Saturday, April 28, 2012

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Photo by Linda Cadovius

Here we have another photo of Rose Vrana, the only living link to Permanent Record, taken at her home in Florida. I told Rose's story in an article that was published yesterday on Slate.

Several readers singled out this passage from the article:

[Rose] has four grandchildren but isn't in contact with them. "They know where I live, but I don't know where they live," she said. "It's sad, but what can you do. That's life."

One commenter on Slate wrote, "How sad that her grandkids are not in contact with her! ... Call your Grandmother, visit her!" Several other readers posted similar comments, and a few people sent expressed these same sentiments to me via e-mail.

The situation regarding Rose's grandchildren was a tricky one. I assume there's a lot more to that story than simply "They know where I live, but I don't know where they live," but Rose didn't seem inclined to elaborate and I didn't want to push her. At one point I sort of circled back to the subject, but she didn't want to go there, so I backed off.

Little old ladies make for inherently sympathetic figures, and the notion of cutting off contact with a 95-year-old grandmother seems hard to fathom, so it's easy to paint the grandchildren as being in the wrong here. But who am I to say? I don't know the backstory. As most of us have experienced in one way or another, family dynamics can be very complicated affairs.

But here's the kicker: Rose may not know where her grandchildren are, but I do. The same research that led me to her turned up two grandsons living in New York. If I wanted, I could hop on the subway and be knocking on their doors in less than an hour.

That's a tempting idea, but I won't be doing it. One of my guiding principles with Permanent Record has been to avoid reopening anyone's old wounds. Likewise, I considered telling Rose what I know, but I decided it isn't my place to do that. (She doesn't use a computer, so I don't have to worry about her seeing this blog post.) Maybe her grandchildren will see the Slate article and decide they want to contact her, or maybe not. Like Rose said, that's life.

Friday, April 27, 2012

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My article about 95-year-old Rose Vrana (shown above in her report card portrait and in a recent snapshot) has finally been published on Slate. You can check it out here. Enjoy.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

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If you've been reading this blog for the past few months, you've no doubt noticed my repeated mentions of two research volunteers -- Samantha Bulgerin and Catherine Bloomquist. They're both much, much better researchers than I am, and it's no exaggeration to say that the latest phase of the Permanent Record project would not have been possible without them.

So today I'm giving Sam (that's her at the top of the page) and Cate (that's her beneath Sam) a well-deserved shout-out. I've also been wondering what inspired them to devote so much time and energy to my little project, so I invited them both to write a little something about that, and they both agreed. First up is Sam:

I’m a twenty-something college student in Wisconsin, studying anthropology and information studies. My father was an ancient history major, so I grew up in a house full of old books and artifacts. When I was about 12 or so, my grandmother introduced me to genealogy and I became fascinated by old records and what people leave behind. I started buying old photographs at rummage sales and trying to track down the people in them, wanting to know their stories. Letters, diaries, newspapers, and yearbooks soon joined the photographs. I also work at a local historical society and run two history-based blogs (one of which is about vintage fashion, which is a good fit with all the dressmaking students whose report cards Paul found; the other is about old newspaper clippings and such), so it would be fair to say I'm very interested in the past.

I came across Permanent Record randomly, shortly after Paul had written his first articles for Slate last fall. When I saw his request for research help, I got very excited, so I got in touch with him and have been helping out with the project when time allows.

I cannot put into words how amazing it is to see my research help Paul uncover the stories of these extraordinary women. The Permanent Record project, to me, is a perfect example of how history isn’t just battles and names and dates -- it’s people. People who lived full and fascinating lives. People who deserve to be remembered.

Thanks, Sam. I literally couldn't do this without you!

Now here's Cate:

I owe my introduction to Permanent Record to my brother, who read the series on Slate and thought I would enjoy it. He was right! New York City immigrant culture of the early 1900s has always fascinated me, so these students' stories really spoke to me.

I wanted to help with the project because I love the idea of connecting these report cards to the students' families. And since I have a background in professional genealogical research/heir-searching (particularly NYC research), I felt I had some specific skills to offer. Discovering "Miss Kotter's" identity has been the biggest thrill so far, and I hope we'll hear more about her. Thanks for letting me be part of Permanent Record!

Thank you, Cate -- you and Sam are the best.

Seriously, at the risk of getting too sappy here, Sam and Cate exemplify the incredible generosity of spirit that I've encountered throughout the Permanent Record project. That applies to the families I've interviewed, the historians who've helped me connect the various dots, and the many readers who've chimed in with observations and tips along the way. I'm grateful all these people -- but especially to Sam and Cate. I hope I get to meet them in person one day. First round will definitely be on me.

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Slate update: Been wondering when the next full-length PermaRec article would finally appear on Slate? I'm happy to report that the article has finally been put into the editorial pipeline and is now scheduled to be published either later this week or early next.

My editor says he wants to run additional PermaRec articles on Slate roughly every month, so I should finally be able to start telling the full stories that I've only hinted at here on the blog. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I'm starting a Permanent Record e-mail list, which I'll use to let people know about new Slate articles and other new developments regarding the project. (Don't worry, I won't be sending out daily spam or anything like that.) If you'd like to be added to the list, contact me.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Last month I posted the audio of my appearance on WFMU's excellent Seven Second Delay radio show, which was broadcast live from a theater in Manhattan. Now, as you can see above, it turns out that there's video of the show as well.

My segment begins at about the 11:45 mark. They began by asking me about some of my other projects, but we finally get around to talking about Permanent Record at 14:35. Unfortunately, the discussion only lasts one minute from that point (it actually lasted much longer on the radio show, but the video has been heavily edited). If you want to hear the full interview segment, go back and check out the archived audio of the show.

As I noted when posting a photo from the radio broadcast a while back, the guy up on the cross is co-host Andy, who had promised to be crucified if the show met its pledge drive goal, which it did. He was mortified that he actually had to follow through on his promise and spent a good portion of the show apologizing to anyone who might be offended.

Special thanks to WFMU producer Mike Noble, who booked me on the show, let me know about the video, and is generally a swell guy.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

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No, I didn't find the lists of birthdays and death dates that are shown above. A guy named Michael Popek found them. He runs a used book store and often discovers things tucked away inside of old books, which he chronicles on his blog, Forgotten Bookmarks. Last fall he published a book by that same title. (As for the lists shown above, Popek found them inside a book of Shakespeare.)

As you may recall, about a month ago I ran an item about a 49-year-old note found inside a book. The guy who found that note successfully tracked down the fellow who'd written it. But Michael Popek doesn't try to connect the dots or reconstruct the stories of behind the objects he finds -- he just lets them speak for themselves.

And that's fine, because he finds a lot of them. He's been blogging about this stuff since 2007, during which time he's amassed over 1000 entries. If he tried to trace the backstory of each one, he'd end up so far down the rabbit hole that he'd never get back out.

So what does he find besides lists of dates? A small sampling: Snapshots. ... Recipes. ... Magazine clippings. ... Bus tickets. ... Postcards. ... Receipts (I really like that one). ... Letters -- sometimes handwritten, sometimes typewritten. ... Legal documents. ... Drawings (that's another of my favorites). ... Four-leaf clovers. ... Maps. ... And yes, as the blog's name implies, bookmarks (and what a beauty that one is!).

Sorry about all those links, but Forgotten Bookmarks is kind of addictive, so it's easy to get carried away. Frankly, I'm a little embarrassed not to have known about Popek's project until Kirsten Hively told me about it a few days ago. Just poke around anywhere on his site -- you're bound to find interesting stuff. (He also does used book giveaways on a regular basis, which is very nice.)

I haven't yet gotten my hands on a copy of Popek's book, but I plan to find a used copy. And I'm going to be seriously bummed if there's nothing lurking inside of it.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

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I collect lots of vintage meat-related ephemera -- old butchery catalogs, old butcher shop photos, old recipe booklets with the word "Meat" in the title (I have about 60 of those), and so on. So when I recently came across an eBay listing for an old looseleaf binder filled with assorted Armour Meat Products brochures, I pounced.

But what I didn't realize, because the eBay seller didn't mention it in the auction listing, was that the materials in the binder had been used by an Armour sales trainee in 1947. His name was Harry E. Counts, and his certificate for having completed his sales training, which I found buried in the back of the binder, is shown above.

The binder also included more than 80 pages of notes, all in pencil, presumably taken down by Harry during his training -- very Permanent Record! The notes are actually much more interesting than the printed brochures. Much like the case of the vintage coat with the bounced check and shopping lists in the pocket, I once again bought something that I thought was pretty cool and ended up with something else even cooler.

Harry didn't have the best handwriting, but it's good enough to get a sense of the sales class he was taking, which was apparently geared toward giving the trainees a grounding in modern butchery practices and Armour's product line. Given the volume of the notes, the class must have taken at least a week.

A lot of Harry's notes read like Livestock 101. Here's a page explaining the difference between a steer, a heifer, a cow, a stag, and a bull (note Harry's spelling of "castraded"; you can click on all of these photos to see larger versions):


And here's one describing the various types of turkeys, ducks, and geese:


Here's some good info on fresh and smoked sausages (I especially like the designation toward the bottom of the second page -- "Loaf Goods"):

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Fun facts -- no, really! -- about lard:

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I'm sure it would have been interesting to have sat in the back of the room on the day the class learned about variety meats, tongues, kidneys, ox tails, and "fries" (i.e., testicles -- or as Harry spelled it, "testicals"):

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One of my favorite notes is on this page, which begins with "Wisconsin Cheese -- Is not made in Wisconsin":


And who was all of this knowledge and expertise aimed at? Why, Mrs. Consumer, of course:


And so on. If you want more, I photographed over 50 of the pages and gathered them into this set.

Toward the end of the binder is a list of the names and addresses of the "guys in school," also described as "List of Drunks" -- presumably Harry's fellow trainees. As you can see, they're all from Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas:


And here's the oddest thing of all: The very last page in the notebook has instructions for a pyramid scheme fueled by a chain letter, purporting to "bring you and your friends a sizable nest egg in a very short time. Take a look:


Interestingly, the last person in the chain -- O.D. Stephens of 1312 Cypress St. in Pine Bluff, Arkansas -- was also one of Harry's classmates. Was Harry playing his friends for suckers? And why was something like this in his sales training notebook?

Nearly all the chain mail addresses are from Pine Bluff, so I'm assuming Harry was probably from there as well. And of course we know he worked for Armour. Unfortunately, some quick Googling based on those parameters failed to turn up anything, and I don't have time right now to go digging through census records and other resources. But if anyone reading this wants to track down Harry, I'd like to know more about him.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


As you've probably heard, the 1940 census was released to the public earlier this week, and the response was so great that the National Archives' web site crashed on Monday.

One of the people trying to access the site that day was Cate Bloomquist, one of the volunteer researchers who've been helping me with PermaRec 2.0. She thinks the newly available data in the 1940 census may be very helpful to Permanent Record, so I asked her to talk a bit about how the census fit into her research:

Censuses are extremely important to genealogical research in general, but particularly to the Permanent Record project, because the census provides us with the names of other family members to trace forward. Since the Manhattan Trade students were female and many of them married, tracing them forward has been difficult. The censuses provide us with branches to trace forward, with the hope of locating a living person off that branch who can lead us back to the branch we're looking for. Censuses also provide valuable information regarding dates/places of birth, immigration dates, naturalization dates, how many years married, how many children died vs. lived, occupation, etc.

My piece of advice for people doing census research: Whether you're using the index compiled by or the more traditional soundex, never trust a "nil" result in the index. People were often incorrectly indexed -- and it's not always the fault of the indexer. Have you ever looked at some of the census handwriting?! So if you don't find your family in a search of the census index, always, always try an alternative way of finding them. It involves a little more work -- you might have to look up a known address manually or perhaps look up a neighbor from a previous census to see if they are still neighbors -- but I would say I am able to locate someone by one of these alternative searches at least 50% of the time, even if they did not show up in the index.

And that's why Cate is such a great researcher (and maybe why I'm such a poor researcher, because I get frustrated easily when I don't find what I'm looking for).

The census is an interesting decennial ritual. Although there's no law requiring a person to respond to the census, the actual taking of the census by the federal government is mandated by Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which states, "The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct." (Do other countries have similar protocols?)

And why is the data from the 1940 census being revealed now? According to a Census Bureau spokeswoman quoted in this article, "In 1952, the director of the Census Bureau and the National Archivist agreed that keeping census records private for 72 years balanced public release of federal records with the tradition of confidentiality." So the 1940 census has come out from under the 72-year umbrella this year, the 1950 census will become available in 2022, and so on -- another decennial ritual. It creates a cyclical rhythm for genealogists and researchers (and, presumably, for's subscriber patterns).

All of which brings us back to Cate Bloomquist, who turns out to have a very personal reason for being interested in the 1940 census: "I'm looking forward to looking up my dad. He was six years old in 1940, so this is the first census I will be able to see him in. He is currently suffering from Alzheimer's but is mostly sharp enough still that he can appreciate the census, and I look forward to sharing it with him."

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I'll get back to report cards soon, but first I'm excited to report that I've just acquired some amazing old documents that have Permanent Record written all over them: a stack of New York City real estate paperwork (mortgages, deeds, etc.) from the 1850s and ’60s! It's amazing stuff. I just need to find time to go through all of it. More details soon.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

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Sometimes I'll be talking or e-mailing with someone about Permanent Record, and I'll mention some specific aspect of the project and then say, "You know, like in the movie." And the other person will often say, "What movie?"

The movie I'm referring to in these situations is Manhattan Trade School for Girls, a 16-minute silent film that was shot in 1911. It's a remarkable document of the school where my report collection came from. As you can see in screen shots shown above, in some scenes you can actually read what's written on the blackboard! (Here's my favorite example of that.) It's another example of how incredibly lucky I was to have found report cards from such a special, well-documented school, instead of just any old school.

I described the movie and linked to it in the third article from last year's Slate series. But when I mention it to fans of the series, they're usually unfamiliar with it. Maybe they didn't bother to click on the link to the movie, or maybe they meant to come back to it and watch it later but never got around to it. Either way, anyone interested in PermaRec should definitely see this film, so I've decided to link to it again (there's no way to embed it, unfortunately) -- check it out.

A few notes:

• As you'll see on the page where the movie hosted, you have a choice of watching the film with commentary or without. The commentary, from a cinema professor, is interesting and provides some good insights, but it also contains some factual errors. I recommend watching the comment-free version first.

• It's not clear why the film was made -- maybe just for promotional purposes, or perhaps to assist in soliciting donations.

• The background music heard in the video version of the film was added in 2006. The original film was silent.

• The film follows the progress of several Manhattan Trade students. Unfortunately, none of those girls is represented in my report card collection.

• In 1911, when the film was shot, Manhattan Trade was at the second of its three locations, at 209-213 East 23rd Street. It had moved to this address from its original location -- a townhouse on West 14th Street -- in 1906. About 40% of the students in my report card collection attended Manhattan Trade while it was at the location shown in the film. (In 1918 the school would move again, to the northwest corner of Lexington Avenue and 22nd Street. That building is still in use today as a high school, with its original "Manhattan Trade School for Girls" lettering chiseled into the fa├žade.)

• The very end of the film shows customers at a retail boutique. Although it isn't explained in the film, this was an outlet shop just off the school's lobby where students could earn extra money by selling the clothing they'd made for class assignments.

Okay, enough of my chatter -- enjoy the film.