Friday, April 18, 2014

Photos from JillSobule.com

About a dozen years ago, the singer/songwriter Jill Sobule received a vintage charm bracelet as a birthday gift. She had no interest in wearing the bracelet ("not really my style," she would later comment) but nonetheless became obsessed with it. As she wrote on her website in 2012:

Who was the original owner? What did she do? I do know her name was Dottie, as there is a round engraved "Dottie" charm. ... She was not from a wealthy family — the 22 charms are pewter as opposed to silver or gold. She traveled domestically, gathering mementos from Florida to Mackinac Island to New York City. She played piano. She liked big, sculpted poodles. She liked cowboys. She was a working girl; there is an ABWA union (American Woman Business Association) charm and an office chair. She was Jewish — a mezuzah. I keep saying “was” [but] maybe Dottie is still alive. Who knows?

Totally Permanent Record, right? Sobule decided to use the charm bracelet as the organizing theme for a concept album: a dozen songs, each relating to one of the charms on the bracelet, forming a fictional (but plausible) composite view of Dottie's life. But she didn't write the lyrics herself. Instead, she enlisted a bunch of writers — mostly novelists and academics like Jonathan Lethem, Luc Sante, and Rick Moody — and had each of them write a set of charm-based lyrics. She then added the music. The resulting album, Dottie's Charms, is being released on vinyl this weekend (in conjunction with Record Store Day) and will be available digitally on May 5.

Interestingly, Sobule had already been contemplating a similar project before she hit upon the charm bracelet idea. At one point she had considered purchasing a random old high school yearbook on eBay and constructing a concept album around that. But the charm bracelet idea ended up working out better.

The collaborative nature of Dottie's Charms has echoes of the Significant Objects project, in which the writers (and my friends) Rob Walker and Josh Glenn acquired about 200 cheap thrift store items, assigned a writer to create a short story about each of them, and then auctioned off the objects and the stories on eBay. (The stories were later packaged into an excellent book.)

You can learn more about Dottie's Charms in this article, and Sobule will be playing a record-release party for the album on April 24 at City Winery in New York. As she recently wrote on her blog, "Maybe Dottie will show up."

Incidentally, a few years ago I considered writing a song about the Manhattan Trade School report cards that formed the basis of the Permanent Record project. I figured I'd write some lyrics (something I'd never done before), and I asked my friend Lianne Smith — a great singer/songwriter who also happens to be a big PermaRec fan — if she'd be willing to come up with the music and then add the song to her repertoire. She was agreeable, but I never came up with a full set of lyrics. Only managed to do the chorus, the bridge, and part of a verse. This is all a good reminder that I need to dust off that project.

Monday, April 14, 2014

I'm a big fan of prewar country blues, and of course I'm also a fan of artifacts with hidden stories to tell. So I was super-excited when I saw The New York Times Magazine’s cover story this past Sunday: a long-form account of writer John Jeremiah Sullivan's extended research-based attempts to find out something — anything — about Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, two female blues singers who cut six sides for Paramount in 1930. One of those six songs, "Last Kind Words Blues" (credited to Wiley, as you can see on the label, but with Thomas accompanying her on guitar), is embedded above. If you're not familiar with it, go ahead and give it a listen.

The six Wiley/Thomas sides have long enjoyed a fairly rarefied status among blues connoisseurs and scholars. But those same scholars have failed to turn up any information about Wiley or Thomas. The mystery surrounding the two women is underscored by how rare their recordings are. In the case of one of their records, "Motherless Child Blues" with "Over to My House" on the flip side, only two copies are known to exist.

Many researchers and scholars over the years have loved Wiley and Thomas's music and wanted to know more about them. But Sullivan — the author of the NYT Mag article — seems to have been particularly smitten with them after first hearing their music in 1994. His article details his increasingly obsessive attempts to unlock the stories of these women's lives, and I don't think it's giving too much away to say he ends up hitting a certain degree of paydirt by the article's end.

While the two blueswomen are the article's protagonists, there's another significant character worth mentioning: Mack McCormick (shown at right; click to enlarge), a Houston-based 85-year-old who is said to have the world's largest archive of original blues research content — interview tapes, transcripts, photographs, record company ledgers, birth certificates, death certificates, you name it. I qualified that with "is said to" because McCormick's archive is so massive and unruly (he calls it "the Monster") that even he isn't sure of what he has anymore, which has led some skeptical rival scholars to question whether he really has all that much to begin with. The fact that McCormick is afflicted with bipolar disorder hasn't helped either his reputation or his attempts to organize his archive while he's still alive.

McCormick, who I'd heard of before but didn't really know that much about, comes off as the most fascinating character in the article. Part field researcher, part folklorist, part cultural historian, and part nosybody, he's a white man who was born into a very segregated era and has devoted most of his life to investigating and documenting the history of early-20th-century black American music. At one point he took a job with the census and specifically asked to be assigned to a particular black precinct where he thought (correctly) he'd find lots of old musicians and old records.

But McCormick has become paralyzed by (or maybe victimized by, or even captured by) the scope and depth of his work. He supposedly knows more than anyone has ever known about the most famous country blues singer of all, Robert Johnson, but has been unable to write a book on Johnson — in part, one suspects, because of his mental illness, but also because he got in so deep that he can't create a coherent narrative. And the Johnson situation serves as a metaphor for the rest of his archive, which is uncatalogued and is likely filled with untold stories that could add to our understanding of blues history.

Sullivan's article spends a lot of time discussing McCormick. It seems clear that the two men have a complicated relationship that veers from mentor/acolyte to rivalry, and I wonder if Sullivan envisions — or worries — that one day he'll end up like McCormick, an old man who got so immersed in his life's work that he neglected to shape it into a functional legacy. It raises a question I've often thought about while working on Permanent Record: At what point do we devote so much time and energy to investigating past lives that we lose sight of our own? Or, maybe more to the point, does a fascination with past lives indicate a feeling of emptiness about one's own?

Such introspections notwithstanding, Sullivan's article is superb. Like all stories about the blues, it's also a story about race in America, and a really good one. It's also very, very Permanent Record. It's long — about 14,000 words — but it's absolutely worth your time. Lots of good audio and video content, too. You can check it out here, and there's a follow-up "story behind the story" piece here. Don’t miss.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

I occasionally look for PermaRec-ish items on eBay and Etsy — old passports, old ledgers, old scrapbooks, that kind of thing. A week or so ago, for reasons I can't fully explain, I found myself thinking, "Hmmm, I wonder if anyone's selling old prescriptions?"

As you can see above, someone certainly was. In fact, as I soon discovered, there are a fair number of people on the internet selling old scripts. The two shown above are from a batch of 25 — all from 1959, mostly from the Kentucky/Tennessee region — that I purchased on Etsy for $3. (If that sounds like a good deal, you can get in on it, because the seller apparently has plenty more.)

Like any old documents, the prescriptions are evocative and feel like they have stories to tell. They've also raised all sorts of issues in my mind. For example:

1. PermaRec has often entailed some ethical concerns about violating people's privacy. I've usually been able to rationalize away those concerns, either because the people involved were likely deceased or because I convinced myself that the pursuit of an artifact's underlying story was worth the risk. But prescriptions feel different — they'd fall under doctor/patient confidentiality, no? And some of the people for whom these prescriptions were written may still be alive. So as you can see, I've blurred out the patients' surnames, which seems like the right approach to take, especially for a prescription like this one:

2. Somewhat related to the above: How did these scripts end up for sale on the internet to begin with? Wouldn't the pharmacy have disposed of them? Or did pharmacies keep paper prescriptions for their recordkeeping in the days before electronic records? The two holes on the left side of each script may indicate that they were all kept in a two-ring binder.

Still, even if the pharmacy kept them around for a bit, it seems surprising (at least to me) that they weren't eventually discarded. So I asked the Etsy seller how she obtained them. Here's how she responded:

The prescriptions came from a Hopkinsville, Kentucky pharmacy. I acquired them some time ago and sadly I don't remember where. However, I buy my inventory from auctions, estate sales, and antique shows, so it was from one of those. ... When I bought them they were in a vintage black pharmacy box with the date and record range on the cover.

I had hoped to pick her brain a bit more in a phone interview, but she declined my request. A pity.

3. Prescriptions are notorious for being rendered illegibly. But the batch I bought ran the gamut from schoolmarm-perfect penmanship to a few that looked like they were written by a caveman with crayon. The worst of the batch was this next one — even with the surname rewritten somewhat more legibly (presumably by someone at the pharmacy), I don't see any need to blur this one out:

4. Leaving aside the legibility factor, prescriptions often feature their own little alphabet of symbols, like the squiggle — which I believe is the symbol for ounces, right? — that appears twice on this one:

(Update: Longtime PermaRec supporter Kirsten Hively has pointed me toward a page that helps decipher old prescription symbology. Thanks, Kirsten!)

5. I was struck by how these 1959 scripts don't have any provision for renewals or generics.

And so on. I'm sure there are some doctors or other medically inclined folks among the the PermaRec readership, so please fill us in on some of the issues I've raised here by posting some info in the comments.

Meanwhile, now that I have the prescriptions, I don't really know what to do with them. Any suggestions?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Photo by Stephanie Strasburg, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Chris Togneri, a writer for The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, was recently doing some work on his 1890 house. While tearing out an old attic, he found a bunch of items, including the framed display of old century-old baseball cards you see above.

The cards are from the T206 series, which was produced from 1909 to 1911 — the same series that included the famous Honus Wagner card that's generally considered the most valuable baseball card of all time. Unfortunately for Togneri, the cards he found in the attic didn't include a Wagner, although they did feature several other Hall of Fame players. You can read more and see additional photos here.

My favorite part of that article is this passage:

[B]ecause of [the house's] age, it provides countless little treasures. ... While tearing water-stained walls out of the attic, I found old Pittsburgh Press clippings. While digging around in the backyard, I found a tombstone. (It did not come with a body, thankfully. After contacting the family, we were told that Barbara Tremel [the name on the tombstone] was buried in Reserve Township. They could not explain the duplicate tombstone, but were glad to take it off our hands.)

Wow! The baseball cards are cool, but a duplicate tombstone — that's much more PermaRec-ish! Indeed, what is a tombstone if not, literally, a permanent record? I wish Togneri had written more about that instead of relegating it to a parenthetical mention. (Update: For more on the tombstone, scroll down to Taha Jamil's comment below.)

(My thanks to Brian Justman for bringing this one to my attention.)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

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Lots of people this week have been calling my attention to the photobooth self-portraits shown above. They're nine images out of a collection of 445, apparently taken over the course of several decades, all showing the same man. The 445 images are currently being exhibited as part of a new art show about portraiture at Rutgers University.

I'm sure the whole exhibit is worthwhile — I hope to see it at some point this spring — but it's the photobooth images that are currently garnering the most attention. Writing at Slate, the history blogger Rebecca Onion did a good job of capturing their appeal:

The images are undated and unsorted, but you can make a mental game out of guessing how they might be organized chronologically. The man’s hair grows silver; his face gets craggy. In some frames, he smiles broadly — the grin of a kind uncle or grandfather.

The 445 photobooth shots are owned by historian Donald Lokuta, who purchased them from an antiques dealer in 2012. Lokuta has tried — so far unsuccessfully — to determine the subject's identity and why he took and saved so many photos of himself. Were the photos part of an art project? A neurotic obsession? Simple narcissism? It's a good PermaRec-ish puzzle, at least for now. Given the publicity the photos are currently receiving, I have a feeling this mystery will be solved fairly soon. (You can read more about the how Lokuta came to acquire the photos here.)

As an aside, the first person to tell me about the photobooth shots was longtime PermaRec supporter Kirsten Hively, who has a new blog about portraiture and self-portraiture, called Reflectology. She plans to use it as, among other things, a forum for portraits of herself (like many of us, she doesn't like how she looks in photos, so she's hoping all the portraits will help her come to terms with that). So far she's posted a self-silhouette and an x-ray. Not sure if she's planning to make it all the way to 445 or if she'll be content with a smaller number. Either way, it's a good start.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

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Permanent Record is all about uncovering the stories lurking within found objects. It's a determinedly fact-based approach, employing archival research to determine what really happened.

But found objects also provide lots of opportunities to spin fantasies about what might have been, or to project ourselves into other people's stories, or just to mess around with our perceptions of reality. That's the approach taken by the Florida-based artist Angela Deane, who has a very interesting specialty: She procures old snapshots and paints over most of the people in those photos, transforming them into ghosts. The resulting images, which she calls ghost photographs, can be seen on her Tumblr site (from which all the images in this PermaRec entry were taken).

Deane's response to found objects is obviously very different from mine, which is precisely why I find her project so interesting. It would never even occur to me to modify or alter an artifact like she does. But hey, that's why she's an artist and I'm a journalist, right?

In any case, Deane and I both find inspiration in found objects, so I wanted to learn more about her project. She recently agreed to answer a bunch of my questions via email:

Permanent Record: When and how did you decide to start this project? What was the impetus?

Angela Deane: I started it by a happy accident, really. In the fall of 2012 I had an artist residency in New Mexico. I had bought a bunch of photographs on eBay and at thrift stores, which I planned to use to create collages. When I spread out the photos in my studio, I started wondering what would it be like/mean/look like to paint a ghost over a photograph, to erase the particular of an identity or the ownership of an experience. And so I launched in.

Hours later I sat back and stared down at about 40 or so "ghosted" pictures and was blown away. I knew I was on to something.

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PR: Roughly how many ghost photos have you made? Have you posted all of them on your Tumblr site? If not, how many more have you done besides the ones on the site, and how do you decide which ones go on the site and which ones don't?

AD: I'm on about number 325. Only a handful are on the Tumblr site. Being fairly new to it, I'm taking my time and picking and choosing mostly on whim. Recently I've been sourcing photos based on themes (embraces, birthday parties, parades), so they may post in waves of these moods for some time to come.

PR: Where do you get the found photos? Like, do you hunt for them at flea markets? Did you already have a big stash of them when you started this project?

AD: My initial stash was probably about 100, sourced mostly from eBay and from some from thrift stores in Miami and other places in Florida. In New Mexico I met this guy who had a whole garage full of photos — he even had a deal with all the local thrift stores to give him any of the photos they received first — so I struck a deal with him and got to go through a lot of boxes out there. Got some great ones. I'm back south for the spring and summer, so I'll definitely be hitting up some flea markets! I'll be looking for some good vacation photos, I think.

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PR: How do you decide if a photo is "good enough" or "right" for being painted? Is there a particular type of scene (or feel, or whatever) that you look for?

AD: Mmmm, it remains much of a mystery why I choose the ones I do. In general I'd say I look more for color photos (black and whites make it a little more morbid; more about death, which isn't really how I think of them). I like snapshots. In essence they're just these little moments, generally when people are feeling good, are engaged with one another or with nature. I like those moments where you can feel a pulse in the inattention of what's taking place. Does that make sense?

PR: Why ghosts?

AD: There's a line from a Band of Horses song that goes, "We are the ever-living ghost of what once was." I think of these ghosts not as of people that have passed but each and every one of own experiences that has passed. How to hold memories has always been something that has provoked me to create lots of my art in life. Can we retain them as experiences or do they just turn into anecdotes?

These are intended as ghosts of moments. And in painting away the specificity of the people experiencing them, I like to think it opens things up for any of us to place or project ourselves into that space. They could be our memories now. Of course, that is what a life ends up to be — a collection of moments, experiences, memory — so ultimately I suppose it does grapple with mortality. But I don't think of them morbidly.

And I notice that the ghost photos make most people smile or laugh, which is great. I think the choice of the snapshots contributes to this. A writer on Flavorwire the other day described them as "ghosts having fun" and then did a riff on the whole celebrity mag thing and said, "Ghosts: They're just like us!" I loved it.

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PR: What paint (or white-out, or whatever) do you use to paint the ghosts?

AD: Mostly acrylic, sometimes gouache.

PR: How long does one of the photo paintings typically take you?

AD: Most of them take only about 30 minutes or so, but lately I've been doing some with upwards of 100 or 200 ghosts in them, and I spend a few hours with those.

PR: At first I thought you turned every person in each photo into a ghost. But then I saw you sometimes leave some people un-ghosted (like the people in the background of this shot). Is there a rule or system you use when deciding who gets ghosted and who doesn't?

AD: Not really; just a gut feeling. Sometimes I imagine myself as the un-ghosted people, looking on at the "ghosts" and "spaces to project other people in" and want to keep them intact so they can be more concrete witnesses to something magical happening. It gives a different focus to the ghosted characters. And once in awhile it's just as simple as finding their face simpatico, or liking their stance, and therefore wanting to leave them intact.

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PR: Do people send found photos to you to paint, either for commissions or just as a "I thought you'd like to have this" kind of thing?

AD: Yeah, I have a few commissions under my belt. I love doing them. This past December I had a show with F.L.A. Gallery and was put in touch with Amy Sedaris, who is crazy for ghosts and commissioned me to paint a bunch of family photos to gift to her siblings. Very cool!

PR: Have you had any other ghost photo gallery shows besides that one?

AD: Yeah, I've had a couple. The last was in Los Angeles at a friend's spot called "Matters of Space" in Highland Park. It was well-received and has brought me a couple projects in the works, which I can't get into yet but are very exciting. The F.L.A. Gallery show was also terrific and was so beneficial, as it was the first time I'd seen so many of the photos framed in a group rather than just in my studio.

PR: Have you ever tried to find any of the people in any of these photos, and/or has anyone ever told you, "Hey, I recognize that photo"?

AD: Only once, out in New Mexico! And actually I never painted over that photo because it's so great — an older man out in his front lawn, standing proud. Sometimes there are names written on the back of the photos, but I've never thought to Google anyone. Maybe I should..? Hope they'd be cool with being turned into spirits.

I also haven't done any personal photos of my own yet. But may do a few soon. Some goofy ones from junior high or something, maybe my softball team portrait.

PR: How long do you think this project will keep going?

AD: I keep getting nervous that I'm not "over" it yet. But I gotta tell you, my curiosity remains piqued with each one that I make. And they're just beginning to get out into the world to such a nice reception, which makes me feel okay for wanting to paint maybe 3,000 of these guys. These last few years I've been bouncing around cities (Miami, New York, Seattle, Gainesville), so the fact that these are so portable — very different from my larger-scale paintings — is pretty addictive.

PR: Any other thoughts about found objects?

AD: Just that I love them. Much of my d├ęcor is second-hand. I love the hunt of it, I love the slow meandering and contemplation of the hunt — it's never speedy. Stories that are embedded yet unknown, endless mystery in objects and a reminder that time just continues on.

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My thanks to Angela for answering all my questions. I was particularly struck by this passage from one of her responses: "How to hold memories has always been something that has provoked me to create lots of my art in life. Can we retain them as experiences or do they just turn into anecdotes?"

I totally relate to this notion of experience morphing into anecdotes. You start by experiencing something, and then proceed to remembering that experience. But if it's a memory that you tell or explain to others, sometimes the memory gets superceded by the telling and retelling of the memory, until you no longer remember the original experience — you just remember how you've told the story, like a script that you've internalized. Or at least that's what I've often found to be the case. Even the experience that gave birth to the Permanent Record project — the night I found the old Manhattan Trade School report cards at my friend Gina's birthday party in 1996 — falls into this category. I don't really remember much about that night anymore; what I remember is the countless times I've told the story about that night. That troubles me a bit, because it feels like the original experience has gotten lost along the way.

For those who want to see and hear more about Angela's work, here's a good video interview with her, which was produced in conjunction with one of her recent gallery shows:

(Extra-special thanks to Heather McCabe for bringing Angela's Tumblr site to my attention.)

Monday, March 31, 2014

In 2007, a 26-year-old Chicagoan named John Maloof was working on a book about Chicago history. Maloof lived across the street from an auction house that was selling a stash of several thousand old negatives shot by a Chicago photographer several decades earlier. The auction house had acquired the negatives from a storage locker after the photographer had let the locker's account go delinquent. Maloof thought the negatives might be helpful for his book project, so he bought them for $380.

When Maloof looked at the negatives, he was quickly struck by how evocative they were. The photographer — a total unknown named Vivian Maier, who died shortly after Maloof acquired the negatives — clearly had a special feel for street photography. Her senses of framing, composition, portraiture, storytelling, pathos, and wit were all superb. But Maloof couldn't find any information about her. It appeared that none of her work, including the photos Maloof had acquired, had ever been exhibited or published. The more Maloof looked at the photos, the more convinced he became that he'd stumbled upon the work of a major overlooked artist. His hunch became even stronger when he scanned some of the negatives and posted them on Flickr, where they immediately generated lots of very positive response. (That's one of Maier's photos shown above, and the other photos scattered throughout this entry are hers as well.)

Thus began John Maloof's trip down a deep, deep rabbit hole that continues to this day. He has essentially become the chief custodian and cheerleader of Vivian Maier's legacy. Or, to put it another way, he's devoted his life to hers. Along the way he learned that Maier spent most of her adult life employed as a nanny, so he interviewed many of the families that hired her, including some of the now-grown children she looked after. He also visited her family's ancestral village in France. And he sought out and acquired thousands and thousands of additional Maier negatives (many of them salvaged from another storage locker she left behind), along with hundreds of rolls of film that she shot but never got around to developing (ditto). In short, Maloof is trying to be as encyclopedic about Vivian Maier as he can be. But there are still many pieces of the puzzle that he hasn't yet been able to put together, because Maier was intensely secretive and seriously eccentric. Among other things, she appears to have had a hoarding disorder. (Storage lockers and hoarding — this story reads like a reality TV treatment.)

This odd backstory has probably helped Maloof's efforts to promote Maier's work, because it adds an element of intrigue. In any case, the art world has embraced Maier's photography, which is now compared to the works of Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and other great American populist photographers. Maloof has successfully shepherded her photos into an assortment of gallery shows, book projects, and more. Prints of her work, sold by a New York gallery that has partnered with Maloof, now sell for prices starting at about $1800.

And now there's new documentary film called Finding Vivian Maier. I saw it last Saturday and was blown away. It's a great story, superbly told. If you're into found objects and PermaRec-ish stories, it's absolutely essential viewing — don't miss. (As a bonus, Maloof, who co-directed the film, was on hand at the screening I attended, so I got to hear some of his commentary and participate in a short Q&A session he conducted.) Here, take a couple of minutes to check out the trailer:

Some of you may be thinking, "This Maloof guy is just profiting off of this dead woman's work. That's exploitation!" That's an understandable gut reaction, but I don't think it's accurate. While I could be wrong, I don't get the impression that Maloof is getting rich off of any of this (he needed a Kickstarter campaign to help finance the documentary), especially since a lot of the money that comes in from sales of Maier's prints is getting rolled back into the project's overhead (Maloof still has thousands of negatives to scan and hundreds of rolls of film to develop). I do think he's making a living off of all this, and good for him — that's a fair trade for the time and energy he's invested. It's pretty clear to me that he cares deeply about Maier and her work, and that he's made some pretty serious sacrifices to devote himself to this project. He didn't go looking to acquire something valuable. But once he realized what he had, he felt (and still feels) a strong responsibility to bring it to light and share it with the world. By his own account, he's also fairly obsessive, so it's his nature to keep following the rabbit hole, wherever it leads.

I relate to all of this. When I found the Manhattan Trade School report cards in that discarded file cabinet years ago, I knew had to do something with them — that was the responsibility I took on when I grabbed the cards. Frankly, given how important I think the report cards are, part of me feels a little ashamed for not having made them a full-time pursuit, the way Maloof has done with Maier's photography. I respect and admire how far he's taken this project.

Anyway: If you want to know more about Maier and her photography, look here. Meanwhile, Finding Vivian Maier is tremendous. See it!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Another day, another story about a lost class ring. This latest one, shown above, belonged to a Virginia high school student named Shannon O'Donnell, who lost it while riding an amusement park ride in 1999. It was recently found by man named James Lawrence, who returned it to Shannon's high school.

Although Shannon's name was etched into the ring's inner band, the school's staff no longer had contact info for Shannon. So they put a photo of the ring on the Facebook page for the school's alumni, which set the wheels in motion for Shannon to reclaim her ring. You can read further details in this article.

(My thanks to Beverley Brookes for letting me know about this story.)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

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About a week ago I posted about how reader Bill Maselunas had tracked down the history of the person shown in one of the photo I.D. badges I've recently been obsessing over. He's now done the same for the badge you see above. (If you missed the entry in which I introduced the topic of employee photo badges and want to get caught up on that, look here.)

Bill did all the heavy lifting here, so I'll turn this over to him:

I'm fairly certain the person shown on this badge is Alyce Katheryne Stephenson of West Chester, Ohio. The unusual spelling of Alyce's name made the research somewhat easier than it might otherwise have been (although in some places it was recorded as "Alice"). Here's what I discovered about her:

• She was born Alyce Katheryne Stephenson on Jan. 10, 1910, in Butler County, Ohio, to Samuel James (1883-1956) and Anna Katheryne (Dietiker) Stephenson (1890-1948).

• Sibling Samuel Wilbur "Bud" Stephenson was born on Sept. 30, 1914, West Chester, Ohio; died on June 26, 1935, in West Chester, Ohio; buried in West Chester, Ohio. Appears to have died tragically from an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound on his farm. Never married.

• Alice resided in Butler County, Ohio, for most of her life and lived in Sharonville (the location of the facility that issued her employee badge) at the time of her mother's death in 1948.

• She attended Miami University of Ohio, Class of 1931. She's shown at the bottom-left corner of this page from the school's 1931 yearbook [click to enlarge]:

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As you can see, that yearbook page used an unusual variant of the spelling of her first name. But the spelling shown on her employee badge was used on this next page, where she's listed as a member of a campus women's organization. She may also be among the students shown in the group photo at the bottom of the page [click to enlarge]:
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Although her employee badge was issued by the Sharonville Engineer Depot, her primary career appears to have been as a teacher and educator. She was teaching at Princeton High School in Cincinnati in 1960, and her Ohio Death Record lists her occupation as an elementary school teacher. She is cited as a contributor in this course guide.

• She died on July 21, 1996, in Mongomery, Ohio, apparently without having married or having had children. No survivors were listed in her obituary:

• Her father, Samuel, worked for various railroads, which may explain Alyce's apparently temporary employment at the Sharonville Engineer Depot, a major railroad and industrial center. It's a little hard to figure out when she worked there and why. Was it during her college summers? Part of the war effort? Given that she worked in academia all her life, it's a bit baffling to me that she would have worked there at all.

Speaking of the Sharonville Engineer Depot, it was built in 1942 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stockpile strategic metals (magnesium, titanium, zinc, etc.). The site was occupied from 1942 to 1949 by the Air Force. Of the original 603 acres, approximately 50 comprise the current Sharonville Engineer Depot, now occupied by the Defense Logistics Agency, which operates a facility known as the Sharonville Depot Defense National Stockpile Zone. The site was investigated by the EPA in the 1980s and 1990s for contaminated soil and water, but no remedial actions were taken. Some further information about the facility is available in this discussion board thread.

Research thanks to Samantha Loopstra from Ohio's amazing "Know It Now" program, available at Ohio public libraries, and to Jennifer Rusche, Reference Librarian at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County.

Another great research job. The only downer is that Alyce doesn't appear to have any descendants we can contact. The same was true of Martha L. Cannaday, the previous badge employee Bill had researched. I'm hoping we'll eventually be able to track down a living relative of one of the badge subjects. And with that in mind, I'm happy to report that Bill is already working on another badge history — stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Last summer, in the space of a month, I ran three separate items about messages in bottles (look here, here, and here). Now, as you can see above, we have another one. This one was recently discovered on Martha's Vineyard, where a man named Keith Moreis found it.

This one is a drift bottle — a tool used by scientists to help track the ocean's currents. People who found the bottles and followed the pink card's "Break This" instructions would find the following documents inside:

The kicker is that this may have been the very last drift bottle ever cast into the sea by the United States government. Get the full story on that here.

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The letter and money order you see above, both of which are nearly 100 years old, were found amidst a pile of mail that a Canadian man named Larry McLean recently discovered under his front porch. McLean had lived in his house for 35 years without realizing the treasures were hiding right under his nose. He found the mail when pulling out his porch during some home renovations. The letters were addressed to a family that had lived in McLean's house a century ago.

Many of the letters were sent to or from a family member who had enlisted and been sent to Europe during World War I. Get the full story here.

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The letter shown above, which carries a 1945 postmark, was recently found by a Dallas woman named Shelia Polk, who discovered it inside an old book she had purchased at Goodwill. She initially refused to open it, because the letter was "personal." But after ascertaining that both the sender and recipient were deceased — and after consulting the U.S. Postal Service, which gave the go-ahead -— she opened the envelope and found a love letter from one military member to another. Unfortunately, it appears that the couple in question never formed a lasting bond.

(My thanks to James Poisso and Jim Borwick for alerting me to these stories.)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

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I recently posted an entry about my newfound interest fascination obsession with old photo employee I.D. badges. At the end of that entry, I invited PermaRec readers to contact me if they wanted to try to suss out the stories behind any of the badges. Reader Bill Maselunas promptly volunteered to work on the one shown above, for a Wichita school matron named Martha L. Cannaday. Her badge is among the 250 that were recently exhibited at the Ricco Maresca Gallery in New York.

Before we get to Bill's findings, I should mention that Martha's badge was one of my favorites from the gallery show, and I wasn't alone in that regard — several PermaRec readers mentioned it as one of their favorites when I first wrote about the badges earlier this month. At the risk of being disrespectful to Martha, it seems pretty obvious that a big part of her badge's power is the pathos in her portrait and the way her job title — "Matron" — mirrors her matronly appearance. The discomfort I felt when writing that sentence (which you may also be feeling now that you've read it) is the karmic payback that comes with examining artifacts like the badges: We get a little voyeuristic thrill from these glimpses into other people's lives, but we also feel a bit of shame for violating their privacy and making superficial and sometimes condescending judgments about them.

So I was happy when Bill chose Martha's badge as his volunteer research project, because I wanted to be able to know more about her as a human being, not just as a mug shot on a badge. Here's Bill's report on what he found:

This has been a bit of a challenge, because Kansas has not made a lot of its public records and vital statistics available online. But Martha Cannaday is mentioned by name in this Find A Grave entry. That led me to lots of additional information, which allowed me to piece together the following:

• She was born Martha L. Tomlinson, April 27, 1919, in Kansas, to David Tomlinson Jr. and Mildred Chadbourne Tomlinson.

• Sibling Myrna M. Tomlinson was born March 22 1909, in Kansas. A nurse and a lifelong bachelorette. Died Oct. 1, 1985, and buried in Garfield Cemetery, Garfield, Kansas.

• Sibling Betty Jean Tomlinson was born June 10, 1924, in Garfield, Kansas. Died March 1, 2005, and buried in Garfield Cemetery, Garfield, Kansas. Was married to William Roy Kitchens (1923-1984). No kids that I have been able to find.

• My guess as to the date of her Wichita Public Schools badge is in the 1940s or ’50s. I've reached out to both the Wichita Public Schools and the local school museum, but no luck in tracking down any record of her employment. Her role as "matron" would basically have been that of a head nurse, which makes sense, given that her sister was also a nurse. I've checked the Wichita high school yearbooks that are available online, but again no luck.

• She died on April 19, 2007, in Kansas — likely Wichita. Garfield cemetery sexton Ray Wetzel believes he recalls a simple ceremony, attended by a single relative, with no obituary and no headstone placed. His recollection is that there was talk of buying one, but it never materialized.

• Her last known address was 5111 Funston St. in Wichita, an address shared by her sister Betty Jean, which leads me to believe they may have lived together after the deaths of their husbands.

• Martha and her sister Betty Jean both lived in Colorado at one point, perhaps in the Pueblo area. Their Social Security numbers were both issued there.

• The identity of Martha's husband is a mystery so far. Part of the problem is the inconsistent spelling of the surname. Depending on where one looks, it might be Cannaday (as shown on the badge), Canaday, Cannady, Canady, and others. This makes it somewhat challenging to say with any certainty which Cannaday is which. There are numerous male "Cannadays" of about the right age in Kansas in 1940, when Martha was still unmarried, but none in the immediate vicinity of Garfield, where the Tomlinsons (her family) lived.

• No children yet identified.

This pretty much exhausts the online resources. I have a request in at the Wichita Public Library to scan some old phone books and other records, but that could take some time.

Wow — no headstone, few if any descendants, one sister a spinster and the other a childless widow who became her roommate. If anything, this just adds to the pathos. But we still don't know about Martha's husband or marriage, and I'm hoping those provided some joy in her life.

Huge thanks to Bill Maselunas for his excellent research work (and Bill in turn wants to thank Ed Carlson, the curator of the findagrave.com pages for the Tomlinsons, and Ray Wetzel, the sexton at the Garfield Cemetery, for their assistance). Meanwhile, if anyone from Wichita can help us fill in some of the blanks regarding Martha and her family, please get in touch. Thanks.

Monday, March 10, 2014

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Yesterday we took a look at Rose Simone's Manhattan Trade School autograph book and then examined the report card of one of the students who had signed that book, Jennie Grillo. Today we're going to look at the student file of another student who signed Rose's autograph book, Pasqualina Guccione. Her note in Rose's book is shown above.

Pasqualina Guccione's student record is part of my collection. Unfortunately, her report card, like Jennie Grillo's, does not include a photograph, so we don't know what she looked like. But her story appears to have been an interesting one. Let's start with her main card (for all the images in today's entry, you can click to enlarge):

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There are a few points of interest here. First, Pasqualina apparently preferred to be called Patricia. But she used Pasqualina when signing Rose's book, so I think I'll continue to refer to her as Pasqualina. Second, Pasqualina lived with her grandfather, Saverio Rozzo, not with her parents. Were they deceased?

But the most interesting thing about this card is the indication, toward the bottom, that Pasqualina received financial assistance from the school — "Lunches & carfare (50¢)." Student aid, based on hardship or need, was available to all Manhattan Trade School students but was usually granted only if the student's family was going to pull her out of school so she could work to help support the household. This apparently didn't come up very often, because very few of the report cards in my collection have any notations relating to the aid program. Because financial aid was granted to Pasqualina, however, her student record includes a series of forms and entries not found in most of the other students' files, beginning with this card from the school's financial aid office:

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From this card we can see that Pasqualina's parents were indeed deceased (as indicated by the "dec." notations in the "Occupation" column). She lived not just with her grandfather but with both of her grandparents, along with an older sister who was working as a stenographer. She was referred for student aid by one of her teachers, Miss Meaghre. The card also indicates that Pasqualina was born in Italy, which makes her something of a rarity among the Manhattan Trade students I've investigated, most of whom were born in New York to immigrant parents. At the bottom-right corner of this card are the initials of an "Investigator" — M.A.U. This was apparently the financial aid case worker who was assigned to Pasqualina after she was referred to the aid office by her teacher. I'm fairly certain that that it was M.A.U. who wrote the fascinating entries that appear on the following cards:

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Cards like these do not appear in most of the student files in my collection. They only appear in Pasqualina's because she received financial aid. The handwriting is a little hard to make out, so here's a transcription (for the sake of clarity, I've spelled out a few terms that were abbreviated and added a few annotations):

April 2, 1925: Sent S.S. slip.

April 3, 1925: S.S. slip returned — unknown. [I don't know what this "S.S. slip" refers to. It definitely doesn't have anything to do with Social Security, which didn't yet exist in 1925. — Paul]

April 8, 1925: Visited grandmother [who was] unable to speak English. Through an interpreter learned that Mr. Rozzo [Pasqualina's grandfather] is working in a nut factory, earning about $6 or $7 weekly. Mrs. Rozzo will be glad to have Pasqualina remain in school until she graduates if it is possible. Explained that we would give lunches and carfare with understanding that Pasqualina complete course. Also, we would pay for her bloomers and smock. Grandmother agreed to this. [The bloomers and smock were likely part of either the school uniform or the togs that would be worn during gym class. Both can be seen in this amazing 1912 film about the school. — Paul)

April 8, 1925: Sent for Pasqualina and gave her $1.70 for smock and bloomers and arranged for lunch and carfare. Reported to Miss Meaghre.

June 1, 1925: Miss Gallette reports Pasqualina needs country air. [It was fairly common during this period for girls and women suffering from "exhaustion" or "a nervous condition" to be recommended for a "rest cure" outside the city. That appears to be what was happening here with Pasqualina. — Paul]

June 2, 1925: Made arrangements to send Pasqualina to N.Y. Dispensary. Telephoned to Miss Ross and explained case and sent Pasqualina with letter. [The New York Dispensary was a philanthropic medical service. Further info here. — Paul]

June 4, 1925: Pasqualina brought note from N.Y. Dispensary saying she could go on Monday [June 8] to Burke Foundation [which was another philanthropic medical facility — Paul]. Pasqualina has sufficient clothing. Reported to [illegible] and Miss Gallette.

June 22, 1925: Not taken. Miss Ross will make other arrangements.

June 28, 1925: Arranged through N.Y. Dispensary for Pasqualina to go to Sunnyside Farms, Manasquan. Secretary paid train fare out of student aid fund. Dropped from [illegible]. [Sunnyside Farms was a "respite home for convalescent girls" in Manasquan, New Jersey. You can get a sense of the accommodations from this 1951 postcard, which shows one of the bedrooms. The facility now functions as a nursing home. — Paul]

June 30, 1925: See letter.

July 1, 1925: Secretary [illegible] letter in longhand. [Unfortunately, this letter was not included in Pasqualina's student file. — Paul]

Jan. 4, 1926: Finished 6th contract. Trade F+ 40 days. [This means Pasqualina had finished her sixth unit of coursework at the school and had received a grade of F+ — a bit better than fair. — Paul] Talked to Pasqualina. She understands that unless she can improve her school work and conduct, student aid will be discontinued.

March 3, 1926: Hygiene record shows baths and underweight. Complains of getting tired in gym. Must omit coffee — use tonic. Deportment: F+.

March 11, 1926: Talked with Pasqualina. Says she is now OK in weight and will try to clear hygiene card at once. Sorry she has F+ in Deportment. Talks, she says. Will try to bring [the grade] up at once. Says grandmother very good to her. Pasqualina attends Italian evening school (Children's Aid Society), where she learns embroidery. Miss Garbarini [is her] teacher. Sister has new position with Steel Co. on Fifth Ave. Makes $21.75 weekly. ¬

May 24, 1926: Pasqualina going to farm. Bought regulation suit for her — $2.25. She thinks she can furnish everything else. [The farm is Sunnyside Farms, the same facility Pasqualina had visited the previous summer. — Paul]

June 3, 1926: Letter from Pasqualina at farm. Mrs. Lynn, of the Margaret and Sarah Switzer Foundation [the philanthropy that operated Sunnyside Farms], called to say they will take Pasqualina at Sunnyside Farms again this year if we will make out a check for board at $3 a week for two or three weeks. Then, after Pasqualina has come home, they will return check to us. They have a rule this year to take no one [for] free, but they had Pasqualina last year for several weeks [for] free and liked her so well, [so they] will be glad to have her again.

Nov. 5, 1926: Getting along well — Hygiene Good, Trade Good. Not absent or late in contracts 9 and 10.

Dec. 6, 1926: Teacher's report: Physical Training Good, Hygiene Excellent, Work Good, Attitude Good. Very willing. Has been transferred to Miss Meditz's class today.

Wow — that's quite a narrative. It really shows how the school kept close tabs on everything relating to a student who was receiving financial aid — her home life, her schooling, her health. I'm fairly certain the school was concerned about these aspects of every student who attended Manhattan Trade, but only the students receiving financial assistance had all of these details documented in so much detail.

Okay, back to Pasqualina's student record. Next up are her grades (several of which were referenced in the financial aid notes) and teachers' comments:

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As you can see, Pasqualina's grades and teacher feedback were generally good, although there's a note about her being "talkative," which matches up with that earlier note about her chatty deportment.

Pasqualina, like all Manhattan Trade students, had to demonstrate proficiency in her trade (dressmaking) before she could receive her diploma, so the school's job placement office arranged some work for her. Here's her work record, along with comments from her employers:

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Nothing unusual here, except for the troubling note on March 4, 1927, that Pasqualina's grandfather had been laid off from his job, leaving her older sister as the family's sole means of financial support.

That's the end of Pasqualina's student record. The only other thing we know about her is the cheery note she left in Rose Simone's autograph book.

If Pasqualina is still alive, she'll be celebrating her 102nd birthday later this month. Realistically, though, she's probably deceased. My research assistants and I haven't previously tried to track down her descendants, or those of Jennie Grillo (the student whose record we looked at in yesterday's entry), but we may have to do some digging on them now, thanks to their connection to Rose's autograph book. Stay tuned.

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Pasqualina's and Jennie's report cards have been in my collection for years, but I had never taken a close, detailed look at them until now. Why? A big part of it is because their cards didn't include photographs — the non-photo cards seem inherently less interesting, less inviting, than the photo-inclusive cards. Also, we've largely concentrated on some of the students who would now be "younger" — i.e., in their 90s — in the hopes of finding one who's still alive. (We succeeded in that regard once.)

Really, though, a lot of it is just a matter of the large number of student records in my collection (nearly 400) and the limited amount of time and resources for examining and investigating them. In this case, there was a bonus connection — Jennie's and Pasqualina's notes in Rose Simone's autograph book. That provided the impetus to pull out Jennie's and Pasqualina's report cards and give them a closer look.

I wish I had Rose's report card as well. I'm super-grateful to her granddaughter, Sara Dunphy, for contacting me and sending me photos of the pages from the autograph book. She also sent me Rose's lovely graduation photo, which shows her holding her Manhattan Trade School diploma:

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Sara also sent one additional photo — a family shot of Rose (center), Sara (top), and Sara's children. The photo was taken a month before Rose's death at the age of 102:

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Thanks again for everything, Sara. And Rose, RIP.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

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It's been quite a while since I had anything to report regarding the Manhattan Trade School report cards, which are supposedly the core of the Permanent Record project (or at least that's what it says in that little description over in the right-hand sidebar). Today, however, I have some report card-related news.

I was recently contacted by a woman named Sara Dunphy, whose grandmother, Rose Simone Antonecchia, had just passed away at the age of 102. Rose had attended Manhattan Trade in the 1920s, graduating in 1927, and Sara had come across my work regarding the Manhattan Trade report cards while Googling the school's name. She wondered if Rose's student file was included in my report card collection.

I get a fair number of inquiries like these from people whose relatives attended Manhattan Trade. Occasionally I do indeed have the relative's report card. But more often I end up saying, as I did in this case, "I'm sorry, I don't have her report card," and that's usually the end of it — I never hear from the person again. This time was different, though, because Sara thought I might be interested in seeing her grandmother's Manhattan Trade School autograph book (see photos above), which she described like so:

My grandmother was evidently proud of [Manhattan Trade] and would speak of her time there often. ... She kept a special section of one bookshelf with college and high school yearbooks, and the Manhattan Trade School autograph book became her de facto yearbook from that school. ... When I was growing up, she would proudly take out the autograph book out and show it to us. She seemed to enjoy how it represented her brief independence prior to her marriage and working/family life.

Here's the best part: The autograph book, as you'd expect, features assorted notes and messages written by Rose's classmates, who of course signed their names. And some of those students are represented in my report card collection, even though Rose herself is not.

Let's start with a student named Jennie Grillo, who wrote a note and also included a really endearing self-portrait (click photos to enlarge):

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Jennie Grillo's report card is part of my collection. As longtime PermaRec readers may recall, many of the report cards included photos of the students, and I was really hoping that would be the case with Jennie's because I wanted to see how her photo compared to her self-portrait. Unfortunately, her card packet does not have a photo, but it nonetheless features lots of interesting material. Let's start with the front and back of her main card (click photos to enlarge):

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As you can see, Jennie was born in August of 1909, which means she is likely now deceased. She was of Italian descent and grew up in Brooklyn, where her father worked as a bricklayer. Like most Manhattan Trade students, she had completed the eighth grade before enrolling in trade school, where her chosen trade was dressmaking. Aside from being cited by one teacher for a "poor memory," her scholastic performance appears to have been solid. (Regarding the grades, P = Poor, F = Fair, G = Good, and E = Excellent.) It's interesting to see that two of her art grades are listed as "Museum" — not sure what that means, but perhaps she had an internship. She left the school in February of 1927.

Manhattan Trade students could not receive their diploma until they'd demonstrated a proficiency in their trade in a work setting, so the school maintained a job-placement office that helped arrange employment for the girls after they'd completed their vocational training. Many of the girls continued to use this office as a de facto employment bureau for many years after they graduated. In Jennie's case, it appears that she was referred for various jobs for nearly four years after completing her schooling, as you can see on these next two cards (click to enlarge):

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As you can see, Jennie worked primarily in dressmaking (listed as "D" in the "Trade" column), first as an assistant finisher ("Ass't Fin") and then as a finisher ("Fin"). This is typical of the Manhattan Trade dressmaking students, most of whom were place in finishing jobs. Her wages, which were primarily in the range of $18 to $20 a week, were typical as well. Also of note: Under "Reason for Leaving," you can see that the term "Slack" was frequently used. This does not mean Jennie was a slacker; rather, it indicates that the business had entered its slow or "slack" season and was therefore reducing its staff.

The final card in Jennie's file contains comments from her and from the placement office's staff, which appear in black ink, and from her employers, which appear in red (click to enlarge):

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It's mostly unremarkable, but I recognize the handwriting on the little note at the top of the card — "Average. Too much makeup." That's a classic bit of critical commentary from the woman who ran the school's job-placement office at the time, Althea Kotter, who seems to have reveled in the art of the withering critique. (More of her report card comments, many of them quite entertaining, are available here, and you can learn more about her very interesting backstory by scrolling down to about the midpoint of this page.)

That's enough for today. Tomorrow: A close look at the report card of another student who signed Rose Simone's autograph book.