Saturday, December 29, 2012

Serendipitous Bookmarks — forgotten between the pages


[1a] An 1860 Southern Democratic electoral ballot.
by E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra
During my many years of obsessively handling and collecting printed items from humanity’s chequered past, occasionally a little “extra” prize has turned up. People use the most amazing items as bookmarks, often cramming between the pages the first thing that comes to hand when the phone or doorbell rings. Librarians report finding paper money, condoms, tampons, candy bars and a wide range of other bizarre stuff inside returned volumes. The Victorian mania for pressing flowers and “skeletonized” leaves inside heavy books, particularly bound volumes of the Illustrated London News and other periodicals, is evident as well.

In the film Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the twisted, Nazi-collaborating archeologist Bellocq dangles a cheap bazaar pocket watch before Indiana Jones and points out that the worthless timepiece merely needs to be buried for three thousand years and it becomes priceless! Thanks to today’s burgeoning “collectibles” market, three millennia are no longer required – a few decades will suffice.

Here, “submitted for your inspection” (as dear old Rod Serling used to say) are four specimens that survived over a century forgotten between the pages:

[1b] Code of Virginia.
This relic of the crucial four-way presidential race pitting Republican Abraham Lincoln against Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas and Constitutional Union/Whig candidate John Bell, resided for over a century inside a copy of the 1860 Code of Virginia. 

The 1860 Code was the last antebellum edition of the state’s laws as codified in 1849, and the one in effect during the Civil War, when Virginia seceded from the Union and became part of the Confederate States of America. It includes a number of statutes pertaining to slavery: “General provisions as to slaves,” “Of dealing with slaves, and suffering them to go at large,” “Of runaway slaves,” “Of suits for freedom” and “Of free negroes.” (The next revision in 1873 would reflect the abolition of slavery.)

[2a] A group photo of the Seven Singing Sutherland Sisters and their amazing hair.
[2b] “Hair 7 Feet Long and 4 Inches Thick.”
This 1885 cabinet photo by Charles Eisenmann (1855-1927) of 229 Bowery, New York City, of Sarah, Victoria, Isabella, Grace, Naomi, Dora and Mary Sutherland and their father, Fletcher, with advertisements and testimonials for their hair care products, was used as a bookmark in a copy of Phineas Taylor Barnum’s Struggles and Triumphs; or, Fifty Years’ Recollections, published by the Courier Company in Buffalo, N.Y. in 1884. The sisters, two of whom were adopted, were a popular singing act with the Barnum and Bailey circus. Barnum’s autobiography was sold at performances, and it is likely that this volume and the photo were obtained together. Photographer Eisenmann specialized in cabinet images of circus performers and sideshow “freaks.” His work was showcased in Michael Mitchell’s Monsters of the Gilded Age; The Photographs of Charles Eisenmann (Toronto: Gage Pub., 1979).

[2c] P.T. Barnum’s recollections.
For a brief article on the sisters and their tragic careers see HERE.

For information on Charles Eisenmann’s Monsters of the Gilded Age, see HERE.

[3a] A measuring guide for men’s suits from the John Wanamaker Company, 1877.
This flyer from the new John C. Wanamaker Company (1876-1995) of Market Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, provides simple instructions about “How To Measure Any One.” A penciled notation dates it to January 13, 1877, less than a year after Wanamaker converted the old Pennsylvania Railroad terminal into a showpiece department store. It was found inside a copy of the February 10, 1877 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

[3b] Harper’s Weekly, February 10, 1877.
The final item was not preserved in a book or magazine, but instead served as wadding inside a book-like daguerreotype case.

[4a] Handbill advertising a ready-made clothing house in Newburyport, MA, 1847.
This unidentified quarter-plate daguerreotype of a lady attired in a black silk dress, lace collar and frilly cap with a bow at her throat came in an unusual homemade case, stuffed with padded patterned silk over the image. The case is constructed of pasteboard, meticulously covered in black velvet and hand stitched. Beneath the silvered plate, mat and glass a folded paper was used to cushion the image. This paper turned out to be a tattered advertisement for James F. Stuart’s merchant tailoring store on Market Square, Newburyport, Massachusetts. Besides ready-made coats, trousers and vests, Mr. Stuart also dealt in custom-made clothing, haberdashery and toilet articles.

[4b] Daguerreotype, Newburyport 1847.
Because even ready-made clothing was still handcrafted in the mid-nineteenth century, and everyone had to wear clothing, people of all classes knew much more about varieties of cloth than modern purchasers. Tailors and seamstresses were wretchedly ill-paid, so the bulk of a garment’s cost came from the materials used. There were no synthetics. A majority of households made at least some clothing at home, either from homespun or “store-bought” cloth. If one could not afford a tissue-paper pattern, an old suit or dress could be deconstructed and used as a guide. (“Sponging” in the ad referred to dampening woolens and worsteds, before cutting to measure, to prevent shrinkage. Fashions in 1847 were tight and form-fitting, so even moderate shrinkage rendered a coat or dress unwearable.) With the proliferation of various steam-powered looms and human-powered sewing machines, clothing prices fell during the 1840s and the ready-made garment industry took off. The Wanamaker measuring guide (#3 above) reflects the trade thirty years later, when department stores began to replace neighborhood tailor shops.

Besides being an interesting item in its own right, this ephemeral handbill serves to date and place the lady’s image. It is a pity that no one thought to pencil her name on the handbill. All we can say is that she had a pleasant, grandmotherly face, was well-dressed and was probably born in the late eighteenth century.

For a well-illustrated study of American clothing in the early industrial age, see Claudia B. Kidwell and Margaret C. Christman, Suiting Everyone; The Democratization of Clothing in America (Washington, D.C.: The National Museum of History and Technology, 1974).

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