Inside this impressive building were the offices of the United States Customs Service collectors, inspectors, and other officials. It was here that ship's captains and owners paid duties on imported goods and conducted other business.
Before the passage of the Federal Income Tax Act of 1913, customs duties on ship's cargoes provided most of the money to run the Federal Government. Between 1789 and 1840, duties collected here earned the Treasury more than $20 million - a substantial amount in those days.
Salem's Custom House was one of several in Massachusetts. It was built in 1819, near the end of the height of Salem's East Indies trade. However, international cargoes continued to enter the port until the early 20th century, and so the Customs Service operated in this building for more than a century. Today the Custom House has historically furnished rooms and exhibits.
"Here, before his own wife has greeted him, you may greet the sea-flushed ship-master, just in port, with his vessel´s papers under his arm, in a tarnished tin box." - Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Custom House" introduction to The Scarlet Letter, 1850
Custom House First Floor
In the painting below, U.S. Customs Service employees take measurements of imported goods on Derby Wharf about 1820. The gauger (left) determines the liquid content of casks, while the weigher loads sacks on the portable scales. In the background stands the newly-built Custom House, a symbol of Federal authority.
By presidential appointment, author Nathaniel Hawthorne served as the Port of Salem's Surveyor from 1846-1849. It was here that Hawthorne conceived his famous novel, The Scarlet Letter: "it was the subject of my meditations for many an hour while pacing to and fro across my room, or traversing, with a hundred-fold repetition, the long extent from the front-door of the Custom-house to the side-entrance, and back again."