On Saturday, two of Salem’s oldest residential facilities for single women, the Brookhouse Home for Aged Women and the Woman’s Friend Society, are co-sponsoring “The Art of Dressing,” a cocktail soiree and fashion show, at the Nathaniel Silsbee House (Knights of Columbus).
Ironically, the Brookhouse Home for Aged Women on Derby Street was supposed to be a home for men. Its founder, Robert Brookhouse, had made his fortune in the maritime trade and had set out to create a residence for retired mariners who had fallen on hard times. That plan did not work out, however, and the beneficiaries were a handful of older, single women in need of a safe and comfortable place to live out their remaining years.
In 1860, Brookhouse, fellow merchant-philanthropist John Bertram and others formed what was originally called the Association for the Relief of Aged and Destitute Women in Salem. After politely rejecting Robert Brookhouse’s offer of homes on Sewall and Derby streets, Mary-Ellen Smiley says in her brief history of the institution, the board jumped at the chance to take over the eastern half of the former Benjamin Crowninshield mansion just west of the Custom House on Derby Street.
According to John Frayler, former historian at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Brookhouse had paid $5,000 for the property. The magnificent brick Federal home had pedigree; it had been designed by Samuel McIntire for Crowninshield, who had served as secretary of the U.S. Navy under Presidents James Madison and James Monroe. A later resident, James Miller, a former collector at the Salem Custom House, had been a hero in the War of 1812.
In its early years, the Brookhouse served 12 “inmates.” The acquisition of the western half of the house in 1877 and subsequent additions and alterations eventually tripled that number. In the early years, women paid, or had paid for them by benefactors if destitute, an entry fee of $65.