Stranger than friction: when matches were dangerous

In the latest in its ongoing series about objects the world once considered indispensable but has somehow managed to live without, Collectors Weekly turns its attention to match holders, which were popular from around 1826, when the friction match was invented, until the 1920s, when matchbooks and lighters rendered them obsolete. For its story, CW turned to one of the definitive works on the subject, Match Holders: First-hand Accounts of Tinderboxes, Matches, Spills, Vesta Cases, Match Strikers, and Permanent Matches, which is filled with photographs taken by New Zealand collector Ian Spellerberg and diary entries written by his late match-holder mentor, John McLean.

Snip:

Match Holders

begins with a chapter on tinderboxes, which were a popular form of portable fire-making prior to the invention of the friction match by an English pharmacist named John Walker. Tinderboxes consisted of three basic ingredients—a piece of steel, often called “fire steel”; a stone flint; and tinder, usually some dried fungi or charred linen. “With practice and patience,” McLean writes, “sparks could indeed be produced by striking the steel against the stone flint. If a spark landed in the dry tinder, care was needed to coax the spark into a smouldering piece of tinder then a flame.” As McLean recounts, the clink, clink, clink of steel coming in contact with stone was once a common early morning sound, as must also have been the curses that bounced off the rafters when cold, numb hands caused a hard chunk of steel to miss its mark. Read the rest

How Americans got so weird about science

Why is it so hard for so many Americans to get their heads around the science behind climate change? Well, according to Rebecca Onion, it may be because of the way we have historically applauded little boys for their interest in physics and chemistry, but view these same little boys with a certain amount of suspicion when they grow up to be actual scientists, many of whom have been depicted in popular culture as "mad" and—wait for it—Russian. Over at Collectors Weekly, Lisa Hix spoke to Onion about her recent book, Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States.

After World War II, Americans embraced the bounty of wartime scientific advances and a thriving economy: They now had cheap goods made out of high-tech plastic, streamlined appliances, and home TV sets. But they were also haunted by the specters of the A-bomb and the H-bomb. The burgeoning Cold War with the U.S.S.R. raised fears that workaholic Soviet scientists, laboring relentlessly under Communism, were making progress faster than American scientists, a competition that played out in the Space Race. Mainstream American pop culture attempted to assure people with images of the perfect suburban family defeating Communism through consumerism. However, American B-movies, comics, and pulp fiction were overrun with evil robots, monsters from space, radioactive mutants—and “mad scientists.” All of this affected how Americans regarded scientific education.

“The fears spiked in Postwar America at particular moments,” Onion says. “When Sputnik became the first spacecraft launched into orbit in 1957, Americans panicked, like, ‘Oh my God, the Soviets have it over us.

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How America's obsession with hula girls almost wrecked Hawai'i

Over at Collectors Weekly, Lisa Hix has just written an incredibly in-depth history of the hula, from its roots as a sacred dance to its kitschy personification as a dashboard doll. For her piece, Hix spoke with Constance Hale, a hula dancer herself, whose new book, The Natives Are Restless, focuses on authentic, 21st-century expressions of the hula.

Snip:

In his journal, Captain Cook described the Hawaiians’ hula: “Their dances are prefaced with a slow, solemn song, in which all the party join, moving their legs, and gently striking their breasts in a manner and with attitudes that are perfectly easy and graceful.”

In The Natives Are Restless, Hale explains, “To be sexually adept and sensually alive—and to have the ability to experience unrestrained desire—was as important to ancient Hawaiians as having sex to produce offspring. The vital energy caused by desire and passion was itself worshiped and idolized.”

Cook and his men—and the merchants, whalers, artists, and writers who followed—mistook the hula’s sexually charged fertility rituals as a signal the Hawaiians’ youngest and loveliest women were both promiscuous and sexually available to anyone who set foot on their beaches. In her 2012 book Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire, historian Adria L. Imada explains how natural hospitality of “aloha” culture—the word used as a greeting that also means “love”—made Hawaiians vulnerable to outside exploitation. To Westerners, the fantasy of a hula girl willingly submitting to the sexual desires of a white man represented the convenient narrative of a people so generous they’d willing give up their land without a fight.

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Bizarre and outlandish gadgets and doohickeys

Maurice Collins has written a terrific new book about his collection of bizarre and outlandish gadgets and doohickeys called — wait for it — Bizarre & Outlandish Gadgets & Doohickeys. It’s a wonderful collection of objects made between 1851 and 1951 by what you might call early disruptors. Recently, I spoke to Collins to find out how he got started in this curious collecting realm, and asked him to point out some of his favorite pieces.

The Memorandum Clock is not an especially disruptive piece of technology, unless, of course, you’re a customer in one of those houses of ill repute. It’s just a timepiece, you might say, whose time was up. For a better example of attempted disruption, as well as good old-fashioned charlatanism, Collins directs my attention to the “Anita” Nose Shaper, which, he tells me, was “the ultimate in nasal quackery.” The Memorandum Clock, he notes with some pride, is an English item. “This is American,” Collins says of the Nose Shaper, with just a trace of judgment in his voice. According to an advertisement for the device, the cure for “nasal irregularity” is as easy as strapping on the nose adjuster before bed—“No need for costly, painful operations,” promises the advertising copy. In a few short weeks, your ugly nose will be as cute as a button. “What a con,” Collins huffs, “quackery to the Nth degree.”
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Intelligence on the wing: The Genius of Birds

On Tuesday November 8, 2016, tens of millions of Americans enthusiastically cast their presidential ballots for a tax-cheating, racist demagogue who literally said anything to get the votes of common working stiffs, even though it should have been abundantly obvious to them that the promises were empty, the rhetoric insincere. A few months ago, I might have called such voters bird brains, but lately I’ve been reading Jennifer Ackerman’s wonderful new book, The Genius of Birds, so I now understand that such an epithet would be an insult to birds. Birds may not be smart enough enough to run a cynical and disingenuous presidential campaign, but birds would never be so stupid as to act so recklessly against their own self-interest.

In The Genius of Birds, Ackerman does not argue that birds are the intellectual equals of humans — that if only a robin could type, it, too, could produce a body of writing on par with the complete works of William Shakespeare. But Ackerman does give us enough examples of what can only be described as intelligence to cause us to reconsider many of our assumptions about whether human beings have a monopoly — or, in the case of the current election, even a grasp — on smarts.

We learn, for example, that “the world’s smartest bird” is a crow found on the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, and that this crow can solve puzzles requiring as many as eight steps to execute and two separate tools — O.K., they’re sticks. Read the rest

Nothing says Christmas like an aluminum tree

Lisa Hix of Collectors Weekly has just published a great interview with Sarah Archer, whose new book, Midcentury Christmas: Holiday Fads, Fancies, and Fun from 1945 to 1970, explains how companies like Alcoa Aluminum used Christmas to capitalize on the technologies it had developed for World War II.

Here's a snip:

The company that produced the most aluminum for the war effort was Alcoa, but there were also some smaller companies, too, many of which were based in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, of all places, which was one of the big aluminum capitals of North America. Like a lot of mid-century Christmas items, including the acrylic rubber that coats Christmas lights cords, aluminum trees came from thinking about repurposing a material produced for the military. The aluminum strips that were used to make the trees were originally designed for something called chaff, which was sprinkled over enemy territories to scramble radar because the little pieces of metal would diffuse the signal.

Many 1950s aluminum tree producers used Alcoa branding. The exterior of the box would say, “We proudly use Alcoa aluminum.” You could put ornaments on these trees, but one of the challenges of decorating them was not getting electrocuted, which was mentioned prominently in the how-to pamphlet that came with the tree. Because it was not safe to put electric lights on the metal, the companies distributing the trees would sell a rotating lamp that would shine different-colored lights on the tree to bathe it in magenta or purple.

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Mechanical movements of the Cold War: how the Soviets revolutionized wristwatches

Besides white supremacy, one of the key drivers of the last election was trade, with outsourcing being the main scapegoat (even though any economist able to count to 10 will tell you that it was technology rather than bad trade deals that really created the Rust Belt). But back in the Depression, one group of Ohio factory workers were delighted to have all their jobs outsourced, and some of them even went along for the ride. They were the workers of the bankrupt Dueber-Hampden Watch Company, which was bought in 1930 by the Soviet Union. At the time, the Soviets were keen to create from scratch a watchmaking industry to rival Switzerland's. In his latest story for Collectors Weekly, Hunter Oatman-Stanford interviewed a collector of Soviet watches (who happens to be Oatman-Stanford's younger brother) on this suddenly timely topic.

Here's a snip:

Three Soviets traveled to Canton, Ohio, where these two companies were based, to pack up all the manufacturing equipment, leftover watch movements, and pieces to ship back to Russia. Twenty-one former Dueber-Hampden employees from Ohio sailed with them to help set up this new facility in Russia, which was aptly named the First State Watch Factory. They began making 7- and 15-jewel pocket-watch movements made with parts from Ohio. The Soviets changed all the lettering to Cyrillic to signify their new ownership, and there were slight design modifications, all very minor. Starting around 1935, they began taking ownership a bit more, using different insignias that said “First State Watch Factory,” and as the years progressed, they began customizing their pocket watches to be a bit more Soviet-specific.

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The Earth and I – is climate change moving too fast for a new book on climate change?

It is obviously unfair to dismiss the entire contents of a book for a single tin-eared statement, but the clunker that comes near the end of The Earth and I by Gaia-theory originator James Lovelock is a doozy. The inexplicable passage follows a dozen essays by journalists, a Nobel Prize winner, and several Ivy League professors, who make a pretty good case for both the insignificance of human beings in the universe and their unique ability to end life as we know it here on Planet Earth. In an attempt, then, to give his shell-shocked readers a sliver of hope by celebrating the success of the Montreal Protocol, which banned chlorofluorocarbons in 1989, Lovelock crows about how these ozone-destroying compounds were replaced by hydrofluorocarbons, which, he writes, “are far less harmful to the planetary environment.”

Somewhere between the time Lovelock wrote those words and the publication of his book, hydrofluorocarbons were added to the Montreal Protocol’s list of banned substances – eliminating “less harmful” hydrofluorocarbons is expected to keep our warming planet’s temperature from rising by a full half-degree Celsius.

The inability of even an authority like Lovelock to keep pace with current events points out how quickly both the science and politics of climate change are a changing. In this light, understanding the holistic view of the planet’s processes – from the weather above us to the meaning of the geological history below our feet – has never been more important. The Earth and I delivers on these topics and more, while Jack Hudson’s engaging illustrations lure us in and invite the eye to linger. Read the rest

Taschen's hefty New Deal Photography goes well beyond familiar Depression-era images

See sample pages from this book at Wink.

New Deal Photography: USA 1935-1943 by Peter Walther Taschen 2016, 608 pages, 5.9 x 7.9 x 1.7 inches (hardcover) $16 Buy a copy on Amazon

If you purchase a copy of New Deal Photography: USA 1935-1943 by Peter Walther hoping to find iconic Farm Security Administration images, such as the migrant mother by Dorothea Lange or the father and his two sons running in a dust storm by Arthur Rothstein, you will not be disappointed. With almost 400 photographs filling its 608 pages, including numerous gems by Walker Evans, there’s plenty of room for the expected. But New Deal Photography goes well beyond these familiar images, powerful though they may be.

The book’s geographic organization forces us to consider Depression-era life in the Northeast and South, too, pushing our perspectives beyond the more familiar locations of Oklahoma and California. In addition, Walther’s collection of images features numerous color photographs by Russell Lee, Jon Collier, and Marion Post Wolcott. Again, we are used to seeing the era depicted in black and white, but seeing it in color confounds many of our expectations about what rural America actually looked like during those desperate years.

Walther’s essay for the book, which is printed in English, German, and French, presents a brisk but useful overview of the Farm Security Administration, from its founding mission to relocate Dust Bowl farmers in Oklahoma to greener pastures, to the photographs that were initially commissioned to document the relocation process. That might have been all the FSA did, but Walther introduces us to an FSA economist named Roy Stryker, who understood that photographs would do a much better job of telling the story of rural America in the late 1930s than any economic report ever could. Read the rest

400 years of equator hazings, and how I survived one

This summer, I spent a month aboard a research vessel in the Indian Ocean. At one point, we crossed the equator, which meant that those of us who had never done that before were treated to a special ceremony. In fact, it was a straight-up hazing, as I describe in a new article at Collectors Weekly.

The minute Pascal tied my hands together, I knew was in trouble. Pascal is a big man with an even bigger laugh, one of two hardworking, and hard-drinking, bosuns aboard a French research vessel called the Marion Dufresne. For his birthday a few days earlier, the crew had given Pascal a ball gag. Pascal thought this was hilarious, and immediately strapped the sex toy over his mouth, contorting his face in exaggerated expressions of mock distress, to the delight of the deckhands and officers assembled in the ship’s bar. Somehow, I couldn’t get that image out of my head, as Pascal, a mischievous grin now creasing his broad face, secured the knots around my wrists and gave me a wink. No doubt about it, whatever was about to happen next was totally going to suck.

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Castro's Cuba – 50 years later, the island nation is still Castro country

See sample pages from this book at Wink.

Castro's Cuba: An American Journalist's Inside Look at Cuba 1959-1969 by Lee Lockwood Taschen 2016, 360 pages, 10.3 x 13.6 x 1.4 inches (hardcover) $45 Buy a copy on Amazon

Right now, Cuba is red hot, hotter even than when Ry Cooder introduced most of the world to the Buena Vista Social Club almost 20 years ago. Thanks to the normalization of relations between the United States and the Caribbean island nation, American tourists will soon have a new place to drink alcohol, lie in the sun, and complain about their ceviche – regular flights between the U.S. and Cuba begin at the end of August.

Despite the diplomatic thaw, though, Cuba is still Castro country. Fidel, who just turned, 90, may be out of the picture, but his younger brother, Raul (age 85), remains firmly in control. Which makes the new Taschen reprint and expansion of photojournalist Lee Lockwood’s 1967 Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel so timely. The new 7 ½-pound, 360-page version – simplified to Castro’s Cuba — expands greatly on the original, supplementing the original 100 black-and-white photos with hundreds of color shots, a pair of essays by the late Castro documentarian Saul Landau, and, as usual with Taschen, high-production values.

Style, though, is not the book’s primary virtue. Its heart revolves around lengthy interviews Lockwood conducted with Fidel Castro in 1965, in which the revolutionary leader spelled out his vision for his country — from its agriculture to its education system to its arts. Read the rest

Glass artist Dale Chihuly plays with fire and the audacity of beauty

See sample pages from this book at Wink.

Chihuly on Fire by Henry Adams (author) and Dale Chihuly (artist) Chihuly Workshop 2016, 212 pages, 9.3 x 12.1 x 0.9 inches $40 Buy a copy on Amazon

For several decades now, art critics and casual admirers alike have talked about Dale Chihuly’s art in terms of its forms. Indeed, the artist himself organizes his work largely by their physical shapes, as does his latest self-published coffee-table book, Chihuly on Fire, whose chapter titles range from “Baskets” and “Sea Forms” to “Jerusalem Cylinders” and “Rotolo.” But thumbing the pages of this sumptuous, hardcover volume, and reading the biographical essay by art-history professor Henry Adams, one is struck by the importance of color to Chihuly’s work.

The shift to color began in 1981, when Chihuly and his team of gaffers and assistants produced the first of what would become known as the Macchia series. These often enormous vessels, whose sides were usually folded and deformed, featured solid-color interiors, lip wraps in contrasting hues, and thousands of “jimmies” of pure crushed colored glass, usually set against a background of white glass “clouds.”

Even in his early days, Chihuly’s ambitions for his chosen medium seemed larger than the modest network of glass-art galleries around the country would have the wherewithal to support. By the time his Macchia pieces came along, the so-called craft arts, of which glass art was but one, were allowed to be exuberant and even a bit zany, but they were ultimately expected to exhibit good table manners, to sit uncomplainingly at the kid’s table of the art world. Read the rest

The mystery of our 12-hour delay: the Mirage Expedition

Previously: Investigating the Great Earthquake of 2012

This year for the 4th of July, I varied my routine ever so slightly by spending the day aboard the R/V Marion Dufresne outside of Sabang harbor on the island of We, which is just north of the tip of Sumatra. For more than 12 hours, from roughly 11 in the morning to almost half past 11 at night, we waited and waited, and waited some more, as the local Indonesian immigration and port officials did whatever it was they needed to do to release eight of their fellow citizens into our care. As you can see, I took a few snapshots of the little islands that fringe the marginally larger island of We, but we were not permitted to go ashore.

The following morning, the mystery of our delay was partially explained. As I understand it, the local Sabang authorities had wanted to send our new passengers’ passports to Jakarta for approval, which would have delayed our expedition by days. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, the passports were returned, and we were allowed to proceed south.

Most of the new members of our crew are Indonesian students studying geophysics and other sciences related to our survey of a seismically active section of the Wharton Basin, which is 3 kilometers below the surface of the Indian Ocean. Also aboard are a couple of Indonesian scientists, as well as an Indonesian security officer, who’s a captain in the Indonesian Navy and has been empowered to approve any changes to the expedition plan that’s already been approved by the Indonesian government. Read the rest

Investigating the Great Earthquake of 2012: the Mirage Expedition

On April 11, 2012, a magnitude-8.6 earthquake, followed a few hours later by a magnitude-8.2, struck the Wharton Basin, which lies approximately five kilometers below the surface of the Indian Ocean, and some 500 kilometers southwest of the tip of Sumatra. Unlike the magnitude 9.2 earthquake of 2004, whose epicenter was in the volatile subduction zone just off the western coast of Sumatra, the Great Earthquake of 2012, as it’s come to be called, did not trigger devastating tsunamis resulting in the loss of thousands of lives. That may be because its epicenter was well within the Indo-Australian plate, at a depth of 50 kilometers. Even so, the Great Earthquake of 2012 is of keen interest to scientists—at magnitude-8.6, it is the largest intraplate earthquake ever recorded.

During the month of July, I get to accompany an international group of scientists and students on an expedition dubbed MIRAGE, which stands for “Marine Investigation of the Rupture Anatomy of the 2012 Great Earthquake.” Composed of representatives from the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP), the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), and the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS), the group’s collective task is to acquire bathymetry (i.e., to map the seafloor and its sub-surface) in the section of the Wharton Basin directly above and around the epicenter of the 2012 magnitude-8.6 earthquake. My job is to write about their work for EOS's blog. #MIRAGEcruise.

I’ll also be posting at Boing Boing from time to time, to give this site’s readers a heads up on what’s been posted at EOS, as well as to share some of my photos and impressions of the trip. Read the rest

The polyamorous Christian socialist utopia that made silverware for proper Americans

Lisa Hix of has written a lengthy piece for Collectors Weekly on the Oneida Community of the late 19th century, and how it morphed from a group of men and women who "believed the liquid electricity of Jesus Christ’s spirit flowed through words and touch, and that a chain of sexual intercourse would create a spiritual battery so charged with God’s energy that the community would transcend into immortality, creating heaven on earth," to a company that was famous for its flatware.

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Lightman Fantastic: this artist drenched '60s music lovers in a psychedelic dream

When I was a kid in the late 1960s, I briefly washed dishes and carried equipment for a light show called Garden of Delights, which was based in Sausalito, California. So it was a dream come true to interview Bill Ham, the artist behind the first light shows in 1966 at San Francisco's fabled Avalon Ballroom. Over the course of three mornings and afternoons, I spoke with Bill about how he got into light shows, the techniques that evolved from his early experiments with Elias Romero, the reactions of musicians to his work, and his years in Europe at the beginning of the 1970s, which included a stay at a French chateau with the Grateful Dead. Highlights from those conversations, clocking in at 9,000 or so words, have now been published at Collectors Weekly.

Here's a snip:

Collectors Weekly: Can you describe the techniques you were using at that time?

Ham: It started with the overhead projectors, which had been designed for lectures and presentations, so that lecturers could show their audiences diagrams, text, and other information as they spoke. Overhead projectors were used mostly in educational settings, for corporate meetings, that sort of thing. We repurposed them.

The main medium of the overhead projector had been the transparency. The light source below the projector’s flat surface, which is actually a Fresnel lens, would beam the image or words on the transparency onto a mirror above, which, in turn, aimed that image through a focusing lens and onto a screen or wall.

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GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human

See more sample pages from this book at Wink.

GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human by Thomas Thwaites Princeton Architectural Press 2016, 208 pages, 5.9 x 8.6 x 0.9 inches $16 Buy a copy on Amazon

Thomas Thwaites has a curious idea of what it means to take a vacation, at least if the just released GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human is any indication. What started off as a casual observation about how Queen Elizabeth’s dog, Noggin, probably worries a good deal less than his royal master evolved into a quixotic book full of ruminations on ruminants. Animals, Thwaites imagined, live in the moment, free from worry, at one with the land. How wonderful to be so unburdened, he thought. So, after briefly considering becoming an elephant, he decided to try his hand at being a goat.

Along the way, Thwaites learned a good deal about goats. Humans, Thwaites tells us, have been interacting with them since 9000 BCE – from the domestication of bezoar goats somewhere in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains to the mythical, sexual subjugation of goats by the goat-horned, Greek god Pan, as depicted in a rather graphic sculpture discovered under layers of ash deposited on the city of Herculaneum by Mount Vesuvius in the year 79. Much to our relief, Thwaites just wants to be a goat, not to “do” one.

Which is not to say the book is not occasionally disgusting. The section describing the R&D behind his goat suit includes the dissection of a goat named Venus, who died of natural causes and whose skinned limbs, palm-sized brain, and oozing guts are explored in gory detail. Read the rest

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