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Frontline November History

A photo of the Salem Customhouse
The 'Scarlet' Connection
Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Salem Customhouse
by CBP Chief Historian David Mckinney, Ph.D.

Early photograph of the Salem Customhouse. Historic American Buildings Survey. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.


One hundred fifty years ago, the nation lost one of its most important authors when Nathaniel Hawthorne died on May 19, 1864. On that day, America also lost a former civil servant. Throughout his parallel careers, these seemingly disparate professions intersected as Hawthorne immortalized aspects of his work as a civil servant in his writing.

Despite recognition as a writer during his lifetime, Hawthorne struggled financially. To support himself and his family, Hawthorne also served as a customs official in both Boston and Salem, Massachusetts. In his writing, he included a fictionalized account of a customhouse to set the stage for one of his best known works, “The Scarlet Letter.” 

Hawthorne was born on the fourth of July in 1804 in Salem. In his development as a writer and even his future employment with the federal government, it was the associations that he made during his college years that advanced both careers. He entered Bowdoin College in 1821 where he met the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future U.S. President Franklin Pierce. Pierce would ultimately name him as a consul to Great Britain in 1853.

Following college, Hawthorne launched his career as an author, first under a pseudonym and subsequently under his own name. He wrote not only fiction, but he also provided commentary on politics. The income from writing was not sufficient, so he looked to his political connections to secure a position in the federal government. In 1839, he accepted the position of measurer of coal and salt at the Boston customhouse for the salary of $1,500 per year. 

In his correspondence with Longfellow, he joked about the types of stories that he planned to develop as a result of his work with customs. He listed titles like “Nibblings of a Wharf Rat” and the “Romance of the Revenue Service.” But as a customs official, he found little opportunity to write. He told Longfellow that the federal government was “rather despotic as to the disposal of my time.” He resigned this position effective Jan. 1, 1841.

Photograph of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.
Nathaniel Hawthorne

Five years later he accepted another position at the customhouse in his hometown of Salem. On April 9, 1846, Hawthorne was sworn in as surveyor at a salary of $1,200 per year. The press noted his appointment, and the New York Tribune reported that Hawthorne, “the popular writer,” had been named as surveyor.

He remained in this position until the presidential election of 1848 ushered in a different political party, and on June 8, 1849, he received a telegram notifying him of his dismissal from his position.

Hawthorne was upset by the dismissal, both for the loss of income and the potential damage to his reputation. He attempted to fight his dismissal, believing that he was removed on insufficient grounds. But his efforts to be reinstated were unsuccessful.

He incorporated his experiences as a customs official and even the ordeal of losing his position at the Salem customhouse into his writing. The opening chapter of “The Scarlet Letter” is titled “The Customhouse.” In this chapter he introduced a story that contains the main story.

He used the setting to create the atmosphere of the story and give it context. Hawthorne detailed both the recent and distant past. He began his story just following a presidential election when officials had been replaced by others who had ties to the new administration. He introduced and described the different customs positions at the Salem customhouse. He even traced the tradition of collecting revenue for the government to the time of Christ by referencing Matthew, the apostle who had been a tax collector. He stated, “These old gentlemen – seated, like Matthew, at the receipt of customs, but not very liable to be summoned thence, like him, for apostolic errands—were Custom-House officers.”

Hawthorne also gave us some hints to the daily practices of the customhouse from when he worked as a surveyor. For instance, Hawthorne described how the customs flag or ensign is flown over the customhouse during its hours of operation. This practice was not codified until a half-century later when, in 1874, Treasury Secretary William A. Richardson directed that the ensign was to be flown alongside the American flag over all customhouses during business hours.

His description of the Salem port begins to take the reader into the distant past. Starting with a description of a seaport whose best days are in the past, he used the contrast between then and now to help the reader imagine a much earlier time. As readers move into the past, they also are transported into the realm of fiction. Hawthorne used the customhouse to evoke emotions among his readers. He described the interior of the customhouse as dark and gloomy: 

The room itself is cobwebbed, and dingy with old paint; its floor is strewn with gray sand, in a fashion that has elsewhere fallen into long disuse; and it is easy to conclude that this is a sanctuary into which womankind, with her tools of magic, the broom and mop, has very infrequent access.

This makes the discovery of the cloth with the scarlet letter emblazoned on it and the accompanying manuscript papers feel more mysterious to the reader. In such an unkempt building, it seems plausible that these items may have been forgotten for years until they are discovered by the customs surveyor.

Indeed, the chapter on the customhouse is a common literary convention. The convention is sometimes referred to as a frame, in that the chapter supplies necessary context for the reader to place the story in time and place. In this case, a customs official finds a letter “A” on fabric along with papers that appear to be centuries old, having been hidden away in the attic of a timeworn building. These papers supposedly contain the story of the scarlet letter.

From this beginning, Hawthorne employed the subsequent chapters to take the reader even further back in time and into a fictional story. He outlined why Hester Prynne was required to wear a red letter. It is a punishment for having an extramarital affair and bearing a child from this indiscretion. The novel follows the life of Prynne and her daughter Pearl. Finally after watching Prynne dealing with the disdain of the community, Arthur Dimmesdale, a minister, acknowledges his affair with Prynne and that he fathered Pearl. He dies after confessing his role before Prynne, Pearl and the townspeople.   

The Salem customhouse where Hawthorne worked still stands and is operated as a museum by the National Park Service. The building dates to the early 19th century. The local customs collector, William R. Lee, was designated to act as the agent for its construction. He designated two other customs officials, Perley Putnam, a weigher and gauger, and Jonathan Saunders, a surveyor, to design the building. Their initial designs were submitted to the Treasury Department and were rejected, probably because of projected construction costs. 

Lee had the plans scaled down and then advertised for tradesmen to construct the customhouse and adjacent stores. (The stores were a warehouse employed as part of the customs process.) On July 18, 1818, Lee placed a call for proposals in the Essex Register, Salem’s local newspaper, to build a customhouse and public stores. The government sought responses “…from all persons who may be disposed to furnish the materials and complete the foresaid Buildings in conformity to the Plans, which may at any time, previously examined by John Saunders Esq., Surveyor.” By Aug. 1, the articles of agreement were completed with William Roberts, Ebenezer Slocum, Jr., Joseph Edwards and David Lord. Contracts for the brickmason and the carpentry work gave basic specifications:

The Custom House to be forty-eight by forty feet … according to the plan, the basement story to be eight feet high above the ground in front. … three sides of the Custom House and the projections of the stores in front to be laid with the best of pressed bricks. ...


Nathaniel Hawthorne's desk at the Salem Customhouse

Photo of Nathaniel Hawthorne's desk at the Salem Customhouse

Despite a proposed completion date of Nov. 1, 1818, work continued on the building throughout much of 1819, at a total cost overrun estimate of $5,419.01 over its original cap of $10,000.  Part of this overrun was a fee of $490.27 given to Putnam and Saunders for their work as designers and construction managers.

When Hawthorne published his chapter titled “The Customhouse” 31 years later in 1850, he described a building in decay. It is uncertain how much of his description was based on the actual condition of the building. However, records indicate that the building was viewed as in need of repair. In 1850, the citizens of Salem sent a petition to Congress requesting “necessary repair of the Custom House building. ...”  The Salem Gazette reported on Nov. 4, 1853, “… $10,000 are to be judiciously expended about the custom house, in the shape of repairs.” These renovations were undertaken under the guidance of Ammi Young, supervising architect of the Treasury.

The customhouse underwent subsequent alterations and remained in use into the 20th century. It was transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1936 with the stipulation that the “Secretary of the Treasury may retain sufficient space in the building for the necessary operation of the Bureau of Customs.”  On June 30, 1937, Customs vacated the structure so that a “Derby Wharf National Historical Site” could be created and maintained by the National Park Service.

Today, the Salem customhouse is part of the NPS’ Salem Maritime National Historic Site. It is in part a museum for Hawthorne’s work as a writer and civil servant.