the world of threads

If someone said "thread cards" to you would you know what they were? I suppose everyone is so crafty these days you probably would. I stumbled across these enchanting objects from the French company Maison Sajou, purveyors of ciseaux, merceries, and ouvrages de dames (scissors, thread I believe, and "ladies' works" or fancy work). The threads and sewing notions are presented in several different lines of exquisite reproduction packaging ("There are other models to discover in this collection: Daoulas, Crozon, Camaret, Guilvinec, Bénodet, Plyben and Pontivy.") Owner Frederique Crestin-Brillet has written an illustration-packed publication about collectible haberdashery items which "concentrates uniquely on the world of threads in all their forms." Amazing that all this and far more would have been commonly traded—filling sewing baskets, tossed into drawers, never given more than passing notice. Oh, to think of all the small things we've lost track of.


the Burns Method Part II: Death Avenue and Martha Stewart

I first came across this astonishing photo of West 26th street and Eleventh Avenue on Shorpy but it's originally from the George Grantham Bain Collection of the Library of Congress. This is probably one of the richest images I've ever seen—it verges on the surreal in its disparate simultaneities. Surely GG Bain didnt see, at the time of clicking the shutter, all the separate stories he was recording.
Journeying around the image—something I think of as the Ken Burns method— its fascinating to see the details of that moment. [NOTE 7-18: I shouldn't be surprised there's a Wikipedia entry about the "Ken Burns Effect"— I just cant believe I didnt know about it or the Apple reference.]
There's the coal bin on the front of the train engine, the man making his way on crutches, the spindly "ice" cart. From the camera's vantage point (and ours) the young boys and chalk drawings on the sidewalk could have been captured by Kertesz. Notice the "flagman" riding in front of the train—here a barrel cart has gotten in between. Boys on horseback, called "West Side cowboys," had to carry a red flag to warn of the approach, at six miles an hour, of each locomotive.
New York Central's freight line had run along Tenth and Eleventh Avenues since 1849. Known as "Death Avenue" for the number of pedestrians killed by the mix of railroad and street life, the name was used collectively for both streets. Statistics vary; one study recorded 21 deaths on Tenth and Eleventh from July of 1907 to July of 1910. Somehow the flagmen didnt seem to make walking along the avenue much safer. A New York Times notice from November, 1911, about the year of this photo, announced:
"Another 'Death Avenue' suit was filed yesterday [by the brother of the victim]... Cyrus J Burby was crossing Tenth Avenue, the complaint states, when his foot became wedged between the track and the sidewalk. Before he could extricate himself a train bore down on him without warning and he was decapitated."
In 1929 the City and State of New York and the New York Central Railroad agreed on the West Side Improvement Project, which would replace "Death Avenue" with a seemingly futuristic elevated line that entered warehouses on their upper floors. 
By 1931 the entire block in this image— the west side of Eleventh Avenue, 26th to 27th streets— had become the magnificent Starrett-Lehigh Building. The Lehigh Valley railroad had retained the ground floor as a vast freight yard, and the 19-story, 1.8 million-square-foot building, with its three gigantic elevators to lift and lower trucks, was put up directly above it. (Today the axle grease has been wiped away and Comme des Garcons, Hugo Boss, and Martha Stewart are among the tenants)
The High Line, as the new elevated freight line was called, opened to trains in 1934 and was used until the early 1980s. Saved from demolition by a grassroots movement in the early 2000s, a portion of the High Line is now a park that is so exquisite, so unbelievably well done, it's hard to believe it got built in New York. In my opinion, it is one of the triumphs of this city.


the Burns Method

Image at top is "Lower Hudson Street" about 1865, the other is "Washington Statue in Union Square" about 1860
At bottom is how I used the Union Square crop, which I thought was vaguely and abstractly menacing, in the Lincoln and New York exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. It was intended to help suggest (along with the engraving, etc ) the mounting popular dissatisfaction with Lincoln that led up to the Draft Riots.

NOTE 7-18: I shouldn't be surprised there's a Wikipedia entry about the "Ken Burns Effect"— I just cant believe I didnt know about it or the Apple reference.

One of the many things I admired about Ken Burns' famous Civil War series was not just the amazing evocation of the 1860s—but the exceptional sense of being enveloped in the 1860s. This was achieved, in part, with Burns' habit of dramatizing the photographs. By dramatizing I mean his practice of zooming into a small corner of a photograph, panning across it, and drawing back, at some point, so that the viewer sees the entire image. It's a journey across the image. Not only is this a clever way for a documentary filmmaker to increase the store of visuals he can draw from (each image can yield two or more scenes, especially helpful when sources are historical and of limited availability) it is also a method of revivifying, showing the life within the image.

Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography) speaks of the excitement of (select) images, the "the pressure of the unspeakable [within the image] which wants to be spoken." In his somewhat overwrought way, Barthes explains that the "adventure" and "animation" of certain images in turn animate the viewer. By isolating and framing small parts of a scene, or panning across a battlefield or streetscape, Burns extracts "adventure" from images that may, on first look, be quite standard or dull. Training the camera across a photograph recreates in a small way the experience of three dimensional world. It places the viewer in the setting and evokes the sensation of taking in that very scene. Also, by refocusing the eye on small corners, the viewer is privy to other stories that might escape notice when seeing the photo in its entirety. For Burns' camera, a single image of Richmond in ruins could offer up "resoluteness" in teasing out the tiny details of street life or it could reinforce "devastation" by lingering on each and every physical manifestation of war.

I was mesmerized by these latent stories in historical images. Limited only by the resolution (image quality) of the image one is working from there's the potential for extracting candid moments, where none seemed to exist. When I worked on the "Lincoln and New York" show at the New-York Historical Society I felt strongly that the galleries needed to have a sense of immediacy. Lincoln's walk through New York City on his way to his speaking engagement at Cooper Union should seem like the real walk it was. I had hoped to use photographic murals of New York street scenes only— no engravings—to place the visitor on those New York streets. (Of course others weighed in on the design and things got watered down, but still...) Above are two of several images I drew from— they're pretty powerful even without the Burns method, so my job was easy.
Why was I even thinking about this now? A typographer friend, Nick Sherman, created this amazing post of signage seemingly extracted out of nowhere from vintage photographs.


Automats and Einfühlung

While this image is not of the Automat at 1557 Broadway, it gives an idea of the chain's original ornamentation. Freeland mentions that the stained glass of the Horn and Hardart flagship Times Square location was created by the same artisan who did the glass for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
"Oh how I love the automat
the place where all the food's at"
Life magazine, March 1928
Doyers street, scene of the Chinese Theatre massacre
The sumptuous Atlantic Garden at 50 Bowery c.1870. All images, NYPL digital archive
At the Victorian Society awards a few weeks ago, I chatted with David Freeland, author of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan's Lost Places of Leisure. Now, I get obsessive in my avocational interest in New York history—tracking down images, poring over details— but he does it on a professional level! It was a thrill to speak with someone whose New York knowledge is academically comprehensive but who also appears to be just as viscerally enthralled by the poignance of everyday details.

Freeland finds slivers of the city's past which, though difficult to spot, can come to light if you train your eyes to see them. He's not interested in simply documenting architectural loss (e.g. blogs like vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com) he's got the determination to ferret out and appreciate the bits that remain.

The book is a treasure hunt of sorts, all over Manhattan. Freeland crawls out onto rooftops, he follows circuitous underground passages through Chinatown, and peers at faint traces of ornamental frippery stranded amidst the bleak streetscapes of Manhattan economic expedience. With Freeland's perseverance, the reader is able to cut through the cultural detritus of places like Grand Slam tourist shop in Times Square to the remnants of the original 1912 Horn and Hardart Automat. Elsewhere he conjures up Bowery beer gardens, swank nightclubs, gambling saloons and revives the heyday of Tin Pan Alley.

Freeland's research and documentation is astounding: where was Rogers Peet? how much did the cooks at the Automat make? what drinks did the Atlantic Garden serve? The implications of the American Mutoscope Company's "How Bridget Served the Salad Undressed"? (I live on this stuff, though some readers might find the occasional tsunami of facts a bit overwhelming.)

As amazing to me as his storehouse of facts is his orchestration of essentially three narrative voices. Freeland shifts between the modern-day flaneur—an often poetic observer of the present reality, the historian—a neutral provider of historical fact, and the eye witness—a "you-are-there" recreation of period events.

Freeland is obviously quite given over to the idea that it is possible, in some way, to tap into-- experience-- the past. 
If time is just a continuum and the present, past, and future all exist together with the past and future hidden from view then New York's past is still there lurking just beyond the range of our vision.
In a favorite old post of mine I describe a similarly intense awareness.
To the extent that a [period] photographic image, the rectangle, is a metaphorical window, its frame blocks the rest of the world that continues just beyond those edges. The "glass" is immovable, the "window" shut. I wonder, though, about what is to the left or the right. Or what connection there might be, in that photo of yesterday, to what I know today. 
If I understand it correctly, the philosopher and essayist Johann Gottfried von Herder's term Einfühlung, often translated as "empathy," puts a name to this complicated and elusive state of mind that I know very well and which seems to pervade Automats.
... a "feeling into," [Einfuhlung is] projecting one’s mind into the object of one’s contemplation, of seeing and thinking and experiencing from its perspective and so coming to understand it better, of turning it into a subject and oneself into the object of its gaze.– Robert Daly (SUNY Buffalo)


crafty afternoon

Some friends of mine and I decided to take a gamble on the Renegade Crafts Fair held in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn this weekend. Could be inspiring foraging, or hellish crowds buying and selling screen-printed canvas tote bags, tee shirts and skull paraphernalia— it was a toss-up. I have a high tolerance for hipsters and the aesthetically precious so I really had no problem taking the risk. Luckily it turned out just dandy.

So on an unseasonably hot morning we began our day with some coffee and cakes at the exquisite Bakeri on Wythe.
The fair itself was rather daunting, comprising 200 vendors in a circuit around MacCarren Park. 

I could see straight off that handmade garlands, and lines of fluttering pennants are this year's deer head trophy.
There were several really nice stalls. Some wonderful letterpress items from Enormous Champion, and especially dazzling stuff from Sesame. But I just cant bear to dwell on all the expert printing purveyors at the moment... so here are a few of my favorite non-letterpress stops: 
These charming towels by chez sucre chez have hand-embroidered 19th-century-style decorative initial caps or simple outlined anchors or hands. I like the streamlined, almost naive embroidery on top of some of the rustic ticking stripes.
image directly above from chez sucre chez

Forest Bound had a selection of incredibly appealing totes and bags crafted from found and salvaged materials. Old military uniforms, boys' britches, canvas feed bags are paired and trimmed with deerskin and other unusual leathers making them truly compelling pieces. They each seem to have their own built-in back story. Too bad the price point, at $180-$250+, was a fair bit above my craft-fair-impulse-buy threshold.
Miniature Rhino's Jessica Marquez impressed me with stitched salvaged paper booklets and other paper and embroidered items. There was something wonderful about her vintage interpretations: precise, measured, earnest and sweet—but not cutesy. Sort of a winsome take on 19th century scientific cataloging.
Her DIY letter writing station, complete with manual typewriter, little bits of kraft paper and sealing wax was brilliantly executed and surprisingly lovely. This girl's got flair.

After about four hours of intense exploration we repaired to the rather soigne Juliette for drinks on the roof terrace. I hear the food is so-so, but superficial visual person that I am, I would return just for their design details.

images from JulietteWilliamsburg


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