The Old Tann Fatts

A watercolor by Arthur Wesley Dow shows the Glazier-Sweet house on the left.

This article is by John Fiske, chairman of the Ipswich Historical Commission.

John Fiske lives in the Glazier-Sweet house on Water Street in Ipswich

We have a dear friend who has moved three or four times since we’ve known her. And each time, she and her husband have bought or built a new house. As she said to us once, “I can’t stand the thought of living in a house that someone else has lived in.” At the very least, that proves that friendship can survive extreme differences of taste.

I love the fact that our house is fast approaching its 300th birthday and that the lives of many local families are now silently embedded in it. It is more than a human habitation, it’s a sign of human continuity. But the family that touches me most closely never lived in this house at all. They lived on the same lot, but in a house that was torn down to make way for this one in about 1725. I suspect we share the same field stone cellar, but that, apart from the river, is all that we do have in common.

glazier_sweet_dowI just came across an old book by Alice Keenan, an enthusiastic local historian who was working about 70 years ago. And of course, I was delighted to find that it contained a photograph of our house taken in 1894. We already own an 1891 ink wash of the house by the celebrated Ipswich artist Arthur Wesley Dow (I’d come across it in a small local auction and was the only bidder. How often does that happen in these days of the Internet!) The photo and the painting of our house when it was not yet 200 years old – – each enriches the other and I love seeing our house as others saw it more than a century ago.

caneBut Alice, like me, was fascinated by the Clarkes, the seventeenth- century family who lived in the earlier house. A couple of years ago in this column, I told you the story of Lisa finding a silver mounted cane in a nearby antiques shop. The silver band was engraved “George Clarke, 1697,” and of course she bought it and brought it home to the very spot, if not the actual house, where its owner had lived. It’s a treasured possession – how many objects can you think of that are in exactly the same place in 2013 as they were in 1697?

A silver-mounted, ivory-handled cane was a pretty swanky thing in a small seventeenth-century town, so George must have been quite a personage. The Clarkes had made their money by tanning leather. The Town Record of Jan 11, 1640, tells us that “liberty was granted to Thomas Clarke…to sett down Tann fatts, at the end of the planting lot, upon two rods reserved by the river.” Within living memory, the area in front of our house was known to the older locals as “the old tann fatts.” A poetic and slightly mystifying name if you didn’t know about the tannery and that a fatt was a large vessel. Shakespeare knew: “In thy Fatts our Cares be Drowned,” he wrote.

The Glazier Sweet house in the center of this photo of Water Street from the late 19th Century

A rod is five and a half yards, and the town had reserved a strip two rods wide all along the river bank as far as the town wharf, which means that Clarke was allowed to place his tann fatts on town land. When you remember that tanning fatts were filled with liquids whose origin you do not want to know, you have to wonder how well the townsfolk were served by Clarke’s “liberty.” But then, Thomas Clarke was one of the 12 men who settled Ipswich in 1633 – not that could possibly have had anything to do with his liberty to place huge fatts of boiling, stinking liquid in a public right of way. I’m just happy that they’re not there now – that’s one bit of the past I’m pleased to leave behind.

In 1642, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony ordered that tanners should not “sett their fatts in tan-hills or other places, where the woozes or leather which shall be put to any unkind heats, or shall put any leather in any hot or warm woozes etc.” You’ll need to read that three times to become as clear as I am, which is not at all. Wooze is a great word, but the only definition I could find was in the Urban Dictionary — “Wooze: a mixture of Weed and Booze.” Probably not what the General Court had in mind in 1642. Perhaps “woozes” were the unmentionable liquids heated in the fatts or, even more likely, their effects upon unfortunate passers-by.

The town’s reason for reserving the two rod strip of land along the river bank was not much clearer than the General Court’s regulation of woozes. It was “for the purpose of turning or tacking vessels or boats up and down the river or passing over the land for purpose.” I assume that that made perfect sense at the time, though I have to wonder about the danger of a tacking boat striking a tann fatt. Could have been nasty.

A tanning house

Tanning house

Tanners must have been a slippery bunch, because their business was closely regulated. In the same 1642 order, the Grand Court decreed that to “prevent deceit in tanning leather…No butcher, currier or shoemaker should be a tanner, not should any tanner be a butcher, currier or shoemaker.” I bet customers breathed huge sighs of relief at this early example of consumer protection.

Anyway, if the Supreme Court of Massachusetts has any concern today about what is currently going on in “the old tann fatts,” I can assure them that neither Lisa nor I has ever put anything into hot or warm woozes – whether we go by the 1640s’ or the 1960s’ use of the word.

Strolling in front of the Glazier-Sweet House on Water Street

An 1894 photograph, an 1891 painting, a 1697 cane, words from the 1640 Town Record and from a 1642 court ruling – all part of our house and the people who’ve lived in it and looked at it. No, I’m glad we didn’t build a brand new house when we moved to Ipswich.

◆ Antiques Journal ◆ September 2013

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