The Glazier house on Water Street, IpswichHouses

The Old Tann Flats

This article first appeared in the September 2013 Antiques Journal.

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.

Watercolor of the Glazier-Sweet house by Arthur Wesley Dow, who lived across the river.

I 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.

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.

Water Street looking upstream toward the Green St. Bridge. The Glazier-Sweet house is the two-story darker house. Photo by George Dexter, early 20th Century

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.

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.

Glazier-Sweet house, 12 Water St.

Glazier Sweet house, 12 Water St.


◆ Antiques Journal ◆ September 2013

Categories: Houses

Tagged as: , , ,

7 replies »

  1. John Fiske,
    My name is Aubrey and i am doing research into my Family history. This is a house I believe belonged to my family. I am a descendant of Thomas Clark who was a tanner in Ipswich in the 1600’s. I would love to hear about any other history or stories you have found on the Clark family.

    • I only have raw notes, Audrey. But here they are. Clarke Family of Ipswich

      William Clarkee emigrated on the Mary and John, left Southampton March 24, 1633.
      He was one of the twelve men who came with John Winthrop to settle Ipswich in the same year.
      1634, Town Records: “Given and granted unto Mr. William Clerke sixty acres of land lying eastward of Labour-in-vain, southward by the Town River, separated from all other lands by a small creek….”
      1638, Thomas Clarke, sen’r, had a house lot “in the stoney street, leading to the river,” (Stoney Street was Summer St.)
      1664, Thomas Clarke sen’r and Thomas, tanner, (son of Thomas Sr.) were commoners.
      1672. George Clarke, son of Thomas Jr, born Dec 30.
      Thomas Clarke and wife had: John, born Nov 13, 1666; George, born dec 30, 1672; Nathaniel, born Nov 5, 1674; Samuel, born April 30, 1676.
      1691. Thomas Snr “sometime Sargeant,” had his will proved.
      1715. Abigail Clarke died, daughter of George and Elisabeth, Feb 6.

      The lot on the corner of Water St. and Stony St. or Summer St., was owned by Thomas Clarke as early as 1674.
      March 23, 1686 deed of Thomas Clarke Sr conveyed to Samuel Pierce about a quarter of an acre…”by the tann yard from the River, close to the water-hole, by the beameing house, and soe on the back side of sd. House to ye upper corner of ye tann shed, northwest land of my son, Thomas Clarke.”
      Town record, Jan 11, 1640: liberty was granted to Thomas Clarke “to sett down Tan fatts, at the end of the planting lot, upon two rods reserved by the river.”
      Nathaniel Clarke sold 21 rods out of the orchard that was his father’s on Summer St, April 1720; and 21 rods on Water St, apparently to Benjamin Glazier. (Lot sold April 9, 1798 to Aaron Sweet.)
      The ancient tannery of the Clarkes fell into disuse. The upper part, on Summer St was apportioned to Thomas Clarke Jr. The lower part, once covered with beamhouse and tan yard, fell to John Clarke.

      Historically, tanneries were divided into three basic areas: beamhouse, tanyard, and finishing. Beamhouse removes the meat, membrane and hair; tanyard preserves the hide; and finishing adds dyes, oils, softeners, etc.

      • Thank you so much for all this information.Its so helpful in putting together my family history. I was just wondering if you knew if William Clarke was related to Thomas Clarke? Though my research I haven’t come across his name until this article. Thank you again for the information i am so greatful for it.

  2. Wonderful piece on the early life of Ipswich residents living and working along the river. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I’m glad you didn’t build a new house either. Now the Glazier Sweet House has someone to love and care for it.

    • Thanks to you both. I always try to see history, not just through our eyes today, but in the way that people of the time experienced it. The everyday lives of our forebears are what spark my Historical imagination.
      John Fiske

      • Ipswich is a living museum. I love that so much. Where I live, even though it was settled in the early 1700’s no structures exist from that time. It’s lovely to see so many places cherished the way they are in New England.

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