Marblehead Chronicles: The ‘codfish aristocracy’ imported opulence to town

As the 18th century progressed, Marblehead’s success in the fishing trade changed the town. Merchants with increased income realized that they could afford to live on a much grander scale. As an English colony, Massachusetts looked to London as the source of style and culture.

Visitors come from around the world to visit the Lee Mansion. PHOTO / LEE ASHLEY

Newly successful colonists built or remodeled their property into more elegant homes, mostly in the English Georgian style. Luxury goods were included in returning trade ships, providing the “codfish aristocracy” with English porcelain tea sets, mirrors, silks and fine linens, fireplace tiles and pianos. Engravings of English fashion, known as fashion plates, as well as architectural plans and furniture styles and patterns, also made their way to Marblehead and to all the New England colonies.

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, Marblehead became one of the 10 most affluent towns in the colonies. In the 1720s and 1730s, many men were attracted to Marblehead because of opportunities that were on the rise. Among them was a young man named Jeremiah Lee. He and his father came from Newburyport, a town a little further north of Marblehead. They saw possibilities for money to be made and took advantage of them.

Lee began by supplying ships for ocean voyages as a shoreman, the predecessors of longshoremen who still are responsible for loading and unloading vessels all over the world. Then he began buying ships. He also married well, choosing as his bride Martha Swett, daughter of Joseph Swett, the daring and successful early merchant trader. Lee’s financial success grew until he became without question the wealthiest man in Marblehead, and arguably the richest man in the American colonies.

As his wealth grew, Lee had a desire to build for himself and his family a fabulous mansion. Lee found his spot on what was to become Washington Street. The Lee Mansion was built following English architectural plans. It is a classic Georgian home of elegant proportions, with a center entrance framed by a Greek columned portico, a massive Palladian-influenced window at the stair landing and a double-wide hall and staircase. Colonial master craftsmen showed their skill with carved mahogany rosettes and a grand staircase as well as a baroque fruit and floral mantel in the Great Hall. Hand-painted wallpaper was ordered from London, with classical Greco-Roman designs in the hall and stairway.

Completed in 1768, the Lee Mansion has been a showplace from the day it was completed until the present, and a continuing source of pride for Lee and the whole town of Marblehead.

The Lee Mansion is now owned by the Marblehead Museum and is open for tours Tuesday to Saturday from June through October. It is a truly remarkable house, and visitors come from all over the world to see this remarkable and pristine example of American colonial architecture.

Stories of the Lee family and inhabitants of the house are expanding to include enslaved people and others who lived and worked there. The newly acquired original kitchen next to the mansion will greatly enhance opportunities to portray colonial life. If you haven’t seen the Lee Mansion yet, you owe it to yourself to visit this magnificent part of our local and national history.

Pam Peterson chairs the Marblehead Historical Commission.

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