Saturday, July 30, 2011

"The juiciest lemon I ever struck"

All eight of the postcards shown here (see previous post) were published by companies in Sullivan County, New York but have markings indicating that they were printed in Germany. Six of the eight are so identical in typography and in the layout of the address side of the card that it seems likely that they were printed by a single firm. Those six bear the imprints of J. Fahrenholz in Liberty, NY, of Foyette Souvenir Store, also in Liberty, or of H. M. Stoddard & Son in the nearby hamlet of Stevensville (since renamed Swan Lake). The remaining two cards, which were published by Milspaugh & Co.*, a drugstore in Liberty, appear to be the work of a different printer.

It's possible that sales reps from the major post card printers made regular circuits through the region, soliciting orders for custom postcards from local drugstores and the like, and perhaps even themselves taking the original photographs at the same time, but the stores may also have submitted their orders by mail. The American Druggist & Pharmaceutical Record for 1909 includes both advertisements from companies offering to make custom postcards from negatives and a "Business Opportunities" ad from the Souvenir Post Card Co. on Mercer Street in New York City seeking a salesman for "the best view and fancy post-card proposition ever offered."

The images below are in chronological order by postmark date, except for the last one, which has an unreadable year. I've added some punctuation for clarity. Ferndale and White Lake are other communities in the general vicinity of Liberty.

"Where the trout abound, Stevensville, N. Y." Published by J. Fahrenholz, Liberty, N. Y. Postmarked June 9, 1907. Addressed to Miss Teresa Bergin, inscribed "Love from Nan(?) and Margaret."

"Peace and queitude (sic) at Ferndale, N.Y." Published by J. Fahrenholz, Liberty N. Y. Postmarked July 30, 1907. Addressed to Miss Teresa Bergin, inscribed "Also at the farm. Annie L."

"K 2472 Post Office and North Shore, White Lake, N. Y." Published by Milspaugh & Co. Postmarked August 10, 1907. Addressed to Miss Teresa Bergin, inscribed "Enjoy life while you may. Be an athletic girl. These are my mottos now. The same for yours. Margaret."

"K 2480 Old Stone House, WHITE LAKE, N. Y." Published by Milspaugh & Co. Postmarked August 30, 1907. Addressed to Miss Teresa Bergin. Inscribed (on front) "Erected in 1807. Compare with [P.S.?] '72.'" (on back) Am thinking of remaining here forever. Will you join me? The school buildings here appeal to me. Sincerely, Margaret."

"Bridge at Old Mill Pond, Stevensville, N. Y." Published by H. M. Stoddard & Son, Stevensville, N. Y. Postmarked June 24, 1908. Addressed to Miss Teresa Bergin, inscribed "How did you enjoy your trip Declaration Day? Aunt and I are taking life easy. The weather is very hot. Love to Mary and Yourself. Nan."

"In the woods, Ferndale, N. Y." Published by J. Fahrenholz, Liberty, N. Y. Postmarked August 15, 1908. Addressed to Teresa Bergin; no inscription.

"Panorama of Swan Lake looking south, Stevensville, N.Y." Published by H. M. Stoddard & Son, Stevensville, N. Y. Postmarked August 15, 1908. Addressed to Miss Mary Bergin, inscribed "Dear Mary, Aunt is home and will be over to see you soon. Love to all, Margaret."

"View showing Swan Lake and Walnut Mt., Stevensville, N. Y." Published by Foyette Souvenir Store, Stevensville, N. Y. Postmarked August 25, 190?. Addressed to Miss Teresa Bergin; inscribed (possibly in reference to Stamford, NY, in Delaware County) "Stamford was about the juiciest lemon I ever struck, and that ain't no lie. Molly."

* In census records for 1910 a Marie Milspaugh is listed as a retail merchant of drugs in Liberty, NY. She was a widow with two young children; her mother-in-law lived with the family.

Notes for a Commonplace Book (9)

On the care of books:

When in 1773 the Society of Jesus was ordered dissolved, the books stored in the Society's house in Brussels were taken to the Royal Library of Belgium, where it was found that there was no place to house them. As a result, they were brought to an old church that was infested with mice. The librarians came up with a plan to protect the most valuable books, which they placed at the center of the nave, arranged on bookshelves. The dispensable volumes were then piled on the floor in concentric circles, so that the mice could gnaw away at them, thus preserving the ones in the interior intact.

I don't know if it worked.

From Jesús Marchamalo, Tocar los libros.

[Aurora Bernárdez and Julio Cortázar] traveled through Italy in the mid-1950s, moving by train from one city to another. In order not to have to carry unnecessary weight with them they decided to buy books in the kiosks in the stations. They chose inexpensive editions, on cheap paper and badly bound, which they would read together during their trips. Julio would almost always begin. As he turned each page he would rip it from the book and pass it to Aurora, who would read it and then toss it out the window.

That flying library, secret and invisible, has always seemed to me a metaphor of Cortázar: the leaves carried off by the wind.

And I'm tempted by the idea of retracing that journey through Italy, starting from the South, following the rail lines that were splashed with pages from that reader, Cortázar, who sent them marching out the open window while his gaze was lost in the landscape, at times, from the interior of the train.

From Jesús Marchamalo, Cortázar y los libros.

(These are very loose translations.)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Cortázar and books

Nine years after Julio Cortázar died in Paris in 1984, his library of some 4,000 volumes was acquired, with the co-operation of his literary executor (and first wife), Aurora Bernárdez, by the Fundación Juan March in Madrid. Cortázar y los libros, a slender but genial book published by Fórcola Ediciones and generously illustrated (in black and white), represents a personal tour through Cortázar's library by a Spanish writer and journalist, Jesús Marchamalo.

Cortázar was widely read in at least three languages, and his library thus includes a broad range of titles published in French and English as well as in Spanish. He was a heavy annotator — what Anne Fadiman refers to as a "carnal" rather than a "courtly" book lover — who felt no compunction about marking up his volumes with marginal notes, underlinings, objections and agreements, and various doodles and scribbles whose meaning, if any, is unknown. Many of the volumes bear personal dedications from fellow writers such as Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Pablo Neruda, Elena Poniatowska, José Lezama Lima, Rafael Alberti (whose dedication is woven into a full-page drawing), and the poet Alejandra Pizarnik (a good friend whose progressive mental decline is painfully evident in her inscriptions). A few of the books were apparently borrowed from other writers and never returned, including a volume of Luis Cernuda's poetry with Mario Vargas Llosa's name written inside it and an anthology of Catalan poetry personally inscribed to Gabriel García Márquez and his wife Mercedes. There are some impossible, fictional dedications, including one by Thomas de Quincey, who salutes Cortázar from beyond the grave as "a friend of Mr. Keats, I think?" And there are some mysteries, such as who — Cortázar himself, a wife or lover, or a previous owner? — left a number of pressed flowers in a copy of Baudelaire's Fleurs de mal.

The books document Cortázar's reading interests through various phases of his life from the 1930s onward, but there are unexpected gaps in the shelves, and the absence of certain titles in the library of an author who traveled widely and lived in various places shouldn't be taken as evidence that he never read or owned them. There is no Camus, no de Beauvoir, no Duras, no Tolstoy or Turgenev, and surprisingly little by Vargas Llosa (a good friend, despite their political differences) or by García Márquez (no Cien años de soledad, notably).

Marchamalo's book — as yet untranslated — makes no pretense of being a scientific survey (hopefully other hands will take up the task) and raises as many questions about Cortázar's reading as it answers. But for anyone interested in Cortázar's work and character, or in the ways in which readers and writers shape — and respond to — their own personal libraries, it will be a unalloyed delight.

Update (2014): For Tororo's French translation of this post, visit A Nice Slice of Tororu Shiru.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Bergin postcards: an introduction

These cards, postmarked between 1905 and 1908, were mailed, with one exception, to two women who resided at Canonbury Road (now 90th Avenue) in Eastwood in Jamaica (Queens), Long Island; the two recipients, who were probably sisters, were addressed as Miss Teresa Bergin and Miss Mary Bergin. The sole exception is the earliest dated card, shown above, which was sent, if I'm reading the initials correctly, to a Miss T. T. Bergin at 264 W. 115th St., N.Y.C.

The senders, where they can be identified, were several different women, though because of the vagaries of nicknaming some may actually have been the same people. They were probably in their teens or early twenties; one sender refers to the aunt who accompanies her. Based on the evidence of their names and one card that depicts a church they may have been Roman Catholics.

All of the cards shown here were postmarked in the vicinity of the town of Liberty, which is located in Sullivan County in the Catskills. Even then it was already a resort area, and the cards were mailed between June and early September, so it's quite likely the women were summering away from home, either as vacationers or conceivably as resort workers, though there's nothing on the cards to suggest the latter. Together the images depict a kind of idyllic, marginal zone, thinly populated, not quite wilderness but close enough to it that the women could smell the fresh air and be safely away from the crush of the urban crowd (and apparently, from any need to work from a living). There are few traces, either in the messages or in the postcard views, of the presence of the male sex.

We don't see, naturally, what these images and inscriptions choose not to show us, and we should be careful not to assume that it isn't there. All of the color you see, by the way, is artificial, having been layered by various techniques onto what began as black-and-white photographs.

The postcard craze of the early years of the 20th century began in Europe, and the leading printers were in Germany, where all of these cards were printed. Some of them were distributed by Rotograph, a large company that published tens of thousands of different cards, while others were printed for long-forgotten small-town souvenir shops and drugstores in the Catskills. In some cases identical typography is used by different issuers, implying that they shared the same German printer and perhaps placed their orders through the firm's traveling salesmen. The existence of such a sophisticated international network, one capable of bringing imported custom printing to even rural communities, is a reminder of just how far globalization had already advanced a century ago.

As is more often than not the case with any new means of communication, the rise of the postcard was greeted with a fair degree of hand-wringing. Like the paperback novel later on, it was tainted by association with the minority of examples that were risqué or regarded as vulgar. The ones pictured here are inoffensive enough, of course, but there were deeper issues. Many observers felt that scrawling a few banalities on the back of a card was a poor substitute for the composition of a well-written letter, an art which would inevitably suffer as a consequence. (Little did they know what else the future would bring). Moreover, since the postcard was mailed without an envelope, some thought it indiscreet to expose anything other than a pro forma salutation to the prying eyes of the postman.

In future posts I'll look more closely at some of these images and their inscriptions, as well as some other cards sent to the same recipients. I may, possibly, try to pursue the trails of the Misses Bergin and their correspondents through census records and the like, in order to get a better idea of who they were and how they lived, although something could be said for letting them stay as they are, hovering like phantoms on the margins of sight, as befits the delicate irreality of these images. Of course, if we do become better acquainted there's always the risk that I may find them slipping away from the narratives I attempt to weave around them. For their part, they might not have been thrilled to discover that I've been rifling through their mail.

(I'm indebted to Daniel Gifford's unpublished doctoral dissertation, To You and Your Kin: Holiday Images from America’s Postcard Phenomenon, 1907-1910 (PDF), for much of the contextual information included above.)

Postscript: According to federal census records, in 1900 the two sisters were living at 264 W. 115th Street, along with two brothers, Michael, a mail carrier, and Thomas, whose occupation is listed as "collector - clothing." Theresa (spelled thus) was already 27, Mary 34; their parents' country of birth is given as Ireland. They must have lived at that address at least into the summer of 1905 before moving out to Queens.

The List of Enrolled Voters, Fourth Assembly District, Borough of Queens (NY) issued December 31, 1919 records Teresa Bergin, Mary C. Bergin, and Thomas H. Bergin as registered Democrats residing at 51 Canonbury Road. There is no mention of Michael. In the 1930 census, the three siblings still resided, unmarried, on what was now called 90th Avenue. Theresa, a public school teacher listed as the "head of household," was the youngest at 55; Thomas, an order clerk in an office, was 60, and Mary, whose occupation is listed as "housekeeper," was 63.

Another card, not shown here, suggests that there was at least one other Bergin sister who married and may have had at least one child. Her initials under her married name were A. H.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Asiago Bunny

The following story engages the two central themes of Western Literature, which are, of course, the possibility (or impossibility) of true love and the tragic fate of the pre-industrial artisan in an economy of mass production. Asiago is a kind of cheese.

"The Asiago Bunny: An Edifying Tale for Children"

With apologies all around

Many years ago, in a small village, there lived a cheesemaker named Granola. His was a lonely life; while everyone else in the village was having a good time he spent his days stirring vats of fermenting milk with a garden rake and waiting for the balls of cheese he had hung from the rafters to age, and he longed for a companion with whom to share his misery.

One day he became so completely unhinged that he picked up his penknife and resolved to do himself an injury, until his glance happened to fall on a wedge of asiago that was attracting flies on a shelf. Something about the way the light shimmered on that hunk of lifeless cheese suggested to him the outline of a face, and in an instant the cheesemaker was furiously gouging out pieces of it with his knife, until, in a few moments' time, he had sculpted the perfect likeness of a bunny, complete with soft, stumpy tail and lovable bunny face.

He nestled his creation in his arms and whispered to it as he rocked it back and forth; then he cleared a place for it on his cheesemaking table and set it down softly, reassuring it with a gentle pat on its innocent soft head. Through the rest of that day, as he went about his cheesemaking chores with more than usual esprit, he conversed with the bunny and shared his sorrows and dreams and sang to it his songs of the cheesemaking life.

When the sun went down and his work was through he gathered up the bunny and retired to his dusty garret, making a cradle for it on his tiny table alongside his only other possessions, a single stumpy candle and a half-filled bottle of wine. Before he snuffed the candle out he gazed into the eyes of his companion and sighed and said “Oh, if only you were a real bunny!”

That night, as Granola lay asleep, the Cheese Fairy glided through his window, beheld the sleeping cheesemaker and his inert creation, and with one sweep of her wand changed the carved cheese into a real bunny, with long white teeth and soft fur but with a body that was still only made of cheese. The bunny opened its limpid eyes and looked around, then climbed onto the bed beside the cheesemaker and began to gently nuzzle his ear. The cheesemaker rolled his head about but did not awaken, and the bunny curled up at his side and went to sleep.

After a while, however, it woke up and began to explore the room; it found the bottle of wine and sniffed at it tentatively, then pushed it over and drank the contents. Within a few moments the bunny began to feel unwell and lay down, and soon after it became completely unconscious.

When the cheesemaker awoke the next morning he looked down at the empty bottle and the motionless bunny beside it, and could not remember anything that had happened the day before. He picked up the bunny in his large, calloused hands, sniffed its curious aroma of mingled wine, cheese, and small herbivorous mammal, and shrugged his shoulders. He carried it downstairs, put it in a pot, and cooked it over the fire for a while, then smeared the steaming, savory, melted mass onto the remains of a loaf of bread and ate it for breakfast.

Several readers have objected to the manner in which the bunny drains the wine, pointing out that a bottle resting on its side will retain a substantial quantity of liquid, and that it is unlikely that the bunny would have the strength to raise the bottle over its head in order to invert it and drain the balance. The objection is simply addressed: the bunny lowers himself slowly over the edge of the table, tilting the bottle after him until he finishes the contents, then allows the bottle to rock back into its resting position on the table.

(From 2004 or thereabouts, previously posted on my old site.)

Friday, July 01, 2011


According to historian Bruce Watson, when William Wood's massive textile mill on the Merrimack River in Lawrence, Massachusetts was completed, in the middle of the first decade of the 20th century, it was regarded, at least by the locals, as "the eighth wonder of the world":
The size of the building simply boggled the imagination. The mill had two parallel wings each 1,937 feet long, 500 feet longer than the Empire State Building if laid on its side. The mill's sprawling floors housed 1,470 power looms along sixteen miles of aisles... Enclosing thirty acres under one roof, employing a small city of six thousand workers, the Wood Mill was to textiles what Pittsburgh was to steel -- the very symbol of consolidation and power.
Its workforce, and the workforce of the city's other mills, included representatives from some 30 nationalities, among them Armenians, East European Jews, French Canadians, Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, Irish, Italians, Lithuanians, Poles, Portuguese, Russians, Scots, Syrians, and Turks. Many of the groups had their own newspapers, businesses, and places of worship.

On January 11, 1912, angered by a pay cut, workers at one of the city's mills walked out. The strike quickly spread, and over the next several months the city witnessed one of the most intense struggles between labor and management in 20th-century America, drawing in everyone from "Big Bill" Haywood and the Wobblies of the IWW to Harvard students assigned to serve in the local militia. (Watson's Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream tells the story in full.)

This postcard of the Wood Mill was mailed six years after the strike and four days after the signing of the armistice that ended the First World War. There are many other contemporary postcard views of the Lawrence mills; this one, published by L. L. Lester, a firm in nearby Lowell, is not the most aesthetically pleasing and in terms of lithographic technique it's pretty crude, but it does convey the vast scale of the mill. It was addressed to a Mrs. J. Liverman at "Suit 25," 888 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. The sender's name could be "Jos.," maybe her husband Joseph or Josef. He or she wasn't necessarily a mill worker, perhaps just a traveling salesman on business.

I have no idea even what language family this message belongs to (Slavic? Baltic?), but would love to hear from someone who does, and who could perhaps even transcribe and translate it. The only words I can pick out with reasonable certainty are "Malden Sq."

I'm told that the language is Russian and that the message is something like:

Dear Shura,

I'm thankful to say I'm alive and well, and wish you the same. Go tomorrow to the station at Malden Sq. and wait for me, I'll be there half past six or a bit later. Be well. See you tomorrow[?]

Thanks to the good folks at for identifying and transcribing this.

Postscript: According to federal census records from 1920, the Joseph Liverman at 888 Massachusetts Avenue was a sign painter, aged 35, who lived with his wife, Anna. He was born in Russia and had immigrated to the US in 1910. By September 23, 1923, according to U.S. Naturalization Records indexes, he had moved to 30 Upham St. in Malden, Massachusetts; here his date and place of birth are listed as May 6th, 1885 in Odessa, and his occupation as "sign writer." According to the 1930 census he was still living in Malden and working as a house painter; his wife's name is given as Adelia but since her age matches Anna's she was probably the same woman. It's interesting that although the 1920 census lists the couple's native tongue as "Russian," the 1930 census instead indicates "Yiddish."