Thursday, October 31, 2013

I Am Death

Public health campaigns have, it seems, always gone for shock value -- who can forget such ads as the crying Indian, the smoking fetus, or "This is drugs ... this is your brain on drugs"? Nevertheless, this 1912 poster from the Indiana Board of Health stands out for the stark and threatening appeal it offers against what were seen as the worst health hazards of its day. It's odd for us today to consider that "midnight suppers" or "large amounts of black coffee" might be up there with alcohol as bona fide life-shorteners, and the caution not to "bolt your food" sounds like it's right out of a Dickens novel (and it is). This image comes via the Indiana Public Health collection at IUPUI Scholar Works, a project of Indiana University and Purdue University, an archive which also contains delightfully harsh warnings about the hazards of the house fly and rats and fleas, along with (on the other side of the equation) the illustrious benefits of good hygiene among children.

Monday, October 28, 2013


Image from the Early Office Museum
"Don't you know what duplicates are?" an incredulous Groucho Marx asks brother Chico in one of their better-known skits. "Sure," replies Chico, "that's a five kids up in Canada." The joke was a reference to the Dionne quintuplets born in Ontario in 1934, two of whom are still alive today. But of course we all know what duplicates are -- or do we? We're so used to the ability to make scans or photocopies today that the earlier copying technology of the 1960's and '70's -- the "Ditto," Mimeograph, or Gestetner machines -- seems almost impossibly antique. And yet it's still possible to re-create some of these earlier methods of copying today, such as the Hektograph (above), a precursor to the rotary mimeograph which also used aniline dye; instead of mounting the master copy of a cylinder, it was simply placed in a bed of gelatine, and the dye allowed to soak in; subsequent copies were made by simply placing a blank piece of paper on the gelatine and then peeling it off. Simple Hektograph kits were sold as late as the 1950's and can still be had on eBay or Etsy -- or one can, fairly easily, make one's own almost from scratch. And, while you're waiting for the gelatine to solidify, why not read the Early Office Museum's excellent History of Copying Machines?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Few Talking Machine Records

This steroeview, part of a promotional set offered by the Sears, Roebuck Company to illustrate the plenitude and variety of its store offerings in 1906, shows how 78 rpm phonograph records were stored; before shipping or sale, a paper sleeve would be added. The long shot emphasizes the vast array of disks available, just waiting to be shipped to your front door. Note that the employee in this photo is wearing a special, shoulder-length glove on his left hand, to avoid scratching the discs! You can view an entire set of these stereoviews in this Flickr album, starting with card no. 1 -- Mr. Sears himself, of course!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mona Darkfeather

In the annals of non-Indian actors portraying native American Indians in early silent films, Mona Darkfeather (born Josephine Workman) was among the most successful. She appeared in 110 films between 1910 and 1917, nearly always as an "Indian Maiden" figure. The studios she worked with -- Bison, Selig Polyscope, Nestor, Kalem, Universal -- were a who's who of early silent film, and her name and face were advertised with no irony whatsoever as though she were unquestionably authentic, following the claim -- perhaps her own -- that she was a full-blooded Seminole. White men were often called upon to throw themselves on her mercy, lest some fearsome "chief" demand their death -- or, alternately, she would form a romantic attachment with a trader and run off with her beau. She had her own, impressive stationery, and succeeded consistently until the late 'teens, when -- for whatever reason -- the demand for her kind of role dried up. She did a few stage plays, divorced (and later remarried) her husband-manager Frank Montgomery, and lived to the ripe old age of 95. Her grave in Culver City is said to be unmarked.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Asylum cinema

One might not think about it, but one of the early uses of cinema film was to provide entertainment at many of the large residential psychiatric facilities -- then often known as "Asylums" -- in the US and the UK. Nowadays, of course, television provides a more wall-to-wall carpet of imagery, but back in the 1920's and '30's, full-size cinemas were a feature at many British asylums. The one shown above was found, still in place and in nearly working order, at the Stone House Asylum in Kent. The best-known patient at this facility was doubtless the poet and composer Ivor Gurney, now recognized as a significant "war poet," and whose compositions are still performed. Whether or not he attended the cinema is not known, but this projector -- a Gaumont Kalee 18 Carbon Arc model -- was successfully removed and restored; you can see a video of it in operation.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Elvish in Old English

In the annals of creating manuscript facsimiles with a false (but playful) sense of age, this document has a curious history. In the early stages of his subcreation, J.R.R. Tolkien composed a number of new texts in Old English, in which he described the creation of the world in the Elder Days; his original plan was to have all of the "Lost Tales" -- an early source of the legends later gathered in the Silmarillion -- recounted by a father to his son in Old English.

This is my own calligraphic interpretation of one of these texts, which I made in 1988 as a diversion when I was enrolled in Professor Geoffrey Russom's Old English class at Brown University.  Following Tolkien's own practice with his "Book of Mazarbul," I aged and discolored the document with an ink wash and a spell in the oven. Those with an acquaintance with the West Saxon dialect will have no trouble deciphering the text, which begins with "After that, the All-father, who in Elvish is called Iluuvatar created the world." The page is also preserved as part of Oxford University's excellent Woruldhord site, which collects all manner of resources for the study and teaching of Old English. And as for Professor Russom, he was not fooled. He took one glance at the fruit of my labors and muttered, "Tolkien, eh?" And then it was back to translating the Battle of Maldon.