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.)

Friday, July 3, 2015

Another Lost Photo Album

Click to enlarge

I recently wrote about Robert Townley, the guy who found an old photo album floating in the Georgetown Canal. That entry struck a chord with PermaRec reader Josh Koonce, who just sent me the following note:

The Robert Townley piece inspired me to do something with two photo albums [shown above — PL] that I rescued from an evicted storage unit in Chicago about four years ago. At the time I was working for an online retailer who used a storage facility as warehouse space. Everyone knows how these storage auctions work these days, but often there is stuff left over after the auction that the buyer won't even take. It usually gets dumped. These albums were in that category.
Josh says the blue album contains about 75 photos, three funeral booklets, and a newspaper clipping; the one with the wood veneer cover contains about 130 photos. The photos appear to document the life of an African-American family, presumably from Chicago. Here's a small sampling:
#foundphoto #found #foundphotography #Chicago #selfstorage #nofilter #film #archive #vintagestyle #vintage #bluedress #suit #formalwear #found #foundphoto #Chicago #selfstorage #nofilter #film #archive #vintagestyle #vintage On reverse of print: "Dec 1976" #foundphotos #found #Chicago #photooftheday #film #archive #vintagestyle #vintage #bluedress #suit #formalwear Banner Attendance Class? #found #foundphoto #Chicago #selfstorage #nofilter #film #archive #vintagestyle #vintage #poloroid #instantcamera

Josh wants to find the family shown in the photos. "There is an address in one of the albums, and I drove by it, but the house appeared unoccupied," he says. "I searched the internet for the few names in the albums and didn't come up with much. There is also a church funeral bulletin in the blue album -- a lead I should probably follow up on."

For now, Josh is beginning to post the photos on Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter. If you recognize the family or have any leads, you can contact him via those accounts.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Mystery Floating in the Water

Have you ever seen an intriguing object bobbing along in the water? Robert Townley, a web developer who lives in Washington, DC, was recently walking along the Georgetown waterfront when he saw a booklet of some kind floating in the water. He took the photo you see above and then borrowed a net from a nearby fisherman to retrieve the book.

It turned out to be a photo album, and it apparently documented the first week of a baby's life. Obviously, the photos are now water-damaged, but many of them are still heart-tuggers:

There's a much more detailed version of this story, along with more photos, on Townley's website.

Townley is now wondering, just as you probably are, "Who are these people, and how did their baby album end up in the Georgetown Canal?" He's set up a Facebook group to help investigate the album's backstory and, ideally, return it to its rightful owners. Feel free to join the group and contribute to the sleuthing!

(Big thanks to Mike Engle for letting me know about this one.)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Message in a Bottle, Scottish Edition

The bottle shown above were recently found on a beach in Aberdeenshire, Scotland by a couple vacationing from Australia. They noticed a note inside, which indicated that the bottle had been tossed into the sea in 1971 by a 14-year-old boy named Raymond Davidson, who lived in Carlisle — 44 miles from where the bottle turned up.

The Australian couple posted a notice on Facebook, asking for help in tracking down Davidson. The good news is that their efforts were successful and they've now been in touch with him; the bad news is that Davidson has zero memory of having written the note or having tossed the bottle into the sea, which is a little disappointing.

Further details here.

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

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Hidden Trolley Lurking Within Old Building

We've often talked about find artifacts inside of an old house. Today's story puts a new spin on that concept.

Bill and Sharon Krapil bought some property last year in Weyauwega, Wisconsin. The lot included an old building that they planned to knock down. But as they began that process, it turned out that the building, as you can see above, had been built around a 1905 trolley, which served as the core of the structure.

There are lots of additional photos here (with a mildly annoying click-thru interface, sorry) and additional info here, along with a good video report below:

(Big thanks to reader/pal Jeff Ash for letting me know about this one.)

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Classroom Discoveries

Permanent Record got its start with a set of old vocational school report cards. Now I've gotten involved with another set of school-related artifacts.

The photos you see above are from the Instagram feed of Miriam Sicherman, a fourth grade teacher at the Children’s Workshop School in New York City. The artifacts shown in the photos — old coins, 1940s candy wrappers, tickets stubs from a theater that used to be next door to the school, a 1920s baseball card, a 1940s student assignment, and a lot more — were all excavated by her students from a gap in the floorboards of her classroom's closet. One of the students, a 10-year-old named Bobby Scotto, noticed that gap a few months ago, reached in, and began pulling out interesting finds. Soon the whole class was joining in, and Sicherman turned it into a way for the kids to learn about archaeology.

It's a great story, and I had fun writing about it in a recent New York Times article. Check it out here.

Meanwhile, as long as we're talking about schools: There was a great find a few days ago in Oklahoma City, where contractors renovating a high school removed some chalkboards from a classroom wall and found an older blackboard with lessons that had been written in 1917 and were still perfectly legible and intact, including this Thanksgiving scene:

Here's a video with further details (if the video isn't embedding properly, and/or if you want additional info, look here):

(Big thanks to reader Paul Deaver for letting me know about the Oklahoma City story.)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

A Coffin That Didn’t Stay Buried

You can find all sorts of discarded items on a city street, but the one shown above is particularly unusual: It's an old, dilapidated coffin, which was recently found by a retired bus driver at the base of a dead-end street in Brooklyn. Inside were a glove and a sock, each containing some small bones.

The police turned the coffin over the medical examiner's office, which was able to identify the coffin's manufacturer -- the first piece of the puzzle. The rest of the pieces soon came together, as the authorities were able to figure out where the coffin had been buried, whose bones were left inside of it, and how it came to be discarded on a Brooklyn street.

The full story is spelled out in this article, which is both entertaining and mildly disturbing — recommended.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Treasure Trove of Old Recipes

What you see above is an old recipe for tapioca cream pudding. It's one of hundreds or possibly thousands of old recipes — five file cabinets' worth — that were recently found in a building in Tulsa. The building was purchased by a man named Rick Phillips, who plans to use it for an expansion of his nearby shooting range, but it previously housed a large commercial cafeteria called Bordens. The recipes were for the cafeteria's fare.

Bordens was actually a local chain of nine cafeterias in the Tulsa area. They're now defunct, although the sign for one of them is still attached to its building and is visible from a nearby highway. As far as I can tell, the Tulsa Bordens had no connection to the onetime consumer goliath Borden Foods (which is now also defunct).

Phillips isn't sure what he'll do with the recipes but says they definitely won't be thrown away. Neither will all the other things he found in the building, including several neon signs, posters, and so on. This poster from the mid-1960s gives you a sense of what kind of place Bordens was:

One of the recipes, for lemon chess pie, is included at the end of this article about Phillips's discovery, which also includes a good video report — recommended.

(Big thanks to Craig Ward for letting me know about this one.)