I’ve had quite a large fascination with history since childhood. I would say it started around the age of six when good old Santa Claus brought me what I thought of as the be-all, end-all of Christmas presents, an American Girl Doll. For those of you who may remember ’90s girlhood, American Girl Dolls were a coveted item for us back then. Each doll represented a different era in history and came complete with outfits designed in the styles of that period, along with chapter books of their stories about living in their specific time.
The doll I got was named Felicity Merriman, and she was supposed to be a girl living in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1774 when the Revolutionary War was brewing. I started playing as if I lived in the 18th century as well, and slowly became fascinated with the other dolls and the whole panorama of American history, from the 1700s to just before modern day. I outgrew the dolls, but never outgrew the zeal for learning about the bygone years of our country. Moving to Salem, Massachusetts was really like heaven on earth for someone like me. There is literally a gorgeous old house around every corner, all with unique stories to tell.
One home that I’d always been fascinated with, probably because of my original love for the 1700s, was the Ropes Mansion on Essex Street. Again, for other ’90s kids, you probably remember how much we loved the Halloween movie Hocus Pocus, which took place (and was partly filmed) in Salem. Well, remember Alison’s house? Yup, you got it – that is the Ropes Mansion!
Unfortunately for me, shortly after I had moved to Salem for college, a fire at the mansion caused it to be closed for tours for six years. The only way I was ever able to see the mansion was from its beautiful outdoor gardens, where we would often stop when I went on ghost tours. Legend had it that the ghost of one of the Ropes women still haunted the house after dying from burns sustained when her dress caught fire in one of the fireplaces. Tragic, right?
Since my early days in Salem I’d been eager to see the inside of this historic house, and recently my dream finally came true. In May of this year, the Ropes Mansion once again opened its doors to visitors, offering them a blast from the past upon stepping inside. The mansion holds original furnishings and items owned by the Ropes family and lots of informational plaques, as well as knowledgeable guides throughout each room. The other weekend, my sister, her boyfriend and I decided to pay a visit to this renowned estate, but happily didn’t actually have to pay anything, as tours are free! Visitors guide themselves throughout the home, but as mentioned above, docents are available to start your tour out with a history of the family and homestead, and answer any questions you may have along the way.
It was incredible to actually feel as if I was living in an 18th century home, something I’d been imagining for years since my doll was in my hands. Seeing all the antique furnishings and home goods and learning about all of it was a perfect activity, one that really got us thinking about what life must have been like back then.
The most intriguing aspect, to me, was hearing and reading about the different family members who once dwelled in the home. I was particularly moved by the story of Elizabeth Ropes Orne, who lived in the home with her mother after her father died when she was a baby. Elizabeth herself died in one of the rooms of the mansion at the age of 24 from tuberculosis. We actually stood right in the room where she passed away, and I felt pretty moved by it. There was a painting of her, with brown hair and brown eyes looking back at me. I have brown hair and brown eyes and am 24 years old, and I thought about the sadness of the whole scenario. I couldn’t imagine what she went through at my age, and subsequently, the pain of her mother upon losing her daughter at a young age, and with her husband gone as well.
But, it’s just a fact that old homes that hold generations of family members must experience death within the walls. Not to be macabre, but it’s true. One of the stranger things we discovered about the home, and death in the 18th and 19th centuries, is that relatives of the deceased would often keep locks of hair as a keepsake. On display in one of the rooms were framed lockets that held the braided hair of Abigail Ropes, the women mentioned earlier who died from burns via a fireplace in the house. There was also a necklace worn by one of the Ropes women in later years made of human hair (whose hair, I’m not sure), and a lock of hair from Elizabeth Ropes Orne, cut from her head during her toddler years as an affectionate gesture of her mother. I would have taken photos of these remembrances, but it honestly kind of creeped me out so I didn’t! I was surprised that all the hair looked to be in such mint condition for being hundreds of years old. I’m not very science savvy, so I’m sure there is some kind of explanation behind this.
If you’re looking for spooky, that was definitely the area of the mansion museum for you. If you’re into the paranormal, nope, I have no personal ghostly encounters to report, although my sister did start to feel very uneasy in the room that Elizabeth died in. I was there for the history side of things.
Outside of this, we explored a leisure room where a piano played by Elizabeth with her self-labeled music book sat on display and beautiful antique furniture was set up as it might have been in its hey day.
We walked into an exquisite side room filled from top to bottom with the family’s ornate china and glassware collections.
We got to touch antique kitchen tools and try to guess what they may have been used for (I was only right on one thing!) and see how the kitchen closet was stocked.
We were able to view multiple dining room sets, one set for Christmas dinner as it was in the 1840s and one set with plates each stamped with a rule of etiquette for dining in the 19th century. I definitely would have been thought of as a poor guest, I’m sure! I only ever eat with my elbows on the table, after all.
Upstairs were the bedrooms with plush beds that I think would be a nice cure for my insomnia if I were to have one in those styles!
We also perused the bookshelves with many historic tomes, and I felt a bookworm jealousy at the large collection.
Outside, we and other visitors admired the renowned gardens – this is certainly the best time of the year to stroll around them, with flowers of every color imaginable in bloom. It was a breathtaking end to a tour I had been waiting years to take, and one that endlessly satisfied my thirst to learn more about the 18th and 19th centuries and those who lived through them.
If you’re just as engrossed with history as I am, I highly recommend checking out the Ropes Mansion. Visiting is free, and is open to the public Saturdays and Sundays (seasonally) from 12-4 P.M. If you go, let me know about your experience traveling back in time!
The Ropes Mansion – 318 Essex Street, Salem, MA, 01970