The Old Neighborhood

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Two years ago Strawbery Banke’s education department gave a student intern the job of sifting through local newspapers for accounts of winter social life in the town from 1769 to 1825. Her report makes lively reading. Shopkeepers advertise “NewEngland Rum of the best quality” (1784), “A few Chests of Excellent Bohea and Souchong Teas” (1789), “ GRAPES by the Jar, or single Pound—Figs—Raisins—Currants—Almonds” (1799). Winter diversions include a production of Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (1788), lessons at John Reed’s Singing School (1792), and Mr. Neal’s instructions in “the polite accomplishment of dancing” (1825). Traffic moved briskly. On the opening night of the comedy The West Indian (1791), theatergoers were warned “that all carriages ... be ordered to proceed by the way of Market Street, and return by the way of Chapel Street in order to prevent difficulties which may arise from their meeting in the night.” It’s exhausting. No wonder John Adams, the serious Quincy man, looked to his neighbors to the north and recoiled from “the pomps and vanities and ceremonies of that little world, Portsmouth.”

A night on the town in the old Portsmouth that is now Strawbery Banke provides a sense of place that comes straight off the pages of those ancient newspapers and then jumps the years nearly to now. For instance, the first stop on a self-guided walking tour, the Drisco House, is split into two time zones. On the right side we see the simple 1790s house occupied by the sea captain and merchant James Drisco and his family. For them Christmas was simply a day like any other. Around 1900 the house became a two-family dwelling, and the left side is much as it was when the last inhabitants departed in the 1950s. Its gaudy, scuffed linoleum and kitchen wall-paper, cabinet-style GE television set, agreeably tacky Christmas decorations, and radio blaring—what else?—“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” complete the time warp.

Other houses contain more traditional holiday treatments. The Chase House, an elegant Georgian structure, is furnished to portray a winter’s ball of 1815, and the Rider-Wood House is the setting for a carefully researched holiday wedding of the 1830s. Finally, at the hybrid Greek Revival/Federal Goodwin Mansion (once owned by a New Hampshire governor and one of the few buildings moved to the site), we find the sumptuous Victorian Christmas, complete with the decorated tree and toys of the period, including an elaborate dollhouse. In the kitchen one of several teenagers working as costumed guides looked up from a chopping board to explain that she was portraying an Irish servant who was allowed to move about the house only from a special back stairway. “She’s an excellent student,” said the man next to me, her teacher, as we filed through.

 

Indeed, all the costumed inhabitants of Strawbery Banke are wonderful students—and teachers—in large part because the people who run the place take real care to represent Christmas (and, in the near future, Hanukkah) with clear eyes and voices free of cant. Much digging has gone into creating this lively place. If along the way you discover that many early settlers held a sour view of Christmas, or you learn, against all ingrained belief, that Christmas carols were nearly unknown in America and Britain until after 1910, when musicologists began to take an interest in them, then you’ll have brought away something unexpected and pleasingly unadorned from a holiday weekend. There’s a good little manual given out to the staff at Strawbery Banke. “Do not be afraid to interpret the history of Christmas observance,” it concludes. “Be bold, honest, accurate and neutral, and your visitors will be grateful.”

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP