony Grove Cemetery. Her birth house still stands on Summer Street and her home as an adult can still be seen today on Essex Street.

The mark of her generous spirit can be found at the Women’s Friend Society on Hawthorne Boulevard and at the Plummer Home for Boys on Winter Island.

The House of the Seven Gables Settlement remains one of about 50 settlement houses which still operates in the United States. Her organization has survived over 100 years now and will continue to help generations of children.

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