Celebrating 200 Years of Salem’s Custom House

2019 marked the 200th anniversary of the Custom House at Salem Maritime National Historic Site. A custom house has been collecting taxes for the Federal Government in Salem since 1649. During the Colonial period, Salem’s custom house supported the British government. Following the Revolutionary War and the establishment of the U.S. Customs Service in 1789, collections began to support the American government.

The Old Custom House, located on Central and Essex Streets housed the Customs Service from its construction in 1805 to 1807, and later from 1813 to 1819 prior to the opening of the Derby Street Custom House.

The 1819 Custom House on Derby Street once housed the offices of U.S. Customs officials while the adjacent three-story Public Stores building was used as storage facility for merchant cargo before duties were paid. Wares included textiles, ceramics, artwork, and spices from around the world. Salem’s spice trade produced goods like pepper and cinnamon, which along with silk, porcelain, Indian cotton textiles, and ivory proved to be some of the most valuable items processed in the Custom House.

Varying levels of U.S. Customs officials worked in the Custom House under the Collector of Customs. Assisted by the Deputy Collector, the Collector of Customs would manage all of the port’s records. Merchants and captains bringing goods into Salem would visit this office to pay any required duties and submit forms like ship enrollments or crew manifests.

Shortly after gaining independence from Britain, custom duties comprised 90% of the federal budget. 8% of the budget was supported by duties paid by merchants, who praised the new Customs Service for creating a standard for regulations throughout the U.S. Before additional government agencies were created, the Customs Service was also responsible for veterans’ benefits, trade statistics, lighthouses, immigration, and search and rescue at seas.

The architecture of the Custom House includes elements commonly seen in government buildings with exterior columns, intricately carved woodwork, and high ceilings. Though the building was used by the U.S. Customs Service until 1930, the interior furnishings primarily reflect late 19th century styles.  

The eagle seen atop the Custom House today is a fiberglass replica of the original 1826 wood carved piece. Following years of restoration work, the original eagle was moved inside the Custom House where it is on display today, and the replica was added to the building’s façade in 2004. The original eagle was hand carved by local craftsman Joseph True, and was purchased by the Custom House in 1826 for $50.

While touring the offices of the Custom House, visitors today can view the office of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who worked as a Customs Officer while writing The Scarlet Letter. The introduction to his 1850 novel is titled “The Custom House,” and it reflects Hawthorne himself as narrator’s thoughts share his feelings on living and working in Salem in the mid-19th century.

The Custom House is located in the Salem Maritime National Historic Site at 160 Derby Street and is open to the public for free, self-guided tours seasonally. Learn more and plan your visit at NPS.gov/SaMa.

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