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POP! Goes The Gables An exhibit that explores popular culture and the effect it has had on The House of the Seven Gables and beyond.

A Monumental Novel

Since Nathaniel Hawthorne penned The House of the Seven Gables in 1851, the novel has made a lasting mark on American culture. Hawthorne used the 1668 home of his cousin, Susanna Ingersoll, as the setting for an allegorical story about a family haunted for generations by their ancestor’s misdeed during the Salem Witch Trials. Today, classic works of literature are considered high culture — studied in schools and read by scholars, but in the 1800s, these same works had mass appeal. Hawthorne’s characters, such as the complex adulteress Hester Prynne and the troubled ex-convict Clifford Pyncheon, became figureheads for a new, distinctly American literature.

Hawthorne had published The Scarlet Letter a year earlier and both novels were bestsellers in the United States and Great Britain. The fame of Hawthorne’s novel saved his cousin’s house from destruction when the home was transformed into one of America’s first historic house museums in 1910.

Popular Culture represents the collective culture of a society. It includes all forms of communication and the ideas they convey. Popular culture is often distinguished as “low culture” rather than “high culture,” the songs from a dance club rather than the opera. Popular culture is often shared by large groups of people, sometimes across other cultural barriers. The common taste of the people in a society determines popular culture and changes often. While pop culture is consumed by the masses, it is produced by a relatively small number of people. It contains the negative aspects of a society such as sexism and racism. It can also counter prejudice. Popular culture is often specific to a certain time, but the forms of popular culture, such as movies, television, and popular music, are often informed by the traditions in their history.

THE UPTONS AND POP CULTURE

The Upton family, the owners of the house from 1883 until 1908, began to offer tours and display artifacts from the house’s history in the 1890s.

The granddaughters of Henry Upton and their friends play croquet on the front lawn of the mansion, c. 1901. Croquet was an adaptation of a game from the 1600s called pall-mall which appeared in England in the 1850s. In the 1860s, it became highly fashionable across the English-speaking world.

Tourism became a mass phenomenon in the mid-1800s due to a rise of leisure time and the spread of railroads. When Elizabeth Upton purchased The House of the Seven Gables in 1883, curious visitors were already coming down Turner Street to see the old mansion. The fame of Hawthorne’s novel brought tourists to the home that had inspired it, and made the mansion one of the primary tourist destinations in the city. Henry O. Upton and his daughter, Ida Upton Paine, helped cement the fame of The House of the Seven Gables. The Uptons opened the house up for informal tours by the 1890s. Henry, a musician and a dancing teacher, wrote sheet-music which prominently featured the mansion. Ida painted souvenirs that featured one of the first depictions of the now-iconic “Salem Witch.” In the same period, tourists mailed numerous postcards featuring the house, which served to further its fame.

Mass immigration from Europe and the related problem of growing urban poverty inspired the creation of settlement houses across the country in the late 1800s. A key mission of the settlement movement was to acclimate newly arrived immigrants to American society by replacing traditional aspects of their cultures with new American ones. In 1910, Salem philanthropist Caroline Emmerton opened The House of the Seven Gables as a museum that also served as a settlement house that provided immigrant families with classes in English and trade skills, social services, and community activities. Children learned about American history and civics, and played American sports like baseball and basketball. Theatrical productions and historical pageants were put on by the students of the settlement house. Many of the individuals who participated in the early settlement work treasured the programs. Societally, such cultural assimilation efforts have been criticized by scholars today as xenophobic.

Until the mid-1900s, The House of the Seven Gables was required reading in more schools than the The Scarlet Letter, which made it a familiar cultural reference. In 1933, the Chicago Century of Progress Exhibition featured a “Colonial Village” of replicated colonial buildings such as Mount Vernon, Old North Church, and a one-to-one scale replica of The House of the Seven Gables. In the year and a half that the exposition lasted, nearly 50 million people attended, which further spread the fame of the mansion around the country.

Hundreds of thousands of people visited The House of the Seven Gables over the course of the 1900s. Staffordshire plates and tea sets featuring images of the mansion were produced and are now in thousands of homes. The House of the Seven Gables has been photographed and profiled in hundreds of magazines, including National Geographic, Vogue, and Antiques.

EARLY FILM ADAPTATION

The film used an image of the house after its restoration as a backdrop.
An unknown scene in the silent film, perhaps showing the death of Col. Pyncheon and the ghost of accused witch Matthew Maule from the beginning of the novel. Other films directed by Dawley in the period featured multiple scene changes with a few intertitles of dialogue.

Six months after The House of the Seven Gables opened in 1910, the Edison Manufacturing Company released a silent film version of the novel. Edison’s studio and its competitors quickly produced films to meet the demand for the new medium. In addition to The House of the Seven Gables, J. Searle Dawley directed 182 short films between 1907 and 1926. Mary Fuller, who played Hepzibah, starred in 226 films in the same period! While the film is now believed to be lost, four still images from it survive.

Joe May made pioneering silent films in Germany before emigrating to the United States. His 1940 film, The House of the Seven Gables, starred Americans Margaret Lindsay as Hepzibah, Vincent Price as Clifford, and the British actor George Sanders as Jaffrey. It was one of a wave of horror films produced by Universal Studios, which then specialized in low-and mid-budget movies.

Russian-American publisher Albert Lewis Kanter hoped to interest children in literature through the new medium of comics. In 1941, he began Classics Illustrated, a series of comic book adaptations of classic books. An adaptation of The House of the Seven Gables was released in 1948 and the novel has been adapted in comic form several times since, including a Classic Comics edition in 1997.

Today, Wonder Woman is a globally recognized character and brand. William Moulton Marston, a psychologist from Saugus, Massachusetts, developed her character in the Golden Age of Comic Books (c. 1930 - 1950). In Comic Cavalcade #1, published in December of 1942, Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor foil a group of Nazi saboteurs who seek to destroy The House of the Seven Gables. In the course of the adventure, she uses the secret staircase to surprise her foes. In those early days, the house was more iconic than the hero.

Though produced by a small number of people, pop culture belongs to everyone. The cultural landscape of the twentieth century was defined by the domination of several new forms of mass communication: film, radio, television, and comics. However, in the twenty-first century, the rise of the internet, the decline of the “Big Three” television broadcasters, and new modes of media consumption have led to a fragmentation of audiences. Fewer aspects of popular culture are seen as universal. The series finale of the popular show Breaking Bad in 2013 drew only one tenth of the viewers that the series finale of M*A*S*H had 30 years earlier.

Political scientists speculate that the fragmentation of media has increased partisanship and division. The American identity is based in large part on a sense of unity across a diverse society and is influenced by the culture we consume.

What messages do you receive from various media about history, culture, and identity?

Salem is known internationally for the infamous episode of 1692 when 25 innocent people lost their lives after being falsely accused of witchcraft. In the 1800s, Salem’s dark past inspired numerous works of literature. In 1859, English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell wrote Lois the Witch, which chronicles an English girl accused in Salem. In the mid-1900s, many films drew from Salem’s history, including Maid of Salem (1937) featuring Claudette Colbert as a woman falsely accused, and I Married a Witch, a 1942 comedy about a witch who seeks revenge on her accuser’s descendant. Many students’ first introduction to the witchcraft trials is Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, The Crucible. The rise of contemporary witchcraft in Salem since 1970 has led to new associations in popular culture, such as an episode of the television procedural Rizzoli and Isles and the 2013 horror film The Lords of Salem.

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