Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 17

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[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

Here's another surprise from the Hoge Brush Company files: a letter from the Walter T. Kelley Company, a Kentucky-based vendor of beekeeping supplies. This somehow feels akin to the earlier letter we saw from a chicken coop company.

It's not clear from the letter what sort of business Hoge and Kelley were doing, but beekeepers use brushes, so I suspect that was the basis for the two companies' relationship.

I love the letterhead design. And look how they used those three horizontal red lines to indicate that they're leaving Paducah and moving to Clarkson — even the cross-out is nicely designed!

The letter explains that the company is being forced to move "due to chaotic conditions in Paducah caused by the building of the billion dollar atomic plant here." That is an apparent reference to the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, a uranium enrichment facility. There's some additional info here. The plant opened in 1952, so the letter, which is undated, was presumably sent out around that time.

This is the part where I'd usually say, "The Walter T. Kelley Company is no longer in business." But it turns out that Kelley is still an ongoing concern. Not only that, but they're still located in Clarkson, where they had relocated due to the "chaotic conditions" in Paducah. Their website's "About" page includes the following:

In the late 1950s [I think they meant 1940s — PL], the federal government announced a half-billion dollar atomic plant would be located in McCracken County, on the site of the Old Kentucky Ordinance Plant, not far from Paducah. With labor talent in short supply, [Walter T. Kelley] began construction of a new manufacturing plant in Grayson County and in November 1952, an office/shipping structure and factory buildings were erected and ready to be equipped with production machinery. So with his semi-truck loaded, Mr. Kelley moved the factory’s goods 160 miles to Clarkson, KY, where it resides today.

Interesting that the change-of-address letter refers to the plant as a "billion dollar" initiative, while the website says "half-billion." Perhaps, as is so often the case with government projects, this one had some cost overruns.

Kelley, incidentally, still offers brushes. It's not clear who now supplies them.

(My continued thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing the Hoge Brush Company letters with me.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 16

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[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

Our latest letter from the Hoge Brush Company files is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, the letter itself, sent on Christmas Eve 1947 by a New York City operation called Baer Brothers, offers virtually no substance at all (it's basically just a very long-winded way of saying, "Sorry to hear you can't use our services at the moment, but please keep us in mind for the the future"). Still, it's a really nice piece of letterhead design, it features a cool-sounding word that's new to me, and it has a killer logo at the bottom, all of which are worth a closer look.

Let's start at the top. So many little clusters of type! It almost looks like one of those word cloud thingies we commonly see online these days.

I'm particularly interested in the notation beneath the telephone numbers near the top-left corner, where it refers to the company's "shellac bleachery" in Stamford, Connecticut. Now there's a good word — bleachery. I assume that's a facility for bleaching things, right? Right. But how does that pertain to shellac? The answer can be found on this page, as follows:

Shellac, a classic wood finish, is produced by a tiny insect, the Lac Bug, native to India and Thailand. It is a natural resin secreted by the insects on specific trees found in Southeast Asia. The dark, reddish-brown resin is harvested, crushed, rinsed and processed. The resin can be tinted to bring out rich, natural colors in wood, or the seedlac can be bleached to remove color for a clear finish.

Interesting! According to that same page, North America's only remaining shellac bleachery currently operates in Attleboro, Massachusetts, so Baer's facility in Connecticut (which you can see in this flier) is apparently no longer operating.

But the highlight of the letterhead is clearly the Baer Brothers logo at the bottom. Let's take a closer look (click to enlarge):

How can you not love a pair of house-painting bears wearing matching white suits? I especially like the little "Baer Bros." scripts on the jacket collars. And look, the paint cans say, "Bruin Paint" — a great little touch that I didn't even notice until I enlarged the logo. One of the bears is winking! The whole thing is much more playful and fun than the rest of the letterhead design, which makes me wonder if it was added as an afterthought.

Baer Brothers is no longer in business, but the company's legacy is easy enough to trace on eBay, which features listings for lots of vintage Baer products, including bronze powder (look here, here, here, and here), soap detergent, and this varnish pamphlet.

The address listed on the Baer letterhead — 438 West 37th St. in Manhattan — shows no evidence of the company's former presence. Too bad. I was hoping to see the logo with the bears painted on the wall.

(My continued thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing the Hoge Brush Company letters with me.)

Friday, April 1, 2016

Lost and Found: Returning a Photo Album to Its Rightful Owner

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Last summer I posted an entry about Josh Koonce, who had rescued two old photo albums from an evicted storage unit in Chicago and was hoping to reunite them with their rightful owner. The image above shows part of a spread from one of the albums, and you can see additional photos here and here.

I'm happy to report that Josh has hit paydirt. Here's an email I received from him on Friday, April 1:

Not long after our correspondence last year, I was removing photos from the album for scanning and I found a name on the back of one of them. The photo showed a young woman and on the back was her name, along with "Age 16" and "11th grade." It was a name not mentioned elsewhere in the album. I will call her by her initials, JE.

Google — or rather, one of those weird whitepages websites that still exist on the internet for some reason — turned up an address in the Chicago south suburbs along with a publicly listed telephone number.

And what I did with that info was ... procrastinate for about nine months. I'd be a terrible reporter.

Earlier this week I finally worked up my nerve and decided I had to make this call. The number worked and the man who answered only told me his first name (I'll call him J). Although he seemed skeptical at first, he said he was JE's husband. I asked if I could talk to her, he didn't want to let me do that, but he definitely knew about the albums and wanted to meet up so he could retrieve them.

I told J I'd give him the albums even if he came alone, but that I'd prefer to give them to JE as well, since they were photos of her and her family.

We arranged to meet at a Dunkin Donuts near my office on my lunch break earlier today. I brought the albums, and J and JE were both there to meet me. They went through the albums right there with me, and it was pretty emotional — they did not think they were going to see these photos again. JE's father had placed the albums with some other belongings in the storage unit before succumbing to dementia and eventually passing away. By the time the family knew the storage unit was being evicted, it was too late to save anything.

I declined their offer of a reward, they declined my request for a photo, and I apologized that it had taken me so long to get the photos to them.

Very nice. Congrats to Josh on the successful resoluation of this story.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 15

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[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

Here we have one of the most interesting and entertaining letters from the Hoge Brush Company files, this one written in 1963 by Viola Scott, president of the Bill Kirk Mfg. Co. of Amarillo, Texas, which manufactured a product called Bill Kirk's Old Scratch Cow Scratcher.

The letter suggests that Hoge Brush president Carl Werheim had apparently seen Scott appearing on What's My Line?, a then-popular TV quiz show featuring celebrity panelists who tried to guess a mystery person's occupation. (Since Scott's occupation was "cow scratcher manufacturer," she must have been a very challenging subject!) Werheim, sensing a potential new client, had evidently sent Scott a note suggesting that Hoge could meet any brush needs she might have. But as Scott explained in her reply, shown above, Bill Kirk's Old Scratch Cow Scratcher didn't involve any brushes or bristles (it featured metal washers that a cows could rub against, with the washers then releasing a mix of oil and insecticide into the animal's hide), so she had no need for Hoge's services.

Thanks to the internet's tendency to catalog virtually everything, it's easy to ascertain that Viola Scott's appearance on What's My Line? took place in the 41st episode of the show's 14th season, which aired on June 9, 1963. (No video appears to exist online, unfortunately.) Scott's letter to Werheim indicates that his original letter to her had been dated June 10, so he apparently didn't waste any time in pursuing his potential new customer.

As far as I can tell, the Bill Kirk Mfg. Co. is no longer with us. The company and its eponymous product were featured in Time magazine in 1951. The cow scratcher itself was patented in 1953, and Kirk filed a patent-infringement suit against a rival manufacturer in 1958.

It's not clear, at least to me, if Viola Scott later acquired the company from Bill Kirk or if Kirk hired her as company president. Either way, she's the one who got to appear on What's My Line?

Interestingly, the Hoge Brush files include a flier from an Omaha firm called the Farnam Company, which manufactured some devices that appear to have been very similar to Bill Kirk's Old Scratch Cow Scratcher. Here are the front and back of the flier (click images to enlarge):

Unlike the Bill Kirk product, however, these Farnam contraptions did involve brushes. Here's the key passage from the flier:

When [the cattle] enter to scratch, an ounce of oil-base insecticide (ROTEN-OIL) or any of the other powerful new "war-tested" insecticides, such as Farnam ROTENOX in water solution, is automatically released through brushes onto the animal's back and is curried-in by stiff fibre brushes.

The flier is dated 1948 — a full 15 years before Carl Werheim saw Viola Scott on What's My Line? So perhaps Farnam had already been a Hoge customer, and Werheim figured the Bill Kirk Mfg. Co. was making a similar product, not realizing that the Bill Kirk device was brush-free.

The Farnam Company, like the Bill Kirk firm, is no longer in business.

(My continued thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing the Hoge Brush Company letters with me.)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Rescued Film Project

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I've written plenty of times about found photographs. But Levi Bettwieser, a photographer and video producer from Boise, Idaho, takes the found imagery phenomenon a step further: He specializes in found film — old undeveloped rolls that he finds at flea markets and thrift stores, or via online auctions. He then develops and prints them and shares the results on his excellent website, the Rescued Film Project.

The photos shown at the top and bottom this entry are among the many thousands of images Bettwieser has produced from these film rolls. As usual with found photos, some are excellent and some are, well, not so excellent, but all are interesting simply by virtue of having been orphaned. All the usual questions about found photography apply here: Who are the people in these photos? Where are they now? And so on. But Bettwieser's project adds additional questions to the mix: Why didn't the people who shot these rolls of film get around to developing them? If the film was neglected, how did it avoid being thrown out?

If you want to know more, there's a good article about the Rescued Film Project here — recommended.

(My thanks to Mary Bakija for letting me know about this one.)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 14

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[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

The two letters shown above — our latest peek into the files of the Hoge Brush Company — are both from the same firm, the Indianapolis Brush & Broom Mfg. Co. As you can see, one was written on rather ornate, almost Art Nouvau-style stationery, while the other letterhead design looks more modern, more contemporary. So I was surprised to see that the more modern design actually came first — that letter was written in 1943. By the time of the second letter, in 1949, the company had switched to the more ornate design. Surprising!

Also surprising, or at least a bit odd: The 1949 letterhead notes that Capital Red Cap Brooms are "sweeping the country." This is presumably the red-topped broom shown on the 1943 letterhead. Strange that they would show this product (without mentioning it) on one letterhead design and mention it (without showing it) on the other.

Both letterheads note that Indianapolis Brush & Broom was located at the corner of Brush and Broom Streets — cute. According to this listing, the street address was 26 Brush Street. According to Google Maps, however, there is no thoroughfare in Indianapolis currently called Brush Street. There is a Broom Street, but it is located inside the Indianapolis Zoo.

The 1949 letterhead says Indianapolis Broom & Brush was established in 1890 and incorporated in 1902. That doesn't jibe with the information contained in this obituary for the company's founder, George Lamaux, which I found in a 1921 trade journal. It states that the company was "organized" in 1900:

The obituary notes that control of the company would be passing to Lemaux's son, Irving W. Lemaux. Irving was still president of the company through the 1940s, as his name can be found on the 1943 and ’49 letterheads (along with that of his son, Irving Jr., who signed the 1949 letter).

Irving apparently had an interest in Republican Party politics and was mentioned at one point as a potential mayoral candidate, although I couldn't find any evidence of him actually running for office:

I also found this caricature of Irving, accompanied by some unfortunate racial stereotyping:

Indianpolis Brush & Broom no longer exists. Neither does the American Supply and Machinery Manufacturers Association, which is referenced on both of the letterhead designs. I couldn't ascertain a date for either the company's or the trade group's demise.

(My continued thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing the Hoge Brush Company letters with me.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Who Was Robert James Campbell?

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The woman in the photo shown above is named Jessica Ferber. The photos spread out around her are the tip of a very large iceberg that floated into her life 13 years ago — a stash of photos, negatives, notes, letters, documents, and other materials that were left behind by a homeless man in Vermont who died in 2002. Ferber had just graduated college when she volunteered for the task of going through the deceased man's belongings, just to see if there was anything of value.

She ended up with more than she'd bargained for. The homeless man, Robert James Campbell, had been a professional photographer, and his work indicated that he'd had close ties to the New York jazz scene of the late 1950s and 1960s. Ferber, who had studied photography in college and was working at a photo processing lab at the time, immediately fell in love with Campbell's photos and felt compelled to answer the questions that the materials were raising: How had such a talented artist ended up homeless? Why had he held onto so many of his photos and negatives? Why did Google searches turn up so little evidence of his photographic career? Why had only two people — both from the homeless shelter where he had stayed — attended his funeral?

In short: Who was Robert James Campbell?

Ferber's 13-year attempt to answer that question became an obsession. She changed to a night job so her days would be free to research, cut back on socializing with friends, and learned everything she could about the jazz world that Campbell had inhabited. (She's written a good synopsis of the project here — highly recommended.) Her odyssey has now resulted in an excellent book, called Rebirth of the Cool, which features a few short essays and dozens of Campbell's photographs, many of which are stunners. Here's a sampling (if you can't see the slideshow below, click here):

You can find some additional info and photos here.

Ferber's story feels very familiar to me. Just as Campbell's belongings dropped into her lap, the Manhattan Trade School report cards dropped into mine. We both felt a strong responsibility to explore these materials and do right by the people behind them. And we both ended up sharing those people's stories with the public.

But Ferber went deeper than I did. Her project appears to have been the defining experience of her adult life, while the report cards have always been one passion among many for me. Even now, there are many dozens of report cards whose backstories I could (and really should) still investigate, and perhaps I will at some point when I have more time, but the project is back-burnered for now.

Does this mean Ferber is more obsessive than I am? Does it mean I'm lazier than she is? Does it reflect the fact that her project is focused on a single person who died recently, while mine encompasses hundreds of people, many of whom died decades ago? I think all of those things are probably true, at least to some degree.

In any case, Ferber's project is a winner, and Rebirth of the Cool is a great book. Don't miss.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 13

[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

Don't you hate it when there's a missing piece to a puzzle? That's the situation with our latest letter from the files of the Hoge Brush Company, which was sent in 1954 by the firm of A. Steiert & Son (which, judging by the letterhead design, appears to have been another company in the broom business).

The letter is a deliciously understated dig at Hoge executive Carl Werheim, as follows:

Your letter, Mr. Werheim -

… reveals an entirely different viewpoint in the purchasing of Bass Fibre than is prevalent or customary practice.

There are so many deviations in your thinking from the prevalent practice that I couldn't begin to write about all of them in this letter.

Old Man Steiert

Ouch! I love that the letter is from "Old Man Steiert" (presumably to distinguish him from "& Son"), and that he signed his name as "O.M.S."

Unfortunately, we don't know what Mr. Werheim wrote to provoke this note from Mr. Steiert, nor do we know how Mr. Werheim responded. Frustrating!

A. Steiert & Son is no longer in business. They were apparently still an ongoing concern in 1973, when they were the appellants in this Workmen's Compensation case, but I'm not sure when they ceased operations. If anyone knows more, feel free to be in touch.

(My continued thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing the Hoge Brush Company letters with me.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 12

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[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

I mentioned in our last entry that I'm a big fan of functional specificity, and that makes a good segue for our latest letter from the files of the Hoge Brush Company, which was sent in 1952 by a Massachusetts concern called Abel's Brush Center.

As you can see, the letter refers to a "tennis court brush," and a note at the end of the letter says there's an enclosed photo of the brush. Sure enough, there was a photo taped to the back of the letter:

Interesting — and very functionally specific! I'd never seen a broom or brush like this before, so I googled "tennis court broom" and found that the basic design concept hasn't changed much over the past 60-some years:

So there you go — tennis brushes. Who knew?

(My continued thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing the Hoge Brush Company letters with me.)

• • • • •

Update: In our last entry, I explored the topic of letterhead designs featuring architectural renderings. That prompted a comment from reader Will S, who brings the news that the Columbia University Library has a collection of over 1,300 letters written on stationery designs featuring architectural vignettes. Fantastic stuff — check it out here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 11

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[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

There are few things I like better than functional specificity, and it doesn't get much more functionally specific than a business called the Tubular Rivet and Stud Company. They sent the letter shown above, another treasure from our ongoing look into the Hoge Brush Company files.

The letter pretty well speaks for itself. What interests me is the letterhead design, which shows an aerial view of Tubular Rivet and Stud's vast factory complex. This was a common mid-century letterhead motif (we've seen it in one of the previous letters to Hoge Brush, and it appears on several other letters I'll eventually be presenting in this series), capturing the essence of America's smokestack-driven industrial might.

I've always believed, perhaps naively, that the factories shown in these illustrations were accurate representations of the companies on whose letterhead they appeared. So when I saw the sprawling complex depicted on the Tubular Rivet and Stud letter, I thought to myself, "Wow, they must have been making a lot of rivets!" But then I began to feel a creeping skepticism. Nobody needed that big a factory just to make rivets, right? What a sucker I'd been to believe that these letterhead illustrations were authentic representations — they were probably just stock renderings!

I wanted to know what Tubular Rivet and Stud's factory really looked like, so I started poking around on the web. The company no longer exists, but I quickly found an old promotional piece with another overhead factory shot (click to enlarge):

I initially thought this illustration showed a completely different factory complex than the one shown on the letterhead. Upon closer inspection, however, they do appear to be the same facility (click to enlarge):

Hmmmm, so does that mean this was truly the Tubular Rivet factory, or does it simply mean that they consistently used the same bogus representation? I poked around a bit more and found two photos that show very limited views of the company's plant in 1919 (click to enlarge):

At first I thought there was no way to match up these photos with the letterhead illustration, because the photos provided such tight views. But it turns out that one of them does appear to match a section of the illo. Check it out (click to enlarge):

Okay, I'm convinced — the factory shown on Tubular Rivet and Stud's letterhead was an accurate representation of their facility. But what about other companies? Did any of them use stock factory renderings, or were they all legit? If anyone knows more about this aspect of mid-century letterhead design, please feel free to enlighten me.

(My continued thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing the Hoge Brush Company letters with me.)

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 10

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[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

I like curling — the funny sport with the rocks and the brooms. Several years ago I wrote an article about my first curling experience, and I've continued to play now that curling is available in Brooklyn, where I live. (Our local curling club even has its own pin.) So I was really pleased to see that the Hoge Brush Company files included a letter from a Saskatchewan producer of curling brooms, called the Broom-Craft Co.

Unfortunately, the letter is a sad one, as it concerns the death of one of Broom-Craft's sales representatives. Still, the letter reads almost like a testimonial to curling instead of a death notification:

He passed away last evening in a Curling Game. Cliff had a very bad heart and was told not to over-exercise, but it was his game. His two boys were with him and I guess Cliff just swept too furiously. He fell on the ice and died immediately. I don't think Cliff would have asked to leave in any other way.

It's not clear if Cliff was using the Skipper — the Broom-Craft product touted at the bottom of the letterhead — when he "swept too furiously," although that seems like a reasonable assumption.

The letter's second paragraph has an odd, dreamy tone — "Will get them shipped some day, I guess." Unusual for a business letter, but rather charming.

As it happens, the Hoge Brush Company files include a second letter from Broom-Craft, this one dated about a year and a half after the first one. They had redesigned their letterhead to promote several broom models in addition to the Skipper (click to enlarge):

Both letters are signed "Jim," so I'm assuming they're from the same person. Jim's tone remains somewhat breezy (it appears to have been his nature), although the underlined "fifteen minute" reference in the first sentence is a bit pointed. Can't tell if that was meant to poke fun at himself, or at Hoge exec Carl Werheim (the addressee), or if Jim was genuinely pissed off that he didn't get to have a longer visit.

As far as I can tell, the Broom-Craft Co. is no longer in business. By odd coincidence, the town in which they operated — Regina, Saskatchewan — is currently home to a "witchcraft supply shop" called the Broom Closet, which makes for some interesting search results when one tries to Google "Broom-Craft Regina." It's not clear whether the Skipper or any other curling brooms can double as witches' brooms, but I'd like to think that Jim would have taken a characteristically affable approach to such a client.

(My continued thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing the Hoge Brush Company letters with me.)

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 9

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[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

We recently saw a letter from the Hoge Brush Company files that was typed on a sheet of letterhead with a rather tasteless design. The same can be said, unfortunately, for this latest entry, which was sent by the Indian River Yacht Basin of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, in 1949.

In case you can't make out the graphic in the top-left corner, here's a closer look:

Seriously?

That isn't just tasteless. It's embarrassing.

If you can look past the letterhead design, there's one item of interest here: The last line of the handwritten note toward the bottom appears to say, "They have the dex." I suspect "dex" was slang for "deck brushes," which were referenced in the letter. I like the idea that brush companies had little phonetic shorthand terms like "dex." It's a lot like journalism, where a headline is a "hed," a paragraph is a "graf," and so on.

The Indian River Yacht Basin does not appear to be in business, although Rehoboth Beach does have an Indian River Marina, which may be essentially the same thing with a slightly revised name. I did find several Indian River Yacht Basin postcards, however. Judging from the cars shown on this one, it probably dates from the 1940s, which was when the letter to Hoge Brush was sent (for all of these, you can click to enlarge):

Then there's this one (it doesn't say "Yacht Basin" on the front, but it does on the back):

And finally there's this one (I'm showing the text from the back so you can see the Indian River connection, which wouldn't otherwise be apparent):

It's nice to see that none of these postcards had any imagery like the illustration on the letterhead.

(My continued thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing the Hoge Brush Company letters with me.)

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 8

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[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

One thing I've learned from the Hoge Brush Company series is that all sorts of companies were involved in the brush and broom industry — even companies that you wouldn't ordinarily expect. That's the case with our latest letter from the Hoge files, a 1950 missive on very attractive letterhead from Hoosier Wood Works — "Manufacturers of Fine Poultry Coops."

Okay, I get it: The dowels used to make chicken coops aren't all that different from a broom handle, so if you can make the former, you can presumably make the latter. But it's still interesting to see a company with such a niche-specific specialty dabbling so far outside its niche. (Interestingly, current articles about how to construct your own chicken coop, like this one, suggest using broom handles as chicken perches, so there's still an overlap between the two industries.)

I couldn't find any information on Hoosier Wood Works, but I suspect they're now out of business, because someone else is now using that company name. According to this listing of Indiana wood-related businesses, there's also a Hoosier Woodshop, a Hoosier Wood Creations, and two different Hoosier Wood Specialties. It's not clear if any of them manufactures chicken coops (or broom handles, for that matter).

(My continued thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing the Hoge Brush Company letters with me.)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 7

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[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

Our latest letter from the files of the Hoge Brush Company is a particularly interesting one, because the firm that sent it — the New Era Mercantile Company — was based in Havana, Cuba. There was nothing unusual about an American company doing business in Cuba in 1945, when the letter was sent, but Cuba has been off-limits to Americans for so long that the mere sight of a sheet of Cuban letterhead now seems exotic.

Unfortunately, I can't find anything about New Era Mercantile's history or current status. It's interesting that they were located in the Bacardi Building — rum is such a signature Cuban product, it almost seems like a cliché for our one Cuban entry in this series to have a Bacardi connection. In any case, the Art Deco building dates back to 1930 and is still in use today.

(My continued thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing the Hoge Brush Company letters with me.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 6

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[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

Our previous look at the files from the Hoge Brush Company featured a truly outstanding example of letterhead design. Our latest example — a 1953 letter from Superior Painter Tools, Inc., of Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, concerning a product called the Roll-O-Brush — is at the other end of the spectrum.

There's a long, unfortunate tradition of pin-up posters, many of them by the illustrator Art Frahm, showing women inadvertently "losing" their underwear or otherwise exposing their lingerie while walking the dog, bowling, waiting at a bus stop, changing a flat tire, riding an elevator, putting coins in a parking meter, or ringing the dinner bell, among many other activities. But those depictions never showed the model's exposed derriere like the Superior Painter Tools letterhead does. Superior's model also appears to be a girl, not an adult woman, which makes the whole thing even creepier. Why would a company choose to present itself in this way?

If you can look past the letterhead design, I quite like the references to "jobbing," which was once (and maybe still is..?) a slang term for wholesaling. In this parlance, a "jobber" is "jobbing" a product line by selling it to retail operations. Does anyone know if this term is still in use?

Superior Painter Tools does not appear to be in business these days. I did find a reference to one of their products, however, in the March 1954 issue of Popular Mechanics (click to enlarge):

As you can see, the product in question is a paint brush with a clip-on roller. This may be the Roll-O-Brush referred to in Superior's 1953 letter to Hoge Brush! Hmmm, did Hoge end up jobbing it?

(My continued thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing the Hoge Brush Company letters with me.)

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 5

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[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

Our latest letter from the files of the Hoge Brush Company — a missive from the A. L. Hansen Mfg. Co. regarding a malfunctioning stapler — has nothing to do with brooms or brushes and could easily have come from the files of any mid-century company. But I'm including it in the series anyway because (a) the letterhead is absolutely spectacular and (b) the subject matter appeals to my love of specificity.

First, that letterhead — my god, is that a beauty or what? Look at the decorative swash that accents the type at the top. Who came up with that, and where can we see the other things he or she designed? Magnificent! I also love all the staplers, each of them firing a series of staples, running down the left sidebar. Unfortunately, the stapler model referred to in the letter — the T 1 Tacker — isn't shown. Frustrating!

Some of the text is priceless, too. I especially love the paragraph explaining the difference between Tacks and Tackpoints: "The TACKS have a blunt point whereas the Tackpoints have a sharp point." One imagines A. L. Hansen's staff explaining this distinction over and over again to various clients.

The A. L. Hansen Mfg. Co. is still an ongoing concern, although it appears that they no longer manufacture staplers. According to their website's "About" page, the company was founded in 1920 by one Augie L. Hansen, a Danish immigrant who had worked for Thomas Edison during World War I. Their longtime slogan appears to have been "Hardware for Hard Wear." Unfortunately, that slogan doesn't appear on the old letterhead, which is about the only bad thing one can say about it.

(My continued thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing the Hoge Brush Company letters with me.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 4

[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

Our latest letter from the files of the Hoge Brush Company is this 1954 note sent to Hoge executive Carl Werheim from another brush operation — the Sunshine Brush Co. of Cleveland.

As you can see, the letter has nothing to do with brushes. The topic at hand is World Series tickets. The note from Al Leventhal of Sunshine Brush says, "[I]t is absolutely a bedlam here for tickets," and with good reason — on Sept. 22, when he wrote the letter, the Cleveland Indians had clinched the American League pennant and were a few days away from finishing the season with a record of 111-43, setting the mark for the most wins ever by an A.L. team. They were heavily favored against the National League's New York Giants.

It's not clear if Leventhal or Werheim were able to procure tickets. If so, they were likely disappointed in the outcome, as the Giants swept the Indians in four games. (This is the Series in which Giants centerfielder Willie Mays made his now-famous miracle catch in Game 1.) The first two games were played in New York, and then Games 3 and 4 were at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. That means the Indians and their fans in attendance — possibly including Leventhal and Werheim — had to watch the Giants celebrating their championship on Cleveland's field, which must have been a particularly bitter pill after the Indians had seemed to be such a juggernaut.

Note that Leventhal mentioned that tickets had to be purchased for all three games being played in Cleveland. But there was no third game in Cleveland — that game, which would have been Game 5 of the Series, became unnecessary when the Giants swept the first four games.

It would be 41 years before the Indians appeared in another World Series — which they also lost, to the Atlanta Braves in 1995. Two years after that they lost the World Series yet again, this time to the Florida Marlins. Those are the only Series appearances they've had since 1954.

As for Sunshine Brush of Cleveland, I googled it and found a listing indicating that it's no longer in business. But then I found another listing for it that included a reference to a company called Newton Broom & Brush, so I looked that up and found that Newton is an Illinois company that's still very much in business. Not only that — check out this passage from their "About Us" page:

[L]ocal bankers E. W. Hersh and A. F. Calvin, together with former congressman E. B. Brooks, incorporated Newton Broom Company on January 10, 1914. … In 1935 the original partnership was dissolved and P. L. Adams of Louisville, Kentucky purchased the business. In 1954, Adams died and his wife sold Newton Broom Company to Alex Leventhal of Cleveland, Ohio.

Alex Leventhal — that's Al Leventhal, who wrote the letter about the World Series tickets! So regardless of whether he was able to obtain those tickets or not, 1954 was an eventful year for him. He must have acquired Newton Broom & Brush as part of Sunshine Brush's holdings.

The "About Us" text goes on to say that Newton Brush is now operated by Leventhal's son, Don Leventhal. I suppose I could call and ask if he knows whether his father attended the 1954 World Series, but I'd almost rather not know. Sometimes the question is more interesting than the answer.

(My continued thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing the Hoge Brush Company letters with me.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 3

Click to enlarge

[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

Our latest letter from the Hoge Brush Company files is this 1945 dispatch from the Elwing Implement Company of Campbellsport, Wisconsin (a town I believe I drove through during a 2014 road trip, although I have no specific memory of it).

The very nice John Deere letterhead is a standardized design that Deere made available to all of its authorized dealers during this period.

It's interesting that a John Deere tractor dealer would also be selling brooms. At first I thought, "Well, I guess it all falls under the heading of 'farm equipment,'" but some research reveals that brooms were apparently Fred Elwing's principle business, while the farm implement company was just a side operation. This 1952 article from The Campbellsport News mentions, "The largest broom factory in Wisconsin is operated here by Fred Elwing." Additional details are filled in by this 1977 article from The Fond du Lac Commonwealth Reporter (here's the jump), which indicates that Elwing Broom was founded in Milwaukee in 1900, moved to Campbellsport in the late 1930s, and was sold by the Elwing family to new ownership in 1977. In 1981 The Milwaukee Sentinel reported that Elwing Broom was still going strong under the new ownership, but some additional research shows that the company was sold again in 1984. I'm not sure when it was closed, but it doesn't appear to be in business anymore.

So why was Fred Elwing writing to Hoge Brush on John Deere letterhead? This Campbellsport town history includes an entry for "Elwing Implement John Deere Co" that reads as follows: "Fredrick Elwing built the cement block building [at 512 South Fond du Lac Avenue] and after one year in business he sold to Herman Beuchel and he operated it until November 22nd 1949 and then sold to Rolland Jacak." So it appears that this letter from Fred Elwing to Hoge Brush was written during the very narrow time slot in which Elwing was running the Deere business in addition to his broom factory.

Meanwhile, a simple whitepages.com search reveals that the Elwing family is still well-represented in and around Campbellsport.

(My continued thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing the Hoge Brush Company letters with me.)

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 2

Click to enlarge

[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

Our latest document from the Hoge Brush files is a 1945 letter from the Joseph Lay Company, Inc., of Portland, Indiana — another brush and broom operation.

Of note:

• Wow, that's some design, with the plane dropping the bomb and all. Although I haven't seen this design before, I'm assuming it wasn't unique to this company. This was likely a basic template offered by stationery manufacturers, so any company could put its name at the top and support the war effort.

• The lettering for the company name at the top of the page feels a lot like the "United States of America" lettering across the top of a dollar bill.

• I believe the mention of 16" Palm probably refers to palmyra brush bristles, which are mentioned on this Hoge promotional flier. According to this page, palmyra is "a cinnamon colored fiber produced from the base of the leaf stalks of the India Palmyra palm. It has a medium stiff to stiff texture and is light to dark brown in color. It is finer, less stiff, more brittle, and of lower quality than bassine. Used in garage floor brushes, fender washing brushes, deck brushes, and scrub brushes."

• Love the reference to the new inventory being "afloat."

• The "Yours 'V' truly" send-off is interesting. Don't think I've ever seen that before.

• Looks like H.J. Lay's signature was applied via a rubber stamp.

• As noted near the top of the letter, the Joseph Lay Company dates back to the 1870s. The notation "Originators of the Metal Case Broom" may refer to this patent, which was granted in 1883 to company founder Joseph Lay, or it may refer to this patent, which was granted in 1900 to Lay's son, Samuel C. Lay. Further details on this, and on other aspects of the company's history up through 1925, can be found in these documents held by the Indiana Historical Society. Later, in the 1930s, the company came out with the Kitchenette broom, the rights to which were later acquired by an Illinois firm called Quinn Broom Works, which still makes the Kitchenette today. Although the Kitchenette has survived, it appears that the Joseph Lay Company has not.

That's all for this one. More letters from the Hoge Brush Company files soon.

(Special thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing these materials with me.)

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 1

Click to enlarge

David Zwiep works for the Hoge Lumber Company in New Knoxville, Ohio. Hoge recently decided to sell a building that used to house a division called the Hoge Brush Company, which specialized in brushes, brooms, and so on (see flier above, from 1956), and David was tasked with cleaning it out. Along the way, he encountered lots of old paperwork, much of it on beautiful letterhead. He kept some of it and shared it with his daughter, Joanna Zwiep, who in turn has shared it with me.

Joanna thought I'd be interested in the old letterhead designs, and she was right — many of them are spectacular. But I also found myself intrigued by the letters themselves, most of which are from representatives of other brush-centric companies looking to sell broom handles, purchase brush bristles, or whatever. There's something about the brush industry that I find oddly endearing — a combination of specificity and banality, perhaps. In addition, for the most part we no longer make brushes and brooms in America, so the letters are a peek into a bygone industry.

Joanna has sent me over a dozen of these letters. Rather than present them all at once, I'm going to parcel them out one at a time and create a little series out of them. We'll begin today with this very simple letter from 1944, sent by the Mersman Bros. Corporation of Celina, Ohio (click to enlarge):

There are lots of interesting bits here. One thing at a time:

• Mersman Bros. is no longer in business. But during their heyday, they lived up to the slogan at the bottom of the letter: "Mersman — The Biggest Name in Tables." The man who signed the letter, Walter Mersman, was the son of the founder, J.B. Mersman, who began making tables in Ohio around 1876. There's a good recap of the company's history here, and many Mersman tables can be found on eBay. It's not clear why Mersman was making brush handles in 1944, but it's worth remembering that most American factories had shifted to wartime production during World War II, so Mersman's normal production routines (and Hoge's, for that matter) were probably affected.

• The factory plant at the top of the letterhead, complete with the smokestacks, is so mid-century perfect, presenting the image of bustling production and industry.

• The fine print at top left refers to the "New York Furniture Exchange." I've lived in New York for nearly 30 years and had never heard of this, so I Googled it and learned that 200 Lexington Ave. in Manhattan — a building that occupies the block between 32nd and 33rd Sts. — houses a bunch of showrooms open to buyers in the furniture and design trade. Designed by the skyscraper architect Ely Jacques Kahn, it was built in 1926 and called the New York Furniture Exchange, but since 1981 it has been known as the New York Design Center (which I had also never heard of, although it seems like the sort of place I should have been aware of). A lithograph showing the building's exterior, made by the printmaker Louis Lozowick, is in the Smithsonian Institution's permanent collection.

• The conventions of mid-1940s communications seem pretty odd today, don't they? This letter advises Hoge Brush that the brush handles will be available "the latter part of next week." But the date of the letter — April 14, 1944 — was a Friday. Assuming the letter was mailed that day, it probably arrived at Hoge's offices the following Monday, which means the brush handles would actually be available toward the latter part of that week — or, in other words, in a couple of days. Obviously, email wasn't available in 1944, but why not just pick up the phone? Seems like that would have been more efficient. (For that matter, Celina and New Knoxville are only 18 miles apart. Mersman could have sent an errand boy to deliver the message in person and had him back in the office the same day.)

That's it for this installment. I'll have more Hoge Brush correspondence soon.

(Special thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing these materials with me.)

• • • • •

A programming note: You may have noticed that I posted much less frequently than usual this past autumn. Part of that is because I've been busy (in case you're not aware, here's a new project that's been taking up some of my time), but it's also because I've become somewhat bored with aggregating existing news stories that have already been reported elsewhere. It's much more satisfying to post entries that break new ground — like this series about the Hoge Brush Company files — instead of repackaging the latest news report about a message in a bottle or whatever.

I'm not saying I'll never do posts on things that have been reported elsewhere (the recent post about long-lost letters to Santa, for example, was really fun, even if I was rehashing other people's reporting). For the most part, though, I'm going to try to keep PermaRec focused on original storytelling. I know this will be more rewarding for me, and I hope for you as well.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Library Card Revisited

Last March I posted an entry about some old library book cards that I'd purchased on Etsy. The books were all from the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library at Phillips Academy, a prep school in Andover, Mass.

Now reader El Jefe has pointed out something I'd missed: One of the cards, for the book Eight Famous Plays by August Strindberg (shown above), was checked out April 20, 1973, by one P. Sellars and again on Sept. 23, 1974, by Peter Sellars — clearly the same person, judging by the handwriting.

That would appear to be the contemporary theater director Peter Sellars, who, sure enough, graduated from Phillips Academy in 1975. Fascinating to see that he twice took out a book of plays by Strindberg, an experimental Swedish playwright. "Heady reading for a 16- or 17-year-old," says El Jefe, "and quite possibly a formative experience for his future career." Indeed.

This also means I now have an object with Peter Sellars's signature — a celebrity autograph, so to speak (assuming one considers Sellars to be a celebrity, which he is in certain circles). I'm still sorting out how I feel about that. On the one hand, I admit that it's fun to suddenly realize that I have a document with a semi-famous person's signature. On the other hand, one of the underlying points of Permanent Record is that "normal" people have their own stories to tell, no fame or notoriety required. Sellars is interesting, but all the other students who checked out the Strindberg book, and whose names are listed on the card along with Sellars's, are in some ways more interesting because of their relative anonymity. Who were they? What have they ended up doing with their lives? Did this book affect them in any way? All questions worth pondering.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Rolodex with an Atomic Pedigree

The Center for Land Use Interpretation, a California-based group of which I've been a proud member for nearly 20 years, has just published a sensational book: Los Alamos Rolodex: Doing Business with the National Lab, 1967-1978, a collection of 150 business cards selected from seven old Rolodexes that were salvaged from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico — the research facility where the atomic bomb was developed during World War II and where atomic weapons development continued to take place for the next several decades.

The book's introduction does a good job setting the stage, and also gives the whole project a very Permanent Record-ish spin. Here's an excerpt:

The collection of cards presents a record of companies that supplied goods and services to the nuclear industry, including everything from major military contractors to small, obscure high-tech widget suppliers — many of which are no longer extant (out of business or, more likely, bought and folded into larger military suppliers). Together, they are a historical snapshot of American high-tech corporations, their logos and graphics locked in time.

[…]

As a historical record … they are hard evidence of the business relationships that built the transformative and secret technology that our nation still uses to dominate globally. … These business cards are the synapses of this empire, each one the tip of an iceberg that may never be explored.

It takes a lot of technology to make technology, but ultimately the bomb was made by people calling other people on the phone. Although these cards are corporate, by definition, they are also personal. The cards name names: the individual salesmen who were came calling, or were called upon, by the lab contractors. … The cards are even intimate, listing direct phone numbers, few of which seem to be in service anymore. … In this way, the cards today represent the opposite of what they were originally meant to do — connect people to people, seller to buyer. These cards are now dead ends. Obsolete, ephemeral minutiae.

Nicely put. Historical context notwithstanding, the cards are fascinating on their own terms. Many of them come from very entertainingly named firms (the ProtectoSeal Company, Beehive Electrotech, Pulverizing Machinery, Vacu-Blast Corporation, Push Button Container Corporation, Precision Monolithics, General Astrometals, Industrial Wiping Materials by Scott, and, my favorite, Zero Blast-n-Peen). And the designs are soooo Sixties, which I mean in the best way. Here are a few examples (for all of the photos, click to enlarge):

Good stuff, right? And that's just a very small sampling. You can order the book here.

The notion of harvesting artifacts from Rolodexes is particularly interesting because the Rolodex itself is something of an artifact from a bygone era. I'm old enough to have been around them (I worked in a series of office jobs from 1987 to 1996, which I gather was the roughly the final chapter of the Rolodex's heyday), but for whatever reason I never got in the habit of using them, although I recall many of my co-workers being fairly dependant on them. According to one report, people were still buying them in 2013, although I suspect we're talking about a pretty tiny niche market. I kinda figured they were invented in the 1930s or so, but this article (which is worth reading — lots of good info) says they weren't sold until the 1950s. Interesting.