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Judy Anderson

The History and Architecture of Marblehead, Massachusetts

Against all odds, on the beautiful seacoast just north of Boston, nearly 300 houses in Marblehead, Massachusetts, still stand from before the American Revolution—out of 519 counted there in 1765, including a dozen built before 1700, and literally scores from the 17-teens.

All are crowded together alongside narrow, twisting streets that wind among the rocky headlands protruding upwards beside a deep-water harbor that is truly spectacular, and well worth an actual visit. Collectively, these hundreds of Colonial-era homes are testaments to the prosperity of this gritty urban colonial Atlantic seaport that was the second most populous town in Massachusetts just prior to American independence (Salem was briefly fourth at that time).

The town also stands witness to the acute hardships suffered by its populace; its fishing economy; and the hundreds of women, widows, and children, due to the active service of so many of the town’s male residents in military service. During the six years of Revolution and three-year War of 1812, more than a thousand men and boys served in each—from a town of about 1,000 families and nearly 5,000 people in 1765 and 1790. And at the war’s end in 1815, more than half remained as POWs in England. In 1861, another thousand were the first troops to arrive in Boston by train for service in the Civil War.

But this repeated adversity, and the poverty that accompanied it, helped to preserve Marblehead’s remarkable historic downtown.

And after two generations of a shoe-making industry succumbed to two massive fires in the newer business part of town, a resort economy evolved in the 1870s. The latter ringed the harbor, but skirted the colonial core, which remained protected by benign neglect until the 1970s, when safeguards were fortuitously enacted to preserve the historic built environment.

The town’s 375-year-old earthwork fort survived as well, and became one of only a handful of early coastal forts remaining from when colonial Marblehead was on the fighting edge of empire.

Join us on this tour—as well as visit us in person!

If this video glimpse is intriguing, schedule your own personal or collective walk through the town, or in the nearly four century-old fort, or along the scenic first harbor at the tip of the Marblehead peninsula (which was called Marble Harbor in the 1630s), where the rough and essentially non-Puritan, non-conformist enclave originally began by 1629. marbleheadtours.com

Judy Anderson

Judy Anderson (MarbleheadTours@aol.com, MarbleheadTours.com) is a social and cultural historian with a focus on architecture, daily life, and women’s and family history. She was Curator of Marblehead’s outstanding Jeremiah Lee Mansion for a decade and worked with it for 16 years. Her book, Glorious Splendor (MarbleheadArchitecture.com), documents the house and its magnificent original English hand-painted wallpaper from the 1760s. These rare 18th-century murals are the only ones in the world like them still in place—covering the walls in several rooms and in the mansion’s soaring stair-hall. Only one other suite of similar English wallpapers survives—in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. She gives popular talks about the Mansion, Marblehead’s early architecture and history, decorative arts, and historic interiors.