Sunday, April 19, 2015

Another Writer Who Enjoys Found Objects

I recently heard from a writer named Ben Feldman, who likes found objects and the stories behind them as much as I do. He chronicles some of these stories on his blog, New York Wanderer.

Typical of Ben's work is his investigation into the tale behind the promotional change purse shown above, which he found at a flea market. He's a better and much more dogged historical researcher than I am, so he was able to extrapolate a several decades' worth of family history, including tales of illicit liquor sales during Prohibition, from this one item. The resulting blog is lengthy but fascinating — check it out here (and you may also want to see the New York Times piece that emerged from Ben's work).

Ben has done similar investigations into a memorial plaque for the former head of a hatters' union (there's a follow-up to that entry here), a small daily memorandum book, and a tinted glass slide. Good stuff from a kindred spirit.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Pair of Old Towels from Lancaster, Pennsylvania

For all of today's photos, click to enlarge

I'm a sucker for retro stripe patterns. So when I recently saw this vintage linen tea towel at a flea market, I was enticed, even though I don't really have any need or use for a tea towel. What sealed the deal was the original price tag still pinned to a corner of the towel — I'm a sucker for that kind of thing as well. I bought the towel, along with another one (which we'll get to in a minute), for $7.

I was curious about the shop listed on the price tag — Hager & Bro. Inc., of Lancaster, Pennsylvania — so I Googled it. Turns out there's a lot to learn.

Hager & Bro. (sometimes listed as Hager Brothers) was a department store run by the Hager family, which has deep roots in the Lancaster area. The family's retail history in Lancaster dates back to the early 1820s (different sources give conflicting accounts of the exact year), when Christopher Hager purchased a plot of land on the corner West King and Market Streets and established a mercantile business there. Here's an eBay listing for a pamphlet showing the business's clothing prices in 1889. (Some really nice typography and wording in there, incidentally — definitely worth a closer look.)

That same property at the corner of West King and Market later became the site of the Hager Building, which was built in 1910 and housed the family's department store:

According to this item in the Nov. 19, 1921 issue of the trade journal Dry Goods Economist (now there's a publication name!), Hager & Bro. was at that time "the oldest department store in the United States continuously operated by the same family." The item also mentions Christopher Hager's savvy business maneuvers, such as the time "he purchased an entire cargo of coffee that had become drenched by not damaged."

Hager's was acquired by another department store, Watt & Shand, in 1968 and closed in 1977, but the building remains. It's now occupied by an assortment of shops and condominiums and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There's also a box of Hager's-related artifacts at the Lancaster Historical Society.

It's not clear exactly when my tea towel was available for sale at Hager's, although the design of the towel and the tag both seem 1960s-ish to me. I love that the tag is pinned on (as opposed to being stapled or some other format), which absolutely screams "old-school dry goods shop."

But wait — there's more. When I told the flea market vendor that I was interested in the towel, she said, "Here, do you want this one, too?" She then produced this towel, which I hadn't initially seen because it was hidden underneath some other items:

photo 1-2

Frankly, I didn't like this towel as much as the first one — the stripe pattern seemed a little too busy, too showy. But then I thought to myself, "Does this one have a Lancaster price tag too?" Yes — but not from Hager's:

photo 2-2

How did one flea market vendor end up with two such similar towels that were originally sold at two different shops in the same city? Bizarre.

Unfortunately, there isn't as much readily available information about M.T. Garvin & Co. as there is about Hager & Bro., but I did find a few pieces of the puzzle. Milton T. Garvin was a prominent Lancastarian who helped establish the city's Unitarian Universalist church. He had a department store (here's an obituary for someone who once worked there as a buyer), which presumably competed with Hager's. According to this 1918 listing of oleomargarine licenses (!), Garvin's was located at 29-37 East King St., just a few blocks from Hager's.

It's not clear to me when Garvin's closed, but it was still going strong in 1970, as seen in this 1970 postcard that I found on eBay. You can see "Garvin & Co." on the side of the building and a big "G" logo over what is presumably the main entrance:

Another thing I found on eBay was this Garvin's promotional ruler, which lists three different slogans: "Where the Thrifty of Lancaster Shop and Save"; "Lancaster's Big Cash Department Store"; and "Where Boys and Girls, Mother and Dad Are Always Welcome":

There's something about that broad range of sloganeering that I find very amusing.

One final thought: If you look again at the two price tags, you'll see that one of them is marked "11-A-3" and the other "A 4":

That seems like too big much of a coincidence to be random. Anyone know what those "A"-based designations were for? (Update: Reader John Vahey has found some information explaining that the alpha-numeric designations on the price tags may have been part of a system for dry goods stock numbers.)

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Artifacts in Briefcase Reveal Long-Ago Affair

In May of 1969, a 39-year-old German businessman named Günter K. began an affair with his 24-year-old secretary, Margret S. Both were married. Over the next 19 months, they engaged in an extended series of sexual romps while traveling hither and thither. Günter's wife eventually learned of the affair and confronted Margret, who threatened to withhold sex from Günter unless his wife apologized to her — which, incredibly, she did.

We know all this because of a large cache of unusually detailed documentation — photographs, receipts, a journal, snippets of hair, empty birth control packaging (examples of which are shown throughout this blog post) — that was found in a briefcase purchased at a German estate sale 30 years after Günter and Margret's affair. Those items were the subject of a book and gallery exhibition in Germany in 2012, and now the exhibition is making its American debut under the title "Margret: Chronicle of an Affair — May 1969 to December 1970" at the White Columns gallery in New York.

The White Columns web page for the show provides good background info. Here's an excerpt:

The archive [of materials found in the briefcase] consists of hundreds of color and black-and-white photographs showing the same woman (Margret S.) in various places and poses: sitting at a typewriter at the office, traveling, or in hotel rooms, undressing, changing, or getting dressed. In the archive, inscribed with dates, are samples of Margret's hair (from both her head and pubic region), her fingernails, and empty contraception packages, as well as a blood-stained napkin. Receipts from hotels and restaurants, as well as travel documents and tickets from theaters, reveal insights into the places the couple visited as well as acknowledging their preferences and interests. Personal notes and diary entries, mostly written with a typewriter, resemble official records. The focus of virtually all these writings is the sexual act, its frequency, its endurance, etc. — all factually underlined yet at the same time described in a coarse and often obscene language. In its conceptual denseness — resulting partly from the obsessiveness of the documentation — the collection seems to reverberate with the practices of artists such as Sophie Calle, where the viewer often finds themselves in a conflicted space, exposed to their own voyeurism.

Faaaaascinating. I haven't gotten over to White Columns yet to see the exhibit, but I definitely plan to. You can see more photos from the show here.

Based on what I've read so far, it's not clear to me if any attempt has been made to find Günter and Margret (who, if they're still alive, would now be 85 and 70, respectively). I hope to learn more about that when I check out the exhibit.