“Was the mother an American.”

For the past number of years I’ve been somewhat haphazardly accumulating American letters and manuscript material from 1856 with a view toward assembling a collection representative of the depth and breadth of American concerns in a year that sometimes gets forgotten as a transitional time, what with some of the shine beginning to come off of the Gold Rush, one of our worst presidents preparing for his election run, and the nation getting itself wound up for the Civil War–who wants to dwell on a year like this?

But dipping into the hundred and more letters I’ve got at this point shows men and women concerned less with a nation plunging toward political suicide and more concerned instead with the smaller joys and worries that you might expect to occupy somebody dropping a note into the mail–you see C. F. Prock writing from Jacksonville, Fla. to his Uncle William on May 11, 1856 noting the profusion in the Florida backwoods of wild grapes and onions, the fine corn crop (“the negro women was to work in the field hoeing they did not have to dig the way people north have to”) and that “we see a few alligators, small ones.”

Or you have young Cordelia Silverheels writing to her aunt from the Cattaraugus Reservation in western New York on April 5, 1856, noting “I dont go to school I ant been inside of a schoolhous since I left Grantvill. . . . I guess we will commence on beadwork my sister is going to Buffalo to buy the materials.”

Or you have Phylo Hoolbrook writing from Brooklyn on February 18, 1856 in hopes of hearing about a friend settling what likely seems a debt contracted in a shipping venture (and I will note here, all [sic]):

I thake this time to right a few lines to you to hear if you had any information of Hallock i was over past his place the other day and it was close up i think he is in Washington if i have not heard a word from him i thought i would rite a line or to to you to see if he had giv you any satisfaction or arrangement about his vesel or the notes if you should want me to come up any time about the afair just drop a line to me and i will come up dyrect.

But I think the most heartbreaking letter so far in the collection has just recently come in. The letter is dated from Stockton, California, on April 3, 1856 and is addressed to Mrs. John Eagan (likely of San Francisco) and is penned by Mrs. Ellen R. Robb. I publish the letter here in full:

I learn from Mr. Brown that you have, in your charge, an infant boy, whom you would like to part with, if you have not already done so –

I would like to know more particularly of its age, general appearance & health. Does it seem likely to live deprived of its unnatural Mother? How old should you judge it to be, & what is the color of its eyes and hair. If I take it, I should wish no possible clue given to its mother of its home, should she ever return to reclaim it. Do you suppose the mother to have been married? You will confer a favor on me by replying by return boat as my decision will depend somewhat on your reply. Address Mrs. Ellen R. Robb, Stockton.

Was the mother an American.

There’s enough emotional complication here to float a short novel, with the addition perhaps of an lyric elegy or two once you locate the listing of an abstract of internments for 1857 taken from the Stockton Daily Argus, which notes the burial in Stockton on April 10 (a mere week after the burial of a Mexican, “name unknown”) of Mrs. Ellen R. Robb from Pennsylvania, age 33.

(The prospect of transcribing and cataloguing this collection will likely leave me an emotional wreck.)

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Would you buy a used book from this man?

Garrett Scott, Bookseller peddles his wares at the Ann Arbor Antiquarian Book Fair, May 2012.

Photo by Myra Klarman.

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One bibilo-linguistic attempt to shed some light (in a manner of speaking) on the recent vagina controversies.

As you have probably read by now, Michigan state Representative Lisa Brown was disciplined by House leadership and barred from speaking on the floor of the House when during debate on an abortion bill she made a speech that referred (in part) to her own vagina. Accounts vary of course about the rationale behind the ban and the political fallout of same, though it was curious to many that the moderately clinical vagina had become a word so charged that it presented a threat to decorum; this initial account of the flap from the Detroit News includes perhaps the most entertaining response (or the perhaps the most tone-deaf, though the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive) to the whole affair:

“What she said was offensive,” said Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville. “It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”

When this news broke, I of course immediately thought of an article from psychiatrist Mildred Ash, “The Vulva: A Psycholinguistic Problem,” in the Winter, 1980 issue of Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression (Maledicta of course being the premier Legmanian journal for the study of obscenity), an article in which she argues that vagina has in fact become a sort of euphemism people are taught as a substitute for the external female genitals more properly referred to as the vulva. Ash notes,

I have reviewed the astonishing absence of the word vulva from our vocabulary. It remains unknown and unheard, unspoken in polite society, while the word vagina passes with almost as much ease as the word penis into common use. The word vulva is not being taught to children early in life, so it cannot become acceptable as the word penis is.

After rereading Ash’s article, I would suggest that vagina has become the accepted public face (so to speak) of the entire female reproductive system to such an extent that it causes a certain amount of lexical confusion, so that when Rep. Brown might more accurately have referred to the regulation of her uterus in her speech on the floor of the House, she instead substituted the quasi-clinical polite formulation vagina; to those who instead profess to have heard in the parliamentary vagina something impolite or unfit for mixed company, perhaps the problem was that the term evokes unconscious associations with the taboo vulva (or as Ash suggests),

Men use the word vagina because using this scientific word enables them to master their fear of people who have no penis and do mysterious things like menstruate and have babies. [Ash is if you have not already guessed something of a Freudian.] To both sexes the word vulva seems more closely related to obscenity.

One of course need not be concerned with the finer shades of politeness surrounding the public discussion of reproductive organs to find something of interest in Maledicta, though having at least a passing interest in how we talk about the reproductive act certainly seems in order. Early numbers of the journal include such gems ranging from “Attacking Deviations from the Norm: Poetic Insults in Bono (Ghana)” by D. M. Warren & K. O. Brampong (in the second issue, the Gershon Legman festschrift), to “Sacre Quebec! French-Canadian Profanities” by Nancy Huston, to “Malediction and Psycho-Semantic Theory: The Case of Yiddish” by James A. Matisoff, to L. Herrera’s “How to Judge People’s Character by Their Farting Styles.” Early examples of collections of gay slang, ethnic insults, etc. also abound.

Updated and edited to note, I had  a set of the first twelve volumes available for purchase but it has since been sold. The description is given below in the interests of historical curiosity.

Reinhold Aman, editor. Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression. Waukesha, Wisconsin [later Santa Rosa, California: The Maledicta Press, 1977-1996. Volumes I-XII (in 15 bound volumes), original printed yellow wrappers.  The famed scholarly journal that carries on the spirit of Gershon Legman, with numerous articles on various and varied forms of obscenity and other uses of “verbal aggression,” ranging from ethnic insults to genital slang to informal glossaries of Domino’s Pizza employee slang. Irregularly published, initially in two numbers per annual volume, with some gaps in time (viz. Volume XI, 1990-1995) but no gaps in sequence. Some light dust-soiling and wear and sunning; in very good condition.

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A hasty and discursive meditation on the care and feeding of a book fair.

Jay Platt of the West Side Book Shop. Photo by Myra Klarman.

So we had the 34th (or maybe 36th?) Ann Arbor Antiquarian Book Fair last Sunday. They held it as has long been the case at the Michigan Union–one of the finest examples of a funky high Gothic-revival utilitarian space this side of Hyde Park–on the campus of the University of Michigan.

(The freight elevator of the Michigan Union is also suitably Gothic–in that it is as creaky as the plot of a Monk Lewis tale–which is why you see more and more booksellers with hand trucks sneaking up the civilian elevators over by the Wendy’s  with every passing year.)

This was the 14th year that I’ve exhibited at the fair (and the 13th straight year that I’ve loaded in and out using the elevator over by the Wendy’s) and as usual the fair had about 40 dealers and a pretty amazing ratio of good stock to dreadful junk for a fair of its size.

I’ve always enjoyed exhibiting at the Ann Arbor Book Fair and have as I’ve reached more mature years begun to wonder how Jay Platt, the fair organizer (and owner of Ann Arbor’s West Side Books) manages to pull off the trick of luring a bunch of good dealers into town for a fair.

Those unfamiliar with the rare book trade might be forgiven for thinking that a book fair is a series a moderately boozy meals into which a brief period of nominal bookselling has been forcibly wedged. But before you can plausibly spend a weekend sitting around the groaning board with your colleagues, you have to insure that folks will come in the door to attend the book fair, else the members of the book trade will lack sufficient motivation to leave their lonely rooms where they sit and catalogue their stock to instead invest the time and money to travel to Ann Arbor to stand around in a room with other booksellers for six hours on a Sunday. (One advantage the Michigan Union’s venue has over some anonymous hotel ballroom is the well-lighted elegance; at the end of a slow day of sales at Ann Arbor, you feel less of the crushing anomie inherent in the fluorescent-lit carpeted hell of a Holiday Inn somewhere.)

Some folks, coming through doors.

So how do you insure folks will come through those doors on a Sunday to browse and perhaps even purchase your books come the day of the book fair? This year Jay decided to hire the local photographer Myra Klarman to come snap some promotional photos of the fair, and Myra–being the community-minded dynamo that she is–took the book fair in hand and began to help promote the event. (Myra’s photos coming soon; unless otherwise noted, the snaps here are the author’s own.)

When Myra canvassed some local booksellers to tell her what this whole book fair thing was all about, I wrote to her,

One of the things going on with the Ann Arbor Book Fair (and book fairs in general) is the progressive graying of the demographic. Younger people (and in book terms that means people in their 30s and 40s) seem less engaged with in-person browsing and buying than the Boomers. The gray-bearded guy who goes from booth to booth asking “Anything relating to the War of 1812?” We’ve got that demographic locked up; retired obsessive types are our traditional customers.

What I think we want to avoid visually when promoting the fair is a stack of leather-bound books with a pair of wire-rimmed glasses on top of the stack (the hoariest image in bookselling) as my peculiar constitution is such that whenever I see this image it fills me with rage.

But what if we could get into the head of somebody who might be deciding whether to make a weekend of visiting Ann Arbor from Toledo or Chicago, or who locally would maybe be going to UMMA or to Sweetwaters on a Sunday and who might have once gone to Borders[1] on a Sunday to poke around, say instead, “Hey, I can go check out some cool stuff at the book fair!”  

When a book fair is going great, esp. in a beautiful room like the Michigan Union Ballroom and a relatively dense accumulation of a small number of dealers, it can feel like a good gallery opening — crowds excited and seeing stuff they didn’t expect they would see. The personality of the fair might sometimes be like the cool uncle who blows in from out of town when you’re in high school in a small town and he takes you to an obscure ethnic restaurant for the first time and teaches you about the Dadaists. You say “Oh, wow!” and you want to learn more.

Myra turned me on to this new thing called “Facebook” that she suggested might make a good venue for getting out word about the fair to this coveted younger demographic. So with Jay’s permission I began a Facebook page with an eye toward promoting the fair as a groovy place to see cool stuff[2].

(This of course is the sleight-of-hand involved in nearly any commercial transaction but maybe most especially in the sale of rare books, since most booksellers aren’t dapper uncles who show up in a Karmann Ghia while smoking a meerschaum pipe but are instead moderately lumpy folks with sore lower backs and minivans or perhaps a Subaru who stagger over to a venue before dawn to load unwieldy boxes into yet another ballroom for a show.)

Lorne Bair and Brian Cassidy hanging out before dinner. The empty parking space behind them would soon be occupied by Adam Davis, who won the long-distance prize from coming in from Portland (Oregon).

But speaking of the groovy-uncles-from-out-of-town types, the Saturday night before the fair my wife Betsy Davis, my daughter and I had colleagues Lorne Bair, Brian Cassidy, and Adam Davis of Division Leap over for dinner at our house. (My dad was also in attendance from Normal, Illinois.) May in Ann Arbor can put heart into the most jaded rust-belt resident and pleasant conversation and Spring evenings in Washtenaw county go far to conjure hints of our prelapsarian age. (Or perhaps the cocktails were responsible for the glimpses of Edenic splendor out on our front lawn.)

The next morning I awoke at 5am and decided to head over to the book fair. I was the second person to arrive (behind Larry Van De Carr of Booklegger’s Books of Chicago; Larry emerged half-asleep from the back of his van around 6am in his stocking feet and I realized I had some ways to go before I was truly an intrepid book fair exhibitor). The morning was limpid and filled with late Spring birdsong, so uncharacteristically pastoral that it made me reconsider spending the day in a ballroom surrounded by paper.

The booth at 6am. I am tempted to go with this stripped-down approach.

But the excitement of the fair soon took hold and I was set up by 9am with my minimal display and was ready to start scouting the book fair before doors opened.

The fair opened at 11am and we had a steady if slow stream of folks through the fair until it closed at 5pm. I saw plenty of folks in their teens and twenties and hope it was enough to plant the seed for them of the romance of book buying. (The collecting as such is to my mind secondary; the moment of discovery provides the biggest excitement of this whole enterprise–though discovery can come while scouting and finding book, or getting it home and figuring out what it is, or in finding out that someone

Despite my laziness I ended up unloading the car and setting up a booth.

is willing to hand you money or a note of hand in exchange for the book in the first place, capitalism being of course the weirdest unexamined aspect to this whole undertaking.)

Despite having leveraged social media, attendance was down this year–somewhere south of 500 paying customers–but I choose to consider this too small a sample size from which to draw too many conclusions.

After the fair was a long fine evening of dinner and conversation and more dinner and more conversation at Zola with a few dealers and civilians and a rogue local curator. This was another extracurricular highlight not directly associated with the fair.

Brian Cassidy, Adam Davis, and Lorne Bair scout Garrett Scott, Bookseller.

Then after dinner and a couple hours of sleep, my shop got a visit from Messrs. Bair, B-Cass and Division Leap. They managed to find a few things amid the chaos and then began to wind their way back toward their respective far-flung home bases. The weekend was something resembling a success even when the measure in dollars was perhaps modest. These sorts of fairs are a kind of advertising for the tangible personality of the trade, and as much as I hate the romance of old books (whenever I hear the phrase “dusty tomes” I reach for my revolver) I sure love this stuff and the people associated with it and hope I can show other folks how they might love it too.

Anyway, I did pick up a stack of things during the fair. (Nothing spectacular but plenty of interest.)

Being kind of stupid makes the world more interesting. I will be crushed when I find out this manuscript is something prosaic.

I’ve decided after one of these finds that I will teach myself German and then teach myself 19th century German-American script so I can better figure out this strange manuscript journal that seems to have something to do with mystic formulae (the Sator Square pops up with some frequency).

Another rather charming piece from the always interesting A. England of Hillsdale, Mich. were these two early 20th century images of a man in drag (see below). What will I do with them? With any luck I will sell them and then go out and find some more stuff and have some more dinners and the trade will (despite all evidence to the contrary) still be alive and maybe even something more than just the exchange of information.

[1] An example of something we used to have downtown called a “book store.”

[2] Back in the old days (until the Summer of 2009) our town had a daily newspaper, a medium that used paper and ink to spread detailed information about University of Michigan football throughout the community but that also, according to Jay Platt, apparently just let you wander into the newspaper office as a book fair promoter to say “Hey, we’ve got a book fair” and they would pull a reporter off the Elvis Grbac beat and send her over to write up a nice article about the fair and the book-loving populace would throng through the gates and the great chain of bibliophilia and newspaper reading continued its now archaic symbiotic dance.

[3] Ever since I’ve done the fair, not only were the dealers setting up from about 6am and buying books from each other, they were more than likely trying to buy books from the duplicates and out-of-scope sale table set up by the William L. Clements Library, where the Clements would take various miscellaneous books out of cartons and put them on the tables but then tell the booksellers that they could look at the books but not actually touch them until the doors opened to the public at 11am and booksellers needing of course to pay the rent and utilities and maybe even spring for an occasional haircut (despite appearances) would begin sometime around 9:30 or so to stand casually near the Clements’ table and box each other out and splay their elbows protectively as they eyed the table and tried to read the spines and size up the stock until the doors opened at 11am and then the booksellers got all Jack London sled dog on those books and these poor curators who had gone to graduate school and become scholars and ended up at one of the nation’s foremost repositories of 18th and 19th century Americana would be forced to wade into the scrum to bust up fights between dealers grappling over stock.

Timid soul that I am, I generally hung back from the fray, and as I watched this all unfold I could see in the eyes of any given curator as she waded into this baying pack of commercial bibliophilia the thought forming in her mind that she might never respond to a quote of material from any bookseller again, ever; it was thus I decided to take the prudent course and make my nut elsewhere.

(The Clements has latterly in the interests perhaps of public safety let the dealers get an earlier crack at the offerings and is in fact putting out fewer books each year and otherwise done what it can to get out of the used book business, which is not surprising as many used booksellers have decided to get out of the used book business for many of the same reasons as the Clements: you have to work hard and it doesn’t pay very well.)

Evidence suggests his name is "Rex."


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Incunabular Tagging; or, The Roustabout Youth of an American Art Form.

An uncommon remaining example of a once common Ann Arbor tag.

In Ann Arbor a couple of summers ago, wherever you went it seemed like you ran into the tag for a graffiti artist who went by DUCK. The tag was pretty simple—a little pseudo-diacritic and the occasional stylized picture of a duck were about all you got in addition to the script—and despite my secure lock since entering my forties on the title of Number One Uptight Square (Washtenaw County division), I was prompted by the elegant diligence of the work of DUCK to take  a pleasant (if mild and perhaps covert) interest in tagging or writing. Finding fresh evidence of DUCK’s labors was inevitably a source of delight (of course I never had to scrub it off of anything) and a few examples linger unscrubbed and unscathed on the edges of downtown.

But in the history of American graffiti, back before the dawn of the modern era of tagging—way, way back before DUCK, and back before the early attention given to TAKI 183 in New York or to Philadelphia’s CORNBREAD (who, in response to a newspaper report of his death, snuck into the zoo to spray paint the message “Cornbread Lives” on both sides of an elephant), or even back before the invention of spray paint and before the ubiquitous Kilroy of World War II—one would see early examples of a sort of tagging roll past on the rails, the once ubiquitous chalked graffiti on the sides of American boxcars.

Hobo codes had of course long been in use on railroad cars and all sorts of other places to pass along information to itinerant gentlemen of the road, but while something like the hobo’s stylized cat (“kind lady”) is pretty nifty, it doesn’t say much about the person who wrote it.  The brief but illuminating chapter on “Monikers” in Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon’s recent magnificent doorstop History of American Graffiti (Harper Design, 2010) notes,

Decades before spray paint was even invented, hobos and railroad men left their marks on freight trains. Called monikers . . . these were simple chalk line signatures of a nickname along with a single icon, caricature, or symbol emblematic of the freedom and fantasy of riding the rails.

(That last part seems like maybe a little bit of a stretch—how much was emblematic of the freedom and fantasy of riding the rails, and how much of the boxcar art was a response to the tedium of hustling freight?)

Bozo Texino (the original).

But Gastman and Neelon trace the evolution of the moniker back through hobo codes to Civil War veterans riding the rails (the ex-soldiers employed variations of codes used in the war), and then the evolution of monikers among railroad workers. They note,

One of the most iconic boxcar artists of the Depression years was BOZO TEXINO, who was known for his simple chalk portrait of a man wearing a ten-gallon hat and smoking a pipe. Many thought the illustration was the work of a hobo, but in July 1939, Railroad Magazine revealed that BOZO TEXINO was J. H. McKinley, a Texan who worked for the Missouri Pacific Railroad.

(Gastman and Neelon point out that popular monikers were often revived, viz. GRANDPA BOZO TEXINO, who later chalked up some 350,000 examples of his own variation on the original and who is quoted in this account as saying “I had one boss who told me to stop markin’ them cars. Sure enough I told him to go fly his damn kite.”)

A copy of that issue of this entertaining pulp Railroad Magazine has recently come to hand, and the bookseller in me would suggest that the article “Boxcar Art” should be necessary reading for anybody interested in the evolution of American graffiti art. One of the great pleasures of this job is the chance to dig up material that swings a Wiffle bat upside the notion that contemporary culture has some sort of lock on individual expression or just plain weirdness. For every man in a gray flannel suit (or its non-anachronistic functional equivalent) there’s also a guy out there with a stick of chalk willing to tell a boss to go fly his damn kite, and our doddering Republic is perhaps a bit sloppier around the edges but I think all the better for it.

Our copy has since found a home more congenial than the shelves of this bookselling concern. Here’s the original description:

[Graffiti]. (McKinley, J. H.). Arthur W. Hecox. “Boxcar Art.” [In:] Railroad Magazine. Vol. XXVI, No. 2. July, 1939. New York: Frank A. Munsey Company, 1939. 8vo, original color pictorial wrappers, 144 pages on pulp, illus. First edition.

Incunabula tagging (or writing, for graffiti purists), a three-page article on early graffiti artists, a survey of the artwork and stylized signatures of the hobos and railroad workers who marked up freight cars with pictures and messages in text (such as the once ubiquitous J.B. King Esquire); this article is notable for including the identity of Bozo Texino, whose “familiar caricature shows him smoking a long pipe and wearing a ten-gallon cowboy hat adorned with the lone star of Texas. The original of this crude portrait is a tall, handsome Texan. . . . Skeptics have questioned whether or not Bozo Texino is a real person. I can assure you that he is, just as real as President Roosevelt. His name is J. H. McKinley.” (The caption to the photo of McKinley that accompanies the text notes him putting his trademark on “One of the Quarter-Million or So Boxcars Which He Has Adorned in the Past Twenty Years–Not Mo. P. Cars [his employer Missouri Pacific] However; There’s a Rule Against It.” (The photo is credited to the San Antonio Light, suggesting McKinley’s identity had been earlier revealed, at least on a local level.) Hecox glances at political and religious messages, obscene doggerel, and even the “queerest type of free advertising [which] is the urging of the public to correspond with the person who has written his or her name and address on the car. It is more than likely that lonely scribblers of both sexes have obtained sweethearts by this method; but if so, no authentic instance has ever been brought to my attention.”  Some slight wear to the wrappers; cheap paper somewhat browned; a very good copy.

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Build a better fly-trap.

The stark warning of the propaganda cartoon in a 1916 issue of the Chicago Board of Health’s bulletin Clean Living was clear enough, showing as it did a householder putting screens up on his window mere moments in advance of an apocalyptic swarm of house flies issuing forth from his own garbage pails, the whole lurid domestic scene playing out under the bold legend, “Our Greatest Menace is Domestic Not Foreign!” The Progressive Era of course saw many reforms in public health–the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 is probably the best known–but little remarked upon today is the era’s war against the fly.

It’s probably impossible to imagine the amount of horse manure and outhouse ordure and general rotting garbage that beset American towns and cities at the turn of the 20th century, but by all accounts it was considerable. Flies were of course a part of that landscape and by the late 19th century it was pretty well established that these pests were a vector for all sorts of ills, and thus did stamping out the fly became a chief concern of all right-thinking public health experts. (Utah’s state health commissioner Dr. Theodore B. Beatty apparently did much to make “Swat the fly!” a common greeting.)

Into this affray stepped Alonzo E. Chapman.

On December 11, 1913, the Redlands, California, inventor submitted his patent application for his “Knockdown Fly-Trap,” which he of course claimed was both novel and useful, adding, “[my] invention relates to fly traps, being more particularly of the type of fly trap which is placed out of doors adjacent buildings, the trap having capacity to hold a large quantity of flies.”

(The “knockdown” aspect of Chapman’s device related to the trap’s portability rather than its fly-killing technique, relying instead on a cunning system of baits and screens.)

Chapman was hailed by the City Fathers of his hometown of Redlands, California, as something of a practical visionary hero, and he was made the city’s official city fly-catcher, a post he filled with admirable diligence in return for a weekly salary of $10 nine months out of the year; as the July, 1916 issue of Popular Science Monthly noted, Chapman and his traps were responsible for the capture of some 240-245 gallons of flies in one season–a mere 14,400,000-14,700,000 of the winged emissaries of death and destruction. As an admiring squib in the July 5, 1915 issue of The Detroiter pointed out,

Already much enthusiasm and interest in this city [i.e., Detroit] has been aroused by a ‘Swat the Fly’ campaign, and now some attention might be given to a ‘Trap the Fly’ campaign. Redlands’ experience was that despite the swatting, flies continued to thrive and make themselves a nuisance, and so this California city was one of the first in the country to carry on an organized, systematic campaign against the fly nuisance by the use of large size outdoor traps. In fact, to do this a special trap was designed and a new office was created, that of ‘Official Fly Catcher,’ and A. E. Chapman, the gentleman who stands in the photograph with the fly trap on the wall at his left is the ‘Official Fly Catcher’ of Redlands.

Chapman himself wrote an account of his efforts for the July, 1914 issue of American City, with hints to cities that might want to duplicate his success. As Chapman noted, “Cooperation has been the keynote of the methods used in Redlands,” and indeed his traps were not the only weapon in the anti-fly arsenal. As this handbill from Chapman (in his official capacity of fly-catcher) distributed to Redlands residents in 1914 notes, “The health of yourself, and the health of your family is at stake. Let us have your active and hearty co-operation, not only in making this a ‘flyless town’, but, in making this the healthiest city in the world.”

Little seems recalled of Chapman’s achievements, nor of his pioneering place in public health; he was happily at least possessed of a certain local renown–as the Popular Science article notes,

Mr. Chapman built a ‘jumbo’ trap, which he had in a ‘Made in Redlands’ day parade, inside of which are two small traps and a monster homemade fly.”

The fine handbill pictured here is an ephemeral relic of the Chapman anti-fly campaign, and has since been snapped up by a discerning institution; the description may still be of interest to some:

[Public Health]. Chapman, A[lonzo] E., Official Fly Catcher and Inspector. Anti-fly broadside, with the caption title “Help the Anti-Fly Campaign by eliminating the breeding places of flies.” Redlands, Calif.: Board of Health, 1914. Broadside, approx. 9 x 6 inches. First edition.

Urging Redlands residents to keep the fly population down by filling in holes, collecting manure, judicious use of lime, cleaning cesspools, etc. “REMEMBER. The health of yourself, and the health of your family is at stake. Let us have your active and hearty co-operation, no only in making this a ‘flyless town’, but, in making this the healthiest city in the world.” Chapman’s title–“Official Fly Catcher and Inspector”–is as given on the handbill and to judge from contemporary articles (cf. Popular Science Monthly and American City and County) Chapman the only official municipal fly catcher in the U.S., and his patent traps were erected around town with city sanction; his first year of operation, he eliminated some 245 gallons (or perhaps 14,000,000) flies. Chapman’s given name taken from his patent, 1136210. With the printed notice, “Approved by Sec’y. Board of Health, C. E. Ide, M. D.”

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Publish and perish; or, the hazards of a certain peculiar strain of the children’s book trade.

Much has been made of late about the fact that the Internet is killing off the traditional publishing business (and of course its hapless trade cousin, the book store). I would suggest that the publication and peddling of books has always had its hazards, the foremost and most pedestrian of course being the need to undam diverse pecuniary streams into which the publisher or bookseller might dip to keep the concern at the very least staggering along.

(One rather happy if digressive example of such resourcefulness that occurs to me here is that of the late 18th century chapbook publisher Henry Lemoine, who despite being perhaps the foremost English peddler of cheap literature and pamphlets tailored to the “predilections and the common bent of the popular mind” [Federer, Yorkshire Chapbooks, 1889, as quoted by Roy Beardon-White] was constrained by necessity early in his career to also offer his customers “medicines and cure-alls. These cure-alls included a concoction called ‘Bug-water,’ the formula for which Lemoine supposedly received from Dr. Thomas Marryat” [Roy Beardon-White, “A History of Guilty Pleasure: Chapbooks and the Lemoines,” Papers of the Bibliographic Society of America 103:3 (2009), page 296]. As Beardon-White notes of Lemoine, “Booksellers, as with most street vendors, focused more on surviving than in staying within arbitrary boundaries of their craft.”)

But it was literal survival that must have been from time to time on the mind of one publisher of cheap children’s literature of a sort, as embodied in an example that has recently come across my desk here at my own sometimes staggering bookselling concern. In 1864, the Mission Press on the island of Aneityum (the southernmost island in the chain once known as the New Hebrides and now more properly of course the nation of Vanuatu) published this little stitched 8-page primer with lessons on the days of the month and a selection of short religious texts for use on the nearby island of Erromango (also somewhat confusingly referred to in various sources as Erromanga, the spelling I somewhat arbitrarily prefer).

Printing had come to the New Hebrides with the arrival on Aneityum in 1848 of missionary John Geddie and a secondhand Canadian hand press. After Geddie managed to secure a newer press in 1853 he transferred his original press to Erromanga to help his fellow missionary, Rev. George N. Gordon, with his efforts to translate and publish works in the languages of Erromanga.

Gordon was not the first to try his hand at sowing the Gospel among the natives of the island, having been preceded in his work by “the Apostle of the New Hebrides,” Rev. John Williams, who arrived on Erromanga in 1839 along with sailor James Harris. (Harris was evidently considering a career change from sailor to the ministry, no doubt hoping that the clerical life would provide fewer challenges to compare with the workaday hazards of climbing out on a yard in a squall to reef the sails.)

But unhappily enough for the dreams of both, Williams and Harris were set upon as they scouted for a likely location for a mission station, killed by the residents of the island and eaten by their prospective flock. Never ones to give up easily, especially when making these decisions from a safe remove back in England, for a number of years thereafter the London Missionary Society sent Christian Samoans and Roratongans to Erromanga to carry on the missionary efforts, but they were variously killed outright or starved out by the native population.

Gordon, who arrived on the island with his wife in 1855, for a time had better luck than his earlier brethren. According to John Ferguson’s Bibliography of the New Hebrides and a History of the Mission Press (Sydney, 1917-1918), Gordon in 1859 even managed to run off a Catechism (or in the native language, Netiyi Tagkeli) on his third-hand Erromanga press, before he ended up taking the blame for bringing a measles epidemic to the island in 1861 and he and his wife were killed. No further evidence of Erromanga printing of the period seems to exist and it seems likely the press fell into disuse after the Gordons’ deaths.

Presbyterians being ever a hardy bunch, the lamented Gordon’s brother James Gordon arrived on Erromanga in 1864 to take up the call, even though his mission field was now popularly known as “the Martyr Isle.” James Gordon carried on the translation and publishing work of his brother–though according to Ferguson he published most of his work in Sydney. (Indeed, of primers in the language of Erromanga, Ferguson notes in the first entry in his bibliographical checklist of “Translations in the Language of Erromanga” the production in 1852 of “A primer in Erromangan. Printed by the Rev. Geddie at the Aneityum Mission Press, to assist the Samoan native teachers in their work. No copy known.”) It seems likely of course that the arrival of James Gordon in 1864 had revitalized the Erromangan project (and indeed, Ferguson notes a 108-page translation of Luke issued by the Aneityum press that year) but Ferguson does not note this title.

Thus did the second Rev. Gordon carry on his work, and by all reports he met with some success–until another bout of measles swept across the island in 1872 and he became the latest missionary to take the blame for the inevitable misfortunes of colonialism and the natives happily handed him the martyr’s palm.

Subsequent Erromangan primers (with Catechisms included, evidently not included in this 1864 edition) were published in 1867, and then in 1878 and 1881 for the use of the missionary H. A. Robinson, who managed the trick of surviving long enough to publish an account of life on the island, Erromanga: The Martyr Isle (London, 1902). (Other accounts of the island appear to draw in part from this source.)

This unassuming but nifty little pamphlet has since been sold; here is an excerpt from its original catalogue description:

[Rev. James D. Gordon?]. Netiyi Ra Nobum Nisekont Ravugeme Su Eromaga . [Colophon:] Aneityum: Mission Press, 1864. 8vo, unbound pamphlet, [8] pages. Second edition? First edition thus?

A rare edition of this primer, with lessons on the days of the month and a few short Bible extracts and the Lord’s Prayer, in a language of the southern Vanuatu island of Erromanga, and an early surviving title in the Erromanga dialect printed at the Aneityum Mission Press, this title not noted in Ferguson’s Bibliography of the New Hebrides and a History of the Mission Press. This 1864 primer, with the uncommon mission press imprint, is located today at two locations (per OCLC): Indiana University and the State Library of New South Wales. The island evidently once had four dialects (of which three are extinct); fewer than 2000 speakers remain.

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Scouting through the South like a woman in a nightgown.

I left Ann Arbor last Tuesday morning on the nearly last day of February, answering the inscrutable exhortations of my balance sheet to head South in search of inventory. By the time I rolled south of Canton, O., past the whited brutalist sepulcher of the Football Hall of Fame, and into the rolling farms of southern Ohio, the landscape was suggestive of the days of Ernie Wessen and barns full of regional Americana and early American imprints–or such anyway are the necessary illusions a bookseller allows himself as he heads into warmer climes at the tail end of winter, spurred on by the suspicion that his trade is dying and all the good stock has vanished.

By the time I was south of Charleston, West Virginia, the road cuts appeared sufficiently bituminous to fuel a couple of power plants, and the sight of the first Creationist billboard was not enough to knock the irrational good cheer from my heart (reminding me as it did of West Virginia’s rich tradition of contumacious religious polemics). The sunshine eventually produced in me sufficient cheer that even the gaggle of tattooed tweakers who seemed to loiter around every gas station were unable to put a dent in my latter-day Whitmanesque fellow feeling.

(My bold Yankee self-assurance notwithstanding, I will admit that the sight the next morning of three Subaru Foresters and four Obama bumper stickers in the parking lot of the Caffe Driade in Chapel Hill where I enjoyed breakfast did much to alleviate my cultural bends.)

The balance of the week was spent in the company of some of the best sort, including a meandering day spent with elder bookman Norman Kane (the Americanist), who at 87 has seen more material than you can imagine and who is still buying and selling and letting the occasional scout in on a nominally secret stash or two; I also on a whim drove though a rainy night into Charlottesville, where I found some good stuff at Heartwood Books (an open shop, mirabile dictu) and was subsequently treated by Mary Gilliam of Franklin Gilliam :: Rare Books to a fine lunch at the Whiskey Jar, where Mary and Gillian Kyles  were kind enough to carry the burden of the conversation as I stuffed my face in an unseemly manner with some of the best fried chicken and collard greens one might hope to secure.

(Despite my unctuous fingers, Mary let me scout her stock after lunch and I managed to find a few lovely things which happily for us all were encapsulated in Mylar. Her tolerance of this louche scout might very well be the happy fruit of our tenuous biblio-genealogical connection that stretches back to my tenure at the Brick Row Book Shop, which had of course been sold to John Crichton in 1983 by the legendary Franklin Gilliam, Mary’s late husband and the namesake of the current concern.)

After one misbegotten but picturesque shortcut down a one-lane dirt road somewhere in the hills north of Charlottesville, I eventually washed up on the shores of Lorne Bair, where I was entertained and diverted with inventory and provided with safe harbor and dogs and cats and conversation at length before I made the trip in Washington the next day for the Washington Antiquarian Book Fair.

For somebody who did not exhibit at the show and was thus not tethered to a booth, the fair proved a good one. The dealers are parceled into several warrens in a Holiday Inn and one could escape the bustle of the main room of exhibitors by wandering into one of the quieter ancillary rooms; but even in the backwaters the fishing was good, yielding up such grist for the Bibliophagic concern as a nice promotional item for a troupe of performing pigs who traveled in tandem with a new-fangled “talkie” motion picture feature, a promotional pamphlet for a legless lecturer, and a perhaps unrecorded first edition of an argument for Spiritualism advanced from beyond the veil by a Methodist bishop. I even picked up a novel scheme for ship-to-ship communication (with its own written alphabet) from the stalwart Greg Gibson of Ten Pound Island Books, though my efforts to appear sufficiently picturesque so as to make an appearance in his Bookman’s Log as an emblematic token of the decline of the book trade did not meet with success.

A bookseller of this era of course cannot compose even a modest travelogue without taking a moment to hold any given book fair up before him like Yorick’s skull and speculate on the decline of the trade. I have noticed that I can only be analytical about the trade–and then only halfheartedly–in hindsight; when I am on the prowl in the aisles of a book fair or poking around in a storage locker somewhere, I cannot be bothered with any questions other than about the item in my hand, in front of me right now. If a woodcut portrait of an enterprising legless lecturer does not make your fingers itch then all the yammer about e-books and dusty tomes will availeth us not. Turn your attention to the object in hand and stagger forward in 30-day bursts of payables and receivables and the trade has in a manner survived–that after all is the common ground between this latter-day pygmy Americanist and my older and wiser colleagues.

(The title of this entry is of course meant to suggest the manner in which I scampered from college town to college town on this trip; fans of A. J. Liebling would I hope recognize an allusion to his apt summary of the spread of Mediterranean culture to America.)

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On the captivating dangers of lottery gambling and the corollary benefits of reading your own stock.

A bookseller must beware when he handles a small volume with the phrase “a moral tale” tucked away somewhere in its title; such trappings of course give a volume the air of a didactic tract, a genre which has traditionally acted as a drug on the market. On occasion, however, something about the title–moral or no–tempts me to pick up the little item in question and, contrary to the inflexible received wisdom of the book trade, to start reading the volume. To read a book you are trying to catalogue is often somewhat enlightening (if not always entertaining), though on rare, happy occasions I find myself getting caught up in the book as an actual functional piece of literature and can while away a morning reading at my desk. And the nominally moralistic Henry Wallace; or, The Victim of Lottery Gambling. A Moral Tale. By a Friend to American Youth (New-York: Printed and Published by Wilson & Swain, 1832) is one such little gem, and it appeared in my Catalogue 37 (of which you can find a PDF here).

Henry Wallace has long been erroneously attributed to the pen of the crusading anti-prostitution activist J. R. McDowall (whose Magdalen Society’s first annual report in 1831 offered some rather stunning statistics that suggested upon closer examination that approximately one out of every three marriageable women in New-York was a prostitute), who instead provided a nice notice of this title in the preliminaries. As far as I can tell, nobody has yet dug up the correct author and the plot itself put me on the scent of a question: Is this the first American novel with a confidence trick as the central aspect to its plot? (The short answer is: I’m still not sure. But the description below, extracted from the catalogue, takes a rather more round-about way to arrive at that conclusion. The book has since sold and the entry here updated somewhat in verb tenses and wording to reflect that happy fact.)

[John Robert McDowall, erroneously attributed author]. Henry Wallace; or, The Victim of Lottery Gambling. A Moral Tale. By a Friend to American Youth. New-York: Printed and Published by Wilson & Swain, 1832.

A didactic moral work that happily also veers into a rousing tale of crime and deceit (albeit one of the lachrymose school); amid the broad strokes of a warning to youth against the corrupting effects of lottery gambling (with attacks in passing on intemperance, the decline in militia service, easy bank charters, and the diverting plenitude of cheap newspaper advertising) the plot follows the amiable but weak-willed young New York City native Henry Wallace—whose early facility for billiards and faro of course suggest an unhappy tendency to dissolution—and the change in his fortunes after he manages to rake in some $20,000 in a lottery. This evident good fortune is of course but the set-up for a complicated swindle involving the lottery’s silver-tongued agent (one Augustus Cornucopious Hoyle, a name redolent of the tables), the agent’s beautiful daughter Caroline (who is promised to Henry in marriage but who turns out instead to be Hoyle’s former mistress now trained up in the arts of seduction) and a supposedly wealthy planter recently arrived from Charleston with a can’t-miss scheme to reinvest young Henry’s winnings in a South Carolina lottery grant—this the planter Gorham who in reality is a confederate of Hoyle and a fugitive gambler on the run after a shooting in New Orleans, here bearing the key forged lottery document.

On the night before his wedding, Henry is taken to the theatre for one last carouse before the uxorious yoke should descend upon his shoulders, and he awakens the next morning from a drugged stupor to find that Hoyle and his confederates have fled with nearly everything:

After pressing inquiries by the landlord, how he came to leave so much property so carelessly secured, Henry frankly confessed, that, expecting to make a wife of Caroline, he had anticipated a wife’s fidelity, and entrusted her with all his property with as much confidence as if the knot had already tied, except his pocket-wallet, in which luckily now happened to be six or seven hundred dollars; which, with what was left him in the trunk, would enable him to pursue and punish the whole gang who had brought him to ruin.

(Henry pursues the gang to Havana and dies a lingering death after exchanging gunshots with Hoyle and Gorham, who are disguised as friars; Gorham dies of his wounds, Caroline retires to a nunnery, and Hoyle is eventually captured on the high seas and executed for piracy.)

Though the term “confidence man” did not appear until 1849 during the publicity surrounding the William Thompson case, this almost certainly stands as an early example of a confidence game in American fiction; while fraud and deception has of course always played a role in American fiction—Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry includes an episode in which Teague is convinced to pose as an Indian chief to receive gifts from government agents, and the roll of such tricksters and practical jokers as Sam Slick, Sut Lovingood, and Simon Suggs of course unfurls across the American literary landscape—most critics leap eagerly ahead of to Melville’s Confidence Man (1857), with perhaps a glance at Poe’s essay “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences” (1843) or the works of ex-gambler J. H. Green (viz. his Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling, also 1843) as the early signposts in the literature of the swindle; but of a supposedly realistic tale in which criminals cultivate a mark and secure his cooperation with the promise of easy wealth and other carnal felicities, the honor of the first example of the confidence game proper in American fiction seems as yet still up for grabs.

(Need I mention that I believe this title might make a good candidate?)

The question of priority seems a vexed one, however, as Henry Wallace appears so little noticed; see Ann Fabian, Card Sharps, Dream Books & Bucket Shops: Gambling in 19th-Century America (Cornell University Press, 1990), which notes this title in an end-note (attributed to J. R. McDowell [sic]) but makes much less of the story’s pivotal fraud than one might hope; see also Susan Kuhlmann’s Knave, Fool, and Genius: The Confidence Man as he Appears in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction (University of North Carolina Press, 1973), which does not mention Henry Wallace and which notes, rather frustratingly for a scholarly examination of the topic, “Nor have I thought it necessary to canvass the entire field of minor works which properly belong to the category of nineteenth-century American fiction,” before falling back upon Hawthorne, Melville, and the other well-trodden paths of the American canon; one might also see Gary Lindberg’s The Confidence Man in American Literature (Oxford University Press, 1982), which takes a thematic approach to deceit that expands the definition of con man to such an extent as to be nearly useless and in any event can’t seem to be bothered to include a bibliography. And David S. Reynolds, to whose Beneath the American Renaissance (Knopf, 1988) one instinctively turns when crime and seduction crop up in this period, only notes McDowall and his anti-prostitution efforts in a few instances but make no mention of this small novel.

Further muddying the waters, the attribution of this work to the reforming anti-prostitution clergyman J. R. McDowall is almost certainly in error; per the catalogue description of the copy at the American Antiquarian Society,

Attributed by NUC pre-1956 to J.R. McDowell, probably in error. The first recommendation for the work is signed (p. xi) Rev. J.R. M’Dowell (i.e. John Robert McDowall), New York. No mention is made of this piece in the ‘Memoir and select remains of the late Rev. John R. M’Dowall’ (1836). The second recommendation refers to the author of this work as ‘an aged man,’ but Rev. McDowall was only 32 years old at this time.

The copy I hold in my hand is a small duodecimo volume in it original brown linen spine and orange boards, 108 pages. (Boards somewhat rubbed; rather foxed; a good, sound copy. Includes a bold ink gift inscription dated 1832 on the front blank and some penciling in the endpapers; early small bookplate on the front paste-down.) See Wright I, 1748.

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The anatomy of a melancholy trade.

Friend and colleague Lorne Bair has just published an essay on becoming and on being an antiquarian bookseller, with some apt bourbon-fueled ruminations on why we enter the trade:

In the end, everyone I know who does this job well does it because they would be less happy doing anything else. . . . Perhaps not coincidentally, most of the booksellers I know share a somewhat melancholic disposition, so that the notion of a ‘less happy’ bookseller is a melancholy notion indeed, and it might perhaps be fair to say that the trade is the only thing keeping some folks from suicide. You may not take comfort in such a notion, but I do: I like booksellers, almost all of them, and anything that keeps them around awhile seems good to me.

At a dinner during the recent Boston Book Fair, I sat across from a board-certified genius who posed Lorne’s very question to the booksellers at our end of the table–Why are we antiquarian booksellers?

Never averse after a cocktail to enlighten a genius on a thing or two, I advanced my pet theory that failed poets (and perhaps the occasional successful one) fall naturally into the book trade.  Another poet seated across the table from me gave his qualified agreement. Arthur Freeman (a legendary bookseller and himself no mean poet) has elsewhere remarked that the qualities of writing verse and its need for semi-intuitive jumps and analogies suit a bookseller’s task well; indeed,  like a poet, the bookseller must with grace make preposterous claims upon the critical heart of a customer. (Also, as with many who incline toward the muse, we often lack the focus to become academics, the grim resolve to become Titans of Industry, and the ability to take orders that augurs success in large companies or military organizations.)

When I started in the trade in 1991 as a young idiot working for John Crichton at the Brick Row Book Shop in San Francisco, I had not yet failed at poetry or at bookselling or at much else of note. (I am now wistful for the simpler and perhaps solipsistic worries of twenty-two before my heart took hostages of wife and child and my failures at 3:00 AM seem on occasion legion.)

But how much has the book trade changed since I first came stumbling through Crichton’s door? On my first day on the job John had me looking up titles in the National Union Catalog; the particularly hot-shot booksellers of Manhattan and Los Angeles insisted on conducting business through the lightning expediency of fax machine; we had one high-powered customer who might on occasion phone us from the car. (And a $75 book might still fetch $75, rather than the Internet-deflated price of $5-$10.)

(As a brief aside, I will note that some mechanics will never change: once I answered the phone at the Brick Row and The Customer was calling on one of those new-fangled car phones from a freeway somewhere in Los Angeles and I told The Customer that the boss was on another line and asked politely if The Customer might call back later; I was later gently reminded by the boss that The Customer’s business essentially paid the rent on my room in a shared flat in San Francisco and that perhaps I should patch the customer through to John the next time we got a call, my native strains of egalitarianism be damned. I soon learned that a bookseller’s ability to discriminate significance and importance should not extend solely to his stock.)

The mechanical changes in the trade and the woes of finding the right way forward in this era of instantly-available texts and books have been argued over at length in the places where booksellers gather to sup or to click at their keyboard in a lonely room and if I had a facile answer to the challenges facing the trade I would be an entirely different bookseller indeed; but behind all this confusion, the basic model of the trade remains, even if we are forced to find novel means to make it so; or as Lorne has it in his Molly Bloom conclusion to his meditation,

I can only imagine one way forward: more books. And then, more books after that and, for dessert, more books. More books. More books. More books.

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