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.)