Fashion & Sewing Pattern History, Part One

While sewing itself dates back thousands of years, to the Paleolithic period, patterns for making clothing are a much more modern invention.

The earliest known fashion patterns, dating to ancient Egypt, were relatively simple guide templates cut from slate. (Similar slate guides, presumed to the products of trade, have also been found in ancient Roman catacombs.) However, for the most part early human history, clothing was primarily constructed from rectangular shaped pieces of uncut woven fabric. The fabric, so labor intensive to produce and therefore costly to purchase, was primarily left intact to minimize waste. At this time, the wearer was almost always the maker of his own clothes. The cloth itself, not the shape or design of the garment, was the distinguishing feature.

13 century fashions

However, by the year 1297 the first reference to the word “tailor” is used in Europe. This would indicate that pattern making must have begun at some point prior, as tailoring involves the acts (or arts) of cutting and sewing cloth — the two basic aspects of constructing clothing from a pattern. Also in the 13th century, a French tailor attempted to make patterns from thin pieces of wood. However, this tailor’s invention was thwarted by the powerful Tailor’s Guild whose members feared such an invention would put them out of business.

early fashions

According to Principles of Flat Pattern Design by Nora MacDonald, the real art of pattern making wouldn’t begin until the 15th century. This is the result of two pivotal historical moments: the Renaissance, and the movement’s desire to dress to accentuate the human form, and Gutenberg’s printing press. The former meant that carefully engineered pieces of fabric were cut to form clothing which would contour to the body. The latter meant that images of clothing designs could be more widely disseminated. So, now when the wealthy had their new form-fitting frocks, the little people could all see images of them — even if they had never been to the big cities, let alone court. As countries grew in power (first Italy, then Spain and France), so they influenced others. And what they were wearing was a large part of that influence. Fashion was truly born.

The fashions of these times continued to be made by tailors. The process was elaborate, with tailors working with each client’s to take their individual measurements to customize and even create patterns. Such highly revered skills meant that the services of tailors were relegated only to the very rich. This continued to be the case through the Industrial Revolution.

Godey's Philadelphia Fashions July-1833

For those who could not afford a tailor of their own, staying fashionable was laborious. While the publications of the day (such as Godey’s Lady’s Book & Magazine, The Young Ladies Journal, and Peterson’s Ladies National Magazine), depicted the latest fashion designs, the accompanying text was more like a flowery description than a set of step-by-step instructions. Your average household, relying upon the lady of the house and her daughter(s) to make the clothing, struggled to make use of the fashion lithographs provided. Rarely were diagrams provided; and no measurements were given. Even when one was talented enough to make the required calculations, all the sewing was done by hand — and the sewing was typically done after more vital and immediate work was performed. By the time your dress was finished, it really could be out of fashion.

The Industrial Revolution brought along a host of advances which greatly increased the standard of living for “the masses”.  This included less expensive textiles and an even greater desire for fashions — naturally spurring advances in the fashion industry. As we reach the early 19th century, clothing pattern history closely parallels domestic sewing machine history.

To Be Continued

Meet Me Down by Schuster’s (Vintage Department Store Memories & Collectibles)

Like many people, my first jobs were in retail. It was work I actually loved; but retail doesn’t pay enough to support a family, so I left it & got a college degree. Years later, I still consider myself to be a “retail brat” — and so I collect vintage retail store items. Like most collectors, I tend to focus on the names that mean something to me. For me, these are the department stores of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Vintage Milwaukee Department Store Collectibles: Boston Store Cloth Patch, Schuster's Stamp Book, Gimbles * Schuster's Hat Box
Vintage Milwaukee Department Store Collectibles: Boston Store Cloth Patch, Schuster’s Stamp Book, Gimbles * Schuster’s Hat Box

A recent score was a Schuster Stamp Book. This vintage ephemera piece from the Ed. Schuster & Co. department store, founded by German immigrant Edward Schuster in 1884, may not look like much. But as an early department store chain in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it is near to my heart.

Vintage Schuster Stamp Book
Vintage Schuster Stamp Book

I myself never worked at or even shopped at a Schuster’s store. Schuster’s merged with another Milwaukee department store, Gimbels, two years before I was born. In effect, that act in 1962 was a Gimbels buyout of Schusters — and the resulting joint “Gimbels Schusters” name was very short-lived indeed. I never quite worked for Gimbels either; however, I did work at the Southridge Mall Gimbels location just after it became a Marshall Field’s store (at the prestigious Estee Lauder counter) which, in but a blink of a glamorous eyelash, quickly became an H.C. Pranges and, just a few more years later, Younkers stores. But even though I have no real personal memories of Schuster’s, I have the shared collective memories of the store.

Growing up, every adult referenced the both Schuster’s (and Gimbels). It wasn’t just that they referred to buildings and locations once occupied by these earlier retailers (you know, in that way people habitually call new companies and buildings by the former names and occupants), but their advertising campaigns were iconic. For example, anyone my parents’ age or older still feels that special holiday magic at the mere mention of Billie the Brownie.

Billie the Brownie was a Christmas character that Schuster’s Department Store introduced in 1927 to promote their annual Christmas Parade in downtown Milwaukee. Billie, Santa’s favorite elf, went on to delight children in radio shows, motivate parents, and, of course, sell products via ads — until 1955, when a Billie the Brownie doll failed to sell in Milwaukee stores. Billie’s last radio show aired on Christmas Eve 1955. But he continues to live on in the hearts of many a Milwaukee Baby Boomer today! (FYI, in his final broadcast, Billie makes reference to “Sandman”, and according to this site, Billie, true to his German roots, went on to live another life in East Germany the following year.)

But enough about Billie. As charming as he is, he does not appear in my vintage Schuster’s stamp book.

What does appear in the pages of this old book is far more fascinating to me. But before we get into that, it would be helpful for you to know a little bit more about Schuster’s history. Especially in terms of store, trade, or trading stamps which were used as a rewards or loyalty program.

For those of you who think that S&H Green Stamps (aka Green Shield Stamps) were the first trading stamps, it may surprise you to know that the S & H (Sperry & Hutchinson) stamps began in 1896 — five years after Schuster’s stamps. In fact, Ed. Schuster & Co., Inc., is credited with founding trade stamps in the Unites States. The program, which began in 1891, ran for 68 years (until 1959, just before merger talks with Gimbles).

Now for the fascinating part.

Stamped rather sloppily inside the the front cover it reads “Valuable Schuster Stamps will be issued on Price-Fixed Merchandise if Chapter 52 is finally determined invalid.”

Not knowing anything about “Chapter 52”, I wanted to research it — but knew having some date or time period would be helpful. So it was time to try to date the old stamp booklet.

While the covers are rather fancy (a deep red or burgundy, with black & white flourishes, in a matte finish), the paper pages on the inside are quite tanned, old & brittle — as in “cheap paper.” Each page of the book as rectangles for the stamps to be placed, surrounding a center illustrated advertisement for Schuster products. On the back, there is a stock code, “I-39”, which leads me to believe it dates to 1939. While there are no Schuster’s stamps inside (bummer), there are clumsily-placed Easter Seals (for Christmas, 1940) which seem to be the work of a child. The date of those stamps make me more inclined to believe that this booklet dates to 1939 – 1940; but who can tell? I mean, a child could have found this old stamp booklet in the same junk drawer as the old seals and put them together in 1960 — or even later.

Inside Vintage Schuster's Department Store Booklet
Inside Vintage Schuster’s Department Store Booklet

So what’s an obsessive collector to do?

Stumbling about the Internet, I was delighted to discover that there was a book about the department store! Of course, it has to share billing with Gimbles, but… Well, at least a book exists! Schuster’s and Gimbels: Milwaukee’s Beloved Department Stores is by Paul Geenen — and since the book has a website, I reached out to the author, telling him, “I have no idea what this ‘Chapter 52’ is… I know a bit of the early history of Schuster’s and stamps (which is why I was so thrilled to have found this!), but I have no idea what this ‘Chapter 52’ is or when it occurred.” Could he, would he, help?

Yes!

Mr. Geenen replied:

I found a very similar coupon book at the Milwaukee Historical Society when I was doing the research for my book, Deanna. You have one of the few around.

I believe that the book you have was issued and filled with stamps during WWII, when there was strict price fixing. Stores were not allowed to raise prices and were restricted in using the word” sale” when they advertised.

I don’t know what Chapter 52 is for sure, but by the language it appears that Chapter 52 was the fixed price legislation. So what they were saying is that Schusters stamps would be issued if the item was not on the price fixed list.

Issuing the stamps was like putting an item on sale and during the war putting an item on sale was discouraged as it would encourage people to hoard.

How exciting to know what I have is rather rare! And now, thanks to Mr. Geenen, I have more pieces to the story!

I haven’t quite closed the book on this bit of Schuster’s history. But I’ve put a (metaphoric) pin in the Schuster’s Stamp Savings Story for now. …A collector is never quite finished.

PS The title of this post is from (one of the variations of) the old Milwaukee saying, “Down by Schuster’s, where the streetcar bends the corner around”, which lives on as proof of Schuster’s duration.

All images are copyright Deanna Dahlsad; you may use with proper credits — including a link to this article.

Back of Milwaukee Department Store Book
Back of Milwaukee Department Store Book

The Black, White and Shades of Grey in Collecting Black Americana

According to Howard Dodson, director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, “There are two kinds of collectors of black Americana: those who are interested in collecting as a financial investment and those with a passion for finding ‘the missing pages of history.’”

 

…There is also some concern that part of the drive in purchasing black Americana is pimpin’ black culture.: that this adoption of old images and negative stereotypes is being glamorized in a perverse way. Like hip-hop’s bad ‘rap’ (pun intended), collecting black Americana is sweeping the nation in a concerning way.

 

Deanna Dahlsad‘s insight:

As a white chick, I don’t dare collect this stuff — even if I, as a collector of similar negative sterotypical items about women, understand the desire to document the horrible past.

See on www.collectorsquest.com

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.

The History Of Handwritten Letters

Many people I know who collect letters and other ephemera bemoan the lost art of letter writing, so I thought they (and you!) might like to see this History of Handwritten Letters infographic and see what other related lost arts there are. *wink* (You can click the image to more easily read the information on the image.)

14 Things This Collector Is Thankful For

Traditionally Thanksgiving involves giving thanks for family, friends, food and other blessings of a non-materialistic nature. I’ll be giving that little speech later today with family, don’t you worry about that; but this holiday I want to give special thanks from the bottom of my little collector heart.

#1 “Thanks, ancestors, for settling here.” And by ‘settled’ I mean just that, setting up permanent houses. No offense to the more nomadic peoples, but I’m a collector; I need a place to store my stuff.

#2 “Thanks to all the people who don’t throw things out.” If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be able to find and adopt them.

#3 “Thanks, mom and dad, for instilling in me the love of collecting.” You taught me many joys of collecting… the rush of finding, the thrill of bidding victory, the coolness of displaying it all… But more than object ownership & the pursuit of it, you taught me what objects & collecting really is about.

Objects were never ‘just things’, but stories, lessons, and connections. You taught me that everything has/had a purpose. It was made to solve a problem, to express an emotion, or was in some way a part of a larger story. That story may be personal or part of the collective human story — sometimes, the story begins as one and ends as another. You didn’t just share your stories & knowledge, but did so with enthusiasm. And you encouraged us to share our own stories about what we learned, which in turn encouraged us to become lovers of learning.

These lessons in history, culture, art, form & function were all valuable — but none more valuable than the time spent with you. May I have the brains and patience to convert the passion for stuff into such gifts for my children.

#4 “Thanks, mom and dad, for teaching me how to collect.” The lessons here were many… Simple money management skills, for example, have served me well. But learning how to evaluate and establish the value of something has impacted my life the most.

Value is isn’t always what you think it is. It’s not just the price you pay for it, and it may be something no two people will ever agree upon either. Yet when it comes to monetary value, this can only be determined when people agree upon it. So if you don’t agree with the price suggested, negotiate.

Lessons in negotiations taught me, even as a child, how to walk up to anyone with confidence and talk about anything — and how, when things weren’t going my way, to walk away politely without any upset. I’d done my best, but it just wasn’t going to work out this time. Everyone should learn that lesson.

If & when you agree to a value and pay it, no matter what that amount is, you should treat that item with great care. The true value of that object is what made you want it in the first place, and, whatever price you paid, that was money you worked hard to earn. Dismissing these intrinsic values in the object does more than dishonor the object now entrusted to your care, but shows disrespect for yourself. It’s not that the guy with the bigger pile wins; but rather it’s the girl with the most integrity, who takes care of her things and show value for herself, who does.

#5 “Thanks, mom and dad, for teaching me what collecting is — and what it isn’t. Things are not more important than people, but objects can be a link to the people in our personal pasts and long-gone members in our family tree. As we hand traditions and stories down, the original objects themselves are the tangible proof of who walked and loved among us, as well as those who walked before us.

That said, no one should ever love an object so much that they are willing to sacrifice a family member or family peace over it. People first, things second.

#6 “Thanks, teachers, for instructing me how to take an interest and turn it into an obsession.” Without the research skills you taught me, I never would have known how to sate my curiosity. Nor would I have learned that research may in fact only lead to more questions, more research, and that this too is a form of joy; the delight of discovery & the thrill of yet another new adventure are awesome things.

Of course, this would not have been possible if it weren’t for those who taught me not only to read but to love reading. (My book collection, especially thanks you.)

Ditto those who taught me to write. I may have cursed dangling participles, hated your red pen, but without you, my obsession & research would have no outlet.

#7 “Thanks to my dogs for not chewing on or otherwise destroying items and boxes left on the floor when we unload the van after a trip to an auction.” It means I have some time to make room for them all.

#8 “Thanks to my cat for reminding me that the boxes have sat there too long by sitting on top of the most visible box.” It reminds me the things in the boxes need better care, so I’d better find more safe and permanent storage for them.

#9 “Thanks to the guy who invented boxes.” It would truly suck if I didn’t have strong, stackable containers to carry things home and store them in.

#10 “Thanks, museums & their staff, for housing & caring for what I cannot.” Everybody has limits — even museums. But without you, where would things, large and small, go and be preserved? Thanks for doing all that you can so that these objects and their stories will be there for others when they desire to see and learn about them.

(And you make research that much easier too.)

#11 “Thanks, again, to all the people who don’t throw things out.” It bears repeating, because without you, what would I do?!

#12 “Thanks, hubby & kids, for not just putting up with me — but for collecting with me.” I love that we all go on collecting adventures together, and that we share our finds, discoveries, and stories. I love that you listen to mine (and review games with me on occasion), of course, but it’s not every mother, every wife, who is lucky enough to be the goal of a footrace as every one rushes to tell her what they found, how they found it, and why it’s so special.

Every time we talk about our things, asking questions — and listening to the answers, I think how lucky I am to have a close family comprised of such inquisitive & interesting people. It’s a privilege to collect with you.

#13 “Thanks, makers of the Internet, for creating a new world.” Without the Internet, my collecting world would be so much smaller… Smaller in terms of finding, buying, selling, researching, and meeting other folks as obsessed as I. It’s nifty to know that there are other nuts like me — folks even nuttier than me — ‘out there somewhere’; but it’s hard to put into words just how keen it is to meet these fellow-nuts, see their glorious stuff, and learn their stories.

#14 “A special thanks to you, dear reader.” Your reading, comments, and emails are proof that I’m not alone in my obsession… The objects of our affections may differ (delightfully!), but we are all a part of the same thing. It’s a privilege to collect with you, too.

Of Revolutionary War Items & Revolutionary Bidding

In Philadelphia, PA, Freeman’s auction house reports that “one great history lover” was dedicated to procuring every single item in yesterday’s Historic Muhlenberg Property from a Private Collection auction. The private collector, who wished to remain anonymous, was successful — spending $646,063 to ensure the entire collection would remain together and be added their own private collection of Revolutionary War materials.

This auction contained items from the Muhlenberg family, having descended through the family, which included an extensive archive representing the public and sometimes private lives of Pennsylvania’s leading German family from the period of the American Revolution through the Civil War.

The collection’s signature piece was The Grand Division of Color of the Eighth Virginia, a Regimental flag which descended in the family of the Regiment’s original commander, Peter Muhlenberg (1746-1807), the legendary “Fighting Parson”, who served in the Continental Army, as Colonel., Brigadier-General and finally as a Major-General. (His robe was featured on PBS’s History Detectives.)

The flag, which sold for $422,500, is cited in the 1849 biography, The Life of Major-General Peter Muhlenberg of the Revolutionary Army by descendant Henry Augustus Muhlenberg. (Henry Augustus Muhlenberg was the son of Henry Augustus Philip Muhlenberg and grandson of Henry Muhlenberg Jr. (1753-1815), General Peter’s brother.) The flag’s description reads as follows on pages 338-339:

The Eighth Virginia Regiment was generally known as the ‘German Regiment.’ By that name it is designated in the Orderly books of Generals Washington and Muhlenberg during the campaigns of 1777, 1778 and 1779….The regimental colour of this corps is still in the writer’s possession. It is made of plain salmon-coloured silk, with a broad fringe of the same, having a simple white scroll in the centre, upon which are inscribed the words, “VIII Virg(a) Reg(t)

Samuel M. “Beau” Freeman II, Freeman’s Chairman and specialist in Americana said, “Revolutionary battle flags are rare and those in private hands are almost unknown or only fragments have survived–this is an extraordinary discovery. Muhlenberg is a legendary hero of the Continental Army and this flag represents his Virginia regiment. This flag pre-dates the Tarleton Colors and may be the last remaining battle flag in private hands.”

Among the lots were hundreds of letters, including historical content concerning the political affairs of U.S. Congressman and diplomat Henry Augustus Phillip Muhlenberg, General Muhlenberg’s letters to his brothers about his military role, several letters from sitting presidents, and a document signed by Benjamin Franklin.

Called “especially illuminating” was the General Order and Brigade Order Book, kept by General Peter Muhlenberg’s orderly from May through November, 1777, a period that encompasses the battles of Brandywine and Germantown. That book set an auction record when it sold for $98,500.

As for the pieces from the Muhlenberg collection remaining together, Lisa Minardi, author of Pastors & Patriots: The Muhlenberg Family of Pennsylvania, Assistant Curator at Winterthur, and the president of The Speaker’s House (a preservation group that overseeing the restoration of Frederick Muhlenberg’s home), said it best. “This collector is my hero! It’s amazing that these items descended in the family and are now staying together in a single collection.”

Antique Odd Fellows: Native American Peace Medal On IOOF Collar

At a recent auction, we purchased a few Native American items from the former museum in Two Harbors, MN. Among them, this seemingly unusual combination: A Native American Peace Medal on an Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) collar.

This was not the only set; there were a total of three of these collar/medal sets. While one doesn’t normally think of Native Americans as Odd Fellows members, apparently it was a popular custom item in this area, anyway,  for Native Americans to wear and display all honors.

The IOOF collar is beautiful in and of itself, with it’s decorated red velvet trimmed in twisted-metal fringe and tassels (one tassel is missing). The collar is secured by three oval chain links. The shape and materials date the fraternal cerimonial collar to the end of the 19th century. But the medal which hangs from the collar’s links is even more rare than the collar.

The medal is an Indian Peace Medals, presentation pieces to Native American or Indian chiefs as a sign of friendship. The series began as an idea in 1786, but were first produced during President Jefferson’s administration in 1801, with Jefferson Peace Medals designed and created by John Reich. Because the medals were given to significant members of tribal parties, the medals became sought after symbols of power and influence within Native American tribes and are commonly seen in Native American portraiture.

Most of the genuine Indian Peace medals awarded by the U.S. Government were made in silver and were issued holed or looped at the top, so the medal could easily be worn. (If a medal is not holed, and shows no sign of being looped, it is most likely a modern copy.) However, the Peace Medals were also struck in other metals, including copper. Starting around 1860, some of these were struck from the same or similar dies, for collectors. These copper pieces are known as “bronzed copper” because they do not look like copper coins. But given the popularity of the medals and the respect they conveyed, the Native Americans and traders also made or commissioned copies, in copper or silver-plated copper, of the Peace Medals too. These pieces are still over a hundred years old, yet even when produced by the US Mint, these medals are not considered “originals” as they were not awarded by the U.S. Government.

This specific Peace Medal is a John Adams Peace Medal, but it was designed and struck after Adams’ presidency. This medal does not appear to be silver, but, based on dimensions and weight, pewter. According to the Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Volume 1, edited by Frederick Webb Hodge (1907), a few of the Adams Peace Medals were struck in “soft metal” and these are “exceedingly rare.”

Our Peace Medal also appears to be the first design issued, as later variations do not have the fabric drape about the bust of the president, nor the year centered beneath the bust. The president’s bust on the obverse was designed by Moritz Furst, but the reverse is the same one the Jefferson medals. (This back design was used until the Millard Fillmore medals in 1850, when the reverse was changed. The reverse was changed again in 1862, during the Lincoln administration.) Interestingly, the Adams Peace Medal with the 1797 date was made later.

I’ve made some inquiries regarding this antique set and will update you as I learn more. Meanwhile, the set is in our case at Exit 55 Antiques.

UPDATE: In trying to find definitive information on this peace medal, I made multiple calls to auction houses and, per their recommendations, to companies which grade coins and other medals. Few seemed to know what I knew, or were willing to divulge what they did know about Native American Peace Medals. So I continued my research and then made a call to Rich Hartzog of AAA Historical Americana, World Exonumia. Rich seems to truly be one of the few people who knows — really knows — about Native American Peace Medals. I’d call him an expert.

During a phone conversation, Rich confirmed the “soft medal” version of this medal, but ours does not seem to be one of those. He clarified regarding the copper medals; while made for collectors, they are considered original peace medals — but are not presentation pieces given to chiefs and other leaders. And, finally, we determined that our peace medal is likely a more modern copy. It wasn’t just that the medal is made of pewter, but the fact that the medal is attached to the IOOF collar or baldric. Seems roughly five or six years ago someone began setting the copies of peace medals on these collars. Such medals still have a modest value; Rich says roughly $20-$40, compared to the hundreds and thousands of dollars originals bring.

While this may be a disappointment to hubby and I, I have learned a lot about peace medals — and learning is a huge part of why I love this business. I don’t mind admitting that I’m unsure of what I’ve found. In fact, I love researching, including asking people who specialize and know more than I do.

(Another) Back To School Primer On Collecting Vintage Children’s School Books

It’s that time of year again, when children head back to school. While parents feel that special mixture of worry and relief, many children head back to school with a groan. But school must not be all that bad — or why else would so many adults collect vintage school books?

Of course, like any collection, a collector may begin collecting the books they had as a child but find themselves adding editions that came before (and after) the versions they were assigned… Adding more books by the same author, publisher, illustrator… And there are other books besides primers and reading books. Every school subject had its texts. There are books on geography, math, science, sociology — even text books for adult learners on accounting, typing, welding, etc. Every one of those niches has its collectors, whether they are collecting to preserve memories or the history of an occupation or industry. Literally not sticking to the subject is one way to amass great shelves full of old school books.

Some collectors primarily collect, or begin collecting, the old children’s school books for the illustrations, photographs, and images inside. For many collectors, it is the pretty pictures which they fondly remember and seek. As many illustrators of children’s books had prominent careers, with their works seen outside of school walls (and homework at the kitchen table), some collectors end up with vintage readers etc. simply collecting the careers of their favorite illustrators. Others just find old images fascinating; after all, old pictures are still worth a thousand historical (and sometime hysterical) words.

As you can see from the history of Dick and Jane books, there’s more then mere nostalgia involved in collecting antique and vintage school books.  Not in spite of — but because of — old or outdated information, assumptions, and omissions old school books document the history of educational movements and culture in general.

Of course, primers existed long before Dick and Jane, or even the two Williams (Gray and Elson) themselves. The history of primers, of literacy itself, has links to the history of the Bible and the Reformation. FromThe English Primers, 1529-1545, by Charles C. Butterworth:

The name itself was given by the people of England, as early as the fourteenth century, to what was known in Latin as the Book of Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Compiled from materials used in church and monastery, the Primer was intended specially for the laity, to guide the devout layman in his private daily devotions or to help him bear his part in the services of the Church.

…It is supposed by some that the name Primer was derived from Prime, the first of the Hours. But most authorities believe that from the start the name was applied to what was naturally regarded in many households as their first book (liber primarius), either because it was in such constant service or, more likely, because it was useful in learning to read, especially in Latin. No evidence at hand is of sufficient antiquity to settle the question.

As time passed, we can thank (or blame) primers and their instruction of children and adults for the loss of Latin as a primary language and for the empowerment of the everyday person in general. These old school books educate us about more than issues and movements of religion, slavery, city life in an Industrial Age, prohibition, etc., but about the treatment of the people living through them. Depictions, descriptions, and even omissions tell the story of how we once treated women, children, the physically and mentally handicapped, the aging, native peoples, the poor, and even wealthy white men. Through these old educational books, we see the the documented history of how people were treated — and just when society demanded that we treat them better. These books are the documentation of our societal values, of our tolerance and intolerance.

Along with nostalgic collectors, scholars, and historians, many parents today are buying vintage school books and primers to use with homeschooling and helping assist their children with learning. (Since the way we instruct our children in the classroom has changed over the years, some older books are actually sought for teaching those with special needs; it’s another way to try to reach and teach.) This increases the competition for primers, readers, math books, and other books for which the information is not dated.

When selecting a book to add to your collection, condition is always an issue. Children’s books always have condition issues. Along with underlined text, attempts to solve problems, and the doodles of a bored or distracted student, many primers and texts were passed down to the next child in the family or to new students at the start of a new year. Passing through so many hands means more wear and tear. Along with more smudges, dog-eared pages, rubbed corners, and even notes from one child to the next child assigned the book, there’s the greater likelihood of torn and missing pages, fatigued or spent bindings, and lost covers. School copies, even teacher editions, will have stamps and official markings; though typically less than library copies.

Expecting antique or even vintage primers, readers, and other school books to be pristine or collectible-conditions clean is unrealistic. I’m not saying finding such a copy is impossible, but given the fact that these old texts were often tossed out for being obsolete, it’s amazing we have any around at all. Suffice it to say, the prettier the book, the prettier the pennies you’ll pay for it.

For some of us, signs of use are part of the charm. Not just the doodles, or notes which tell you of the previous owners, but even covers rubbed bare and split signs are signs one can compare to a well-loved stuffed animal. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, books can become real with love.

PS All the images here are from books I will be selling, either at eBay at our yard sale this weekend.

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.

 

Is “America’s Lost Treasures” A Lost Cause?

When I first heard about the National Geographic Channel’s new show, America’s Lost Treasures, I was excited. The premise is that folks parade in, Antiques Roadshow style, to have their objects evaluated — not simply for monetary value, but for their historical value — to answer the question, “Could you have a museum-worthy artifact hidden in your house?” The artifacts discovered or uncovered each week then “win” the opportunity to be included in a special exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., stated to be sometime in 2013 (though the exhibit does not yet appear on the museum’s calender— which, at the time I write this is scheduled through the end of April, 2013).

While the series has a game show element of competition, the focus appeared to be on the history and museum-worthy value of objects. Sure, there’s a $10,000 prize to with such an honor; but I fell for the idea of the recognition. What collector doesn’t want some validation? And, let’s be honest, a $10,000 cash prize for loaning an object to a museum seems a low price for objects deemed of such great historical value.

But then I watched the show.

Problems erupted everywhere.

Show hosts Curt Doussett and Kinga Philipps are literally talking heads with little, if any, experience in history, antiques, or collectibles. Sure, their enthusiasm is high; but their knowledge is obviously low.

When Phillips meets a couple with antique shaving mugs, she literally gushes and coos her ignorance. Who hasn’t heard of shaving mugs?! I think Old Spice still puts them out at holiday time. OK, maybe not everyone has heard of shaving mugs; but then not everyone hosts an antiques & collectibles history show either. And that’s my point.

And Doussette, who studied music composition and theory at Brigham Young University with the stated intention of becoming a master conductor, may have become overwhelmed with emotion at having the opportunity to fulfill his lifelong dream to conduct at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (it was a cool, moving moment), but he continually over-estimates the importance, value, and condition of musical instruments. It’s all rather mind-boggling, really.

And it might be OK, these talking heads who are nearly empty-headed on the subject they are hosting, because there will be experts, right? Well…

Enter curator emeritus Chris Baruth from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, who is the expert visited to authenticate and evaluate a walking stick from the 1893 World’s Fair held in Chicago which contains a map of the fairgrounds. Despite the cautionary comments of the woman who owns the antique walking stick, Baruth rips the fragile old map! And do make matters worse, you can hear Baruth (or perhaps it’s Doussett?) say, “Now what do we do?” While I tried not to cry (or was it faint), Baruth offers to tape it. Really?! Oh. My. Gawd. Thank heavens Doussett promises complete restoration to the owner. You can watch the catastrophe here:

How’s that for damaging your credibility as an expert?

But wait; like a set of Ginsu knives, America’s Lost Treasures has more!

Among the other objects selected as finalists and worthy of expert analysis are a piece of a Japanese Zero from the attack on Pearl Harbor, an antique campaign writing box from the 1700s believed to have been owned by Roger Sherman (the only person to sign each of the four major documents that built this nation: the Continental Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution), and Venetian glass mosaics depicting Christopher Columbus‘ “discovery” of America (eighteen feet by five feet panels built on six inches of concrete for the 1893 Chicago’s World’s Fair, presumed lost for at least 40 years).

The piece of metal from the WWII Japanese Zero plane was identified behind its frame and glass via webcam connection — something ludicrous, given the images we are shown of the webcam connection. There is no investigation of the owner’s story; his father’s story is taken virtually at face value. Meanwhile, the descendants of Roger Sherman don’t have it so easy; they don’t have the properly documented provenance of the item passing down the generations in wills and so are removed from the running. I guess one father’s story isn’t as good as another’s.

And at the end, perhaps the greatest injustice of all.

When the piece of WWII Japanese place goes up against the Venetian glass mosaics, the museum curator chooses —

The piece of plane.

I’ve nothing against recording WWII history, but this piece was poorly authenticated to begin with; plus there are museums dedicated to WWII (including the one in Hawaii which said they wanted the piece). And they opt for that instead of those incredible, humbling an huge, antique mosaics made of glass from Venetian glass that came from Murano, Italy; some no larger than a seed, some sandwiched with actual gold. Mosaics which not only have been presumed lost, but which would illuminate parts of history and art which many people know next to nothing about. And isn’t that a large part of what museums are supposed to do? Preserve as well as tell the stories of our past so that they are not forgotten?

That choice was an epic fail.

Gunar Gruenke (owner of the mosaics), I feel your pain. (You can visit the site and donate to help restore the mosaics.)

In many ways, it’s the Milwaukee episode which most encapsulates the train-wreck quality of America’s Lost Treasures. (In fact, the examples given here all come from that single episode!) If you can get through that one, and still find something fascinating to watch, then you’ll like this NatGeo series.

I myself can’t say I like it. I’ve watched three episodes so far, and I may watch more. But I’m pretty sure it’s for all the wrong reasons. …Well, maybe not “all” the reasons are wrong. I do like to see old objects, and learn what I can. But the more I watch this show, the more I feel like an expert. And I know that as a generalist in this business and hobby, that would be a rather silly thing to say. But apparently Shakespeare was right: “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

America’s Lost Treasures airs Wednesday nights at 9 pm ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel and is produced by Original Productions, a FremantleMedia Company.

Bid On Abraham Lincoln’s Hair

Also part of the Americana Signature Auction, is an antique photographic case containing a lock of Abraham Lincoln’s hair opposite an albumen portrait of the president.

Upon Lincoln’s death, apparently a number of locks of the President’s hair were removed as mourning keepsakes. This lock of Lincoln’s hair is approximate 3″ long and ranges in width from 1/2 to 1/8 inches. A small black bow has been added and the spine of the embossed leather case has been repaired with black tape. There’s “impressive” provenance for this historical auction offering as well. Heritage Auction’s estimate is $8,000 – $12,000.

The Americana Signature Auction will be held on May 12, 2012, in Dallas; absentee bidding ends May 11, 2012 at 10:00 PM CT.

Hidden Values In Antique Collecting & Genealogy In The News

Spending time with my collectibles is a huge part of why I collect — and I don’t mean the dusting! In fact, one of the reasons I blog is because I love the time to spend examining and researching each object. I truly believe this is a huge part of the value of collecting as a hobby.

Two recent news stories reminded me of this fact.

16th-Century Map of Lost Colony

The first is a matter of maps and historical mysteries… The British Museum’s recent re-examination of a 16th-century coastal map of the Tidewater coast of North Carolina has revealed hidden markings that may show what happened to the so-called American Lost Colony. While this colony was the second English settlement on the North Carolina coast, it was the first settlement to include civilians, including the legendary Virginia Dare, the granddaughter of the colony’s governor, John White. Virginia was born within weeks of their arrival to the settlement in 1587 — making Virginia Dare the first child of English descent born in the Americas.

Now, I’m not saying that all map collectors have a map of this magnitude; but even that vintage shell oil map may lead to a discovery, a road not taken, a connection you’ve not made before. Who knows what mysteries you might solve — or even find?

Speaking of connections, this next news story discusses how genealogy may help provide evidence that proves humans are continuing to evolve. Your family tree alone may not seem like much, but when combined with others, it provides scientific information:

“Studying evolution requires large sample sizes with individual-based data covering the entire lifespan of each born person,” said Dr Lummaa. “We need unbiased datasets that report the life events for everyone born. Because natural and sexual selection acts differently on different classes of individuals and across the life cycle, we needed to study selection with respect to these characteristics in order to understand how our species evolves.”

Doesn’t that all just inspire you to go antiquing, to organize those family records? It certainly makes me want to raise that bidding paddle!

Nothing To Write Home About? Letters From WWII

In my post at Collectors Quest today, I share my disc-overy of WWII voice mail: audio letters sent during the war.

While I encourage you to read that history, I have two other items to share regarding that story.

First, in the January, 1946 issue of Audio Record (published by Audio Devices Inc., a manufacturer of blank discs used by the USO for the voice recordings), there was this cute story:

From a USO club in the South came the story of a man who made a special record for his family. His mother wrote back that when his pet dog heard the boy’s voice he sent up great bays of delight. So the soldier went back to the USO club ad made a whole recording just for his dog, Fido.

Since this is an industry publication, this heartwarming wartime story may be made up, simply propaganda — but it still works!

And that brings me to the very true fact stated by Letters on a Record Home, a documentary directed by John Kurash which focused on these Word War II recordings from the USO, Gem Blades, Pepsi and local radio stations:

At one point, over 25,000 letters on a record were sent home each month. Very few remain but what we have offers us insight into the lives of the soldiers and their families during the second world war. Most soldiers came back home to become part of the Greatest Generation. But not everyone comes home from war, not every soldier was able to keep their promise.

This short film is part of the GI Film Festival, and will be screened on Sunday, May 20, 2012.

Girl Scouts Centennial

Girl Scouts of the USA Turns 100

The Girl Scouts were founded on March 12, 1912, so this year marks the 100th Anniversary of the Girl Scouts. (Yes, there’s a Girl Scout patch for that!)

Along with a national event to be held March 10-11 at the Mall of America, many troops are planning celebrations. For example, Girl Scouts from across southeast Louisiana will be celebrating with an Extravaganza on Saturday, March 17 in Gonzales. Part of this event will include a historic exhibit showcasing Girl Scouting over its 100 years — and volunteers are seeking memorabilia to include in this display. “Vintage Girl Scout uniforms, photos, books, newspaper articles, or any other Girl Scout-related items are welcome,” said Kevin Shipp, event coordinator.

If you’re a collector of Girl Scout items, or a former Girl Scout with goodies saved, contact your local Girl Scout troop or council to see how you can add to the celebration near you. You may also want to participate in their Oral History Project.

History Teaching Moments For Families

Teaching Moments, Jet Magazine

In the latest issue of Jet Magazine (February 6, 2012), Iman Jefferson gets six tips from Ronda Racha Penrice, author of African American History For Dummies, on ways to educate and entertain children with history. These tips are specific to Black History Month — that doesn’t mean you have to be an African-American to learn more about Black history. Nor should this be limited to Black History Month, or even Black history; there’s a lot of history to learn!

The first tip was to record family members about their experiences during a pivotal time in history. We’ve been making general (not historical event oriented) audio recordings of our own family members — and both my husband and I have been flabbergasted to find out how much we really didn’t know about even our own parents’ lives! (If you need help starting, check out StoryCorps.)

The second was to “play the original song versions used in samples of your kids’ favorite hits” and discuss what melodies have been borrowed from yesteryear. Our kids tease us about the music we listen to (admittedly we are eclectic listeners!) and we tease them right back with information about how that music isn’t “new.” These discussions, however intended, have given our children a wider knowledge of music, culture and history than most of their peers.

Tip number three:

Identify longstanding Black-owned restaurants, retail shops or other companies, then call them up and arrange a visit. Many will have older equipment, as well as photos, so it will encourage interactive learning.

I’m so ready for a field trip!

The next tip was to challenge kids to find items in the home or community which were invented or created by African-American icons featured on postage stamps. This is a great idea, like a historical philately-based scavenger hunt!

Tip number five was to have your child research a person prior to watching a biopic and then have them compare what they read to what they saw. I can tell you that I’ve personally done this dozens of times, including performing online searches during the commercial breaks when watching biographies and biopics on TV. (In fact, I just did this last week watching a biopic about Jessica Savitch!)

The last tip was actually quite a mind-blower…

Often we drive by local honorary street signs in predominantly African American neighborhoods but may not know the history of each honoree. Visit the local library and have your children research the real person behind the road marker.

Honest to gawd, hubby and I had just had a similar, though not person-related, discussion when he “discovered” the location of a “missing city.” He’s a prolific reader of old newspapers and read about one no longer on maps: Golden Gate City, in South Dakata. There’s a Golden Gate Street in Central City, South Daktoa, but sans town we bet there are people living there who don’t even know why the street has it’s name. How many streets do we all drive on of which we are ignorant to the street’s name’s origins?

Dating Old Newspaper Clippings (And Some Telephone Number History)

As an ephemera collector, I find lots of old clippings inside my vintage magazines, retro catalogs, and even in my antique books. While the acidic old paper may be a threat to already fragile old paper, I am delighted by what I find. It’s somehow comforting to know that we humans have always clipped and tucked away little bits and bobs in publications, either to save them as related materials or as a bookmark in a pinch.

The trouble is trying to discover the age of the clipping itself, because, then as now, we humans don’t exactly tuck only ephemera from the same year as the publication itself.

Now for some, the year of the clipping is irrelevant; but I am an admitted obsessive, remember? So it matters to me.

When I found these old bits of paper in a recently purchased vintage copy of Watkins Household Hints, I wanted to post them to my vintage home ec site, Things Your Grandmother Knew — but I wanted to properly document them as accurately as possible. While the date on the old handwritten partial tip on whitening clothes would be nearly impossible to know, I felt compelled to do better with the newspaper clippings.

Neither vintage newspaper clipping has any masthead or anything to indicate the newspaper name or location, but I figured I could at least get a date or time period for them.

The first one, the larger one with the list of household tips, was easy. There was the complete short story of the resignation of Marvin L. McLain. No, I’m no expert on US assistant secretaries of agriculture; but Google helped nail that date to October 27, 1960. (Give or take a day, I suppose.)

The other clipping however…

The only clue I had to help me with this clipped and saved tip on brightening furniture was the ad on the back. An advertisement with an unusual phone number.

Now I’m familiar with telephone numbers with letters in them; prior to 1958, phone numbers used exchange name dialing or letter prefixes. (And, in fact, it wasn’t until sometime in the mid-1980s that exchange name dialing gave way to all-number calling or ANC.) However, the phone number in this ad, “1597-J,” doesn’t have a letter prefix, it has a letter suffix.

This I was not familiar with.

I knew it was a phone number, not some blind box number; the ad reads “Phone 1597-J.” Was it possible this was just a more fashionable way to write a phone number? It certainly wasn’t a pragmatic or effective way because the exchange would need to be dialed or given to the phone operator first. It just didn’t seem to make sense.

I tried to do some online research, but I didn’t find much to help me. I knew I was putting the wrong words or terms into search engines and data bases. Knowing I was at a wall, I decided to look up the “J” and see where it might least me…

According to the The Telephone EXchange searchable database, the letter — if a telephone exchange, belonged to San Diego. So I contacted the San Diego History Center. While I waited for a response, I also contacted the Library Of Congress, telephone book collector Gwillim Law, and Ammon Shea, author of The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads.

Not content to just sit back and wait for returned calls and emails, I turned to the only other clue I had: the name of the person can business mentioned in the old ad: Arnold Kholmetz, Auctioneer and Realtor. That turned up some old articles in the Milwaukee Journal – Sentinel Archives. This made sense because the first clipping seemed to be from a Wisconsin newspaper and the old household tips book itself was purchased in that state.

So, naturally, I then did what any true obsessive does and called the Journal Sentinel to speak to their archivist. Sadly, Mr. King hadn’t any idea himself regarding the phone number, but he suggested a few other places to try.

The first was AT&T, which does have a telephone history page, has no means of connecting you to anyone but customer service. (I’m not sure you’d call it “irony”: it was simply pure frustration to have their operator inform you that they outside of customer service they only have a list of names and extensions, no departments, etc.) I did manage to get to the voice mail of “Investor Relations” but no one has returned my call and I don’t expect anyone ever will. Note to collectors and historians: Don’t bother contacting AT&T; not by phone anyway.

The second place Mr. King suggested was the Milwaukee Public Library; they couldn’t help me, but stated I was welcome to come in and look through all their old phone books to see if I could find the research I needed.

Well, I wasn’t going to do that — at least not right now; but I wasn’t going to give up either. Like a dog with a bone, and fueled with the rationalization of helping other collectors by writing a great “how to” article, I wasn’t ready to give up.  I could call the Watertown Public Library (because that’s where those old Journal Sentinel archive clippings said Mr. Kohlmetz was from) or I could try to research the partial radio show listings showing there at left of the clipping…

But then Jane Kenealy, Archivist at the San Diego History Center, called me back.

I explained to her that I no longer believed I had an old San Diego phone number, but did she have any idea what the “J” could be at the end of a phone number?

She said she didn’t know, but went to get the 1931 San Diego City Directory — the first city directory which listed phone numbers. I listened to her as she read numbers that ended in “J” and a few other letters, but it was clear, she said, that these letters were suffixes; that they were not exchanges because each page or section of the listings began with the exchange, then listed the phone numbers. We were both puzzled…

“All the phone numbers which end in letters end in either a ‘J,’ ‘M,’ ‘R,’ or ‘W’… But no place in the book is there an explanation…” said Kenealy with the excitement of a researcher enjoying her clues. “Let me go look for another book and I’ll call you back.”

Somewhere in the back of my brain those four letters meant something; I just couldn’t access it. Not yet. So I searched for “telephone J M R W” and found this:

A Restored Notchless Dial Plate with the letters J M R W in red, which are explained at that site as follows:

J M R W were suffixes used on the station numbers on certain manual (non-dial) common battery exchanges that had 10000 line switchboards with 4 subscribers on each line. In metropolitan areas where there was a mixture of dial and manual telephones because the transformation from manual to dial service was in progress and still had not been completed, the DIAL phones were provided with dials with these letters so they could call the MANUAL subscribers who did not yet have dial telephones. The conversion from manual to dial often extended over several years. Washington, DC for example started this conversion with its first dial exchange which was cut into service on May 3, 1930. But this conversion did not complete until the last manual exchange was converted to automatic dial operation on April 23, 1949 – some 19 years later. Chicago started its conversion in the early 20s, but it did not complete until 1957.

Upon seeing that vintage telephone dial plate, and this Western Electric Candlestick Telephone, I not only remembered the old party lines but knew that I just should have picked up my modern cell phone and called my parents about this old phone number; they likely would have known all of this and saved me a lot of work.

And then my cell phone rang and Ms. Kenealy was excitedly telling me that the “J” was referencing a party line. She had found this bit of telephone number history:

line numbers could be one to four digits long; multi-party lines had a letter tacked onto each station on parties sharing the line. All parties on the same line shared the same numericals however. 2-party lines differentiated each other with W & J 4-party lines used J, M, R, W

I felt embarrassed that I’d sent her on such a long wild goose chase, but Ms. Kenealy was more than kind — she was excited. “Thank you for helping me find out something I didn’t know! I’ve never had the excuse to look this up,” she said. And then we ended up talking a bit about how this party line information hadn’t been published in any of the directories or phone books because people then “just knew what it was.” Which, leads to a larger issue of why history and indeed collecting with an obsessive streak are so important — including our documentation of it all these years later.

And that brings us back to the date of this old newspaper clipping…

I did contact the Watertown Public Library, but they had no records regarding the end of party lines.  But for me, this is where the research ends.

I’m satisfied at this point narrowing it down to somewhere between the 1930s and the early 1950s… Likely the mid 40’s, based on all the little clues, such as dates on the newspaper clippings (and ads without such patyline references), the fact that the clipping mentions using silk (and after WWII, nylon was more in vogue and use than silk).

It’s not pinpoint accuracy, but I think I’ve accomplished helping other collectors learn how to date the clippings they have, assisted in documenting a part of history — and been reminded that one’s own parents are still an excellent resource, no matter what kind of help you need.

Who Do You Think You Are? Televised Celebrity Genealogy Hopes To Illuminate History

Lisa Kudrow was on ABC’s The View Wednesday, promoting her new show, Who Do You Think You Are?, an adaptation of the award-winning hit BBC television documentary series of the same name. Kudrow is executive producer of the show which leads celebrities on genealogical journeys to discover the genetic answer to “who they are” — at least as best genealogy can.

Rumors about the debut of this show have been swirling for well over a year, and those of us who enjoy the personal side of history (if not the celebrity-side of the production), have been stymied as to why we’ve had to (impatiently) wait. But it’s finally here!

The show debuts this Friday, 3/10/10, with Sarah Jessica Parker. Other celebrities include Susan Sarandon, Emmitt Smith, Spike Lee, Brooke Shields, and Matthew Broderick.

Kudrow puts herself in front of the cameras for this series too, sharing a particularly poignant story discovered in her family tree. Her family’s personal tragedy not only chronicles WWII history, but pierces the intellectual shield most of us have in processing and recalling such horrors… Something that only increases as witnesses to those dark moments in history leave us.

If you’re tempted to dismiss this as more celebrity adoration, or pure dramatic sentimentality, Kudrow and I want to assure you that genealogy may be personal, but it’s also much larger than that — it’s about the historical context.

Personal stories always illuminate the dry facts and dates of history into reality, celebrity or not. Heck,  even the reasons why you hit a wall or can’t fill in the blank in your family’s story is illuminating.  For example, in this clip, in which Kudrow shares what she found out about the family history of the ladies on The View, the matter of why it’s so much harder to find out family tree information for African-Americans is discussed.

As for the series, well, I haven’t seen it yet; but April MacIntyre has, and she’s interviewed Kudrow too:

One of the things that I did like about your particular series was the interspersed history lessons. Will that continue throughout into the next season?

Lisa Kudrow: Oh boy. It will continue and hopefully there can be more of it because the BBC version has a lot of that. The thing is that it’s not just dry history, it’s back story that’s essential once you’re invested in these characters like Sarah Jessica, (John Hodge) or (Esther Elwell) and you need to know the back story which is history.

Dan Bucatinsky: It’s context.

Lisa Kudrow: And that’s what I mean by because there’s an intimacy to it now that it’s not just dry history that happened to strangers. It has more impact and that’s – we’re supposed to study history. We’re supposed to know what we’ve done before, how did we do things? How did it work? How didn’t it work to learn from it and hopefully this makes it worth knowing.

Most promising.

Who Do You Think You Are? airs Friday night on NBC at 7 PM, Central time (check local listings). I know what I’ll be watching!

*****

I’m a Brand Ambassador for The View. As a participant in a Mom Central campaign for ABC Daytime, I will receive a tote bag or other The View branded item to facilitate my reviews; as you can tell from my long-winded posts about The View, the tote or whatever I may get is not my priority, but I mention it to be ethical.