Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 15

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[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

Here we have one of the most interesting and entertaining letters from the Hoge Brush Company files, this one written in 1963 by Viola Scott, president of the Bill Kirk Mfg. Co. of Amarillo, Texas, which manufactured a product called Bill Kirk's Old Scratch Cow Scratcher.

The letter suggests that Hoge Brush president Carl Werheim had apparently seen Scott appearing on What's My Line?, a then-popular TV quiz show featuring celebrity panelists who tried to guess a mystery person's occupation. (Since Scott's occupation was "cow scratcher manufacturer," she must have been a very challenging subject!) Werheim, sensing a potential new client, had evidently sent Scott a note suggesting that Hoge could meet any brush needs she might have. But as Scott explained in her reply, shown above, Bill Kirk's Old Scratch Cow Scratcher didn't involve any brushes or bristles (it featured metal washers that a cows could rub against, with the washers then releasing a mix of oil and insecticide into the animal's hide), so she had no need for Hoge's services.

Thanks to the internet's tendency to catalog virtually everything, it's easy to ascertain that Viola Scott's appearance on What's My Line? took place in the 41st episode of the show's 14th season, which aired on June 9, 1963. (No video appears to exist online, unfortunately.) Scott's letter to Werheim indicates that his original letter to her had been dated June 10, so he apparently didn't waste any time in pursuing his potential new customer.

As far as I can tell, the Bill Kirk Mfg. Co. is no longer with us. The company and its eponymous product were featured in Time magazine in 1951. The cow scratcher itself was patented in 1953, and Kirk filed a patent-infringement suit against a rival manufacturer in 1958.

It's not clear, at least to me, if Viola Scott later acquired the company from Bill Kirk or if Kirk hired her as company president. Either way, she's the one who got to appear on What's My Line?

Interestingly, the Hoge Brush files include a flier from an Omaha firm called the Farnam Company, which manufactured some devices that appear to have been very similar to Bill Kirk's Old Scratch Cow Scratcher. Here are the front and back of the flier (click images to enlarge):

Unlike the Bill Kirk product, however, these Farnam contraptions did involve brushes. Here's the key passage from the flier:

When [the cattle] enter to scratch, an ounce of oil-base insecticide (ROTEN-OIL) or any of the other powerful new "war-tested" insecticides, such as Farnam ROTENOX in water solution, is automatically released through brushes onto the animal's back and is curried-in by stiff fibre brushes.

The flier is dated 1948 — a full 15 years before Carl Werheim saw Viola Scott on What's My Line? So perhaps Farnam had already been a Hoge customer, and Werheim figured the Bill Kirk Mfg. Co. was making a similar product, not realizing that the Bill Kirk device was brush-free.

The Farnam Company, like the Bill Kirk firm, is no longer in business.

(My continued thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing the Hoge Brush Company letters with me.)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Rescued Film Project

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I've written plenty of times about found photographs. But Levi Bettwieser, a photographer and video producer from Boise, Idaho, takes the found imagery phenomenon a step further: He specializes in found film — old undeveloped rolls that he finds at flea markets and thrift stores, or via online auctions. He then develops and prints them and shares the results on his excellent website, the Rescued Film Project.

The photos shown at the top and bottom this entry are among the many thousands of images Bettwieser has produced from these film rolls. As usual with found photos, some are excellent and some are, well, not so excellent, but all are interesting simply by virtue of having been orphaned. All the usual questions about found photography apply here: Who are the people in these photos? Where are they now? And so on. But Bettwieser's project adds additional questions to the mix: Why didn't the people who shot these rolls of film get around to developing them? If the film was neglected, how did it avoid being thrown out?

If you want to know more, there's a good article about the Rescued Film Project here — recommended.

(My thanks to Mary Bakija for letting me know about this one.)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Hoge Brush Company Files, Vol. 14

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[Note: For background on the "Hoge Brush Company Files" series, click here; to see all the entries in the series so far, click here.]

The two letters shown above — our latest peek into the files of the Hoge Brush Company — are both from the same firm, the Indianapolis Brush & Broom Mfg. Co. As you can see, one was written on rather ornate, almost Art Nouvau-style stationery, while the other letterhead design looks more modern, more contemporary. So I was surprised to see that the more modern design actually came first — that letter was written in 1943. By the time of the second letter, in 1949, the company had switched to the more ornate design. Surprising!

Also surprising, or at least a bit odd: The 1949 letterhead notes that Capital Red Cap Brooms are "sweeping the country." This is presumably the red-topped broom shown on the 1943 letterhead. Strange that they would show this product (without mentioning it) on one letterhead design and mention it (without showing it) on the other.

Both letterheads note that Indianapolis Brush & Broom was located at the corner of Brush and Broom Streets — cute. According to this listing, the street address was 26 Brush Street. According to Google Maps, however, there is no thoroughfare in Indianapolis currently called Brush Street. There is a Broom Street, but it is located inside the Indianapolis Zoo.

The 1949 letterhead says Indianapolis Broom & Brush was established in 1890 and incorporated in 1902. That doesn't jibe with the information contained in this obituary for the company's founder, George Lamaux, which I found in a 1921 trade journal. It states that the company was "organized" in 1900:

The obituary notes that control of the company would be passing to Lemaux's son, Irving W. Lemaux. Irving was still president of the company through the 1940s, as his name can be found on the 1943 and ’49 letterheads (along with that of his son, Irving Jr., who signed the 1949 letter).

Irving apparently had an interest in Republican Party politics and was mentioned at one point as a potential mayoral candidate, although I couldn't find any evidence of him actually running for office:

I also found this caricature of Irving, accompanied by some unfortunate racial stereotyping:

Indianpolis Brush & Broom no longer exists. Neither does the American Supply and Machinery Manufacturers Association, which is referenced on both of the letterhead designs. I couldn't ascertain a date for either the company's or the trade group's demise.

(My continued thanks to Joanna and David Zwiep for sharing the Hoge Brush Company letters with me.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Who Was Robert James Campbell?

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The woman in the photo shown above is named Jessica Ferber. The photos spread out around her are the tip of a very large iceberg that floated into her life 13 years ago — a stash of photos, negatives, notes, letters, documents, and other materials that were left behind by a homeless man in Vermont who died in 2002. Ferber had just graduated college when she volunteered for the task of going through the deceased man's belongings, just to see if there was anything of value.

She ended up with more than she'd bargained for. The homeless man, Robert James Campbell, had been a professional photographer, and his work indicated that he'd had close ties to the New York jazz scene of the late 1950s and 1960s. Ferber, who had studied photography in college and was working at a photo processing lab at the time, immediately fell in love with Campbell's photos and felt compelled to answer the questions that the materials were raising: How had such a talented artist ended up homeless? Why had he held onto so many of his photos and negatives? Why did Google searches turn up so little evidence of his photographic career? Why had only two people — both from the homeless shelter where he had stayed — attended his funeral?

In short: Who was Robert James Campbell?

Ferber's 13-year attempt to answer that question became an obsession. She changed to a night job so her days would be free to research, cut back on socializing with friends, and learned everything she could about the jazz world that Campbell had inhabited. (She's written a good synopsis of the project here — highly recommended.) Her odyssey has now resulted in an excellent book, called Rebirth of the Cool, which features a few short essays and dozens of Campbell's photographs, many of which are stunners. Here's a sampling (if you can't see the slideshow below, click here):

You can find some additional info and photos here.

Ferber's story feels very familiar to me. Just as Campbell's belongings dropped into her lap, the Manhattan Trade School report cards dropped into mine. We both felt a strong responsibility to explore these materials and do right by the people behind them. And we both ended up sharing those people's stories with the public.

But Ferber went deeper than I did. Her project appears to have been the defining experience of her adult life, while the report cards have always been one passion among many for me. Even now, there are many dozens of report cards whose backstories I could (and really should) still investigate, and perhaps I will at some point when I have more time, but the project is back-burnered for now.

Does this mean Ferber is more obsessive than I am? Does it mean I'm lazier than she is? Does it reflect the fact that her project is focused on a single person who died recently, while mine encompasses hundreds of people, many of whom died decades ago? I think all of those things are probably true, at least to some degree.

In any case, Ferber's project is a winner, and Rebirth of the Cool is a great book. Don't miss.