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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Culinary Ephemera - The Book

I walked into Borders just before they closed to purchase some shelving, and of course I had a look at the remaining books. It was sad, sad, sad to see such a bright and capacious bookstore closing, and little of interest was left on the shelves. But by some kind of serendipity, there was one copy left of William Woys Weaver’s book, Culinary Ephemera: An Illustrated History.

To be honest, I hadn’t heard of it even though it was published in 2010. Naturally I swept it off the shelf (the word “ephemera” is magical to me, of course.) With a pause at the cash register it became mine, and I’m very pleased with it.

This is not a price guide, and unlike other books on cooking materials it is not primarily about cookbooks and booklets. In fact, it leaves cookbooks out altogether and instead focuses on what is truly ephemera – booklets to be sure, but also almanacs, menus, handbills, labels, sheet music, trade cards – even postcards, match book covers, valentines and more. This brought categories to my attention that I hadn’t even thought of.

This Kilpatrick's Bread booklet from 1922 attempts to glamorize bread with recipes for sandwiches, various toast treatments, breaded meats, and "mock duck."

The best part of the book, however, is the way in which Weaver uses the ephemera to describe the attitudes, prejudices, and social and economic values and changes in American culture over the decades. And he not only includes cooking, but just about anything relating to food, culinary advertising, and kitchen appliances and processes.

This billhead is from True & Blandchard: Hardware, Tinware, Stoves, Cuttlery and Notions (Newport, Vermont) and is dated 1894.


The above cancelled checks are from (1) the O.A. Harlan & Co. Packer of Dried Fruits (San Jose CA) dated 1922 in the amount of 22.00; and  John Batto & Sons: Wholesale Produce Shippers (San Francisco, CA) dated 1907 in the amount of $100.00. Both are illustrated with images of company facilities. 

Much cooking ephemera is bright, colorful, and appealing, since most of it is advertising that attempts to draw attention to itself and the products it promotes. Canned asparagus could, in fact, only look appealing on paper! White or not.

Cooking ephmera has long been a prized collectible for its visual and graphic appeal, but this book lays out some more profound reasons for collecting these oddments of everyday life. Even if your only interest is in the history of American food culture, it is well worth reading. And after looking at the lively images reproduced in the book, it is difficult not to add culinary ephemera to your collecting interests.

A label for Mountain Brand Cherries, Salem Oregon. The "modern" maraschino cherry was, in fact, developed at Oregon State Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) in nearby Corvallis. In a bid against imported Italian cherries - and with an abundant cherry production in need of a market - one Prof. Ernest Wiegand worked for several years to perfect the product. A building on the OSU campus bears the name Weigand hall, and they are so proud of this bit of history that there is a class offered (Maraschino Cherry 102) which examines the "historical, technological and scientific aspects of maraschino cherry production." Well....yes.

The only thing that saves me is being an ephemera dealer – I can take pleasure in enhancing the collections of others rather than trying to archive and maintain a collection of my own.

Even sheet music, plays, and other images can be related to food - this is a program for the opening night performance of "The Chocolate Soldier" - which also promises some "spice."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas Images 1 – The Comforts of Home

The other evening we lit a fire in the fireplace for the first time this year. Baby, it was cold outside. Well, we didn’t really need the fire for warmth but somehow it seems very comforting during the dark cold months of the year. There must be something in our more primitive biological memory that responds to the crackle and pop of the wood and the dancing flames.

“It’s comforting,” I said. “Cozy. Reassuring. Homey.”

That’s a theme that is frequently conveyed by Christmas cards that feature snug cottages in the snow, smoke rising from the chimneys or windows that suggest light and warmth inside.

A review of the book American Christmas Cards 1900-1960, by Kenneth L. Ames, a professor of American decorative arts at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City where an exhibit is currently on display, mentions this and other interpretations of Christmas cards over the first six decades of the 20th Century. (I have ordered but not yet received the book.)

I usually describe my ephemera business as “cultural history,” adding that I try to find things that reveal the everyday life (rather than sociological studies) of our past. The history books do not convey all of the nuances of our social attitudes and priorities as they changed over time.

A group of carolers – smoke rising from the cozy homes behind them – convey a feeling of cheer and goodwill, of friendship and sharing.
Drawing together in the warmth of the fire is, again, a basic human need in times past, and an image to which we respond in the present. It used to mean survival of individuals and the species. Now it can encourage survival of our spirits and our sense of ease and comfort.

The cards featured here are from c. 1930s. I have never found a particular name for this graphic style – Moderne is sometimes used, although it gets confused with Streamline Moderne of the 1950s. And yet it is a big step away from the Art Deco era that preceded it. Since it so often features these stylized little bungalows, I usually refer to it as “Cottage Moderne,” but that’s a personal designation. If anyone knows a better term, please speak up. Perhaps the book will have a suggestion.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Ephemeral Word for the Day: Esculent

Ephemera does require some research, and sometimes it takes one down strange and esoteric roads. Sometimes it just contains a pebble that one feels obliged to pick up and turn over speculatively…then attempt to identify.

In this case, I picked up an old advertising leaflet from Prince’s Nurseries, Flushing, New York, dated October 1, 1856 and titled “Chinese Potato: Dioscorea Batatas, Imperial Rice-White Variety.” I wasn’t too sure what a “Chinese potato” might be and so I started to read this advertisement with its somewhat extravagant claims.

Right off the bat it describes the product as an “inestimable esculent.” Okay, two things to find out. What is a Chinese potato, and what is an esculent?

The claims for the inestimable esculent contain some superlatives, including “…this combination of every useful property renders it the greatest vegetable boon ever granted by God to man, and that its introduction to our country is even more important than that of Cotton, and that in twenty years our National statistics will report the value of the annual crop as greater than the Cotton crop.” This nurseryman, identified as Wm. R. Prince, goes on to state, “…I assert that this plant alone has served to solve the enigma as to the alimentary basis of the Chinese empire, and that a statistical investigation will prove, that if that country were deprived of this one vertical root, and received in lieu every other known vegetable, more than one half of its enormous population would perish from famine.” Well, note that he said a statistical investigation WILL prove, not that there had been one.

Prince does not mince words. Further on he supports his claims by asserting, “The statements pretending to emanate from the Farmers’ Club of the American Institute, last Spring, unfavorable to this plant, were barefaced forgeries, made from malicious motives.”

What a lot of fuss, even for an inestimable esculent.

Other statements in the ad led me to believe that this vegetable must be some kind of yam, which indeed it is- although I can’t say that anyone has become wealthy from growing it, nor has it attained the popularity suggested by Prince. It seems to be on the order of the sweet potato, with light-colored flesh. (And some forms of which classified as weeds.)

As for esculent, it turns out to be a somewhat archaic – although certainly useful – word meaning “fit to be eaten” or “edible.” It could be a nice distinction, especially when differentiating between two species of a plant, one of which is edible and one poisonous, as with the camas. In fact, in the Journals of Lewis and Clark Meriwether Lewis writes, “Many of those plants produce those esculent roots which form a principal part of the subsistence of the natives.”

I’ll admit a decided fondness for garnet yams (those with the deep orange color). They don’t require much to make them truly estimable esculents. (Can you see that on a menu? “Estimable esculents in butter sauce with sea salt.” Yum.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Graveyard humor and a Misale

D. Hillson published this series of epitaphs on postcards in 1907, but I haven’t been able to find out anything about the publisher or the set. The first one I saw – many years ago – was the “Listen: Mother Aunt and Me…” which contains the word “misale.” (Not to mention poor grammar!) The word puzzled me, and it does still. I can’t find reference to it, not even in my unabridged Webster’s nor in the full set of Oxford English Dictionary (nor the supplements) on my library shelves. One can assume that it means something on the order of “misjudged” but who among you can find the true definition and source?

For some reason our species has enjoyed this rather macabre form of humor for centuries. What is the attraction? Perhaps it is because we, among all species on Earth, are aware of our mortality. Knowing that each of us will eventually die, perhaps we have this need to thumb our noses at Death. Not to mention the desire – sometimes realized on actual headstones – to have the last word.

I let the postcards speak for themselves.

Sorry the layout is so sloppy! Dang HTML is hard to put in place.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What do these three books have in common?

A while back I wrote about the synchronicity of finding a common thread in the diverse books one reads. So I recently finished Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself, Byron Rogers' The Green Lane to Nowhere, and Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe.

The first is a series of essays that Bryson wrote for a British newspaper when he moved back to the United States with his English wife and children after living in England for 20 years. The Green Lane is a writer’s life in an English Village. (And no, that’s not the thread.) The Tears of The Giraffe is a title in the "No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency" series.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels are set in Botswana, where Precious Ramotswe (a woman of traditional figure, according to her) investigates the usual domestic situations, as well as local mysteries, from the unexplained appearance of a pumpkin to a missing American and various other matters. Precious has a sensitivity and intuition that often inform her solutions. Smith, a white Botswana, obviously loves the country, the culture, and the people. In this novel, both Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (her husband, but always referred to thus even by Precious) lament the loss of old-fashioned cultural values, traditions, etiquette, neighborliness, etc. in the face of modern “progress.” And this is where we find our theme – the loss of culture and community.

Bryson nails it with his essays on an America that has changed much even in the time he has been gone. Neighborhoods, he says, are no longer communities. You may know your nearest neighbors, but you usually have very little in common. Gone are the small communities where everyone not only knew, but supported each other, where neighbors came together in times of need, helped each other, watched out for each other’s children. Shopping areas have become faceless malls, local businesses have withered under the onslaught of chain and discount stores. As for common courtesies, even their memory is fading.

Rogers echoes this subject in this very interesting and amusing book which is, again, drawn from columns published in a British newspaper, this time The Sunday Telegraph. Writing about his small village in geographically strategic Northamtonshire, Rogers tracks the region’s early history, pointing out, for instance, that the current A5 highway traces the path of an ancient Roman road. But throughout he mourns the loss of community, stating that “city people” have bought up most of his village’s real estate for weekend retreats, pricing the locals out of the neighborhood. He muses on this as the village clears out after the weekend, leaving a handful of permanent residents during the week. A man in a tavern is mourning not only the loss of a parent, but of the tradition that once brought neighbors to the homes of bereaved families, bearing food and comfort. Most of the small community traditions and observations have been forgotten.

Some will call this progress, but each of these authors suggests that the world could be a better place with a little bit of return to some of the traditional ways of caring for each other, of respecting each other, of aiding each other in times of crisis, of forming communities of common interests and vesting in common welfare; even of just plain politeness. I’m convinced that most of us who remember some of the earlier ways mourn in similar fashion. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Creepiest Postcard I Have Ever Seen

Over the years I have handled many types of postcard, from the earliest chromolithograph cards offering scenes, greetings, sites, events such as World Fairs and expositions, and on through the eras of photography, color printing, and linens.

I have seen postcards made of cactus wood, celluloid, redwood, leather, burlap, embroidered silk and other materials. Many cards were made that incorporated elements such as feathers, ribbons, bows, buttons, “rolling” eyes, horsehair tails, fur, plant materials, etc. There have been puzzle cards, transformation cards, “hold-to-light” cards, and other gimmicks.

Just about any subject under the sun has been stuck on a postcard! But in all that, ONE stands out as the weirdest, creepiest, oddest card I have seen. I have kept it just because it is such a puzzle. It is an image of a cat, mailed in 1910 and probably produced around that time.

Of course, cats have always been popular as subject-matter, as much as they are today.

Some were sweet, like a colorful chromo-lithograph card of kittens mailed from Toledo, Ohio, in 1911.

Photographers loved the subject, as a photo card of two kittens and straw hat from the Rotograph Co. with a copyright date of 1905 demonstrates.

Cultural biases notwithstanding, a black cat with googly eyes purports to be a “good luck mascot” on a card mailed in 1915.

But there is just no explanation for this evil-looking cat dressed as a woman, and with the caption, “There is’nt [sic] an honest man living. I hate ‘em all.” The publishing information is K.V.I.B, 12 “serie 1255” on a divided back. I can’t find much information about this company, which seemed to be fairly prolific in production at the turn of the century. The card was no doubt printed in Germany. It was mailed in 1910, somewhere in Eastern Washington, probably Tacoma. (The cancellation is only partial, although “T” is visible and the sender describes having gone to Yakima for dental work.) She sent the card to her sister in Broken Bow, Nebraska.

There is no indication of the artist, although he or she must have been somewhat – um – odd to have produced this message and image. I had thought that it might be by Louis Wain, a postcard artist whose schizophrenia caused him to create some devilish cats later in his career, but a Wain collector has assured me that this is not his work. Perhaps it was an attempt to imitate him. The cat itself looks rather evil, with fangs visible, ears like devil horns, and glassy, staring eyes. I do love the effect of the tail thrown over the arm, the only bit of comic relief on the entire card. I still find it very, very creepy though.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Book That Explores the Altered Heart

For all of us who do artwork with “repurposed” materials, it is sometimes hard to explain the sticks, stones, bark and bones; the rusty thing-a-jigs and discarded parts and things picked up in parking lots; the packaging and papers and ratty old books and labels and tickets and….well, all of it. Dubbed “packrats” and “magpies,” we excuse our mania in the name of art, but the little tides of guilt as spouses complain of overflow and friends try to reassure themselves that we are just a little bit sane still sweep over us from time to time.

Now here is a book that offers not only forgiveness, but which also commends our ardor and eggs us on:

Art Making – Collections and Obsessions: An Intimate Exploration of the Mixed-Media Work and Collections of 35 Artists, by Lynne Perrella.

Most of us can only aspire to such “collections,” but the ones in this book are bound to inspire new heights of mania in those of us already touched with the “gift” of seeing beauty in discarded things. While the work of every artist will not appeal to everyone, there is such a wide variety of artistic vocabularies, methods, and themes that there is a lot to appeal to anyone. Seeing how others gather and harvest and organize or store their materials is bound to inspire.

Best of all, we find ourselves in very good company. We no longer have to cringe when someone says “but WHY do you have all this stuff?” or “what do you DO with it?” or worst of all, when a spouse inquires, “what are you going to use it for?” Now we simply wave this book at them and shout THIS! THIS!

Feels good.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Will Bradley Kicked off the 20th Century in Style!

Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1868, William H. Bradley was already working as a printer by the time he was 12 years old. A man of many talents, he worked as a wood engraver, typographer, publisher, editor, illustrator, poster artist, type designer, book artist, film art supervisor, designer, and he even designed several family homes.

Often compared to Aubrey Beardsley, Bradley developed a style that drew from the Arts & Crafts movement and William Morris, Japanese woodblock prints, and he is often credited with developing and popularizing the Art Nouveau style in America.

He had wide influence as a poster designer, but also did numerous magazines covers for Collier’s, Good Housekeeping, the Inland Printer, and others. He became a consultant to the American Type Founders, designing type faces (among them Wayside Roman, Missal Initials, Bewick Roman, and others) and he also edited and wrote for their The American Chapbook.

In 1915 he went to work for William Randolph Hearst, among other things serving as art supervisor to a series of Hearst-produced films, and subsequently acting as head art supervisor of the Hearst empire of magazines and newspapers.

Much of Bradley’s illustrative work is done in strong black-and-white images, flat tones, and with the fluid and nature-inspired lines of Art Nouveau. His artwork is as much appreciated today (if not more) than it was 100 years ago.

In 1954, the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) awarded Bradley a gold medal, the highest award for a graphic artist. He died in 1962 at the age of 94.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Remarkable Creatures: The Fictionalized Story of Mary Anning

Right before Christmas I was zooming through a new bookstore looking for a particular gift book, and as I passed the end of a gondola my gaze fell on this: Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures. The cover is attractive and the title provocative, and when I flipped the book over and read that it was a novel about Mary Anning it went directly into my shopping basket.

What could be better than a novel based on one of the 19th Century’s most significant fossil hunters? Mary Anning was an uneducated working-class woman in a culture where social stature, breeding, and education were part of a severe caste system. All of which mitigated against her receiving the kind of acknowledgement and acclaim that her discoveries deserved. She discovered the plesiosaurus, the ichthyosaurus, and other fossils that turned early 19th-Century assumptions inside out. (Not only did she find the fossils, she recognized them as being different from any living creatures, or previously-discovered fossils.) This was an era when the Church of England was still steadfastly sticking to Bishop Ussher’s proclamations that the world was created in 4004 BC. These fossils, and others like them, led British scientists to examine the concepts of evolution and the great geological history of Earth.

A middle-class spinster - Elizabeth Philpot, who was farmed out with two of her sisters to live in Lyme Regis when their brother inherited the family property and married - developed an interest in fish fossils and became Mary’s fossil-hunting partner and her champion to the scientific community. Mary’s talent for discovering specimens in the fossil-rich cliffs and outcroppings along the Lyme Regis beaches drew many scientists and amateurs to her, without attracting the recognition she richly deserved. A number of recent biographies have helped to rectify this lack of acknowledgement.

Chevalier’s novel captures these characters and richly evokes the atmosphere and muted excitement of the fossil beds, and of the town of Lyme Regis. Needless to say this novel would make an interesting movie, as did the author’s Girl With a Pearl Earring.

NOTE: the fossils shown are just a few of my own collection, and not intended to represent Lyme Regis material.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Serendipitous Reading

My “serious” reading is often focused on a topic that intrigues me at a given time – currently I rotate between geology, history of books and reading, cookbooks, and various art and artists. Sometimes I’ll get caught up with a certain author and want to read a string of his or her books – recent candidates have been Simon Winchester, Anthony Bourdain, Anne Tyler, and Bill Bryson.

My “potato chip” reading – the light stuff that I read just before turning out the light for the night – is often from some mystery series and usually depends upon my colleagues supplying me with cartons of mass market paperbacks by certain authors or in certain categories (bibliomysteries being a favorite, of course).

In between is a category difficult to name – usually literary fiction or non-fiction. I guess I would call it “intellectually engaging pleasure reading.” This category is generally filled with books acquired through pure serendipity – inexpensive copies picked up at the flea market or yard sales or however, where the investment of a dollar or two is not going to kill me if I try something new and find I don’t like it. This is often the most fun category, for I find myself reading books that I really love but hadn’t heard about. Because in my business I deal primarily with old and antiquarian books, I don’t keep abreast of best seller lists or even book gossip as I once did when selling new books.

What is somewhat odd about this process, though, is that sometimes these books coalesce around certain subjects, be they fiction or non-fiction, and quite often their relationship is not apparent from their titles or obvious subject matter when I pick them up. A few years ago a number of my “serendipity” reads turned out to relate, in one way or another, to the American Civil War. Not to the battles and warfare itself, but to some of the issues that led to, fed, and resulted from that conflict. So books such as The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, by Jane Smiley; John Bailey’s The Lost German Slave Girl: The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans; a biography of Fred Harvey, and a couple of other random picks at the time surprised me by reflecting some Civil War issues between them.

Of course, if books are published within a short time-span you can understand some similarities – author imaginations are stirred, editorial departments are alert to, reader interest is fueled by, whatever issues are in general discussion or investigation at the time.

So it may not be surprising that several of my recent reads by European authors reflect upon the Second World War and subsequent Cold War years – again, not in terms of warfare and battles but more about the human factor and how lives were affected by these events. So consider these brief reviews:

Markus Zusak: The Book Thief. I had no idea what to expect when I snatched up this one to include in some purchases and bring home, but I was very pleased with it. The protagonist (book thief) is a young girl who is fostered by a couple in a town on the outskirts of Munich during WWII. Although illiterate, Lisle Meminger has arrived with a copy of The Grave Digger’s Handbook that she discovered in the snow where her younger brother, who died on the train trip to their new home, was being buried. Her foster father, a likeable accordion player and professional house painter, undertakes to teach Lisle to read, using the Handbook as her first reader. She subsequently steals a book off a Nazi burn pile, and from the library of the town mayor. The life of her adoptive family is complicated when they hide a Jew in the basement where Lisle has taken her reading lessons. Written in a clear prose style that still sometimes borders on poetry, the most surprising element in this book is the narrator. Zusak is an Australian author whose German mother stimulated his interest in this topic with stories from her personal history.

Jim Powell: The Breaking of Eggs. A debut novel by this British author, this one concerns Feliks Zhukovski, a Polish Jew expatriate who took refuge in Paris during the days of Communist idealism. There he has supported himself by publishing a frequently-revised travel guide to Eastern European countries, and has managed somewhat spectacularly to avoid his own history, his family, and change of all sorts. Sometimes this oblivion is quite amusing, in a similar vein to Anne Tyler’s obtuse travel guide writer in The Accidental Tourist.

Of course, by 1991 when the story takes place, the Berlin Wall is gone and Communism has collapsed. Now in his sixties, Feliks is suddenly forced to confront a half-century of personal history. Along the way he finds a long-lost brother and his family, the real story of what happened to his mother, his own unsuspected legacy, and the fact that his idealism obfuscated truth and reality. It is, in a sense, a “coming of age” novel of the second coming – the elderhood that sums up our lives. Feliks not only survives this exposure, he emerges victorious and a good deal more cosmopolitan.

Per Petterson: Out Stealing Horses. This novel takes us to a Norwegian riverside cabin with Trond Sander, a sixty-seven year old man who has retired to reflect on his life and perhaps to test himself in this rustic environment where he must learn to fend for himself, often using skills that his father taught him when he was still a teenager. A novel that unfolds in the mind of the protagonist, part of this story is set in the period of World War II where Trond’s father was clearly a member of the resistance, helping to smuggle political prisoners out of the country; and part is in his present, where shadows of the past become solid flesh and blood. There is a good deal of understated passion in this book, and a certain unsentimental poetry. It’s the kind of story you feel in your bones. And, of course, like the last one it’s a late-life “coming of age” story.

Another synchronicity, and I have to wonder if these books appealed because the characters are similar in age to myself.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

White-Washing Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – Should They Kill the Nigger Word?

News that a new edition of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer (combined) will substitute the word “slave” for “nigger” has raised a ballyhoo of controversy among scholars, educators, booksellers, and others interested in these iconic American novels.

In fact, Huckleberry Finn is the nation’s fourth-most-banned book. It has been censored for a wide variety of reasons, from atheism and antisouthernism to obscenity and lack of morals and manners. The current thinking is that the term, “nigger,” makes people too uncomfortable, and that it would be more acceptable for reading in schools if it is changed.

Let's think about the context of the book. Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn as a protest, not only against slavery but against the social attitudes that accepted it, and all of the perceptions of blacks that regarded them as less than human beings. This book is NOT just a boy's adventure story. It's more than a coming-of-age. It's a coming-of-conscience story. In the end, Huck has to choose between what is "right" legally, and what is "right" according to his conscience and newly-developed moral integrity.

If the book is properly taught, that is the message that students should be reading for. That message is much more strongly carried by using the offensive language that was none-the-less standard for the time, and that carried all of those social implications of blacks, and especially slaves, being subhuman creatures. Huck is surrounded by abusers, hucksters, rascals, thieves, scallywags of all sorts. The one true and honest friend he has is Jim. Does he allow Jim to be tried and hanged for murder, or does he - knowing the truth and that it will not be accepted by society - rescue Jim and break the law?

I admit that reading it as a teenager I was very uncomfortable with the language, since none of this was explained. I figured it out on my own, but I'm guessing that most of today's students, who no longer are exposed to some of those attitudes and prejudices that still lingered in society in my youth, would understand the protest aspect of it.

We older white folks took a great deal of the African-American experience in mid-20th-Century America for granted, even if we did not subscribe to the prejudices of the times. Growing up in a city with a large black population, I just accepted that the jobs that they filled - railroad porters, stevedores, shoeshine men, elevator operators, maids, cooks, etc. was the natural way of things. Only later did I learn that many of those people (including some who relocated during WWII for jobs in the shipyards) were professionals in many fields who could not find work in their occupations. I didn't really think about how difficult it was, for example, for African-American entertainers to find lodging in the places they traveled to for performances (or restaurants or bars to serve them), or for a black family to travel across the country by car and find accommodations and meals and garages and other services along the way. A recent article in the Ephemera Journal about the Negro Motorist Green Book - a guide that served the black community for many years - described that situation in a way that made my heart ache.

I have lived through eras in which the referencing terms changed, from "nigger' (always deprecating in my experience) to the more "correct" "Negro," which was replaced by "colored" in some areas or used more informally, to today's African-American. What has been important has not been the changing of terminology. What matters is that social perceptions have changed. Early television programs perpetuated some of those perceptions, only gradually breaking them down as African-Americans were portrayed in occupations and social situations on an equal plane with their white neighbors.

One of my favorite lines in a TV show ever was in an initial episode (the first, I think) of "Julia," in which Diahann Carroll had been looking for a nursing job, to no avail. She finally calls one last ad - to the doctor played by Lloyd Nolan who needs someone right away and indicates that she is hired. She tells him that there is just one thing....she's colored (the reason she has been turned down so many times previously) and he responds in typical curmudgeonly fashion, "Well, what color are you?" In fact, Julia was the first TV show to feature an African-American woman as something other than a domestic servant, and it became so popular that there was a Julia Barbie doll and various other themed products such as children’s lunch boxes, coloring books and paper dolls and more.

That show did a lot to break down some of the stereotyped perceptions of the era (it ran from 1968-1971). The fact that Julia was the widow of a pilot shot down in Vietnam helped to make it palatable – not to mention that Carroll was an incredibly beautiful woman and talented actress. While some decried the role as “white negro,” Julia went a long way to portray a black woman living a “normal” life but having to overcome many kinds of prejudice and bigotry that still lingered. White Americans became a little more aware of the inequities and premises that previously had existed unnoticed, they were so ingrained in the culture. One other insightful scene in the show that I remember – the young son, Corey, comes home and tells his mother that his friend called him a “name.” Of course Julia immediately is certain that the term used was “nigger,” but as it turns out, it was a word that referred to Corey’s weight (he was on the pudgy side).

Which brings us back to Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, the slave Jim and the term “nigger.” Does it belong in the book? Would it be a better book without it, or would it lose a great deal of its purpose and meaning? Should that purpose and meaning be retained as part of our history and social conscience, or should it now be buried in favor of making an iconic piece of American literature less controversial?

In 2002, Oregon residents were asked to vote for or against removing some “obsolete” material from the State Constitution. This Constitution was written in 1857 and Oregon became a state in 1859, but nearly failed in its bid for statehood because of what has been called the “Negro exclusion act.” This was a complicated matter, put to the citizens who were voting to adapt the Constitution, and with two articles (one dealing with whether or not slaves should be allowed in the new State, the other whether or not suffrage should be allowed to free negroes.) People were uncomfortable that these issues were in the original Constitution, and voted to expunge it. I felt strongly that it should be left – it was a piece of our history and for better or worse, it reflected some of the social issues that were prevalent at the time Oregon became a state. How can we understand our present if our history is cleaned and polished to reflect a later period in time?

So I guess I’m also against changing the terms that Twain very carefully used in his books, for these very reasons of historocity and social implication.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Marianne Macdonald’s Dido Hoare Bibliomysteries

So far I have read the first three books in this series:
Death’s Autograph
Ghost Walk
Smoke Screen

London antiquarian bookseller Dido Hoare is a bit different from the usual “cozy” bibliomystery heroine. Sharp, modern, independent, she likes a good drink, a good roll in the hay with the right man (at one that seems right at the moment) and not long into the series finds herself a single mom with a son by her ex-husband (who is killed before the child is born). In addition, she worries about her father Barnabas, a retired academic (and one-time member of Signal Intelligence) with a strong interest in Dido’s business (both personal and professional) who has previously suffered a heart attack but seems no worse for wear.

Dido, of course, consistently refuses to turn mysterious issues over the police and to stay out of obviously dangerous situations. In fact, her involvement in each of these cases seems inescapable at the outset, a refreshing change from contrived mystery plots. While Barnabas expresses dismay at her antics, he often brings his insights, as well as his professional associations, to bear on the cases that Dido falls into.

For backup, there is babysitter Phyllis who takes baby Ben off Dido’s hands when she’s busy getting herself embroiled in yet another misadventure, and Ernie, a burly young black student from Sierra Leone who is a computer whiz, setting up Dido’s catalogs and insisting that she sell books online. (Ernie also cheerfully offers himself as a bodyguard when the occasion calls for some brawn.)

There is, as well, the obligatory book dealer’s cat, Mr. Spock – who so far does little in the series besides providing the opportunity for a joke about naming him because “his ears are pointed.”

Macdonald makes a good effort to understand the ins and outs of used and antiquarian book buying and selling, the peculiarities of book dealers, and the range of interests (and the oddities) of a bookshop’s customers.

Additional books in the series:
Road Kill
Blood Lies
Die Once
Faking it

Monday, January 3, 2011


Christmas morning, 2010. I of course spent a good deal of time in the kitchen, preparing food. I watched out the window, remembering so many similar Christmas mornings when children would start tumbling out into the street, trying out new bikes or skates or scooters or showing off new sports equipment, or just running to tell each other about their gifts.
This year there was not one child. Presumably they were indoors enjoying their wii’s and x-boxes or whatever it is that they do these days. The day outside remained cold, gray, caliginous, and devoid of childish laughter and excitement. I found I missed that.

I remembered some other traditions fondly. Like saving wrapping paper. You really can’t save much these days – the stuff breaks and tears even when you’re trying to use it the first time. But the old stuff held up well – sparse use of tape and careful unwrapping kept it intact. Smoothed out and stored it could be reused year after year. Some favorite pieces were passed around so much that they grew thin and rather limp. As a child, I was always thrilled when one of my favorites came back. I still remember one sheet with an image of reindeer on it – it grew smaller and thinner as years went by but I was always pleased when it came back to me. (As it often did, since I was a child isolated between two generations.)

I got to thinking about other things that have changed….not especially for the better, or worse, just different. Such as wearing a sweater around the house in winter. I don’t see that many cardigans in clothing stores these days – but then, I don’t really shop for clothing much so I could be missing their season. But there was a time when having a sweater (or a few, because they were popular gifts) for winter housewear was just standard. We didn’t expect homes to be heated to tee-shirt temperatures in winter. Socks and sweaters go a long way to keep a body comfortable when the environment is chilly around the edges.

I miss letters – real, physical, stamp it lick it stick it in the mail letters. I miss glass bottles of Coke and Orange Nehi pulled from a cooler with bits of ice and water running down their sides, and milkshakes served in big metal mixing containers with a soda fountain glass to pour into. I miss gas stations where attendants raced to clean your windshield, check your oil and water (and sometimes tire pressure), and handed you a free road map if you needed one.
I miss courtesy – holding open a door for an elder or someone with an armload of packages. Stepping into single file on a sidewalk to let others pass. Making way for other shoppers in the grocery store (these days the aisles are often clogged with people who have stopped to natter on their cell phones while leaning on their shopping carts). Thank you notes.

For some reason now I’m craving a cup of cocoa. I never crave hot chocolate but I seem to be having a nostalgia attack.

If only there were some snow, I’d go make a snowman and then come in for the cocoa. And Campbell’s chicken soup. Well, doesn’t that take you back to childhood! Red mittens – for some reason I feel a need for red mittens……