Thursday, July 26, 2012

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Reader Jared Wieseler recently found and scanned some school records pertaining to his grandmother, Laurentia Keiser, who grew up in Nebraska. What you see above are the inner and outer panels of her sixth grade report card from 1932.

Lots of interesting details here, beginning with the near-perfect handwriting of Laurentia's teacher, Edith Billerbeck. What was it about 20th century schoolteachers that gave them such perfect penmanship? Like, were they hired strictly on that basis or something? And do today's teachers still have great handwriting, or has that gone to hell in the computerized era?

Other items of note:

• It's also interesting that a report was sent to Laurentia's parents every month (when I went to school in the 1970s, it was quarterly).

• Laurentia's father, Stephen Keiser, must have had a strong preference for pencils over pens: He used a pencil every time he signed the report card. (Or maybe he simply couldn't afford pens -- this was during the Great Depression, after all, and inexpensive ballpoint pens wouldn't come into common use until the mid-1940s.)

• Too bad Ms. Billerbeck didn't fill out the graph on the back of the card. That would have made for a great visual.

• Laurentia didn't study arithmetic; she studied mental arithmetic. I love that.

• I don't think I've ever seen orthography listed on a report card before. In academic terms, orthography covers a wide range of subject matter; given the other topics already listed on Laurentia's card, however, I believe it referred simply to spelling. Anyone out there know more?

Here are the front and back of a card from two years later, when Laurentia was in the eighth grade (you can click to see a larger version):

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Laurentia still had the same teacher, so it must have been a very small school. Good to see Mr. Keiser was sticking to his pencils, too. But what I really love about this card is the little "If You Wish to Succeed in Life" tutorial. Interesting that the very first attribute they chose to stress was caution.

Laurentia eventually graduated from the eighth grade, at which point she was given diploma, which was produced in its own little folder (again, you can click to enlarge):

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I especially like the seal at the top, with the books on the left, the stagecoach on the right, and the wreath of wheatstalks sprouting from an ear of corn. The seal at lower left complete with two different colored ribbons, is a nice touch as well.

Jared -- Laurentia's grandson -- says there's lots more where this came from. "I also have an eighth grade diploma for Laurentia's sister, Teresa, that seems to be actual felt affixed to cardstock, wrapped in gold fabric that's sort of like the lining of a suit jacket," he says. "It has an added matching ribbon tied around the diploma."

Sounds amazing. Jared, if you're willing to share, let's see more!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Photo by Librado Romero, The New York Times

When I found the old Manhattan Trade School report cards that eventually formed the basis of the Permanent Record project, they were about to be thrown out. I've often wondered what would have happened if a New York City garbageman had encountered them while collecting the trash on his route. Would he have cared, or would he have just chucked them in his garbage truck and moved on?

If the garbageman in question had been Nelson Molina (pictured above), there's a decent chance he might have saved them. The New York Times recently ran an article about Molina, a Manhattan sanitation worker who for years has been culling interesting objects from his daily rounds and has assembled them into a "trash museum" in one of the Sanitation Department's garages. (The article is here, and there's also a slideshow of objects from the Molina's museum.)

According to the article, the collection features over 1000 objects, including "a portrait of a grumpy-looking Winston Churchill ... a very nice pastel copy of Henri Matisse’s ‘Woman With a Hat’ ... photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge, landscapes done in watercolor, ancient tricycles and toy trucks ... four electric guitars ... [and] a Master of Business Administration diploma from Harvard." No mention of report cards, although the diploma is sort of close.

Molina's collection (which does not violate any departmental rules, because he's displaying the objects for other sanitation workers to see, not taking them for his own personal use) validates one of our culture's most enduring clich├ęs: One person's trash is another person's treasure. It's also a de facto commentary on our disposable society. That all seems obvious and straightforward, right?

What seems missing, at least for me, is the sense that each of these objects represents a story. Where's the speculation regarding each object's history? Who painted those paintings, played those guitars, rode on those tricycles? Why were these items -- including a diploma from Harvard! -- discarded? Like, I realize Molina isn't a researcher or journalist, but doesn't he at least ponder these questions, even he doesn’t have the time or resources to go about answering them? Maybe he just doesn't think in those terms, or maybe the person who wrote the Times article chose not to go in that direction. Either way, it feels like a missed opportunity.

Meanwhile, if you're interested in the trash/treasure duality, PermaRec fan Kirsten Hively recently told me about a blog called Trash Treasures of New York City, which is run by a guy who runs a rubbish removal company. Lots of fun stuff here (including this 1959 car registration record for a blue ’53 Plymouth) -- worth checking out.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

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A few days ago I wrote about Russell Ries and the cigar box full of old photos he'd acquired at a flea market. That prompted me to dig out a small stash of snapshots I found at a junk shop in Reno back in 1994. My favorite is the one shown above. I love so many things about it -- the woman's festive outfit, her vivacious face and body language, the handwritten "GiRLS" with the lowercase "i," and so on. When I first saw it, I remember thinking, "That's no girl. That's a woman." I wondered what had happened to her; I still do.

When I bought this photo and a few others back in ’94, I did so sort of on a whim. I had the instinct to collect old, interesting things, but I was young and broke and hadn't yet figured out what sorts of things I wanted to collect (or, as I've since discovered, what sorts of things would collect me). I was sort of casting about in search of my niche, my collector's identity. "Oh, maybe I'll collect old paperback novels" or "Hey, these old snapshots are cool -- maybe that's what I am, a photograph collector!"

So I bought several photos that day. The shop in Reno had a big pile of them, and I spent a bit of time picking out the ones I liked best. Here's another one (for all of these, you can click to enlarge):


I love old-school country bars and taverns, and this one looks like it's right up my alley. And look at those faces -- I totally want to have a beer with them! In my fantasy world, this bar would be in Wisconsin (I have a thing for Wisconsin taverns), but the two Utica Club signs on the wall suggest that this place was probably located in upstate New York. Wherever it was, I hope it's still there. Next round's on me, guys.

Next up we have a proud woman and, I'm assuming, her son:


My god, look those slacks, that chest and shoulders, that posture -- they don't make guys like that anymore. You think maybe he'd just bought that car, and the photo was to commemorate the occasion?

I don't always respond all that strongly to photos of children, but I remember smiling the moment I saw this one:


I really like how everyone's attention is focused on the girl who's holding the … well, what is she holding? Pick-up sticks? Something else? In any case, everybody seems to be completely oblivious to the camera's presence, which often makes for the best photos.

One of the photos I acquired that day ended up being repurposed. I cut out the center of it and mounted it in the dial of an old phone I had recently bought (another thing I thought I might collect):


I decided his name was Otis, and I really liked the way he spun around when I dialed a number on the phone. Not a bad little art project, although I now feel bad for having destroyed a photograph.

I'm no photo expert but I know what I like, and I like these shots a lot. Maybe I dote on them a bit because they were the first discarded snapshots I ever purchased, but they really do strike me as excellent photographs. They're not technically perfect, but they all have really nice compositional elements, at least to my eye. I'm just as smitten with them today as I was back in 1994.

After I acquired these photos, I got in the habit of looking for old snapshots at flea markets and antiques shops. But I never found any that I liked as much as those first ones, so I repeatedly found myself thinking, "No, these aren't as good as the ones from Reno -- I'll pass." After a few months of that, I decided maybe I wasn't a photo collector after all and moved on to other collecting pursuits. (Soon thereafter, in September of 1996, I found the Manhattan Trade School report cards, which eventually formed the basis of Permanent Record.)

But I still love those snapshots I found in Reno. Who were the people in these photos? What happened to them? How did the photos find their way to ratty little shop in Nevada?

If you can answer any of those questions, let me know.

Monday, July 16, 2012

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I recently received an e-mail from a Permanent Record reader named Russell Ries, who had this to say:

Much like yourself, I am fascinated by historical detritus -- items, like your report cards, that have been carried to strange places by the undulations of time. The mystery of returning them is a fun puzzle to solve, but it also gives them back their full historical significance.

A while back I bought a cigar box full of old photos [shown above — Paul] for $10 at a flea market in Monteagle, Tennessee. When I got home and started looking through the photos, I realized that they were all of the same individual. As it turns out, I had purchased some guy's entire life's worth of photographs without realizing it. Even better, there are handwritten explanatory notes on the backs of most of the pictures. So I arranged the pictures in chronological order as best I could and have been periodically posting them on Flickr. There are 144 pictures up right now, and I still have another 80 or so yet to post. You can start at the oldest photo, when the guy was 14 months old, here.

Intriguing! I wanted to know more, so I asked Russell if he'd be willing to do a quick phone interview with me. He readily agreed. Here's a transcript of our chat:

Permanent Record: First, tell me a bit about yourself. How old are you, where do you live, and what do you do for a living?

Russell Ries: I'm 28, I live in Nashville, Tennessee, and at the moment I advise people with small businesses.

PR: Interesting. How would you advise someone who's trying to make a living by writing about old report cards?

RR [laughs]: Ah, that's a good question...

PR: Just kidding, obviously. Okay, let's talk about your project. In your first email to me, you said you found the photos "a while back." When was it?

RR: It was Memorial Day weekend of 2011.

PR: What attracted you to the photos to begin with?

RR: I like collecting old photographs, because I sort of view them as the earliest stage of the visual information age in which we live. So whenever I go to flea markets, I'll go to the various booths and say, "Hey, got any old photographs?" And this one lady said, "Yeah, I've got this box -- $10." And I said okay.

PR: Do you collect other found objects, besides photos?

RR: Some, yeah, I've started to. I'm actually getting into metal detecting. It's really prevalent around here with Civil War stuff.

PR: So you buy this box of photos for ten bucks. At what point did you realize that the photos were all from one person's life?

RR: As soon as I drove home and started flipping through the photos, it sort of dawned on me. I saw the same names repeatedly written on the back of the photos. It wasn't hard to figure out.

PR: Maybe I'm missing something -- it certainly wouldn't be the first time -- but have you listed the guy's name anywhere? Like, your Flickr captions say, "With his wife and son" or "In his father's garden," but you haven't actually listed his name anywhere, at least that I can see.

RR: That's right.

PR: Do you know what his name is?

RR: Yes. In fact, I actually went back to that same flea market dealer about a month after I got the photos. I said, "Hey, you sold me this guy's photos." And the dealer said, "Oh, yeah, I got that at an estate sale. I actually have more of his stuff." I wasn't expecting that -- I just wanted to learn more about the photos, where they came from -- but I said, "Give me everything." So I now own this guy's military dog tags and medals, and also his wallet and false teeth. The only thing I didn't buy was the guy's military jacket. Some of the photos in the cigar box actually show him wearing that jacket. But the dealer wanted too much money for it, so I didn't buy that. Anyway, yeah, I know his name -- I know a lot about him.

PR: Why have you not listed his name? Was that sort of an artistic choice on your part, or just respecting his privacy..?

RR: My feeling when I started the project was that while I do own the photographs, that doesn't mean I really know the true story of his life. Photos sort of represent the down time in people's lives, when they pause to pose for the camera. I didn't feel like I could truly do justice to this guy's life. So while I do own the photos, I didn't want to say, "Hey, this is this guy's full life and this is what he was about." And yes, there was also the privacy thing -- I felt a little weird about that. But when I discovered Permanent Record and started looking at your approach, I've kinda been rethinking that. I don't know. I just chose to err on the side of caution, basically.

PR: Looking at your Flickr stream, it appears that you've been uploading the photos in batches, often with long breaks in between. Like, you did some in late October, then some more in mid-November, and then you didn't upload any more of them until early June. Is there any rhythm to all of this that you're shooting for, or is it just one of those things that you deal with when you can get around to it?

RR: Just when I can get around to it. And I had some issues with my hard drive.

PR: What will you do when you finish uploading all the photos?

RR: I'm not sure. I have wanted to go and find the guy -- well, not the guy, because he's passed away, but his relatives.

PR: Yeah, I was gonna ask you that. Have you done any research in terms of finding them?

RR: A little bit. I've been kinda wondering about that, though. I mean, nobody wanted this guy's stuff when he passed away. Like, what if his relatives didn't like him? They might not want to be contacted. I think I'd like to do it, but it's one of those bridges that I'll cross later, once I'm done uploading all the photos. I would definitely like to return his war medals to a proper home -- if not to his family, then maybe to a veterans affairs group.

PR: Did you see, I recently blogged about a guy who tries to return old war medals to the soldiers' families?

RR: Yeah, that's what got me thinking about doing that.

PR: It's weird, isn't it, to have this sort of intimate knowledge of a stranger's life? I think about that all the time with Permanent Record.

RR: It is. I think of him almost as a friend, in a strange way, because I have these tangible connections to him. But at the same time, when I got all those other artifacts -- the medals, the wallet -- it was a little bit disappointing to lose some of the mystery of just having a box full of photos.

PR: I know that feeling! Sometimes the questions, or the mystery of the questions, can be more fun than learning the answers.

RR: Absolutely.

PR: If you had the chance to do this again with another person -- going down the rabbit hole of someone's life -- would you do it?

RR: Definitely. But I feel like it was just providence that led me to this one, and that kind of thing doesn't happen very often. I don't think I'll ever find another cigar box full of one person's photos.

PR: Well, maybe. I think certain people don't have to go looking for artifacts -- artifacts find them.


Great stuff. Big thanks to Russell for sharing his project and his thoughts with us.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

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When the first Permanent Record articles appeared on Slate last September, I heard from several writers and researchers who had pursued similar projects. One of them was a historian named James Breig, who had just finished a remarkable book called Searching for Sgt. Bailey.

The book's genesis will sound familiar to anyone who's been following Permanent Record: In 2008, Breig stopped in a Virginia antiques shop, where he purchased a bunch of letters that an American soldier named James Bailey had written and sent home from World War II. Breig quickly found himself sucked into Bailey's story. "Within weeks," he writes, "I would be standing in front of the house he grew up in."

Bailey's letters eventually led Breig on an odyssey that included interviews with dozens of former American servicemen. He pieced together not only Bailey's life but also the larger story of servicemen who, as he puts it, "dutifully did what they were asked to do and then returned to anonymity." So the book isn't just a trip down the Sgt. Bailey rabbit hole -- it's a celebration of the people who helped save the world from fascism. Some did it on the front lines, others from far away (Bailey himself was a quartermaster in New Guinea), but all contributed. Even if you've long since had your fill of "Greatest Generation" chatter, the book is a fascinating look at the WWII experience, and Bailey's letters provide that same intimate connection to the narrative that my report card collection has provided for Permanent Record.

The book is available from Amazon here. And if you want to know more, here's an hour-long video of Breig talking about the Sgt. Bailey project:

"Searching for Sergeant Bailey" by James Breig from Colonie Library on Vimeo.

Monday, July 9, 2012

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At the top of the page is a Purple Heart medal; beneath that is a photo of Army Pvt. Corrado Piccoli, who was awarded a Purple Heart during World War II before being killed in action later in the war.

Pvt. Piccoli and his Purple Heart are at the center of a really interesting report that ran on NPR on July 6. It's about a 31-year-old Vermonter named Zac Fike, who likes to seek out old military medals (in antiques stores, on eBay, etc.) and then tries return them to the soldiers' families. In the case of Pvt. Piccoli's Purple Heart, Fike was able to track down Piccoli's sister, who's now 85 years old, and return the medal to her. (Audio of the NPR story, along with a text version, is available here.)

This is, of course, very Permanent Record. As I listened to the NPR story, many of the details sounded so familiar to me. When Fike first contacted Pvt. Piccoli's sister, for example, she was initially suspicious of him, which is the same response I often get when contacting the family of a Manhattan Trade School student. By the end of the story, however, the sister tells Fike, "We were very fortunate that you were the one who ended up with the Purple Heart. You're part of our family now." I'm happy to say I've been on the receiving end of that type of sentiment as well, and it's a very humbling thing.

I don't mean to equate a report card's significance with that of a Purple Heart. But they both serve as powerful reminders that a simple object can carry stories, stir memories, and even serve as a conduit for intimacy between strangers. And like all lost items that become found, they can trigger the impulse to bring that wayward object back to where it belongs.

(Special thanks to Kirsten Hively for letting me know about the NPR story.)

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Finigan Update: I've now written several blog entries about the Finigan family of Darby, Pennsylvania, because I ended up with a bunch of their receipts, invoices, and other paperwork from the 1940s. In my last entry, I noted that Harold Finigan, who had established a tradition of hanging Christmas decorations in Darby, was likely deceased by now, and I wondered if anyone was now putting up the decorations in his stead.

That prompted the following note from reader Scott Jackson:

I asked a former co-worker about this. She's lived in Darby since the 1960s. She wrote back, "After Mr. Finigan died in 2005, there was a fire and the store that the family owned burned down. Everything in the store was destroyed, along with many of the decorations that Mr. Finigan put up. Darby is not the same place it used to be, which is very sad."

Too bad. But thanks for the info, Scott.

Friday, July 6, 2012

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Remember my recent blog entry about William E. Finigan's invoices and receipts from the 1940s? Two readers were curious enough to do a little digging on Mr. Finigan, which led me to do a bit more research myself. One of the things I came up with, as you can see above, was Mr. Finigan's obituary, which was published on March 30, 1963, in the Delaware County Daily Times. The obituary says Mr. Finigan was 84 at the time of his death. That's consistent with the information found in this early biography of him, published in 1914, which states that he was born in 1879.

A few other notes regarding Mr. Finigan:

• As you may recall from that earlier blog entry, Mr. Finigan owned a furniture store -- the Darby Furniture Exchange. He advertised frequently in a local Pennsylvania newspaper called the Chester Times, running dozens of classified ads during the 1940s. Here are two fairly typical examples:

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• According to the obituary, Mr. Finigan retired 10 years prior to his death, which would have been 1953. Eight years later, the furniture shop -- which by this point was being run by William's son Harold -- caught fire. Here's the story from the Sept. 8 edition of the Delaware County Daily Times (click to enlarge):

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According to the story, "[T]he store was jammed with used furniture. [The local fire chief] said fire officials have complained to the owner about the clutter." This is particularly ironic given that Mr. Finigan's obituary says he was "a life long member of Darby Fire Co. No. 1." Of course, he was 82 years old by the time of the fire, so he likely wasn't manning any of the hoses as the local firemen tried to save his family's shop.

• The shop was apparently rebuilt. According to this 1996 article, Harold Finigan -- William's son, who by this time was 87 years old himself -- was still running the Darby Furniture Exchange and had established a long-running annual tradition of hanging holiday decorations on Main Street around Christmastime. The article also states, "[Harold] Finigan said his father began the decorating tradition sometime during World War I."

Harold Finigan is likely deceased by now (either that or he's 103 years old). I can't find any current listings for the Darby Furniture Exchange, so the shop is likely gone as well. Does anyone out there know if anybody is still hanging Christmas decorations on Main Street in Darby?

(My thanks to Barbara Zimmer and James Breig for their contributions to this entry.)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

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Here we have the Manhattan Trade School report card for Juliette Palmer, who attended the school in 1912 and ’13. As you can see, she was born on the Fourth of July -- she's the only student in my report card collection with that distinction. If Juliette were still alive, she'd be turning 116 years old today, which would make her almost half as old as the country! You can see her full student record here.

Happy Independence Day to all, and happy birthday to Juliette.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

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On the left is Daisy Cassidente; on the right is Daisy's sister, Gina Marchese. They're holding the report card of their aunt, Carolina Cataudella, who attended the Manhattan Trade School for Girls in 1926 and ’27. She's the one whose report card listed her father's occupation as "Macaroni Laborer" -- my favorite job description in the entire report card collection.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Daisy and Gina -- and also Gina's husband, Hank -- last Friday. I'll be telling their aunt's story in a future installment on Slate. I don't want to give away too much, but let's just say that the macaroni figures prominently in the family's history.

Monday, July 2, 2012


The woman shown above is Doris Abravaya, who attended the Manhattan Trade School for Girls in the early 1930s. Her story is the focus of the latest full-length Permanent Record article on Slate, which also tells the story of the school's job placement counselor, Althea Kotter. (As you may recall, I explained how researcher Cate Bloomquist cracked that case last week.)

I'm very happy with the way this piece turned out -- hope you like it too. Check it out here.