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:


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

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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 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 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

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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 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

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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.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Long-Lost Love Letters

The letters shown above are being held by a Colorado women named Amy Lehocky. She wrote the letters — mostly love letters to her then-boyfriend — 19 years ago and dropped them in a decommissioned bank night depository that she mistakenly thought was a mailbox.

The love letters (along with a few other pieces of mail that Amy dropped in the depository) were recently liberated from the depository during some building renovations and were returned to Amy, who then shared them with her long-ago boyfriend, with whom she's still friendly. Get the full story here.

(My thanks to Bo Baize for letting me know about this one.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Century-Old Letters to Santa Found in Chimney

Meet Peter Mattaliano, an acting coach and screenwriter who lives in Manhattan. He's holding a framed letter to Santa and its envelope, which he found sealed in his chimney while doing some apartment renovations 15 years ago. The letter is dated Dec. 24, 1907, and was written by a 10-year-old girl named Mary McGann, who used to live in Mattaliano's apartment. The chimney also contained another letter to Santa, this one from 1905 and written by Mary's brother, Alfred McGann.

Mary's letter is particularly poignant. It reads:

Dear Santa Claus:

I am very glad that you are coming around tonight. My little brother would like you to bring him a wagon which I know you cannot afford. I will ask you to bring him whatever you think best. Please bring me something nice what you think best.

Your loving friend,
Mary McGann

P.S. Please do not forget the poor

Both letters have been damaged somewhat by moisture, smoke, and time, but they're still legible. Mattaliano keeps them displayed on the same chimney inside which they once resided (click photos to enlarge):

With the help of census records and online genealogy tools, Mattaliano has been able to trace the outlines of Mary and Alfred's lives, and has even located Mary's burial plot at a cemetery in Queens. He'd like to give the letters to one of their descendants but has so far been unable to locate a living blood relative. So for now he keeps the letters, thinks about these two children who once lived in the apartment he now calls home, and honors their spirit by purchasing little presents for them, just like the ones they asked Santa to bring.

You can read more about all of this in this tremendous article by the great New York Times reporter Corey Kilgannon, who's really good at telling this type of story. There's also a nice little video clip here:

Incredibly enough, there's another story floating around about an old letter to Santa found in a chimney. This time the letter-writer was a six-year-old British boy named David, who wrote his letter in 1943. The letter was recently found by a builder named Lewis Shaw, who was renovating the fireplace of a house in Berkshire. It reads:

Dear Father Christmas,

Please can you send me a Rupert annual, and a drum box of chalks, soldiers and Indians, slippers, silk tie, pencil box, and any little toys you have to spare?


Shaw — the builder who found the letter — asked residents of neighboring houses, who had lived on the block for many decades. They remembered David and were able to provide his full name: David Haylock.

Shaw then tracked down Haylock, who's now 78, and arranged for a meeting, where he gave Haylock the letter — and also gave him the presents he had asked for. Nice.

You can read more about this one here, here, and here, and here's a video clip:

Happy Christmas to all Permanent Record readers, and may we all find treasures and stories lurking in unlikely places in the new year.

(Special thanks to reader David Sonny for lettering me know about the David Haylock letter.)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Good Doggie: Pooch Finds Message in Bottle

The dog shown above is named Sheba, and she recently did something many of us have dreamed about doing: She found a message in a bottle.

It happened when Sheba and her person, a Britisher named Idris Martin, were recently walking on a beach in Weymouth, England. Sheba, who likes to chase bottles, came up with the prize. Martin examined it and found notes and drawings that had been deposited in the bottle 14 months earlier by three children in Lozenets, Bulgaria:

Based on the children's location, tthe bottle had to travel a fairly remarkable 3,500-mile route in order for Sheba to find it on the beach in Weymouth:

Martin has written to the email address listed on the note but has so far not received a response. Further info is available in this article (which, somewhat incredibly, was written by someone named Stephen Messenger).

(Big thanks to reader David Sonny for letting me know about this one.)

Trying to Unlock the Mysteries of Old Polaroids

Click to enlarge

We know the date when this Polaroid was taken — Nov. 18, 1978 — and we know it shows a child named Nuchie and her father. But who were they, and where was the photo taken, and by whom?

Zun Lee doesn't know. The photo, which he purchased on eBay, is one about 3,500 discarded and found Polaroids that he's accumulated, all of them showing African American families in everyday situations. He's interested in documenting black life, but he's also fascinated by the question of how these photos became separated from their owners in the first place. In this excellent New York Times story and accompanying slideshow, he describes the photos like so:

There looms over them that question of dislocation and dispossession that made these images available to us. What are the circumstances that allow families to lose these images? It cannot be a good circumstance. You can possibly conjecture a history of gentrification, foreclosures. Some of the stories may not be so grave, maybe they just wanted to get rid of them. In any case, there are a multitude of interesting stories you could conjecture [regarding] how these images are available to us.

I'm sure most of us who are fascinated by found photographs have gone through that same thought process. How did these photos become orphaned and end up in this flea market (or scattered in an alleyway, or up for sale on eBay, or whatever)? Didn't anyone want to keep them?

Lee is trying to answer those questions through a new project called Fade Resistance, via which he hopes to use social media to help find the people and families shown in the photos and then return the Polaroids to them. It has the potential to be an amazing project — I'll be rooting for him.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Curious About George

My friend Miriam recently came across this 1968 Hunter College High School yearbook on the sidewalk in front her Manhattan apartment building. Knowing my fondness for old documents, she nabbed it and later gave it to me.

I have two much older brothers who graduated high school in 1966 and 1970, respectively. Their yearbooks were floating around the house when I was growing up, and I was always poring over them, so there were lots of things about this 1968 Hunter High yearbook that felt very familiar to me — the hairstyles, the eyeglass designs, the references to the Vietnam War. But as I was flipping through the pages, one spread caught my eye (click to enlarge):

Let's take a closer look at that photo at far-right:

Here we have George, who, judging by his uniform and the setting, appears to have been an elevator operator. (The arched lettering above his jacket pocket begins "Hunter," and then the rest of it is obscured.) He doesn't get a description, or even a last name — he's just George.

I suspect George's one-name appellation was a reflection of the affection the students had for him, and I further suspect the yearbook editors thought it was an act of kindness to include him in the yearbook alongside the school's faculty. But there's something very condescending about that, and something quietly horrifying about George being consigned to the role of the smiling darkie who goes about his menial duties without so much as a surname. (I found only one other black person depicted in the entire yearbook — a student named Diane Barnes. Update: A commenter who is apparently an alumnus points out that there are indeed several black faculty members depicted in the yearbook. Mea culpa.)

Who was George? Is he still alive? Assuming he was at least 40 years old when the photo was taken (a conservative estimate, I'd say), he'd now be in his late 80s or 90s. Still, Hunter College High School still exists on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and it has an active Alumni Association. I haven't yet contacted them (life and work have both been extremely busy lately), but I'll be doing so shortly to see if they can fill in any of the blanks. At the very least, George deserves to have a last name. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Treasures in the Attic

The love letters and envelopes you see above were recently found by an Atlanta woman named Gina Teliho, who discovered them in the rafters of a house she was renovating. The postmarks on the envelopes were from 1915 -- 20 years before the house had even been built. How did the letters end up there?

Teliho posted photos of the letters on Facebook and asked if anyone recognized the names of the letter writer (Norman T. Arnold) or the recipient (Hannah Arnold). After a series of good breaks and some productive research, she eventually made contact with a man named Kelly Arnold, the grandson of her house's original owner, Paul T. Arnold, who was the son of Norman T. Arnold -- the man who wrote the letters.

It's not clear how the letters ended up in the house, but they may have been heirlooms that were passed from father to son and somehow got left behind. In any case, Teliho has given them to Kelly Arnold — the great-grandson of the letter writer — who's happy to have this set of family artifacts that he didn't even know existed until now.

Further info on this story is available here.

(Big thanks to Chris Flinn for letting me know about this one.)

Friday, October 2, 2015

What Would You Do If You Found a Paper Airplane on the Street?

What you see above is a paper airplane that was found by the bohemian eccentric Harry Smith (best known for his highly influential Anthology of American Folk Music). As you can see, Smith annotated the plane with particulars of where and when he found it: Fifth Avenue between 17th and 18th Streets in New York City, and Sept. 6, 1978.

This is one of about 250 paper airplanes that Smith found, kept, and catalogued from 1961 through 1987. They're currently on file at the Getty Research Institute, which acquired Smith's papers after his death.

At first glance, paper airplanes don't seem as evocative as old snapshots, messages in bottles, or most of the other found objects we've discussed here on Permanent Record, because they don't have anyone's name or image on them. But some of them still have interesting stories to tell. Take this plane, for example:

That plane was made from a flier describing the view from the top of the Empire State Building. Smith found it near the skyscraper in 1968 — someone probably launched it from the observation deck.

And then there's this one:

As you can see, that one is a connect-the-dots illustration of a child, captioned, "Oh! How I wish I could fly, There's so much to see from the sky." How perfect is that for a paper airplane?

For more on Smith's collection of paper airplane finds, look here.

(Special thanks to my friend Miriam Sicherman for letting me know about this one.)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Red Leather Diary

I was describing Permanent Record to my new friend Casey the other day, and she mentioned a story that had run in The New York Times several years ago, about an old diary that been found in the trash and then reunited with its original owner.

The diary is shown above, being held by Florence Wolfson Howitt. She kept the diary from 1929 through 1934, when she was a teen-ager. The photo was taken in 2006, when she was 90 years old and had been tracked down by Times reporter Lily Koppel, who had come into possession of the diary after it had been forgotten in a storage trunk and then discarded.

This would be a great story even if the diary had chronicled a fairly mundane life. But the life described in Howitt's diary was anything but mundane. During her teens she was an aspiring writer, musician, and artist and had romantic experiences with men and women, all of it described in the sort of florid, occasionally overwrought language that you'd expect from a privileged teen-ager traveling in sophisticated New York circles.

Koppel, the Times reporter, explained all of this, and a lot more, in a 2006 article, which is fantastic — highly recommended. She ended up writing a book about the diary, and about the unlikely friendship she developed with Howitt.

That book, called The Red Leather Diary, was published in 2008 and apparently got a fair amount of media coverage at the time (as did the original 2006 article, for that matter, which is why Koppel got a book deal in the first place), but I somehow missed the boat on all of it. The storyline was briefly revisited in 2012, when Howitt passed away at the age of 96, but I missed that as well. Seems like the kind of thing that would have come across my radar, but for whatever reason it didn't.

An interesting footnote to all of this is that the format of Wolfson's five-year diary inspired New York illustrator Tamara Shopsin (daughter of famously irascible New York restaurateur Kenny Shopsin, for you NYCers who are clued into such things) to produce and sell her own blank five-year diaries, which are essentially identical to the one Wolfson used during her teens.

Casey — the friend who told me about all this — uses one of those diaries herself, which is a nice way to bring this story full-circle.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Small Town Noir Update

Last September I posted an entry about the Scottish blogger Diarmid Mogg, who has an interesting specialty: He collects mid-century mug shots and their accompanying police reports from the town of New Castle, Pennsylvania, and then searches the online archives of New Castle's daily newspaper to learn more about the arrestees and their lives. He publishes the results of his research in his excellent blog, Small Town Noir.

I've stayed in touch with Mogg over the past year, and he got in touch the other day with some exciting news:

It might be possible that I’m about to get a Small Town Noir book published!

There’s a new-ish publisher called Unbound, which uses a sort of crowdfunding model to fund niche-interest books. (If you’re interested in learning more, there’s an article about them here.) Their head of publishing got very excited about Small Town Noir, and we’ve set up a crowdfunding campaign for the book. It will only work if around 900 people pledge to buy it, so please spread the word to anyone you think might be interested in a pretty depressing set of stories about unlucky everyday people. (A hard sell, I know! Perhaps it would be better if I presented it as “a fascinating collection of true-life stories behind 150 beautiful old mug shots from one small American town.”)

The short video on the book's campaign page does a great job of explaining the appeal of the project. Please check it out and consider pledging to purchase the book — it's a great project that deserves to be published.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Beautiful Photo I.D. Badge

Last year I wrote several times about old employee photo I.D. badges. That led to a very generous offer from PermaRec reader Karen Becker, who recently got in touch and offered to send me the I.D. badge shown above. It dates back to the late 1940s and belonged to a man named John Bobofchak, who was the husband of Karen's mother's aunt. I was extremely humbled by Karen's offer to share this family artifact with me — an offer that I happily accepted.

Karen provided some background on John Babofchak, as follows:

He lived at 3613 Cecelia Ave. in Cleveland, Ohio. He was married to Anna Tarnovsky. They had four children:

• George Bobofchak is about 92 and is living in Westlake, Ohio. His wife was Vicki (deceased March 20, 2008), and they had one son, John, who lives in Fairview Park, Ohio.

• Anne Agnes Gilak (nee Bobofchak) died on May 11, 2008, at the age of 81. She and her husband, Albert (deceased), had two children, Ron and Vickie.

• Edward Joseph Bobofchak died on Dec. 13, 2008, at the age of 76.

• Mildred M. Bobofchak, 77, is a retired schoolteacher living in Westlake, Ohio.

I was also curious about the White Sewing Machine Company, where John worked. It turns out to have been a fairly notable company (further info here) whose identity eventually became subsumed into the White-Westinghouse brand name.

I acquired a few old photo badges last year and received a few more as a birthday gift, but this one is by far the nicest and in the best shape, and it's also the first one in my small collection with the raised metallic lettering. Badges of this style tend to fetch over $100 on eBay, which is too pricey for me, so I probably would never have held one in my hand if Karen hadn't sent me this one. It's an inch and three-quarters in diameter and weighs half an ounce -- a very satisfying little object.

The badge's manufacturer is stamped onto the back (click to enlarge):

As it happens, I'm familiar with the Robbins Co. of Attleboro, Mass., because they used to manufacture another item that I collect: a particular style of beer tap heads (click to enlarge):

These tap heads, which are called "ball knobs," became popular in taverns across America in the 1940s. Much like the photo badges, they're very collectible and fairly pricey. The Robbins name typically appears on the rear-neck area (click to enlarge):

Robbins still exists today as a component of TharpeRobbins, a company specializing in employee-recognition awards. The original Robbins Company, which merged with Tharpe in 2007, apparently had a very colorful history that went way beyond producing employee photo badges and beer tap knobs. According to the company's corporate history page, Robbins also manufactured the medals for the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, the official Lindbergh Medal commemorating Charles Lindbergh's trans-oceanic flight, medallions used on NASA space missions, and more.

All of which leads to a question: Did Robbins employees wear photo I.D. badges back in the 1940s? If so, Robbins presumably manufactured those, right? That's now my holy grail: a vintage employee badge with "Robbins" handsomely spelled out on the front and stamped into the back.

(Extra-special thanks to Karen Becker for entrusting me with John Bobofchak's badge.)