things to do in salem, best historical sites in salem ma

I am so pleased to welcome Jen Ratliff to the blog today! I reached out to her a few weeks ago and she agreed to write a blog post for me covering some of her favorite historical spots around Salem. So without futher delay, here we go.

“As you walk through Salem, you can’t help but feel an undeniable magic. The City is alive with stories long passed. Mariners have walked these streets, returning home with treasures from the far east. Nathaniel Hawthorne wandered them, dreaming up his novels. Immigrants dragged their suitcases door to door in search of a familiar language and a piece of the American dream. There are so many tangible connections to the past to uncover, some of them may even surprise you.


things to do in salem, best historical sites in salem ma

The Phillips House

The Phillips House has changed significantly from the “four intact rooms transported by ox sled” which arrived in Salem in 1821. Begun by Captain Nathaniel West, 34 Chestnut Street is one of many stately mansions that were built along the picturesque Salem street in the early 19th century. In 1911 it was purchased by the Phillips Family and transformed into the Colonial Revival estate that can be seen today.

The home, complete with carriage house, is a stunning example of how wealthy Salemites lived in the early 20th century. Walking into the home is a bit like walking back in time, you can picture the Phillips’ playing records on their Victrola and entertaining in one of their many warmly decorated rooms. Not only is the home breathtaking but its interpretation is also engaging. Historic New England, which operates the museum, has done extensive research into the lives of the staff that lived in and cared for the home under the employment of the Phillips family. A behind the scenes look at the kitchen, staff bedrooms, and basement laundry area are featured annually during their “Irish Experience” tour. It is a great way to learn more about Salem’s Irish immigrants and see areas usually off-limits during the home’s traditional tour.


things to do in salem, best historical sites in salem ma

Salem Maritime National Historic Site

Salem is blessed to have America’s very first National Historic Site right in its own backyard. (well mine at least!) The site features a variety of historic structures including the Custom House, made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter. The Custom House was built in 1819 and was utilized by the Customs Service until 1935. The building has sweeping vistas of Derby Wharf and Salem Harbor. As you stand atop its mountain-like granite steps and look out to sea, you can imagine Derby Wharf bustling with tall ships and activity. Salem was a globally recognized port, and it was here that new items arrived daily to be traded and sold throughout the northeast.

Inside the Custom House you will find 19th century furniture, objects relating to the Customs Service such as weights and measures, and the personal belonging of Nathaniel Hawthorne, including his desk and walking stick.

Salem Maritime also offers tours of two historic houses, the Derby House, a 1762 Georgian style mansion and the Narbonne House, a first-period dwelling built in 1675.

The Derby House was a wedding gift for Elias Hasket Derby and his wife Elizabeth Crowninshield. The couple raised seven children in the home before constructing a larger mansion downtown. The Derby House reflects the family’s affluence through its detailed furniture, colorful rooms, and an ornate front staircase with spiral newel post.

Unlike the Derby House, the Narbonne House has not been restored to a single time-period and captures the stories of all the home’s former inhabitants. Most notably it was occupied by Sarah Narbonne, from whom the house gets its name. Sarah lived in the home for the duration of her life, 101 years. The furniture-less home focuses on interpreting through architecture and archaeology. In the 1970s, over 150,000 artifacts were unearthed in the Narbonne yard, some of which are on display. These items help depict the lives of a middle-class family and show the influence that that the nearby maritime trade had on their belongings.


things to do in salem, best historical sites in salem ma

The House of the Seven Gables

The House of the Seven Gables complex features a gorgeous seaside garden, multiple historic homes, and one of my favorite gift shops in the city. The museum began in 1908 when local preservationist and philanthropist Caroline Emmerton purchased the 1668 Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, long rumored to be
The House of the Seven Gables made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel 1851. Emmerton opened the home to visitors to fund her settlement program, which aided many of the immigrant families that arrived in Salem during the first half of 20th century. Over the next two decades Emmerton moved multiple endangered first-period structures to the property. The Gables Complex was completed in 1958 with the addition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Birthplace.

The House of the Seven Gables is especially close to my heart, it is where my husband proposed in 2014, after celebrating Halloween in Salem. Who knew less than a year later we would move to the city and live only a block away. Since living in Salem, we have frequently visited the Gables, which hosts multiple events throughout the year, including lectures on local history and immigration. They also have special celebrations like Taste the Gables, and my favorite, their annual member’s 4th of July party.


things to do in salem, best historical sites salem ma

Salem Marine Society Headquarters

One Salem’s best kept secrets is the headquarters of the city’s oldest organization, the Salem Marine Society. The society dates to 1766, when it was formed by local mariners to encourage safer navigation and to provide relief for its members and their families. In 1924 when the citizens of Salem raised money for a much-needed hotel, the society graciously offered up their building adjacent to Salem Common, called the Franklin Building. The society however, had one request for the new hotel, it had to house their meeting space.

The hotel’s architect Phillip Horton Smith and Captain Edward B. Trumball collaborated on creating a one-of-a-kind clubhouse, modeled after Trumball’s last vessel, the Taria Topan. The room is an exact replica of the bark’s deckhouse and sits atop the Hawthorne Hotel’s six stories. (Yes, you read that correctly, there is a ship’s cabin on the roof of the Hawthorne Hotel!) This room is a portal into Salem’s golden age, complete with dark wood interiors, centuries old ledgers, and nautical oil paintings.

Getting a chance to view this room can be difficult, it is only open to members and select guests of honor, however thanks to Essex Heritage, the Salem Marine Society headquarters is open to the public, one day a year, during September’s Trails and Sails. Can’t make Trails and Sails? Be sure to check out the Hawthorne Hotel’s daily tours or grab a drink in their tavern. You won’t see a replica of the Taria Topan but you will get a look at a 93 year old lodging legend.


things to do in salem, best historical sites salem ma

The amazing link between all my favorite historical haunts is that they were all founded by Salemites that were passionate about the city’s history and dedicated to preserving it for future generations of residents and visitors to enjoy. I find inspiration in their stories daily, as I work to uncover new links to history, and fight to preserve the buildings and institutions they so proudly created.”


things to do in salem, jen ratliff, salem historical societyJen Ratliff (@jenratliff) is a public historian with a passion for preserving, advocating for, and sharing local history. She serves as Vice President of the Salem Historical Society and shares her love for local history on her blog, History by the Sea, as well as her Facebook group, Salem History Exchange.




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