Friday, December 27, 2013

Made in China, c. 1903

Opium-smoking group, toy figures

Executioners, toy figures

Years ago, I took my nephew to visit the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. He was five years old at the time, and already a voracious and very astute consumer. He was an avid collector of action figures (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were all the rage) and he possessed an impressive knowledge of the entire toy category. So it was no surprise that en route to the Intrepid, he negotiated that we begin our visit at the gift shop. I was leaving on a trip to Europe the next day, and I asked him what country, were he to travel, would he most like to visit. It took all him of three seconds to answer, “China.” Why China? “Because that’s where they make all the toys.”

Probably 70% of all toys found under the tree this Christmas were manufactured in China, but in 1901, when German linguist and sinologist, Berthold Laufer embarked upon his three-year shopping spree for the American Museum of Natural History, China was only just beginning to modernize. American museums were woefully lacking in collections pertaining to Asian cultures and Franz Boas, the influential anthropologist of the AMNH and Columbia University enlisted Laufer, to change that. As the sole member of the Jacob H. Schiff Expedition, Laufer was charged with studying the history and culture of the Chinese people and acquiring specimens representing every aspect of ordinary Chinese life, including the home, commerce, the arts, and recreation.

Laufer sent back 305 crates containing some 7,500 objects, plus books, rubbings, photos and wax cylinder recordings. The haul accounts for about half of the Chinese objects held by the museum today. In the spirit of the season, I’ve chosen some toys, games, puzzles, etc. from among the 6,500 digitized items available on the AMNH website.

I started this post quite a while back, after attending a Bard Graduate Center symposium in 2012, Anthropology of Expeditions: Travel, Visualities, Afterlives. It was Laurel Kendall of the AMNH whose talk about Laufer's expedition in China prompted my own protracted excursion deep into the vast digital archives of the AMNH. There, you can see Laufer's own field notes along with thousands of objects you will probably never see displayed in the museum.

Box of toy insects

Toy monkey on a swing

Toy axe

Toy bow and pellets

Toy dog

Playing cards

Toy mask

European steam boat, toy

Horse drawing cart, toy

Insect kite

Fish kite

Peach of long life, kite

Two men, kite

Toy cats

Toy figure

Game ball

Magical blocks puzzle

Toy animal

Toy camel

Toy rooster

Toy monkey

Toy elephant

Toy duck

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Wearing Mandela

Vlisco Java pattern fabric created after Mandela's release
from prison in 1990. (via The Journey to Batik)

Be it a t-shirt or a commemorative portrait cloth, Africa has a long, rich history of printed fabric as a medium of communication. So it is no surprise that so many mourning the death of Nelson Mandela and celebrating his memory have been doing so clad in textiles bearing his image. 

The following images are from The Guardian's "Nelson Mandela: pictures of the day" and other news sites from around the world.

A trio of Mandela commemorative cloths.

See the post about Nelson Mandela's penchant for Javanese textiles at The Journey to Batik.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


What a great design for a bicycle-shipping crate! I’m pretty sure that it can also double as a caddy for enormous slices of toast or as the armature of a hoop-skirt.
The Victorian-era crate (with bicycle) was sold recently at the final auction of items from the now shuttered Pedaling History Museum. It’s yet another sad story of historic and cultural preservation gone awry in Buffalo, NY.

Lots of cyclenalia(?) to ogle at the Copake Auctions site.

Shawmut racing safety bicycle new in crate (c. 1913). Never uncrated. “New old stock,” as they say.

Some modern “crates.”

Bicycle stand, 1896

Rex bicycle, c.1898

Quintuple five man bicycle, signed "Francisco Cuevas" on frame.

Rollfast ski bike, DP Harris Co. NY.

Identified simply as "Bicycle Photograph."

What will they think of next?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

DIY Thanksgiving

These paper targets for turkey and other critters were sold at Sears. I don't know the dates of when the store sold J.C. Higgins branded targets and when they sold their own brand, but I was struck by the difference in the bird renderings.

Before you run out and shoot a turkey, you might want to note the instructions. For a decorative, happy-looking turkey, like the one above, be aware that "For Best Results Always Use SEARS Ammunition." If it's a more organic, introspective turkey you are after, like the one below, then you must keep in mind that "For Best Results Always Use J.C. Higgins Ammunition."

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 22, 2013


Curious as to what the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination had inspired in the way of person-to-person commerce, I decided to peruse the “sold” listings on eBay.
Which is how I found myself looking down the barrel of a roll of teletype.
This original United Press International transmission of November 22, 1963, was from the newsroom of KPIX in San Francisco. An anchorman at the station had kept the roll since that day. Recorded on it, are the events as they unfolded, background information, updates, and responses to the news from around the world.
So, along with learning that the New York Stock Exchange had ceased trading as of 2:07 p.m., and that that the Mexican government announced it would close its border with Texas for 72 hours, we get a first hand account of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as President on Air Force One. There is a dispatch from Ireland that “men and women dropped to their knees in the crowded streets of Dublin to begin reciting the rosary” and a message from West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, “I feel as if a light has gone out, gone out for all men who hoped for peace and freedom and a better life …”
UPI White House Reporter Merriman Smith received the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the assassination. His personal account of the day, which you can read here, needless to say, is fascinating. He describes what it was like being four cars back from the president’s bubble-top limousine when the shots rang t.
Our car stood still for probably only a few seconds, but it seemed like a lifetime. One sees history explode before one's eyes and for even the most trained observer, there is a limit to what one can comprehend.
Smith takes you through the rest of his day—to Parkland Hospital and then onto Air Force One, where he and Charles Roberts of Newsweek are the only two reporters on the flight back to D.C.

UPI probably reached some 6,000 subscriber news organizations at that time, so the one pictured above is hardly the only ancient scroll to have survived.

Below are snippets from this and another teletype that sold recently.

Obviously, an early report, which no one ran to immediately blurt out on the air before getting more information.

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