Tuesday, September 25, 2012


This is Peter Vallone, holding the report card of his mother, Leah Palmigiano, who attended the Manhattan Trade School for Girls from 1919 through 1921 (you can see her full student record here). I took this photo earlier today, after interviewing Mr. Vallone in his Manhattan office.

If you're a New Yorker, you probably recognize the name Peter Vallone. He was City Council Speaker -- the second most powerful post in the city, after the Mayor -- from 1986 through 2002, and he was the Democratic Party's gubernatorial nominee in 1998 (losing to the incombent, George Pataki). Although he's no longer involved in municipal politics, his son, Peter Vallone Jr., is a city councilman from Queens.

In the course of interviewing Mr. Vallone today, I learned that his mother had an extremely difficult childhood. Her son's robust political career is one of the greatest success stories to emerge from the Manhattan Trade School report cards. I'll be telling that story in more detail in my next Slate article, which will appear in October.

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Psychiatric records update: Remember the photo from the mental hospital patient ledger, which I wrote about last Friday? I've now received the full ledger album in the mail. It's quite an artifact -- a lot of powerful information to digest. I've also learned more about other documentary projects involving mental hospital records. I'll have more to say about all of this shortly.

Friday, September 21, 2012

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What you see above is an entry for a patient in a hospital ledger. But it's not from just any old hospital -- it's from a mental hospital.

The ledger entry is part of an album of materials and paperwork from the now-shuttered Central Islip Psychiatric Center on Long Island. The album is currently in the hands of a PermaRec reader, who took the photo you see above. The reader, who prefers to remain anonymous, is sending me the entire album so I can have a closer look at it. (The story of how he obtained it in the first place is interesting, but I'll save that for another time.)

I'm excited about being able to see the album, which I'm sure will be fascinating, but I'm also a bit uneasy about it. And I'm especially uneasy about the prospect of writing about it. I've wrestled with lots of privacy concerns -- some legal, some ethical -- while telling the stories of the Manhattan Trade School report cards (I addressed some of those concerns here), but medical records strike me as being a lot dicier than report cards. And psychiatric records seem diciest of all.

My general feeling is that old documents always have valuable things to teach us and compelling stories to tell. But if I end up telling those stories, I want to do so in a way that respects the dignity of the people and families involved. For now, as you may have noticed at the top of the page, I've dealt with this by blurring out the patient's surname in the ledger photo. What do you think of that -- was it the right thing to do? Should I have left the surname alone? Or should I not have posted this photo at all, in any form?

I'll have more to say about all of this once I receive the hospital album in the mail. For now, though, it's good food for thought.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

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Earlier this year I wrote about PermaRec reader Charlene Dodds, who had found a bunch of old postcards sent to and from her great aunt, her grandmother, and their friends during their travels. She planned to visit some of the places shown in the postcards and photograph the sites, creating a series of before-and-after rephotography studies. (For the full story, read the blog entry I wrote about Charlene back in May.)

Charlene promised to let me know how her project was progressing, and she's now kept that promise. Here's the report she recently sent me:

I was staying with a friend in D.C. while I planned my journey and organized my route. I started by selecting a few dozen of the most interesting postcards, regardless of the date, and plotted them on a map. It turned out they were primarily from Pennsylvania, so that's where I headed. Several of the postcards were sent from the city of York, so I began there.

York, which was laid out in 1741, had an important role in American history. It was the site of the Continental Congress (1777-78) and birthplace of the Articles of Confederation -- our nation’s first constitution. It was here that the words "The United States of America" were first spoken. Also of note, the York Peppermint Patty was first produced here in 1940 by Henry C. Kessler at his York Cone Company.

I started with a postcard showing a building at the center of town, at the intersection of Market and George Streets. My great aunt’s childhood friend wanted to say hello and didn't have a telephone, so this is how she let my great aunt know she was in her thoughts [for all of these images, you can click to enlarge]:

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More than a century later, this building still stands with minimal changes, although I had to contend with some trees and an information kiosk that blocked the view somewhat:


York also has a rich railroad history, part of which is reflected in this postcard of a train depot that was sent to my great aunt:

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As I walked a few blocks along George Street, I came to the railway station shown in the postcard. It still awaits the stopping trains, although passengers are now rare:


In addition to the postcard locations, I was able to visit various homes my father had lived in as he grew up and easily imagined my aunt and him playing in the enclosed "yard" adjoining the back alley. All in all, a very satisfying visit.

Good stuff. Charlene tells me she eventually worked her way westward across Pennsylvania, then crossed into northeastern Ohio, came back across northern Pennsylvania, and then went through New York City and New Jersey before ending up back in D.C. I hope she'll share more of her photos with us soon.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

From the Riverfront Times, courtesy of Harris Diamant and Neville Bean

The drawings you see above were done by an outsider artist who's been dubbed the Electric Pencil, although his real name was Edward Deeds. As is the case with many outsider artists, his work balances childlike innocence with obsessive attention to certain details. I don’t like all outsider art, but I definitely like the Electric Pencil.

So what does this have to do with Permanent Record? Two things:

1) Deeds, who lived from 1908 through 1987, spent most of his life in a mental hospital. As you can see, he did his drawings on old hospital ledger sheets, which were provided to him by the facility's staff. I love the repurposing of this official paperwork, which which reminds me of the Manhattan Trade School report cards.

2) Deeds compiled 283 of his drawings into a hand-bound album that he gave to his family. The album was then accidentally discarded during a family move, after which it was found in a town dump by a teen-ager who kept it for nearly 40 years. It then passed to a used books dealer, to a recreational art/photo collector, and finally to a more serious art collector, who liked the drawings so much that he set out to determine who had created them. There was no indication of Deeds' identity in the album, so the art collector resorted to hiring a private detective and other research methods. The project ended up being very much like my Permanent Record research.

I'm happy to report that the collector was eventually able to connect with Deeds' family, so we now know the full backstory regarding these drawings. It's all spelled out in a sensational article that recently ran in the Riverfront Times (a weekly newspaper in St. Louis), which I recommend in the strongest possible terms. Not to be missed! There's also a slideshow with about three dozen Electric Pencil drawings. And when you're done with all that, you'll want to check out the Electric Pencil web site that the art collector has set up.

(Major thanks to PermaRec reader Thomas Desmond for bringing the Electric Pencil to my attention.)

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Slate reminder: In case you missed it last week, the latest full-length Permanent Record article on Slate is now available. Enjoy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

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"I recently picked up a book called Writing and Selling Greeting Card Verse (published 1947) at a library book sale," says PermaRec reader Tim Wood. "Inside was a polite rejection letter suggesting that the recipient might find the book useful." The book cover and the letter are both shown above.

Every writer, myself included, has had to deal with rejection letters, but this one seems straight out of central casting. The letterhead design, featuring the quill in the ink bottle, is a mocking reminder of the genteel, sophisticated world to which the applicant is being denied entry. And the letter was addressed to a Mrs. George E. Peabody -- a perfect name for an aspiring greeting card writer, no?

But what was Mrs. Peabody's first name? It took me about 45 seconds to find the Peabody family's entry in the 1940 census, as you can see in the highlighted section here (click to enlarge):

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George is listed as the head of the household and a dairy farmer; his wife's name is listed as Alice. So assuming George didn't remarry at some point in the ensuing nine years, it was Alice Peabody who sent her greeting card verse to the Gibson Art Company. Based on the census entry, she would have been 36 at that time.

Did Alice Peabody ever realize her literary ambitions? I poked around a bit and found this obituary for her, which ran in the July, 5, 2004, edition of the Rutland Herald (click to enlarge):

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Sounds like Alice led a very full life. There's no mention of greeting card verse, but the obit does say, "Alice also believed in the power of the vote and the press. Editors knew her well for lessons in grammar, syntax, proper usage and spelling, and her frequent contributions to the opinion pages." So Alice apparently got to express herself in print, even if it wasn't in the form of greeting cards.

Meanwhile, what about the company to which Alice sent her verse -- the Gibson Art Company? I'd never heard of them, but they were apparently once a pretty big player in the greeting card market. There's a fairly extensive company history here, although it's not up-to-date. The product line has since been acquired by American Greetings, under which Gibson is now a subsidiary brand. But lots of the company's old cards can be found on eBay.

Finally, if you're curious about the book that the Gibson folks sent to Alice, Tim has generously scanned several of its pages, which you can see here.

Monday, September 10, 2012

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Photos from The Witness, published by the Archdiocese of Dubuque

Last week I wrote about a message found in a 98-year-old bottle. That's not bad, but how about a message attached to an 11-year-old balloon?

That's the story with an Iowa woman named Abbie Steger. In 2001, when she was nine years old, her first Communion class at St. Mark's Church in Edgewood, Iowa, released balloons into the sky, each one carrying a poem and personal message printed on a laminated card (that's Steger in the foreground of the top photo). The balloons and their accompanying notes are often found and returned in short order, but Steger's never was -- until it recently turned up on a farm in Hatfield, Wisconsin, which is about 150 miles from Edgewood as the crow flies (or in this case, as the balloon flies).

The note was eventually returned to Steger, who's now a 20-year-old college student. That's her sitting on the right and holding her note in the second photo. Lots of additional details are available in this article (although they don't mention what Steger had written in her note -- disappointing).

Releasing balloons is a somewhat controversial practice these days, due to environmental concerns. Even so, this is a pretty great story, no?

(My thanks to James Breig for bringing this one to my attention.)

Friday, September 7, 2012

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Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York; click to enlarge

A report card full of good grades is a nice thing for a student to receive. But how about a certificate affirming that the student was "A Good Boy" or "A Good Girl"?

I'd never heard of that until I saw the two cards shown above, both of which date back to the late 1800s and are now in the ephemera collection of the Museum of the City of New York. They're among several school-related items that were recently featured in an article on the museum's site, which should be of interest to anyone who's been following Permanent Record.

Perhaps the award cards were sort of like an early version of getting a gold star from the teacher. It's interesting to see that the cards were issued by the Department of Public Instruction -- apparently an early name for the Department of Education. The latter, more familiar name appears on this 1913 report card, which was also featured in the museum's article:

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Note the little comment at the bottom: "An excellent boy." That's presumably even better than being a good boy, right?

(Special thanks to Carrie Klein and Kirsten Hively for bringing the MCNY article to my attention, and to MCNY archivist/blogger Lindsay Turley, who graciously provided high-res scans of the items featured in this post.)

Thursday, September 6, 2012


I've talked a lot on this site about finding old artifacts and documents in file cabinets, at flea markets, and at estate sales. But there's a much more romantic, if somewhat clich├ęd, place to find something: inside a cast-off bottle.

That's the case with the card you see above, which a Scottish fisherman recently found in a bottle that was ensnared in one of his nets. It was cast into the ocean back on June 10, 1914, by a scientist named C. Hunter Brown, who was studying the currents in the North Sea. The idea was that the person who found the bottle could fill out the card and send it back to Brown.

It's all pretty fascinating -- you can read more about it here and here.

I've never sent or found a message in a bottle. Have you? If so, post your stories in the comments and/or send them to me, and I'll follow up on this topic in the future.

(Special thanks to Kirsten Hively for bringing this one to my attention.)

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Slate Update: The next full-length PermaRec article on Slate should run next week. More details soon.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

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On the left is a Victorian-style photo portrait; on the right, an illustration based on the photo, which was done by a Brooklyn artist named Lauren Simkin Berke.

Berke has a very Permanent Record-ish project called To Be Kept, which goes like so: She obsessively collects old photographs from flea markets and antiques shops (some of them Victorian portraits like the one shown above, but also 20th-century snapshots not unlike the ones I recently blogged about) and then creates drawings based on them -- about one per weekday, which she's been posting on her blog since 2006. Some of these pieces ended up in a gallery show last winter, and now she's running a Kickstarter campaign so she can publish a To Be Kept book.

Berke's Kickstarter page has a nicely worded explanation of why she finds these old photos so compelling:

I find it strange that these documents are for sale as part of a consumer marketplace, instead of being in albums on bookshelves in the homes of the families of those in the photos. I find myself at the intersection between a fascinated voyeurism and a determination to know these documents as well as humanly possible in order to give them a new, longer life.

When I learned about Berke's project, I sent her a note and basically said, "Hey, I'm into found artifacts and passive voyeurism too!" She quickly wrote back and mentioned that she'd recently acquired some old report cards from the late 1930s.

Hmmm, report cards, you say? I asked if I could have a look, and she graciously made the following scans for me (click to enlarge):

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As you can see, these are three years' worth of report cards, and the envelope one of them was mailed in, for one Jack Malcom, who attended high school in Gresham, Oregon (which is just outside of Portland). Among the notable details:

• One of the subjects listed on the report cards is "Soc. Problems." Never seen that before.

• The earliest of the three cards -- the one at far left -- has an embarrassing typo, as one of the subjects is listed as "Bookeeping." This was corrected ("bookkeeping," with two k’s) on the subsequent two cards.

• As was common at the time, Jack's mother signed the cards with her husband's first name: "Mrs. Roy Malcom." Her signature has a bit of flair, which I like.

• The Malcoms lived in Troutdale, which is adjacent to Gresham and must have been a very small town at the time, because the person addressing the envelope didn't even bother to include a street address.

"I purchased the cards at a shop in Portland called Ampersand," Berke told me. "I stop in there whenever I'm in Portland, as they keep a well-stocked bin of unsorted vintage snapshots."

I was curious to know if Berke had tried to track down Jack Malcom and/or his family, as I've done with the Manhattan Trade School report cards, so I asked her. She gave a really thoughtful, interesting response, along with an intriguing story about a future project:

I did Google him. He lived in Gresham (it seems for all his life, though I'm assuming he would have served in WWII), where he was a florist. He died in 2009 at age 85. He was on the metropolitan arts commission in Portland, and left a fair amount of money to arts, educational, and historical organizations when he died.

In general, I am not trying to get items back to the family they came from. The assumption is that they are orphaned, and would not be for sale if anyone related to them were alive, or cared. In Jack's case, it seems he had no family.

Most of my work is with photographs, and not text-based ephemera. There are often fragments of text -- or in the case of Victorian studio portraits, there is often a full name and address of the photographer and/or their studio. But I have had very little luck in getting further information, even when I have a full name and address. It would likely take going to historical societies and such. For the most part, I have given up on focusing on finding these details, preferring to focus more on what there is to be seen in the images of the photographs.

When I purchased the report cards, I also purchased an unopened letter from the mid-1940s. The letter was sent from San Francisco to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I just happened to be on my way to San Francisco myself at the time (and my best friend lives in Boston, near Cambridge). I immediately decided to wait to open the letter until I was in San Fran, and to make a replica of it and the send it to my best friend, re-creating the letter's intended journey. My friend's then-boyfriend (now ex) works at Harvard and thought he could find out if the intended recipient was alive, and if so get an address. Since they broke up, I'm not sure he's going to follow through, but I am going to find someone else who can. If the letter's intended recipient is still alive, I most certainly intend to get him a copy of the letter.

Faaaascinating! My thanks to Berke for sharing all of this and I urge everyone to please consider supporting her Kickstarter project.

(Special thanks to Kirsten Hively, who brought To Be Kept to my attention.)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

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Permanent Record began with a discarded file cabinet, so I tend to have a soft spot for file cabinets and their contents. The one you see pictured above was recently acquired by my longtime friend Tim Adams and his wife, Karen, who live in Chicago. I'll let Tim explain the story behind it:

Karen and I were at this antiques show held in a parking garage near our house, and we ended up purchasing an old filing cabinet of sorts that used to belong to WGN Radio [a major news/talk station in Chicago], containing thousands of individual index cards, one for each song they used to have in their library. I'd say most of the cards/songs date from the ’50s or ’60s, although there are some songs going back to the late ’40s from what I can tell.

The cabinet we bought was one of about 12 cabinets in all. These were divided into two sets of cabinets -- one sorted by song title, and one by artist. The couple that sold ours to us had taken some of the "title" drawers and given us a representative sampling of them from the alphabet, so there are probably another four or five cabinets with just the song titles, and probably six sorted by artist.

We haven't dug into the cards too much yet, but I did find some surprising entries, like early Alice Cooper, the Tubes, and Tom Tom Club. As I recall, WGN has been all talk since the ’70s, but maybe they still had a few shows that played songs, or they used them as drop-ins or something.

The couple that sold us the cabinet said they "knew a guy" who had some connection with the demolition of WGN's studio on Michigan Avenue (which apparently is being replaced with a restaurant), so that's how they ended up with the cabinets. The studio was right on the street, so you could look inside to see the DJs as they were working. Dusty Groove [a Chicago record store] bought the entire WGN record collection recently, but I guess they didn't want the cabinets.

Thankfully, the couple who sold it to us took all the drawers out and drove it over to our house. The thing probably weighs a couple hundred pounds fully assembled. We paid $600 for it -- riiiiight at the edge of what we would ever consider paying for something like this, but it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime finds, and it's a nice conversation piece, so....

Interesting! Man, cataloging a record library on index cards sounds almost primitive in our computerized era, no? The cards are really nice artifacts, too, full of underlining, annotations, and slight typewriter inconsistencies, all of which adds up to a nicely organic-feeling experience (for all of these, you can click to enlarge):

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Good stuff. Who typed these cards? Who kept track of the card library? Were most of the cards actually referred to at some point, or did they just sit there in the file drawers, waiting for the reference inquiry that never came?

And here's the best part: Against all odds, a little promotional tag that originally came with the file cabinet is still tied to one of the file drawer handles:

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"Built Like a Skyscraper" -- how great is that?! And I'd never heard the term "nuisance latch" before (sounds like a great band name). Big thanks to Tim and Karen for sharing their find.

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Update: A few hours after this post went live, I heard from my friend Liz Clayton (who, by coincidence, is also friends with Tim Adams, the guy who bought the file cabinet). She got very excited when she saw the tag hanging from the file drawer handle. "Oh!" she said. "Shaw-Walker! The kings of file cabinetry. Hang on..."

A few minutes later, she sent me this photo:

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"I found this (amazing) mug at a thrift store long ago and loved it for years without having any idea what it referred to," said Liz. "It wasn't until I met my friend Howard Akler, the Toronto author, who had a T-shirt of the Shaw-Walker logo, that I realized the man in the graphic was somehow completing an heroic feat of filing."