Nineteenth century Moravians color-coded their women. That’s what I remember the most from my visit to Old Salem, North Carolina. The women wore white bonnets and the bonnets were tied with ribbons. Young girls wore red ribbons, single women wore pink, married women wore blue and widows wore white.
They also self-segregated, living in age and sex restricted housing groups called choirs. There was a young girls choir and a young boys choir, a teen girls choir and a teen boys choir, and unmarried men and unmarried women choirs. Even married couples didn’t always live together — there were choirs for married men and married women. That brings up a whole lot of issues that I won’t get into here. Let me just say that the Moravians engage primarily in missionary work now, and has almost a million members worldwide.
The Moravians I’m talking about were the members of the Moravian church, not the general population of the area of east Europe known as Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic). The Moravians were a Protestant denomination who fled Moravia when their founder, John Hus, was burned at the stake in 1415. Three hundred years later, they found themselves in Savannah, Georgia and eventually, after a detour to Pennsylvania, made their way to North Carolina.
The historic part of Salem, the part founded by the Moravians in 1766, contains a living museum called the Old Salem Museum and Gardens. About 100 buildings have been restored and are staffed by costumed interpreters who recreate Salem life as it was for Moravians in the 18th and 19th centuries. The entire area doesn’t belong to the museum – a significant part of it is made up of private homes and businesses – but even the private homes are historic enough not to break the 19th century village feel. We had lunch at Old Salem Tavern, where George Washington spent two nights in 1791. Go for the history and the charm, not for the food.
On the edge of Old Salem, in the building where you buy your ticket to tour the town, is the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. MESDA features southern arts and crafts – furniture, textile, paintings, ceramics, metalwork and more — created through the early 19th century. Many of the museum’s rooms are recreations of rooms in 19th century houses (and some actually are rooms removed from historic houses). If you’re into pre-20th century southern arts and crafts, this is the motherlode.
You can’t take pictures inside the museum. And you can’t see the museum except on the guided tour. That’s always annoying. I must admit, though, that we enjoyed our tour with our volunteer guide. My friend and I were the only people on the first tour of the day and when our guide heard that my friend was a quilter, she showed us a room, full of quilts, which had not yet opened to the public.
We stayed at the Brookstown Inn, an 1837 textile mill turned hotel on the National Register of Historic Places. Our room was huge and simple, with brick walls and wooden posts and beams. For dinner, my favorite was Willow’s Bistro, a modern farm-to-table restaurant a couple of blocks away.
It’s an easy walk along a pedestrian path, from the Inn to Old Salem. If you walk the same path for the same distance in the opposite direction, you’ll end up in downtown Winston-Salem. It’s trying to revitalize, but it’s still rather seedy, with not much to see. Get in your car, instead, and drive to the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, next to the Wake Forest campus on the northwest side of Winston-Salem. Reynolda was home to R.J. Reynolds and his family. You can wander through the house and grounds on your own and see what a tobacco fortune can buy you.