Getting A Leg Up in the 1930s

Last week we were in Wisconsin helping the in-laws get set up for their next estate sale.   Among all the breweriana, old cars, and used tools where a large number of old photos and photo albums.

When you go through photo albums, you never know what might catch your eye  — and in this case, several photos of this young lady struck a chord with us:

Dorothy Hess

Being one-legged wasn’t the only thing:  to be a young — late teens or early twenties — and a woman, and missing a leg, would seem to be a unique combination.   Was it an accident?  Or was she born this way?

As we pored through the albums, we saw several of her, alone and with family, and the question of how she lost her leg lingered.   But, I thought:  surely, a young woman losing a leg would be newsworthy, so I turned to the online newspaper archives I have subscriptions to.

To our surprise, not only did I find the reason for her missing leg, but it turns out young Dorothy was a nationwide sensation, bestowed with 15 minutes of fame a decade earlier.Dorothy Hess Walks For First Time In MonthsThat is 11-year-old Dorothy Hess in 1938:  this picture ran in newspapers all across the United States.   Dorothy’s leg was amputated the previous spring due to a bone infection.  She took quickly to her crutches, but her loss attracted the sympathy of one of her neighbors.

George Kiebler, president of Milwaukee district council of the U. A. W., lived just up the street from the Hess household.  A plan soon came together.

Newspapers report that “someone” close to Dorothy knew of “a man who procured an artificial leg as a premium for 46,000 cigar coupons.”  For many years — and until very recently —  collecting bands, cards, or labels from tobacco products could yet you prizes by picking an item from the tobacco company catalog and mailing the ‘currency’ in.   But, an artificial leg?   It’s a stretch, but, well, it was the 1930s, and with WWI battlefield injuries still relatively fresh in people’s memories, I suppose a wooden leg might be something you could redeem cigar bands for.

Whether or not the 46,000 cigar coupon wooden leg redemption was true, Kiebler and the Hess family put the plan into action.   Using his position in the UAW to Dorothy’s advantage, Kiebler asked union-members across the entire United States to cut the union labels from their packs of cigarettes and mail them to Dorothy, so that she would have enough by Christmas to procure an 11-year-old sized prosthetic leg of her very own.

And, those coupons started rolling in:  auto workers cut the union labels from their cigarette packs, and the postman brought them by the sackload every day, dropping them off at Dorothy’s house:

Dorothy Hess With Tobacco Coupons

The caption says that, as of October 1938, Dorothy had 43,900 coupons — just 2,100 short of the goal, according to the apocryphal story of the tobacco-currency artificial leg that started the quest.

However: whether 43,000, or 46,000, or 100,000 — the little pieces of paper in Dorothy’s hands would not be able to purchase an artificial leg, nor anything else.

Much to the surprise of the UAW leader, collecting the union labels from the tobacco packages wasn’t the currency needed to purchase anything from a tobacco catalog.

Upon finding out that they were collecting the wrong coupons, word went out quickly to begin collecting the correct tobacco labels to mail them as quickly as possible, in hopes of getting Dorothy a leg for Christmas.

By mid-December, the new influx of the correct tobacco coupons had amassed over 20,000 of the little slips of paper, which were redeemed for cash from the tobacco company.  Using the money, the UAW was able to buy Dorothy her first artificial leg, which was delivered December 19th, just in time for Christmas.

The second photo above, of Dorothy and her brother, was taken that morning.  Newspapers reported that Dorothy said it was “better than getting a new doll”, and that she was “going to practice walking very hard so {she} can throw away {her} crutches soon.”

The photos of older Dorothy, however, don’t seem to indicate she was able to go without crutches very long.  We hope that the 11-year-old-sized prosthetic leg gave her the opportunity to walk for at least a few years, but it would seem that as she grew out of the leg she didn’t replace it, returning to crutches by her late teen years.

It just goes to show you never know what you might find at an estate sale — everything might have a story, even on that connects union workers and cigarette companies to a young girl’s wooden leg.   The estate sale with Dorothy’s photos starts next Tuesday, November 1st.

A Cat-Losing, 1888

Ever hear the song, “The Cat Came Back?”  Poor mister Johnson has a troublesome cat that he simply can’t get rid of:

The song came out in 1893 and was popular throughout its history.   However, it may have been inspired by an 1888 event when some fellows in Cairo, Illinois decided to host a “cat-losing” contest.

JIM MANGUM’S CAT DISAPPOINTED HIS OWNER.

Feline with Wonderful Record Failed to Make Good Just When It Was Most Desirable–Cost Him Much Money.

“Ever hear about the cat-losing we had out our way in ’88?” asked the Cairo Liar.  “Never heard of a cat-losing?  Why, they’ve often had ’em out in my section since the first one was pulled off at Cairo.  The way it happened was this:  There was an old citizen in Cairo named Mangum, who bragged all during the summer of ’88 that he had a cat that couldn’t be lost.  The cat was onnery and a night marauder of the despised male gender, and Jim had tried all sorts of ways to lose that cat, he said.  He had tied four bricks to the cat’s neck on several occasions and then chucked the feline into the Mississippi, which runs pretty swift at Cairo, but every time Jim went home after doing this he had found the cat sitting on the front porch, licking himself.  Jim was determined to get rid of the cat, though, and he finally tied it up in a jute bag and handed it to a friend of his, a mail clerk on the railroad, and asked the mail clerk to ditch the cat, bag and all, at any old point not nearer than 100 miles from Cairo.  The mail clerk did this to oblige old Jim, heaving the cat out in the dark somewhere on the edge of a swamp about 125 miles from Cairo.

“Jim announced down at the post office three days later that the cat was back, looking a bit hungry and with less of its left ear than it had had before, but still in the ring and pretty nifty, considering.  Jim by this time regarded his cat as a wonder, and he made a good deal of nuisance of himself telling everybody in Cairo that, in his opinion, which he was willing to back with money, marbles, or chalk, that there wasn’t a cat in the state of Illinois, or, for the matter of that, in the whole blamed country, that had such a dead bead on home as his cat had.

Jim's Cat Didn't Come Back.

“Somebody finally suggested that the thing be tried.  This was just was Jim wanted, and so a committee of arrangements went ahead to organize the cat-losing. It was finally determined that all of the cats entered should be driven out in the woods, in a farm wagon, and then, at a point about five miles from town, chucked out of the wagon, free-footed, and left to hustle for themselves.  There were 30 entries, each man who entered his cat paying $5 for the privilege.  The cat that reached its home first was to pull down the $150 for its owner.

“A good many of the Cairo citizens who had cats entered in the event rehearsed their felines several times before the regular cat-losing was to come off, and all of the cats showed extraordinary aptitude in hustling back to their own doorsteps from distant points.  Jim didn’t rehearse his cat at all. ‘Any cat,’ said he, ‘that can scramble out of a jute bag heaved into a swamp more’n 100 miles from its own fireside, don’t need no rehearsing.  That cat’s got it in him, and he’ll be the first cat back, for money’  The betting was lively on the event for fully a week before it came off.

“Well, on the day the cats were driven out into the woods, competent and honest judges were placed at each of the 30 homes of the 30 cats, with instructions to time the exact moment of the appearance of the respective felines they were looking for.  The cats were turned loose from the farm wagon at exactly two o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, and by that time most of us who had bets down on the outcome were sitting on the courthouse steps, waiting for the first judge to turn up with the announcement that the cat he had been appointed to time upon its arrival was back.

“At exactly 2:30 a young fellow named Charley Glass came running up to the courthouse on a lope, with his cat under his arm.  The cat had its numbered tag around its neck and we all fully identified it as one of the starters.  So the $150 was Glass’, and I had won $150 from Jim Mangum.   Following that, for the space of a half an hour the judges all turned up with their respective cats–all except the judge who had been placed at Mangum’s home.  Jim’s cat didn’t come back that night nor the next night, nor ever again.  That happened nearly 20 years ago, and Jim’s cat isn’t back yet.   Jim almost went broke paying up his debts, and after that whenever he’d see a cat two blocks down the street he’d shy rocks and cuss it as far as he could see it.”

The story was reprinted, in verbatim by dozens of newspapers throughout the U.S. in May and June of 1907, all crediting the story to the “Cairo Liar”, which isn’t the name of any reputable paper at the time.  The Cairo Bulletin, however, was a real paper, but doesn’t have any proof of the original event, nor any happening since the first cat-losing.  So, it is more likely to be a case of the song inspiring a tall tale of amazing cat navigation, and the failing of hubris, many years later.

Married By Phonograph

About the only way to control smallpox before immunization was quarantine.   So, if you’re on your way to your own wedding in 1902 and end up in the pest house, what do you do?

Hope Pioneer, 3/20/1902”                                   WEDS BY PHONOGRAPH.

Young Ohio Couple Overcomes the Dilemma Into Which Smallpox Had Plunged Them.

Miss Nellie Stone, of Ottawa, and J. F. Duncan, of Oswego, N. Y., were married at Toledo, O., the other day under the most trying circumstances. They had been engaged for some time and the bride-to-be went to Oswego to have the ceremony performed. She stopped with a family, one of whose members was suddenly stricken with smallpox.

The quarantine of the house put the young couple in a quandary. Finally a phonograph was taken to the young woman. She spoke the marriage vows into the machine and it was taken to the office of the health department, where it was disinfected.

Armed with the phonograph Duncan sought a minister and made the responses in the marriage service, while the brass transmitter ejected the vows of the Ohio girl and they were pronounced man and wife. The bride is a contributor to eastern papers and the groom is a newspaper man.”

Happily, it does not appear that the bride ever came down with smallpox.

Mysterious Book-Box

The office manager at work called me into her office after lunch today: she handed me this little “book”, and I opened it:

amy-book-box-1Turns out it isn’t a book at all —

amy-book-box-2

— and inside is an accordion-folded strip, with numbers on each ‘fold’:

amy-book-box-3They’re only numbered on one side — 6, 7, 8, then “5 TO 10”, whatever that means.   Between the “In Fond Remembrance” on the spine, the bird’s-nest inside, and the numbering system, I’m baffled as to what its original purpose is.  The whole thing is tiny — maybe 2″ x 1″ x 1/2″ altogether, like two matchboxes stacked.  Anyone out there in Internetland seen this before?

 

 

 

Portraits By The Pound

In this week’s Dakota Death Trip update, I posted a photo of a girl who looks much too sad to be wearing satin.   When I flipped the photo over, the back has a big rubber stamp mark from the photo studio that produced the image:

pixy-pinups-logo-back

A penny a pound?   A pound of what?!?

I got excited when I found a Flickr photo from a guy who reports the same Charlotte, N.C., studio as the source of his photo — hey, somebody else sat on the same spot as the girl in my photo!   Unfortunately, after a little research, I found that it wasn’t such a coincidence.

Dating a photo takes a whole lot of research:  what year is that car?  When was that toy under the Christmas Tree first made?  What movie is on that marquee in the back?  When was that brand name used?  There’s a whole bunch of history bundled up in every photo, even if it is just a brand of shoes or a style of eyeglasses.   So, this stamp on the back of a photo is enough for me to narrow down the origin of the photo to a timespan of a couple years.

Department stores used to be far more than the acres of products they are today.  Your mom could take you down to Woolworth’s, buy you lunch, get your hems lowered (you’ve grown, you know) by the in-house tailor, take you for a haircut, and get your photo taken, all without leaving the building.   This hasn’t entirely gone away: the J.C. Penney out at the mall — an expatriate from Downtown during the seventies — lost its restaurant in the early eighties, but it has brought along its hair salon and photo studio into the 21st Century.
pixy-pin-ups-logo-jcpenny-photo-studio

Stanley Hoke and Needham Holden were the proprietors of Dunbar-Stanley Studios, and in the 1940s or early 1950s, according to an interview in the Victoria (TX) Advocate in 1960, the two men were driving between appointments and saw a sign that offered watermelon at the amazing deal of 1/2-cent…until they read the small type below the price: “per pound”.  Holden thought that marketing ploy would work in their line of business, and began advertising baby photos priced like chuck roast: they’ll photograph your kid, at the cost of one penny per pound of the child’s weight.

Dunbar-Stanley Studios had the advantage of being the exclusive photography studio of the J.C. Penney department store franchise.  Although some stores may have been large enough to support a full-time photo studio, the smaller stores made appointments with Dunbar-Stanley to send out a photographer for a few days at a time, several times a year.

penny-a-pound-ad-january-1952

Their photography studio business first was just called “Penny-a-Pound Portraits”, as the stamp on the Flickr-user’s photo showed, but changed its name to Pixy Pin-Ups sometime around 1953.    In the 1960 article, however, they say the business outgrew the penny-a-pound model and, rather than increasing their per-pound rate, just charged a cheap flat rate.

Charging per pound of chubby baby didn’t die out, though:  Pixy Pin-Ups — later shortened to just “Pixy” — used the penny-a-pound gimmick until the late 1970s.

combined-1953-and-1979-pixy ads

Hoke and Holden didn’t just come up with a funny pricing model: their entire business was tightly controlled to make baby photogaphy as effective as possible.  The 1960 article says  they only employ “…young and unmarried women, many of whom are recruited from airline hostess schools”, and their training went beyond just clicking a shutter.  Training included child psychology, and by the end of their training, whether literally or figuratively, the employees are “required to dismantle and reassemble the camera with her eyes closed.”    A 1966 “Help Wanted: Female” listing from Eugene, Oregon, listed requirements as “Single and over 18; High school graduate; Have good character references.”   The ad outlines the benefits as well:  salary during training, a company car with all expenses paid, and after 3 years a free trip to Europe to employees with ‘satisfactory service’.  This army of young ladies, high-tech camera in hand, cruised the backroads of America from J.C. Penney to J.C. Penney, trying to get kids to smile.

dunbar-stanley-jc-penney-want-ad-1966

The penny-a-pound was their loss-leader:  for that price, mom got one 5×7 portrait.  The rest came as part of a higher-priced package, which is probably why I only have a 5×7 in this pile of photos.  Fifty cents in the 1950s would be almost $5 today, a reasonable price for a photo sitting, but the young ladies pulled away from service with the airlines were also trained to upsell to the higher-priced sets, in hopes of getting a $10 sale out of each kid’s parents.   J.C. Penney actually made the sale, sharing a portion of the profit with Dunbar-Stanley Studios, and all the film was shipped off to North Carolina for processing.   That’s why there’s people out there confused that their baby photo is stamped with a studio a thousand miles away from where they were raised.   The ‘Pixy’ name remained well into the 1990s, but the current J.C. Penney portrait studios aren’t run by Dunbar-Stanley anymore: the current business is based out of Eden Prairie, MN, and goes by the name “JCPenney Portraits” — although at least one still goes by the Pixy name.

So, after a morning of scouring old newspapers,  I can date my photo of the unhappy satin girl to somewhere around 1953 to 1958. Based on where I got these photos, mine was probably taken either in the old J.C. Penney’s in downtown Fargo, or the Wahpeton store, one of the oldest locations.

Ten Reels Of Explosives

My research regarding this photo probably got me put on a half dozen watch lists, thanks to early film technology.  Here’s Kay Johnson to explain, from the September 1930 issue of Screen Romances:

how-much-materials-to-make-nitrocellulose-screen-romances-sept-1930

The caption reads:

Do you know what a motion picture is made of?  Kay Johnson shows us the actual chemical constituents of gelatine, water, camphor, acid silver and cotton that went into the ten reels of “Madame Satan.”

As best I can read from the captions in the photo, that’s 40lbs of cotton, 3¾ pounds of gelatine, 3½ pounds of camphor, 2½ pounds of water and nitric acid, and ¼ pound of silver.   The silver is inconsequential: that was used in the image itself, hence the widespread destruction of films over the years to salvage the precious metals.   Madame Satan is partly lost to the sands of time: according to Wikipedia, there’s one lost scene, and all of the original Technicolor prints have been lost.

But, none of those facts are the reason I’ve been making questionable Google queries.  In today’s world full of terrorism and violence, Kay Johnson up there might have gotten a visit from the ATF for having so much of those materials together in one place.

Early film stock was made from something called nitrocellulose.   It was relatively stable, good enough since they considered films to be temporary, not permanently stored.    However, if you compare nitrocellulose’s explosive power, according to Wikipedia, it falls between TNT and Nitroglycerin on the scale.  In small doses, magicians use it for fire effects.   In large doses, CNN worries about teddy bears stuffed with it taking down airplanes.  It’s no wonder movie theaters burned down with such ferocity during the early part of the 20th century:  a 10-reel film by Cecil B. Demille had almost 50 pounds of guncotton wrapped into tight spools, so energetic that it can burn underwater.  Here’s just one reel of film burning, emphasizing why you wouldn’t want to be around when ten reels catch fire.

burning-a-reel-of-nitrocellulose-cellulose-nitrate-film_2

Kodak invented their “safety film” in 1908, made from a less-flammable acetate, but as you can see the cheaper cellulose nitrate film was still being used for big-budget films in 1930. Kay Johnson’s first credited film on IMDB may be called Dynamite, but I found no evidence of her ever being closer to explosives than in the picture above.  She retired from acting in the forties, just one film in the fifties, and passed away in 1975. Even at the time of Madame Satan, cellulose nitrate film was on its way out, and it was banned entirely in 1951.  Nitrocellulose still has a purpose in media, just not film, and you can buy it in bulk from Dow Chemicals.  Sorry, Homeland Security, I wasn’t actually looking for explosives, I’m just researching the dangerous history of film.

The Beard Tax

beard-tax-token

We’re at the height of Movember, a charitable movement raising money for men’s health issues like prostate cancer by encouraging men to grow their facial hair while people donate money in amounts appropriate to the growth accomplished.  Sort of like Jump Rope For Heart, but with less panting and leg cramps.   Beards have been used to raise money in the past as well, but in a much different way.

Evstafiev-old-believers-oregon-usa

Peter the Great ascended to the tsarist throne of the Russian Empire in 1682, at only ten years old, and by the time he turned twenty he had seen Europe’s cultural and scientific growth and wished the same for Russia.    From a purely superficial stance, one of Peter’s goals was to adopt the dress and style of 17th century Europe.

Until Peter’s modernization push, a thick, bushy Russian beard was a sign of status; when Peter shaved off his beard in the style of au courant European culture, he passed a resolution that encouraged everyone else to follow in kind.

A beard tax was instituted in 1705: men who wished to keep their beard could pay a tax, otherwise men would have to shave.   Men who paid the tax were given a proof-of-payment token to show they had made their payment.

beard-token-obverse-and-reverseMembers of the Boyards received silver beard tax tokens and the lower classes received copper tokens.  A counterstrike indicated if additional years had been paid.  On one side depicted the double-headed eagle of Russia and the words “payment received”, and the reverse showed a nose, mustache and beard with the words ” The beard is an unnecessary burden”.

The tokens are quite rare today and sell for thousands of dollars each.   As one might expect, people interested in keeping their beards without paying the taxes made for a flourishing counterfeit beard token market, so fakes are somewhat common.   Then, in later years, the Russian mints began producing “novodel” replica beard tax tokens, which are “official” as they came from the mint but are not original nor from the correct era.   If you’d just like the pleasure of carrying one around in your pocket to prove your beardiness, you can buy pewter replicas here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fargo Record Fair

Fargo-Record-Fair-2013

Last weekend we went to the Fargo Record Fair, an annual event where you can find all sorts of records.   We, per our budget, bought a bunch of dollar albums.   I was pleasantly surprised: all the vinyl I saw was in really good shape, compared to what I run into at thrift shops and rummage sales.   Very few scratches, even on the bargain bin albums, and a lot of contemporary music.  I’m tired of flipping through a zillion Ferrante and Teicher and Sing-Along with Mitch before getting to the good stuff.

fargo-vinyl-fair

From today’s Main Street on Prairie Public, you can hear (fast-forward to 14:50) Ashley Thornberg interview several of the vendors, particularly Antiques on Broadway’s Uncle Roy, who had a whole room of albums downtown.

It’s Not a Ditto Machine

The auction we went to in South Dakota last spring had two rings, so Wifey and I split up to do our buying.   The fun part of this setup is getting to show off all the neat things we bought while the other wasn’t looking.    I bought one of these:

mimeograph machine fargo

“Oh, a Ditto machine — remember that smell?!?” Wifey exclaimed.  She had visions of fuzzy purple-text pages becoming our regular method of correspondence with family and friends, if only for that famous post-printing chemical smell.  Unfortunately, she was close but not quite right: this is a Mimeograph, the teacher’s lounge compatriot of the Ditto machine.

The two processes are quite similar, but about as different as an inkjet printer is from a photocopier.    The Mimeograph process has the same pedigree as the light bulb and the record album.   Thomas Edison patented the process in 1876, and office technology innovator A B Dick licensed the process and developed it into a useful machine.

bisoness-chose-weapon-mimeograph

The Mimeograph works by producing a rather straightforward stencil — a thin sheet with letter-shaped holes in it — which is wrapped around a drum.  The drum has a fabric outer cover with an ink dispenser inside.   The ink is squeezed out through the drum and squirts out through those letter-shaped holes, similar to silkscreening.   Then, like a printing press, the rotating drum picks up a sheet of paper and impresses the ink on the page.    Thus, the Mimeograph has the capability of producing nice, crisp black printing of similar quality to an actual printing press.

Unfortunately, unlike steel letterpress letters, there’s a finite life to the stencil of a Mimeograph machine.   Constant pressing against pages wears away at the thin edges of the text, and things like the open-area in the lowercase ‘e’ and ‘a’ fall out, making solid letters.    A wide variety of methods were developed to create and duplicate stencils, so the combination of speed and quality is exactly why the Mimeograph stayed in use for well over a hundred years.  The technology lives on in the Risograph printing process, which still enjoys a certain fanbase around the world.

ditto-machine

The Ditto machine is about 60 years younger than the venerable Mimeograph.  Patented in 1923 by Wilhelm Ritzerfeld, it pulled from an older technology called a Hectograph, which used a gelatin base to hold the ink.   Rather than a sheet of gelatin with the printing pattern set into it, Ritzerfeld’s process turned the system around with the Ditto Master sheet.   While the Mimeograph cut through the master sheet, the Ditto machine left letter-shaped gelatin marks on the back of the master, a mirror-image of the text, in a thick ink-tinted film.

1965-ditto-machine-ad
The technical term for the Ditto machine is a ‘spirit duplicator’ due to the use of a combination of alcohol solvents to transfer the ink from the Ditto master to the sheet of paper.   So, when the sheets are “hot off the presses”, so to speak, there’s still enough solvent left in the paper to encourage heavy sniffing.    Because a Ditto master only held so much ink at a time, the copies became progressively blurry and lighter as the print-count increased, but the less messy and significantly cheaper Ditto system  was quite popular for schools, churches, and other budget-conscious organizations.

Mimeograph machine

The Mimeograph machine I bought is in very good shape — it does need a cleaning, and the faint impression of the last document printed on it is a sign of needing the fabric pad replaced, but aside from this it is is good working order.   You can see it — and even turn the handle if you like — in the front window of Fargo’s Antiques on Broadway.

 

A Keystone Production

We’re here working at Exit 55 Antiques in Fergus Falls, MN, and one of the fun parts of working our required day each month is seeing what other new, interesting things have come in from other dealers since the last time we’ve worked. This time, being the camera fan that I am, I immediately gravitated towards this old movie projector that another dealer was selling for $89.

keystone-projector-1

It’s older than most of the other cameras, movie or otherwise, that I’ve ever owned. This fine example of early film projection technology is a Keystone Moviegraph:

keystone-projector-2

My first assumption was, “oh, like the movie studio!”    It could make sense — if you’re making Charlie Chaplin movies, people have to watch them somehow, so why not sell the projectors, too?   Edison and Victrola made big bucks being the single source for both the equipment and the media, so why not Keystone Film Company?

Unfortunately, my guess was incorrect.    People might have watched Keystone Kops on this projector, but it wasn’t because both parts were made by the same company.

Keystone Manufacturing Company was a toy company based out of Boston, Massachusetts,  thousands of miles away from the Keystone movie studios.   This projector was designed to occupy the kids for ten to fifteen minutes at a time, each one taking turns cranking the projector at the right speed.

xlg_keystone_moviegraph_ad

You’ll note that the ad says it includes just an electric cord — “for connecting to any lamp socket your electric bulb will fit”.   The interior of the projector is a big open space, to stick a lamp inside.

keystone-projector-3

At least they put vents in it, just in case too much heat built up.    But, what could be safer than lettings kids play with an electric lamp, inside a metal box, running flammable nitrate film through a projector by hand?   The 1910s were a different time; this tinderbox was probably the safest thing the kids had to play with.

This neat little aspect of the history of movie theatres was also included in some kits, along with tickets and other accoutrements of the theater world.   Keystone offered a pin to identify yourself as a licensed Moviegraph projectionist.

keystone-operator-license-pin

In the past — and in some places still today — only properly licensed people are allowed to run movie projectors.   Sadly, the several thousand people who carried Moviegraph License No. 79984 were sad to find out their licensing was not transferable to other systems.

As a nerd, of course, I have appreciate the mechanism the camera uses to move the film, a single frame at a time.   I’ve taken a number of projectors apart over the years, and all of them have a different and unique way to advance the film.   This projector uses the most basic gearing system — the geneva drive:

Originally designed for clockmaking, the early film industry grabbed on to it as a technical solution to stopping the film for the split second that the shutter is open, without having to stop the motor from turning:

Geneva_mechanism_6spoke_animation

Despite the high-tech gearing, this projector is missing something I mentioned earlier: there’s no shutter in it. Watching a movie projected by this Keystone projector would be pretty blurry, despite the momentary gear. Well, what can you expect from a toy?

keystone-moviegraph-film-from-nitrateville

I did speak a bit too soon:  Keystone Manufacturing might not have been the same company as the Keystone movie studio in California, but they did sell film.  Although the projector would work with any silent 35mm movie film, Keystone Manufacturing sold their own reels for the projector-owner’s entertainment.  Most of their Moviegraph reels were lower-quality duplicates of shorts and small portions of full-length features.  So, although they didn’t make movies, they still held on to a large part of the film distribution process as their business model.

Mid-Century Modern Endtable

One of the fine things we bought at Ida Carlson’s Barn was this funky mid-century modern endtable. It has a very “nordic” style, made from flat pieces of wood and in that fun atomic acute-angle style that people love from the 1950s:

It has a very odd shape — it looks different no matter what angle you look at it from. There’s spaces underneath for books, a tall slot at the back for your large-format Life and Look magazines, and the classic kidney-shaped top means it’ll both fit everywhere and not quite fit anywhere. Of course, we had to buy it.

Fast-forward a few weeks later, and we were thumbing through old handyman magazines. We’re always looking for ideas for our house, and it’s always fun to look for interesting design styles. As I was flipping through the October 1955 issue of Home Craftsman magazine, I saw a familiar shape:

No, our endtable wasn’t shown in an advertisement or in the background of an interior design article: our little mid-century modern table was one of the featured projects in this issue. Here’s the plans for it:

The design is by Home Craftsman’s staff designer, Arthur Collani. Aside from simple projects for the magazine, Collani also wrote a couple books of furniture plans for Home Craftsman’s own series of how-to books. One book, Build Your Own Modern Furniture, was extremely popular — and wouldn’t you know it, our table appeared in that book, too! Collani never reached the renown of Eames or other high-end furniture designers, but since his books ended up in small public libraries across the U.S. his furniture probably graced more homes overall. Any hobbyist with basic tools could make Collani’s furniture, which, today, fits right in with the high-end midcentury furniture of the day. This auction and these two galleries show that his home-hobbyist designs are on par with Eames even on the pricetag. All it takes is 50 years to go from “hobby kit” to fine furniture, as long as mid-century modern stays popular.

Synagogue In a Teapot

It may look like a fancy teapot,  but the owner found it had a secret hidden inside:  the teapot disassembled into everything needed to perform various Jewish rites and holidays:

The Redditor who posted this amazing piece of metalwork said he had gotten it from his Jewish grandfather before he died, and the appraisers of Reddit went wild:  although the original poster doesn’t voice any opinion on its origins, various experts — and truly experts, people who work in museums and history departments — interpreted it as ranging from anywhere from the Inquisition to World War II, figuring it was used by Jewish people to conceal their religion from people who would harm them for their faith.   It seems like a reasonable interpretation, right?   Why else would you go all Optimus-Prime on your religious items so that they fold up neatly into an innocuous item that conceals their true purpose?

Many people suggested that this pot could be a truly historical find, with much Indiana-Jonesing over how IT BELONGS IN A MUSEUM, but it turns out they’re talking about the wrong kind of museum.

Because the internet is such a vast place, of course somebody else had one of their own, and knew its origins:

The piece actually belongs in an art gallery before it should be sent to any world archives of Judaical history.   It is actually an art piece made by artist Yossi Swed, of Swed Master Works in New York, within the past twenty years.

There’s lessons in this story, like a dreidel hidden in a teapot.   First of all:   Expert make mistakes; you might take a valuable item to an appraiser and they might, really, not actually know what it is and are giving their best educated guess.   Second: the kind of expert makes a difference: I’d bet that a silversmith, with no expertise in Jewish tradition, would have been more valuable in determining the age of this work than the chair of Judaism at a university.    And, lastly, the obvious isn’t always the truth; while this teapot was seemed to clearly be of historical Holocaust-related value, it turns out it was purely a work of art.   Every collector and dealer knows the perils of buying something you don’t completely know the origins of, and this is a perfect example of how, on many levels, things are rarely ever what they seem.

The Magic Of Polavision

I’ve been shopping for “lots” on eBay lately: sellers box up a bunch of low-end things, like cameras or 8mm movies, and then sells them as a set.  I’ve found I can get some pretty cheap fun stuff — plus, the mixed-bags aren’t always described very well, so sometimes you get a surprise.  In a lot of three movie cameras, I got this strange little beast:

It looks about the same size and vintage of Super8 cameras, and upon opening it up I can see it required a film cartridge.  However, the cartridge is too long and too thin to be Super8, or even a cartridge-loading 8mm roll-film camera.  The Polaroid logo on the front should have been my first clue — In the land of Land, Polaroids weren’t the kind of camera that used over-the-counter film formats.  This is a Polavision camera: Polaroid’s first and only foray into self-developing movie film.

Yes, that’s the part that blew my mind:  the magical Polaroid 600 film that everyone shakes like a Polaroid picture is awe-inspiring enough, so doing that at 20 or 30 frames a second blows my mind.  The film was, technically, 8mm film, but it wasn’t the same beast.   The film was pre-loaded in a cartridge, along with a reservoir of developing fluid.  The movie was filmed in a Polaroid camera, like any other normal home movie.   The specialized player did most of the work:  the first time a cartridge was played, the player released the developing fluid, and in 20 seconds the whole movie was ready to be watched.

Polaroid devoted enormous amounts of money and resources into producing these instant-watch films — compared to regular 8mm home movies, which could take days to get back — and when they released it to the market they expected these Polavision cameras to take off like hotcakes.

In 1950, maybe:  color silent movies were the standard of the day, and quick developing would be a big advantage.

In the 1960s,  Super8 film, with a larger frame and better sensitivity, was beginning to take over the market — but Polaroid might have still been able to hold their own.

The Polavision home movie system, unfortunately, debuted in 1977 — the same year the VHS tape broke into the United States market.   Betamax had been around since 1975.  Even Super8 got sound recording in the early 1970s.    The self-developing technology was an enormous breakthrough, but as a personal movie-maker it was about twenty years too late.

The image quality was too poor, even by the low-quality bar that VHS lived with well into the 1990s.  It could only shoot for two minutes at a time, and being locked in a cartridge means no splicing film together into longer movies.   The Polavision film had a very low ISO, so it only worked well in outdoor bright daylight.   The Polavision viewer that was crucial to the development of the film was inadequate for shared viewing, and wasn’t able to project on a large screen.  Pretty much the only advantage the Polavision system had was that magical quick developing, which made it only useful for speed, and not for, you know, enjoyment or artistic creativity.

The Polaroid company was already beginning to implode, even without this huge financial failure;  Land left the company in 1980, and the business struggled to hold on until 2001 when it was sold off to investors, and stopped producing instant film shortly thereafter.   The quick-developing technology didn’t die, though, at least not right away:  Polaroid upscaled the process and loaded into standard 35mm rolls, releasing it as the quick-developing Polachrome instant 35mm slide film.

Oh, The Places You Will Go!

On shows like American Pickers or Pickers Sisters, every once in a while the pickers go into some unassuming building and find themselves someplace surprising, a place where the outside doesn’t betray what’s inside. It might seem like TV magic, something that doesn’t happen in the real world, but my Wifey and I ran into our own “picker moment” recently.

Just after Christmas, Wifey was hanging out down at the antique mall. While she was chit-chatting with the manager, a guy came in looking to sell some things. His mother had moved into assisted living and he had been put in charge of liquidating the farm, so he was looking for a picker to come out and buy some stuff. Wifey said, sure, we’ll come out and take a look.

We bought a vanload from him the first time out, and he had said that some other time we should come back and see what’s in the barn. Now that’s what we’re talking about: the good stuff is always in The Barn, at least from our perspective. We had been polite and taken time to talk with him about his mom, his family, and how hard it is to clean out a house, and we let him know how much we thought the various items were worth or how old it was, even if we weren’t going to buy it. It turns out he had talked to another dealer first — that dealer had been brusque, bought a couple things and quickly left. Little did that dealer know he missed out on the offer of The Barn by not taking his time as a picker to be polite and get to know the seller first.

Due to weather and other conditions, we couldn’t get into the barn at that time. Finally, this past weekend, Wifey got a text from him, saying we should come out to the farm again. We thought it was about some other stuff we were interested in buying but he hadn’t made a decision, but we didn’t go in the house — he met us in the yard.

Turns out, he wanted to take us out to The Barn.

The snow was a little over a foot deep, but we had brought our boots, so we started to trudge across the farmyard out to the classic gambrel barn at the north end of the property. The first floor was your average barn fare – bicycle parts, old farm tools, a rusty bedspring, so we made a pile by the door. While we were climbing on the piles of abandoned treasures, picking through buckets of doorknobs and pipe fittings, our host had disappeared. When he returned, he said, “all the good stuff is upstairs.”

He led us around to the side of the barn where he had pried open a door. We had to climb over an old rusty drag to get onto a steep set of stairs. As we climbed, D gazed at all of the old rough-cut gambrel rafters and said, “wow, all this wood is very cool.” I was just ahead of her, and when I reached the top of the stairs, I said, “if you’re impressed with that, just wait until you get up here.”

The floor of the hayloft looks like it hadn’t ever seen a single piece of straw. At the far end of the loft was a stage. The stairs we came up were the back stairs; on the other side was the main stairs, straight and not as steep, but blocked from the outside. Long benches flanked each side of the wide-open space. Signs warned against leaning on the hayloft door and advised care walking on the stairs. This wasn’t a farmer’s barn: this was a barn dance barn.

It didn’t take long for us to put two and two together. In the first batch of stuff we bought from this farm, we found a matchbook advertising Ida Carlson’s Barn dance-hall. I knew there were a bunch of barn dance-halls in the area back in the day, so I figured Ida’s barn had to be pretty close to Fargo. Standing here, at the end of a polished hardwood floor in the upstairs of a barn, I was actually in Ida Carlson’s Barn.

Our host was Ida Carlson’s grandson, and after Ida retired from the dance hall business his parents kept it going until the 1980s. The heyday of Ida Carlson’s Barn was the 1930s to the 1940s. The barn was built in 1934, specifically to host dances; it — and the outhouse, of course — were the first buildings on the property. Ida got her permit to run barn dances in May 1934 and ads for events at the Barn started appearing in the Moorhead Daily News almost immediately. She applied for a beer license, too, but the county declined, saying having beer and barn dances in the same place “would be against the public interest.” Ida Carlson’s Barn became a popular youth hangout for all the usual reasons that young people needed a place out of town, away from their responsibilities, to hang out with other youths. It’s where people met their life-long spouses, and the NDSU Spectrum even joked that the closest that their female students “have ever been to a cow, probably, is at Ida Carlson’s barn dance.”

The barn hadn’t seen a dance in about thirty years; our host’s brother has a band, and it’s his equipment on the stage today. Before we even started to look at treasures to buy, we got more stories about Ida’s barn and a brief tour, including the wooden railing where fifty years of bands wrote their names on the boards. When we finished our picking, as we drove away from the farmstead, our conversation was more about Ida Carlson’s Barn than any of the things we bought.

Just Four Dalers

In 1921, Mr. Farren Zerbe’s photograph hit the news wires, holding what appears to be a large loaf of bread. Not so, says the caption:

Farren Zerbe, of Cincinnati, is holding the world’s largest coin, an old Swedish copper plate. Weight, 6 pounds. Worth $4.

There’s a bunch that’s not right about that caption, but it’s not Mr. Zerbe’s fault. In fact, Mr. Zerbe’s influence in the numismatic world is felt in the weight of his namesake, the Ferren Zerbe Award, the highest award given by the American Numismatic Association. This giant coin was one of 30,000 coins in Zerbe’s collection in 1921, and Zerbe wrote extensively regarding coins and coin collecting. Unfortunately, even with that much knowledge he couldn’t count on an AP writer, aiming for the fewest number of words possible, to correctly identify the gray lump Zerbe was holding in the photo. While the ‘Swedish’ part is right, the rest is a little off. The plate Mr. Zerbe is almost worth four dollars, but only due to a spelling error.

Sweden is a land of natural resources, and one of their greater assets is a vast storehouse of copper. Swedish copper mines have been producing large amounts of the semiprecious metal since the 10th century, and although copper didn’t have the high value of silver and gold, its malleability and usefulness for manufacturing did give the metal a significant value. But, as it has been for centuries until today, copper is only worth a tiny fraction of what the same weight in silver or gold is worth. The fledgling United States considered making one-cent coins out of copper, but found that to have a penny’s worth of copper the coin would be much too large to be useful, somewhere between a quarter and a half-dollar in size. Going a hundred times that to make a copper dollar would require a wheelbarrow just to buy lunch.

But Sweden was a copper-rich country, and they had wars to pay for, so they began issuing copper “dalers”, the monetary unit of the time. The copper was rolled out and formed into plates of up to 40lbs of copper worth 10 dalers. The plates were not the sort of thing you carried to the corner store to do your shopping; they were for larger-scale commerce, and as such they are less common than other coins from the same time. Sweden used these to keep their economy above water, and since they were put into use for a couple hundred of years they proved that Sweden could use its copper reserves to successfully maintain the nation’s coffers.

When it comes to the value of copper, the AP writer’s math doesn’t quite work out in the picture above. Six pounds of copper, even at $0.12 per pound in 1921 prices, is worth nowhere near the $4 claimed in the photo’s caption. And, the relative rarity of this kind of plate money means at the time it was worth more than $4 on the collector’s market. The intrepid reporter sent to document Mr. Zerbe’s massive money just heard wrong. The unit of money is the daler, which sounds about the same as the U.S. monetary unit over the phone, and this is a four-daler chunk, a simple mistake if you don’t have the benefit of a fact-checker. The value of the daler changed wildly, both due to the nation’s monetary system and the inherent value of the copper, so each plate is marked with its value at the corners and in the center. Like ‘pieces of eight’ and fictional wire-money, the Swedish plate money was designed to be cut into smaller denominations as needed.

Mr. Zerbe may have bent the truth just a little regarding the rarity of his plate of copper, though: the British Museum still has an intact 8-daler plate larger than the Zerbe example, and other similar coins have been pulled from shipwrecks. And then, if you adjust your definition of coin, the people of Yap have something to show Mr. Zerbe. Any which way you cut it, Mr. Zerbe’s large chunk of copper, marked with its value and the seal of the issuing king, is not the kind of thing you accidentally notice in the change bowl on your nightstand. As an interesting cul-de-sac in the history of sovereign money, it’s quite the unique piece, if only because it is a numismatic rarity that can be displayed nicely on the mantlepiece. This old plate money does show up in the market from time to time, and from what I’ve seen it’s mostly rather corroded examples from shipwrecks or buried in somebody’s back yards. The example held by Zerbe in his photo is a surprisingly nice, clean example of the coin, and despite the errors in the caption, he is right to be proud of his big coin.

 

Soapy Money: Coupon Check Trade Tokens

Last week Wifey and I were hanging out at our local antique mall when a woman came in wanting to sell a Tupperware full of bits and baubles. Among the jewelry and silverware was a small jewelry-sized baggie full of tokens. Although I’m no help when it comes to jewelry, Wifey was glad I was around to evaluate the tokens. As you may have noticed, money and money-like things are one of the things I collect. The baggie held some generic arcade tokens, a nice Sioux City transit token that went into my collection, a few southeast Asia Playboy Club tokens went into Wifey’s collection, but the rest were a variety of trade tokens.

Today, some retailers have gotten all high-tech by distributing deals by texts and the internet, but even paper coupons are barely more than a hundred years old. Coca-Cola is considered the creator of the modern coupon, offering free drinks in hopes of hooking a lifelong customer, and once it proved effective for Coke other products followed suit.

Coca-Cola Coupon

Soap, of all types and uses, was a commonplace product that was just growing in demand in the early 20th century — regular washing and bathing was an uncommon experience until Victorian times — and each new entry into the market needed to elbow its way into people’s kitchens and washrooms. The reason people still watch ‘soap operas’ hails back to one of the most successful soap marketing methods, making Procter and Gamble one of the more successful television production companies today. Coupons for free products, like Coca-Cola’s successful plan, became one of the soap industry’s more successful efforts to get their products into the hands of customers.

The soap coupon tokens I have are also rooted in an earlier type of token: the trade token. Trade tokens were issued by a business, municipality, organization, or other group as a sort of fiat currency. Regular customers could earn a trade token through repeat patronage, or as an encouragement to shop at an institution. They were often marked with the business’ name, and a value in money or product. These were truly tokens, not just coupons, made of metal and sized to be similar to other currencies of the time. People carried them around in their changepurse and used them as currency when applicable. Quite often they were good for fifty or twenty-five cents — a couple dollars in today’s money — at a general store or specialty shop, but you can easily compare a saloon providing trade tokens good for one drink to Coca-Cola’s coupon plan. Trade tokens lasted through the end of the nineteenth century, but slowly faded out at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Coupon tokens did survive in some corners well into the twentieth century, particularly if you remember Sambo’s coffee tokens or Country Kitchen coins. Those soap companies, who offered all sorts of freebies and offers in many different forms, found the greatest value in making coin-shaped coupon tokens. One benefit the soap companies found was that the metal tokens could be easily included in the packages of soaps, which often lived in wet places, without running the risk of damage that a paper coupon might encounter. The tokens also found their way into customers’ hands via mail, and their portability and resilience made them easily pocketable and carried about.

The Palmolive company and James S Kirk Co were the biggest producers of these coupon tokens, mostly during the 1920s. The tokens were often called “coupon checks”, because they had an actual monetary value to the retailer that accepted the coin. Retailers were welcome to accept the tokens if they chose, and could get a banner to show off their participation, but a review of old newspaper ads showed that the attempt to redeem tokens was so common that retailers who didn’t participate said so in their ads, to avoid having to refuse the tokens in the checkout line.

These coupon tokens were mostly aluminum, and some bronze, and they came in a variety of shapes and formats. Some were circles, like their money counterparts, but soap tokens could also be square, rectangle, octagonal, or oblong ovals. Most were on the large side, an inch or more in diameter, and many even had a hole in the middle. The wide variety of shapes and sizes makes for a collection as varied and interesting as any foreign coin collection, and the tokens are surprisingly common. This makes soap coupon tokens a cheap introduction into the art of exonumia, from an antique and unique perspective, without breaking the bank.

Watch Your Change

As the world adapts to converting money into bits and bytes that fly across the internet, about the only time I handle cash these days is when doing business.  Yesterday we paid cash to a walk-in selling a Tupperware bin full of costume jewelry at the antique mall, two weeks ago we were sellers at Elkhorn, and all summer we visited rummage sales.   As you may have noticed, I’m a fan of real money, specie and fiat alike, so I keep my eye out for interesting things.  A wheatstraw penny here, a 1950s nickel there, but interesting paper money is rare.  This summer, however, two passed through my wallet.

The first is a bill that’s absurdly unknown to most people even though they’re still printing new ones every couple years.  The ubiquitous $2 bill has confused Taco Bell cashiers for years, and rich people make them into notepads,  but cash register drawers these days don’t even have room for them.  When I was younger I coached chess for a gradeschool and the local chess association charged $3 entry for tournaments — thus, since everything higher than a dollar is multiples of fives, the chessmasters just got $2 bills for change and no singles at all.  The kids always looked at the bill in wonder, and a few parents wondered if they were even legal.  Or extraordinary valuable, since they seem so rare.   One rummage sale this summer gave me this, working on the same principle:

1976 two-dollar billAbout the most unique thing about this bill is that it’s a Series 1976, the first year the modern $2 bill was issued, but half a billion of them were printed at that time.  The proprietor of the rummage sale came up with the idea to give $2s as change was because it reduced the amount of bills to have to count out if she had fewer ones and a bunch of twos.  Makes sense to me!   I should have thought of that when I got change for Elkhorn; the wad of $1 bills gets ungainly by the end of the day.  Which brings me to the other neat bill I received.

I had sold a nice old lady something for $9, and she handed me a well-worn $10 bill.  I made change, but as I began to shove the $10 in with the others, something didn’t seem quite right about it:

At first glance, it could pass for any $10 bill up through the 1990s, but the “Will Pay To The Bearer On Demand” was a clue that I wasn’t looking at your everyday sawbuck.   On closer inspection:

Yup, that says 1934, almost eighty years young and it probably paid for something just about as old from our flea market antique booth.  In this condition, it’s really not worth much more than $10, which is fine by me.   I’d like to think that this old lady had a big roll of threadbare antique money in her purse, paying everybody with bills more than 50 years old.

My guess is that the 1934 bill didn’t actually start out in her pocket — a flea market the size of Elkhorn is a place where lots of money passes hands.  She probably had a stack of $20s from the ATM in her wallet, and she got the 1934 $10 bill in change from one dealer, who received it in a transaction from somebody who got it in change from another booth, and so on, all the way back to the one guy who didn’t notice it in a stack of $10 bills he got from his bank.  When cash starts passing between hands, it moves fast, so be sure to keep an eye on the money in your pockets: you might just find something cool one day.

Fargo’s Police Cars From The Past

I was driving through Downtown Fargo on August 2nd, on my way to drop something off for a client, and something shiny caught my eye. When I realized what it was, I hurriedly found place to park so I could go take a picture. This car was parked next to the Fargo Police Department’s offices, on 3rd avenue north:

This is a 1962 Chevrolet Biscayne, in police cruiser mode, decked out in full Fargo Police Department regalia. My first thought was that the car was some sort of promotional fun vehicle, made by the police department for public relations purposes, like Moorhead’s DARE Corvette, or to honor some anniversary. I checked the news to see if there was anything special going on that would require the presence of a vintage police car, but came up empty. So, I went to the source: I called the cops.

Deputy Chief Pat Claus is the man behind the wheel, but the special event this morning was nothing more than the installation of new tires. Claus explained that this patrol car is one of two that belong to the Law Enforcement Museum at Bonanzaville, and he was getting it ready for an appearance at Cruisin’ Broadway that night. He and his wife, Kim, also a police officer, take the car out for special events like Cruisin’ Broadway, West Fargo’s Night to Unite, the Battle of the Badges, and last Christmas they even delivered gifts — they are the “Claus” family, after all — as part of Random Acts of Christmas Cheer.

Both of the classic FPD cruisers are Chevrolet Biscaynes, the 1962 seen above and an also-restored 1967. The Biscayne was the low end of the Chevrolet line, with not quite as many bells-and-whistles as the similar Bel Air or Impala.  They were reliable and oriented towards the fleet market, which resulted in the Biscayne fulfilling the role of police car throughout the U.S. during the 1960s.

Claus’ cars did not belong to the Fargo police department, exactly: they were part of the Fargo Police Reserve, also known as the Fargo Auxiliary Police, a volunteer force trained in law enforcement who supplied their own equipment. The Reserve purchased the patrol cars for their duties, sometimes with a police officer riding along, patrolling the downtown Fargo area. Prior to urban renewal‘s messy reimagining of downtown in the 1970s, teens cruised Broadway in defiance of curfews and fights broke out in the bars along NP Avenue, giving the Reserve plenty to do. The Reserve was created in 1958, with their heydays during the 1960s, but by the 1970s there was some conflict between their duties and the regular police force, and by 1980 the choice was to revamp or eliminate the Reserve. Police Chief Anderson and Mayor Lindgren elected to disband.

The Fargo Police Auxiliary Association later packed up their garage, formerly located near the 7th avenue water tower, and moved it to Bonanzaville. It became the Law Enforcement Museum at Bonanzaville, a ‘museum in a museum’, according to Claus, operating somewhat independently,  with its own board of directors and with support from the Auxiliary Association and the Fraternal Order of Police. This is where the 1962 police cruiser sleeps most nights, in a part of the building that isn’t currently open to the public. The 1967 cruiser lives in underground parking downtown, and is the usual car Claus takes to public events because it’s easier to get to.

Although both cars are still largely in their original form — Claus said that, up until the police department went digital, even the two-way radios were still functional for police business — their age has required a little bit of restoration to stay in top shape. The cost of repairs has been covered through cooperation from the city, the museum, the Claus’ own contributions, and through the support of local businesses. Claus said that, when the 1967 car needed tires, Fargo Tire replaced them for free — and when he brought the 1962 car in today, he didn’t even have to ask; Fargo Tire replaced the tires pro bono. Claus refers to the cars as “ambassadors”, a friendly presence for connecting with the Fargo Police Department and the Law Enforcement Museum. He said that everyone loves seeing the old police car, and people who were around during the 1960s always have a story to tell about them. Claus joked, “but none of them have a story about themselves sitting in the back, of course.”

Ghost Signatures and Diamond Dealers

The front page of the Pittsburg Post-Gazette for Tuesday, August 3rd, 1920, brought a mysterious story:

Diamond Merchant’s Sudden Death Closes Pages In Famous ‘Ghost Book’

Chicago, Aug. 5 — The sudden death of Samuel T.A. Loftis, millionaire diamond dealer, after a night of wine and taxis, has closed the pages of a famous “Ghost Book,’ which Loftis has kept up for 14 years.

The book was found in the dead man’s apartment. It’s pages are of glazed paper, which, after being written on, were creased down the middle, causing the writing to blot in a freakish double smear.

Loftis, friends say, gave credence to the significance of “ghost signatures.”

This verse occupies the front page of the “Ghost Book”:

“Shadows form in our ghostly past; Ho! Ho! young man. Ho! Ho! From forgotten graves they will rise at last; It is so, young man, it is so. You may run, you may dodge, you may Twist, you may bend, The flying phantoms win in the end; Ho! Ho! old man, Ho! Ho!”

No further explanation of his death is given, not even why a photograph of his ex-wife was made part of the story.

The late Mr. Loftis held the distinction of inventing a new business model for diamond dealing: selling directly to the public on credit. Loftis Bros. and Company advertised in large metropolitan newspapers, offering low monthly payments for fine diamond jewelry. Owning diamonds was now within the reach of the burgeoning middle-class, but excessive debt was also one facet of the beginnings of the lending crisis that brought on the Great Depression. Loftis’ business was launched shortly after DeBeers began their campaign to push diamonds into the forefront; Loftis’ credit system helped make the diamond the de facto wedding ring stone for people of any income.

A “ghost signature” is produced just as described in the Loftis article. The process was much more effective in the days of fountain pens, with slow-drying India ink and a loose method of depositing the ink. The ‘glazed paper’ helped the process by preventing the ink from soaking in. The book was held sideways and the subject was encouraged to sign the book on half of a page, in their official hand and leaving as much ink as possible. The page was creased in the middle and the page folded back upon itself, creating a Rorschach-like inkblot, something for the mind to interpret in innumerable ways. Faces, bodies, animals, spirits, and monsters all appeared in the squished and smeared John Hancocks of the willing contributors to a Ghost Signature book.

As you might have guessed, the business model of preying on the turn-of-the-century middle-class with a promise of acquiring unaffordable luxury doesn’t spring from the minds of well-balanced, altruistic people. In June of 1907, Samuel Loftis suffered a gunshot wound and a split scalp…caused by his brother, Joseph Loftis — one of the “Loftis Bros.” on the masthead — during a business meeting. Samuel Loftis had read a motion to remove his brother as vice president due to unignorable indiscretions; the secretary of the company, Loftis’ wife, seconded the motion. One dissenting ‘nay’, from the soon-to-be-ousted vice-president, wasn’t enough to overturn the motion. Joseph Loftis was discharged from his position, and in return he emptied all six chambers of his revolver in Samuel Loftis’ direction and then leapt upon the wounded president with the intent of finishing the job by beating him with the butt of the revolver.

Samuel Loftis declined to press charges. Joseph was sent west and was the head of the Loftis Bros.’ Omaha office until Samuel’s death.

In 1910, Clifford Loftis, the other member of the “Bros.”, was arrested, but acquitted, in the murder of Joseph Lafferty in Bakersfield, California.  Lafferty had stopped Clifford from beating a horse, which resulted in a fistfight.  Clifford wasn’t satisfied with the result and brought a gun along to renew the discussion the next day.  The New York Times reported that Clifford, a cowhand at the time, had been sent west and left out of the diamond business “to get him away from the temptations of city life.”

Mark Twain wrote that the “last fad is ‘ghost – autographs.’ You write your name down the crease, then fold & press the paper while the ink is still wet & will blot. It generally makes something resembling a skeleton.” He had made one of his own in 1905 and sent it off to his daughter, Clara. The “fad” enjoyed a brief popularity at a time when autograph books were becoming passe. From the mid 19th century until the early 20th it was a friendly gesture to exchange or collect signatures in a little autograph book as a memento of friendships and other events. The mid-19th century also brought the fun artwork of “klecksographie,” popularized by the poet and artist Justinus Kerner. The “ghost signature” overlap of inkblot art and autograph exchanges wasn’t a lasting fad, but it held enough attraction to spawn custom hardbound books designed specifically for making ghost signatures, like the one owned by Samuel Loftis. At the height of the fad, around 1909, ghost autographs were solicited from presidents, dukes and dutchesses, and other celebrities.

In 1909, Samuel Loftis and his wife, Harmon — the company secretary — dissolved their marriage in a fit of hostility. Harmon cited abuse and neglect, stemming from Samuel publicly striking Harmon in the face at at the South Shore Country Club ballroom. Samuel responded by charging his wife with drunkenness and infidelity. The divorce was granted in 1912, and Harmon moved to California with a $125,000 check in her pocketbook.

Samuel T. A. Loftis

Samuel, free of the shackles of marriage, set himself on a path marked by wine, women, and song, and his multi-million-dollar diamond business allowed him to afford all the indiscretions his heart desired. The housekeeper of his Chicago apartment described dozens of women coming and going over the months he resided in the apartment, which would prove to be his final residence. On August 30th, 1920, a drunk Samuel Loftis brought a girl to his apartment, Miss Ruth Woods, the fiancee of a business partner. By the end of the night, the fiancee, furrier Roy Shayne, was at the apartment, and Loftis was dead from a blow to the head. Woods claims she called Shayne for help after Loftis fell and hit his head on the floor. The story the police believed was that Loftis had attempted to ravage Miss Woods by force; she summoned Shayne for assistance, and a liquor bottle to the head ended Loftis’ conquest. An inquest was held, both Woods and Shayne were questioned, and when the inquest ended on August 4th the death was ruled accidental, due to a fall. On August 8th, ten days after Loftis’ death, Shayne and Woods were married in Milwaukee, after receiving a special dispensation to waive the five-day waiting period on Wisconsin marriage licenses.

The original, complete wire story about Loftis’ death included many more details of Woods’ and Shayne’s testimonies, and more information about Loftis’ life. Whether due to sloppy editing or a taste for the bizarre, most newspapers cropped the story down to end just where my quote above finishes: Loftis died, and he had a book of ghost signatures. The sensationalism of the reporter who composed the original wire story appears to have attempted to tie together the reckless life of the Loftis clan to the occultism of the 1920s, and to start a much longer story with an attention-getting zinger. Reporters visited crime scenes, and the book probably caught the eye of a beat reporter looking for something interesting to punch up the article.  Loftis was probably just hip to the fads of the time, and used it as a conversation piece, collecting the autographs of friends and marveling at the mysterious shapes. Loftis’ actual life was far more sinister than the so-called “ghost book” of the news reports.

The poem the newspaper quoted from the forward of Loftis’ ghost book helps identify his book as The Ghosts of My Friends, the most common of the preprinted spirit autograph books from the first decade of the 20th century. The poem is by Gerald Villiers-Stuart, and appeared in his book The Soul of Croesus. Ghosts is attributed to Cecil Henland, who had made a name for herself by producing other books of the same format, with some front material and then blank pages for the purchaser to fill in, and in founding the National Society of Day-Nurseries. Henland married Lieut. Col. Arthur Percival at age 38 in 1907, but was widowed in World War I. Heland’s next most popular book was The Christmas Book, which included blank pages for people to write their wish-lists, and additional pages laid out to record the celebrations and events of the Christmas season.

The Ghosts of My Friends is somewhat common in online stores and websites, with the price varying quite wildly, but mostly sells for around $40. In 2009, a copy belonging to Fred Astaire, or someone in his family, was placed for auction and sold for several hundred dollars. Your Hidden Skeleton is less common and tends to bring a little higher price. People who own copies of either book tend to be rather proud of their ghost signatures, frequently posting samples online. If you’d like to make one of your own but without damaging an antique book, there is a company producing ghost autograph books similar to Cecil Henland’s, which can be purchased from Reflections of My Friends.

 

An Imp For A Centime

Many of my literary tastes were forged in an 8th grade English literature class. I find myself going back to many of those short stories, fond memories of classic and modern literature in little bits with some analysis and language learning involved. One particular tale blew my mind, and planted a seed that has lasted decades — regarding international money systems. I know, I tend to grab on to the boring parts, but bear with me a bit, here.

The story is The Bottle Imp, a short horror-thriller by Robert Louis Stevenson. Keawe, the main character, buys a ‘genie in a bottle,’ so to speak: a bottle imp, a trapped magical being who grants wishes, but with the trope of there being tragedy in the reward. One of the rules of the bottle imp is if you die with it in your posession, your soul is lost. The only way to part with the imp is to sell it, in coin, for less than it was purchased for. Its original purchase was an immeasurable fortune; by the time Keawe gets it, the price is down to $50. Through the story, the price drops and drops, a game of hot potato with the immortal soul as its prize, until Keawe buys back the bottle for a penny.

Here’s the twist: Keawe learns that there are French Polynesian coins worth less than a penny. A centime, he hears, is worth a fifth of a cent, so the hot-potato game goes on until an unlucky sailor ends up with the imp for a single centime, and resigns himself to Hell with nary a complaint.

I believe my teacher explained the centime like a pre-decimal British half-penny, part of a monetary system with many more subdivisions than the U.S. dollar, but she was incorrect: just as there are a hundred pennies to a dollar, there are a hundred centimes in a franc. The truth has more to do with my last article. Keawe exploits the difference in value of international currencies — let’s do the math here. If you’ll remember, the Stella was set at $4 because 20 francs was worth about $3.92. That makes a franc worth about nineteen-and-a-half cents. So, you divide a franc into a hundred parts, and what do you get? Each centime is worth slightly under a fifth of a penny, just as Keawe discovers.

So, you have to give Robert Louis Stevenson a bit of credit for defeating an ancient horror through the vagaries of international currency conversion. Once Keawe is down to a penny, he sells the imp for five centimes — which doesn’t break the rules, because five centimes is ever so slightly less than a U.S. penny in value. Unable to break the currency down even further, and with an odd number of transactions to be made, Keawe is guaranteed to end with a single centime in his pocket and the bottle in the hands of another.

If you want an idea of just how worthless the centime was, fast-forward to 1960 and the introduction of the “new franc”. The nouveau franc was worth 100 of the deprecated franc, making the pre-1960 centime worth 1/100th of a new centime. By the time the 1980s rolled around, even the new centime was removed from circulation due to further devaluation making the coin useless. That centime was worth 0.15 of a eurocent at the time of conversion, or even less than the centime-to-penny conversion of the late 19th century.

If you held on to your centimes since the 1890s, you’d actually make a tidy profit in the collector’s market. 19th century centimes sell for a few dollars at sites like eBay, and are less common than the ten- or fifty-centime coins of the early 20th century. The progressive devaluation of the franc from the late 19th century into the mid-20th century resulted in a variety of changes in designs and metal content, making for a much more interesting collection compared to a complete set of U.S. pennies or quarter-dollars of the same time period. Just make sure you keep a handful of centimes handy: you never know when your eternal soul might be on the line in your international currency exchanges.

Stella?!? STELLA!

This Friday, Stack’s Bowers Galleries will be selling a rare gold coin that invites a strong Stanley Kowalski imitation to say its name. The “Stella” was a ‘pattern coin’, a sample design minted in its intended form for the purpose of evaluating its monetary usage. The Stella came out in 1879, in the unusual $4 denomination, as a hope of improving international commerce.

Through the 19th century, currency had been slowly evolving from being valued by a coin’s weight in precious metals, to simply the denomination stamped on the front. Coins were still made of precious metals, of course, but as the ease of international travel shrunk the world, the wide variety of international currencies made it difficult to take your U.S. gold coins with to Europe and trust an easy or reliable exchange into the local funds.

The time was also one of other changes. The Metric Act of 1866 authorized the metric system as a legal system of measurement for transactions in the U.S., following the lead of many European countries. Ounces, rather than grams, were still how American money was measured, complicating things. About that same time, European countries were attempting to standardize their currencies in the proto-Euro Latin Monetary Union. Each country’s coins were close, but not quite a even trade, and some were silver, some gold, so the hopes were that a single common currency could help facilitate inter-country transactions.

The U.S. hoped to get in the game as well, by producing its own coins that overlap with the standardized European money. Through the 1860s and 1870s, a few varieties of coins were proposed, but in the mid 1870s Iowan John A Kasson, one of the promoters of the Metric Act of 1866, found a reasonable overlap between a European coin and the American dollar. The eight florin Austrian gold coin, the equivalent of twenty francs, was just under $4 U.S. in value. Kasson’s plan was to mint a $4 coin, whose value in precious metals would be listed on the coin’s face in metric weight, for the purpose of international trade.

Two designs were made of the Stella: a “flowing hair” version, like the one in the Stack’s Bowers auction, and the “coiled hair” design, which is rarer. The “flowing hair” Stella was designed by mint artist Charles E. Barber; the “coiled” by George T. Morgan. Both designs were quite similar, and both shared the same reverse. The reverse design is what gives the coin its name: the center of the coin is filled with a large star — a “stella” — thus giving the coin a casual name, like the “eagle” gold coins which came as portions of $10.  Being worth $4 means it could be divided in fourths into smaller denominations, like a dollar and the $10 gold eagle were.

The Stella started out as a small mint run to show the size and weight of the coin to the officials who would evaluate approving the coin. The Stella never made it into production, in either design, but as was the custom of the time it was possible to request the U.S. Mint to produce pretty much any design it had dies for, for the cost of precious metals and seignorage. The Flowing Hair Stella was used to produce about another four hundred coins at the request of various politicians, and those are the most commonly seen Stellas today.

Identifying the difference between the pattern Stellas and the collectible-run Stellas is difficult for the non-expert, but there are a few clues. The pattern Stellas are much more exact in weight, and are of a much higher quality striking than the second run of coins. The second run coins vary in weight a bit, and many have some visible striations, a ‘grain’ in the metal, left from the manufacturing process of the original planchette that was struck. The Flowing Hair Stellas also often have a bit more wear, because they were passed around by the politicians who purchased them (and legend has it that many of the coins found their way into the jewelry boxes of D.C. madames). The Stack’s Bowers coin is of very high quality, but they do not specifically say whether it was one of the original pattern strikes or a later minting.