Monday, August 27, 2012

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Back in April I posted an entry about the Forgotten Bookmarks blog, which is about little treasures found inside old books. Now I've learned about another web site with a similar but distinct mission: Together, as Always, which is devoted to documenting handwritten inscriptions inside of books, usually on the front endpapers.

What you see above is a typical example -- a 1963 edition of Gulliver's Travels, with the following inscription:


Hope that you can read this. Next time I'll do better.


Hmmm. Did he mean he'd "do better" in terms of his handwriting? His probable misspelling of Mar[i]lyn's name? Something else? It's hard to know exactly what it means, but there's definitely an undercurrent of sadness there.

This sense of awkward melancholy can be found in many of the inscriptions, like this one:

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It reads, "Someday I would like to sit and talk with you again. But not today -- perhaps tomorrow?" So odd. Was that some sort of olive branch being offered after a lengthy d├ętente? An inside joke? Just a case of clumsy phrasing?

Together, as Always is the work of an artist named Julianne Aguilar, who found all the books in Texas thrift shops. In her "About" page, she says the project "explores ownership, and how an object can still be owned even after being discarded." She goes on:

Books give a gift-giver a unique opportunity to personalize their gift. Names, dates and occasions denote for whom the book was intended, the date it was given and why. These highly personal messages are discarded with the book and will be read by anyone who owns it in the future. Almost no one seems to make any attempt to remove the inscription, even if it was written in pencil. As a result, these books feel like they still belong to someone, as though to own them is to own a stranger’s secrets. The thrill of these objects is their mystery and their unwillingness to let go of the past.

Nicely put. I could keep on citing favorite inscriptions from the site, but I'll restrict myself to just one more:

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In case you can't read the inscription there, it says:

Scott Wilkinson Andrews

Christmas 1974

May your interest in coins be a lifetime.


I assume she meant to say that his interest in coins should last a lifetime, but whatever -- it's more endearing this way. And speaking of endearing, when's the last time you saw someone sign a note with "Momma"? Nice.

To explore the rest of Together, as Always, look here.

(Special thanks to Kirsten Hively for telling me about this excellent site.)

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Update: After I posted this entry, I sent a note to Julianne Aguilar, telling her how much I like her site and letting her know I'd blogged about it. She wrote back with the following:

I am honored to be featured on your blog -- especially because I so love Permanent Record! Believe it or not, when I read your story on Slate last fall, I was in the first planning stages for my own project, and it was a big inspiration. At the time I was working in archives in a small town in West Texas and found myself wanting to read and make work about archives. Your story really got me looking around for anything forgotten, which took me to the only thrift store in town, which was conveniently directly across the street from my apartment, which is where the book collection began.

How cool is that? I've become a fan of her project, and she was already a fan of mine!

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Slate update: I just delivered the latest full-length Permanent Record article to my Slate editor, who says it's tentatively scheduled to run during the week of Sept. 10. This article took an unusual turn -- it's about a story emerging from one of the report cards, but the story isn't about the student connected to the card. That's all I'll say for now, except that I think you'll like it.

Monday, August 13, 2012

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Here we have the front and back of a postcard that was mailed from West Boothbay Harbor, Maine, in the summer of 1945. The message reads as follows:

“Dog, Edward, Alison, Ma and Pa and retinue arrived on schedule. All happy but a little weary. Pleased with house and anticipating grand vacation. Florence and Clarence.”

A Washington attorney named Tom McGovern found this postcard wedged inside an old book that he'd picked up for a dollar or two at an auction house that holds weekly estate sales. A postcard from a family vacationing in Maine appealed to him, because his own family spends two weeks at a summer house in Maine each year (being an attorney clearly has its privileges), so he decided to see what he could find out about Florence and Clarence, who had sent the card.

Within a few hours, Tom had learned quite a bit about Florence and Clarence. More incredibly, he had discovered that one of the people referred to in the postcard's message is someone he knows! I won't give away the details -- instead, just read Tom's sensational article and slideshow about all this, which appeared in Sunday's Washington Post.

Tom's story is pure Permanent Record, so I looked up his contact info and shot him a quick note to say, "Great article -- and you might like this project that I'm working on." He quickly wrote back to say he'd be checking out the PermaRec links I'd provided. I'll let you know if I end up hearing back from him.

Sunday was a good day for newspaper articles about found objects. In addition to Tom's story, the New York Times had a piece about a salvage man named Darryl Kelly, who was hired to clean out the apartment of a deceased photographer/hoarder. He tossed most of the photographer's belongings in a Dumpster and then, on a whim, decided to take some of the items with him. Naturally, those items ended up being valuable works of art, including a Warhol litho, some Christo pieces, and more. He's going to put them all up for auction in the fall. You can read the full story here.

Do you have any found objects whose stories you'd like to share? If so, let me know. Thanks.

(Special thanks to Terry Haines for letting me know about Tom McGovern's article.)

Saturday, August 11, 2012

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What you see above is the main card from the student file of Anna DeVito, who attended the Manhattan Trade School for Girls (or Manhattan Industrial High School, as it had recently been renamed) from 1933 through 1935. Her card is pretty much like all the others in my report card collection, but I'm nonetheless very excited about it, because it wasn't part of my collection until a few days ago.

Here's the deal: When I found the Manhattan Trade report cards back in 1996, three friends were with me. We each took a batch of cards, and then the other three people each donated their batches to me when I decided to launch the Permanent Record project. (For more details on all of this, look here.) One of those friends, Daniel Radosh, recently found two additional students' card packets, including Anna's and sent them to me.

"Our box of cards was in a filing cabinet in the basement," says Daniel. "The other day I took another box out of the cabinet and these two students' report cards were underneath. I searched around and they were the only two that had slipped out."

You can see the rest of Anna DeVito's file here (for all of these, you can click to enlarge):

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Compared to some of the other reports in my collection, Anna's file isn't especially juicy, but it does offer some interesting details:

• Anna was born in October of 1917. If she's still alive, she'll be turning 95 in two months.

• I love that her father's occupation is listed simply as "Ice." Later in her file, it's explained that he "recently bought [an] ice business" -- a sharp reminder that many New Yorkers still didn't have electric refrigerators in 1935.

• Four different teachers referred to Anna as a "talker."

• Someone on the school's staff noted that Anna was "rather cute -- has pineapple bob." I'd never heard of this term, so I Googled "pineapple bob," but all I came up with was a cyclist named Pineapple Bob. Then I tried "pineapple hairstyle" -- bingo. Doesn't look like the hair in Anna's photo, but maybe she changed her ’do during her time at the school.

The other student whose card packet Daniel found was named Carmilla Despagne, who attended Manhattan Trade in 1912 and ’13. Unfortunately, as you can see below, her cards sustained significant water damage (again, you can click to enlarge):

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Carmilla's file is harder to suss out (in part because of the water damage, but also because her file was filled out in handwriting that's a bit trickier to decipher), but there's still some interesting stuff in there:

• Her father was a bootblack. First time I've seen that term used in any of the report cards.

• At one time she worked making buttonholes! I know that was once a big niche industry in the garment district, but can you imagine working on nothing but buttonholes all day?

• Carmilla apparently liked her first job, working for a Mrs. Bunce: "Like it very much. Mrs. B. is very nice to me and I feel at home. Think I'm very satisfactory." But the feeling was apparently not mutual, as noted in this bit of feedback from Mrs. Bunce: "May have to let her go. Can sew nicely, but does not heed instruction. Talkative, sullen, and inclined to be impertinent." Eight days later, there was this: "Will have to let her go tomorrow. Have given her another week's trial. Prefer more experienced gal." A school staffer then noted parenthetically, "Her attitude apparently more at fault than her work." (To put this all in some perspective, Carmilla was only 15 at the time.)

• Unfortunately, Mrs. Bunce wasn't the only one who had issues with Carmilla's work. Another employer, Miss Wagstff, had this to say: "Not as good as at first. ... Inattentive. Slow. Took all day to sew on six yards of [illegible] and had to rip it all off and sew on again because she had failed to sew pieces together first as directed. Seems to lack interest and energy."

Despite these negative reviews, the school continued to arrange work for Carmilla for several more years.

After working with the same set of 395 cards for so long, it's exciting to have these two new students to add to the collection. New material!