Then & Now: Old Customs and Customers
A landmark building in the heart of the shopping district still draws many to its doors.
In the early days of Salem, it became apparent to both its citizens and the government of the colony that Salem’s history would be focused on the sea for both food and commerce.
With ship building one of the earliest industries, Salem was ready to do more than fish. The fishing trade and sale of dried cod to European customers provided the first steps into international trade. That trade would grow and blossom into a huge business, making Salem one of the busiest ports in the country, known worldwide for its merchant sailors.
With this commerce, the government was quick to see the need to replicate British systems that dated back to the 6th century, setting up customs requirements. In 1658, Salem was designated a port of entry, which meant all ships and cargoes needed to enter this port to be examined for compliance with the laws and duties. In 1663, Hilliard Verin was the collector for the port of Salem. In 1683, as other ports were getting involved in trade, the Court of Assistants designated Salem and Boston as the lawful ports of entry for all ships and vessels. Failure to comply would result in confiscation of the ship and all its cargo.
While it was clear to captains that they had to go to Salem, it was very frustrating since Salem did not have a Customs House manned by collectors. The Port Collector usually worked from home. According to the historian, Joseph Felt, this gave rise to the often heard complaint of arriving captains -- they didn’t know where to find the customs house.
The first building used as a Customs House as early as 1636 was referred to as Port House, which was located on the South River in what is now Riley Plaza. There was also another Port House on the North River. Around 1645, the customs done at South River Port House were moved to French House on the corner of Gedney court. While this building and the Port House were used for over 50 years, the collectors still worked from home, so they had to be found upon arrival. This situation continued for many years.
With the conclusion of the American Revolution, all the ports were no longer controlled by a central government and various local duties were imposed by local governments. Once the constitution was ratified, the United States moved quickly to appoint customs staff, control all the ports and impose duties to help fund the new government.
In 1789, the Custom House was located at Central Street in the bank building at what is now #11. This building was, at the time, only steps away from the South River and the many docks that lined Front Street.
In 1805, two prominent Salem merchants -- William Gray and Benjamin Hathorne -- had a large brick commercial building erected across from the bank building at # 4 Central St. This building’s design has been attributed to Samuel McIntre. The same year Col. Lee, the port collector, moved the custom house to this building. He had a carved gold eagle placed over the doorway. That carving has also been attributed to Samuel McIntire based on its design and the fact that Joseph McIntire, Samuel’s brother, worked on the construction of the building.
Other early tenants in this building were the Salem Athenaeum and the Masonic Lodge of Salem. With these prominent tenants, this building became a center of activity. This was the Custom House from 1805-1807 and again from 1813-1819. In 1819, the Customs House moved to Derby Street where it would be closer to the port, which was becoming more distant from Central Street as more of the South River was filled in. This move of the customs facility was the thirteenth move within Salem and the last.
The Customs House that dominates Derby Street was built at a time when the Federal Government projected that Salem Customs would be growing at a fast pace and would need a substantial building with plenty of space for goods to be stored. Their speculation would later prove to be an enormous miscalculation.
After the customs facility moved to the new Custom House, #4 Central reverted to commercial space. The building became home to a variety of businesses over the years. The commercial space appears to have been divided into four store fronts -- one on Essex Street and three along Central Street.
In 1810, the Social and the Philosophical Libraries of Salem merged to form the Salem Athenaeum. At that time Salem, had more libraries than Boston, which was testimony to intellectual focus of Salem.
The Athenaeum was a tenant at #4 Central before it received a bequest and was able to establish itself at 132 Essex St. where it remained until 1905 when it moved again to its current home. Another major tenant who had their lodge here for a number of years was the Salem Masons, who built a new Masonic Temple on Washington Street in 1915.
For decades, this building has been part of the heart of downtown Salem and an integral place for shopping. In the 1800s, in addition to J.J. Perkins Furniture store that was at # 6 for most of the century, it also housed hairdressers, a paper box factory and the Salem Press printers.
In the photograph of the building in the early years of the 20th century, we see the Goldman Brothers clothing store that advertised the service of selling clothes on credit, which reflects the state of the economy in those early years. Other tenants in this period of 1904 to 1910 were the Salem Press Co., The Essex Social Club, The Team Drivers Union, The City Band Hall as well as E.J. McClellan, hairdresser. Around the corner on Essex Street entrance, F. P. Allen had a confectionary shop.
Over the next several years the building became home to a number of clothing, shoe and jewelry stores in addition to being the site of the Salem Brass Band and Orchestra. It also appears that the City Band Hall became Salvation Hall in the 1920s. From 1926 to the early 1940s, the Iona Supply Company sold household goods at #4 Central. The Salem Cadet Band headquartered here from 1945 into the 1960s.
Older readers may recall the Curtain shop and Eileen Fox Dance as well as Barnett Fabric Store and A.J. Baker’s Women’s store all here in the 1950s and 1960s. Later in the 1970s, this was home to Pekins Clothes Shop that had previously been in other city locations, as well as Pearl’s Alterations.
In the 1980s, some notable tenants were Sterdu Furs and the Custom House Art Gallery. In the late 1980s, the upper floors were converted into residential units while the commercial units remained on the ground level.
Current tenants are The Trolley Depot store on Essex Street, The China Trade House, The Salem Trolley, and Salem Historical Tours. Reflections Hair Salon that was here for a number of years has recently closed and that space is being prepared for the next tenant in the ever growing line dating back to Salem’s Maritime days.