During a trip to London some years ago, a friend took me for a walk along South Bank. This was before the Tate Modern opened and things were still a bit ragged around there. So when we unexpectedly took stairs down to the shoreline and he told me to watch out for "treasures," I was skeptical. (Not to mention totally unprepared to continue our walk out onto gummy black mud.) But I became practically giddy with excitement when within a brief 10 minute amble and absolutely no exertion on my part I found the bowl of an 18th or 19th century clay pipe (which I gave to my friend), and three distinctive pottery shards, above. (The blue ones are almost certainly mid-nineteenth century, the green is a mystery—1930s? medieval?) That afternoon remains one of my best excursions. It's a mystery to me why it's taken me so long to try to replicate that experience. And its only recently I learned the term for what I was doing that day...
Behind St. Katherine Docks, 1952

Mudlark: the word was late 18th century slang both for a pig, and for one of the scavengers working the banks of the Thames. Human mudlarks would root around along the foreshore of the river during low tide, searching for lumps of coal, bits of old iron and other detritus that fell from ships — anything which they could sell for a few pence. They were Dickensian characters—but were vividly captured from life by Henry Mayhew, a pioneering social journalist in London Labour and the London Poor (1851). The children (mudlarks were usually under fifteen, but old women would troll the shore as well):
....[were] scarcely half covered by the tattered indescribable things that serve them for clothing; their bodies are grimed with the foul soil of the river, and their torn garments stiffened up like boards with dirt of every possible description.
Today, London's Society of Thames Mudlarks comprises about 60 people in overalls, gloves, and rubber boots who have official permits (browsing along the shore is fine for anyone, but digging needs a permit) to comb the river foreshore with metal detectors.* In Thames, the Biography, Peter Ackroyd lists some of the items the river has yielded to chance and modern mudlarks:
A cup of Trojan origin was found by two dredgermen at Barn Elms, a Greek rhyton of the second century BC was found at Billingsgate...24 Viking swords have been retrieved from the Thames... in one small area just east of Blackfriars Bridge, some 250 medieval pewter pilgrim badges were discovered. In 1834 a bronze head of the emperor Hadrian was found near London Bridge.
       The Thames seems to contain the debris of the world—bird cages and urethral syringes, watches and wooden stools, pipes and phials and wig curlers...A flint hand axe might share the same stretch of river bed with a sixteenth-century pot and a nineteenth century bicycle wheel... In the ancient river all time is redeemable, past and present suspended together in intimate association.... the river is a great depository of past lives.
Ackroyd's meandering story of one of the world's famous rivers is a dreamily evocative and anecdotal sweep of history. He calls the river "a reliquary"—a container or shrine— and it is, not only in the metaphorical sense. The Thames's thick, viscous mud is low in oxygen and as a result, organic decay is greatly minimized. Metal objects retrieved from the depths look, after a swift polish, about as they did when they were dropped in. 
Somewhere there are still blackened remnants of the Great Fire or a commemorative token that slipped out of a hand during a Frost Fair (one of several times the Thames froze over and tents with food and drink, and games of archery and bear-baiting were set up on the ice). I could happily spend my time looking for those... The web site for the Mudlark Society breaks this poetic reverie just a bit. There is no romanticism on these fluorescent green pages. The site revels in fart humor, abounds in misspellings and is one of the ugliest I've ever come across. And yet... there is a fantastic array of documented finds to pore over and the chief mudlark, Steve Brooker, seems like a pretty fun guy. I intend to sign up to go mudlarking on my next trip to London.

Thames Frost, Abraham Hondius, 1677

view from Isle of Dogs, Lorna Richardson, Thames Discovery Programme
 . . . . .
If I would drink water, I must ... swallow that which comes from the river Thames, impregnated with all the filth of London and Westminster. Human excrement is the least offensive part of the concrete, which is composed of all the drugs, minerals, and poisons used in mechanics and manufactures, enriched with the putrefying carcasses of beasts and men, and mixed with the scourings of all the washtubs, kennels, and common sewers within the bills of mortality.
 –The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, Tobias Smollett, 1771
 . . . . .
Mudlark finds, including medieval shoe soles and a coin bearing the image of Faustina Augusta who was briefly empress of Rome in 221 AD. These six preceding images from Thames and Field Metal Detecting Society
*Forget shopkeepers, Britain seems to be a nation of amateur metal "detectorists". Take, for instance, Terry Herbert who in July '09 uncovered a tremendous cache of Saxon gold just below the surface of a cultivated field in south Staffordshire.


creatures I have seen in my apartment

I hope I am not tempting Fate by saying that the Brooklyn brownstone I live in has been uncommonly free of the New York City pest trifecta: cockroaches, mice, rats. Nor have I ever had a bed bug visitation. For this, I am very very thankful. Perhaps because there are a lot of trees and Prospect Park is just up the street, I have had a number of other callers.
Many of the images here are not of my specific creatures— they are from the delightful What's That Bug? A folksy, useful site whose authors attempt do just that— WTB? identifies readers' entomological sources of distress, disgust, or wonder from emailed images. Fielding everything from beauty shots to scenes of carnage to drawings (bottom) the authors are able to impart an impressive amount of information considering they are both MFAs and teach photography in Los Angeles!
House Centipede
Have seen several of these periodically— I can't even bear to talk about this.
Unremarkable sightings, cat gets agitated
Spider Beetle 
(evidently harmless but it looks alarmingly like a tick to us inveterate urban dwellers!)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug
Truthfully, I am not sure I saw this exact bug– it didn't "produce a pungent, malodorous chemical" 
when I scooped it up on a paper and threw it out the window
Daddy Long Legs
The last one I saw was about 5 inches across leg to leg. Hunched, unmoving, for 2 days in the cove molding near my ceiling it was like a visitor from a Tim Burton movie.
I also have small spiders, but I couldnt find an accurate image— they all seemed much bigger than what I have seen
little Black Ant
For two seasons I had a trail of ants coming and going single file each way from my west window. Very upsetting as I tried to obliterate them and they just. kept. coming.
Praying Mantis
This is my photo— and this is my mantis! I discovered it one night inside my apartment when its rustling against the window woke me. I was petrified since I didnt know what it was— it was just tremendous. Somehow I thought I'd shooed it out the window. By the time it appeared again, inside, I knew what it was and gingerly picked it up. I could feel its little tiny hands grasping as I flung it out the window. It (or a relative) showed up again on my geraniums.
reader-submitted drawing from the site What's That Bug?



 Silk screened dry cleaning posters showing hand lettering. Original designs, c. 1960

I went down to my unofficial deep storage in the basement the other day and I came across these posters.  

Yes, they are dry cleaners' posters.

I knew I had them, (I acquired them about 9 years ago) I just hadn't laid eyes on them in quite a while. Despite my criminally poor photographs here, they are, in person, surprisingly lovely specimens of commercial art. Large (about 17 x 42) and silk screened in vivid blues, black, and fluorescent brights, these are the real thing—not retro simulations.

How did I come to possess a package of old dry cleaning posters? Glad you're interested. One day, I stopped in at a local cleaner and inquired about a poster in his window: yellow with black and white line art of a man and woman, he in a sharp suit, she in a crisp cocktail dress complete with hat and gloves. It was so astoundingly out of date, so jarringly asynchronous with the world around it, to me it was like coming upon someone using a cotton gin. And it was sincere; it was still being used in a commercial capacity. That was what got me: this artwork, clearly depicting a lost world of men in hats and women in gloves, was still literally and unironically being used to advertise "new express dry cleaning service." After an unsuccessful bid to obtain that very poster I made a note to seek out the manufacturer, Foster-Stephens, Inc, of Skokie Illinois.

In the early 2000s I used to see posters like these—probably designed during the Kennedy administration—every so often. Naive, and practically twinkling with exaggerated cheerfulness the silk screened banners were being increasingly supplanted with other promotional material of the plastic decal variety, themselves sporting artwork a good 20 years out of date. (Many dry cleaning posters these days look like artwork from Duran Duran albums*) It was astonishing to me how the progressive, evolutionary juggernaut of advertising had seemingly passed over the entire dry cleaning business sector. It was also pretty interesting to note that these "authentic" holdouts were existing side by side with coy retro Old Navy ads and businesses like House industries and Charles S Anderson stock images whose entire raison d'etre was the recycling of vintage commercial vernacular.

I did get around to calling Foster-Stephens. I spoke with someone there who acknowledged that yes, the "streamers" were indeed silk screened, and yes, some of the designs were pretty old. At the time of my call, in 2002, the woman guessed, "they were probably designed by Owen Heitmeyer. He'd be well over 90 if he were alive." And so... I purchased a few of the designs right then and there, over the phone, for about $5 a piece. And then I wrote a little piece for Print magazine about them.

To my knowledge silk screened streamers are no longer part of the Foster-Stephens inventory.

* I intend to take a few images around the neighborhood. For now, here's a a glimpse of what I mean, found online.

And here's a British gallery selling vintage dry cleaning posters for £125...


family stories

 A detail of a crudely retouched image of "Kallikak" children which (intentionally?) made them appear grotesque. From the book The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness.

Did anyone else find the article in the New Yorker, Strangers on the Mountain, about the "Jackson Whites" of New Jersey, as riveting as I did? I'm not sure why I have an utter fascination with genealogy, ethnic tracing, endogamy, and consanguinity*. The piece was a rather unexpected investigation of the self-proclaimed Ramapough Mountain Indians of Stag Hill, New Jersey, a group of "racially indeterminate clansfolk" whose isolation, rustic customs, and general "hillbilly" designation have kept them in local legend for generations. While the article tried to tread carefully,  distinguishing between fact and folklore and long-held prejudice, it still conveyed unmistakable  throwaway descriptions of local color: the Stag Hill area dotted with spare tires and rusting appliances.

Thinking is that these "mountain people" are descendants of Lenape Indians, Hessian deserters, Tory sympathizers (from the Revolution), and runaway Dutch-owned slaves, though most of this is unproven. What is known is that many families have Dutch surnames, are "negroid" or reddish-complected, and some have blue eyes. Their reputation for close intermarriage, poverty, and penchant for squirrel meat put me in mind of the Jukes and the Kallikaks, an earlier obsession of mine. (See my earlier post on Hapsburg Jaw, and the not-at-all-sinister Cold Spring Eugenics Archive, among other topics)

The "Jukes" were a New York hill family studied in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Richard L. Dugdale. He found that of 29 male blood relatives, 17 had been arrested and 15 convicted of crimes. His book, The Jukes: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity, claimed "Max," a descendant of early Dutch settlers and who was born between 1720 and 1740, had been the ancestor of more than 76 convicted criminals, 18 brothel-keepers, 120 prostitutes, over 200 relief recipients and 2 cases of "feeble-mindedness." A follow-up study was published in 1916 by Arthur Estabrook of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, New York (see online archive, mentioned above).

The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness, a 1912 book by psychologist and eugenicist Henry H. Goddard, was another in a stream of "scientific" social treatises published in the first few decades of the century when the eugenics movement was at its peak. The pseudonymous Jukes, Kallikaks, and Nams studies assumed iconic status and contributed to sterilization laws adopted by 30 states in the early part of the 20th century. Laws allowing the involuntary sterilization of sex offenders, habitual criminals, epileptics, and the "feebleminded" were meant to keep "defectives" from reproducing and, thus, reduce the number of those burdening the state. Additionally, there was the intent to prevent mildly retarded people from reproducing. Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the Supreme Court's 1927 opinion upholding the legality of eugenic sterilization, which included the infamous phrase "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

In a shocking (on many levels) reprise of that famous case, this past fall a 35-year-old Tessa Savicki sued a Boston-area hospital for performing a tubal ligation, thus sterilizing her, after the birth of her 9th child. Two of her children are on welfare and she is unemployed...

I once sent away to get my DNA tested. I was crushed to discover that, as a female, I could only get mitochondrial DNA traced: my mother's side. Half the story is missing! The portion of me that was readable was deemed to be 89% European and 11% East Asian. Ironically, it was my father who was once mistaken for an Asian, or so the story went, much to the hilarity of all involved.
*update: I just realized why I periodically return to this subject with passionate interest— it is because genetic tracing, genealogy, et al. are all threads connecting the present to the past in some tangible way. It is like discovering echoes that never quite fade.

The New York Evening Journal, 1923


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...