Monday, January 28, 2013

Don't Give Up the Ship

Historian Esquire and I like to look at historical things. One of the historical things we looked at over the summer was the USS Niagara, which was docked in Buffalo for a little while. The USS Niagara was built in 1813 and was used in naval defense on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812. Historian Esquire and I are probably the only ones who happen to have been reading up on early American history lately, so here are a few things to remember. First, the war of independence was not so much about freedom as about Indian land, and the money that came from the sale of Indian land, and whether that money would stay in the colonies or go back to England. The loyalty of the Indians, and who would get the opportunity to buy/steal their lands, continued to be an issue between the two nations. Second, even after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, ending the Revolutionary War, not everyone thought the war was really over. The British retreated not all the way to England, but only to Canada. For the next three decades, it was not obvious to either nation that the other one wouldn’t attack at any time. Third, when the colonists won the war, it was not clear that their little republic was going to last very long. The authority of the new American government was not accepted by everyone, and the founding fathers were still arguing about whether it was the federal government or the states that should have more power. Basically, even though the war was officially over, everything was in flux.

By 1812, there were further problems. The U.S. thought Britian was trying to monopolize trade with Europe. They were also annoyed that British naval captains kept impressing American sailors. On the American frontier (that includes western New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio), it was an issue of Indians. Both the British and the Americans were afraid of having to go to war with the Indians, and they each wanted them on their side. But, they also wanted their extremely valuable land. As the state of New York systematically dispossessed the Indians of all but a few patches of land, the British saw an opportunity to win the Indians over, by giving them all kinds of help -- and arming them against the Americans.

So, finally, in 1812, the former colonies and their former rulers went to war once again. The U.S.S. Niagara was in that war, patrolling Lake Erie. This ship is a replica, with just a couple of symbolic timbers from the original. But it was still just about the coolest thing ever.


It is 198 feet long, if you count the spar. The deck measures 116 feet from end to end.


The main mast is 118 feet tall -- longer than the length of the deck.


There are two 12-pounder long guns, and eighteen 32-pounder carronades. I don’t know what these are, but I assume if I saw one I’d call it a cannon.


There is . . . a lot of rope.


The crew numbered 155. Belowdecks, there wasn’t enough room to stand up. They slept in hammocks. It did not seem pleasant down there, and everyone around me was cheerful and showered. I can only imagine what it would be like with 154 other smelly, overworked men around.


I forgot all the other facts.


The original ship was purposely sunk in Lake Erie a few years after the war, to preserve it. About a hundred years later, it was raised and patched up. Since then it's been so extensively restored that it's not really the same ship. But it's still remarkable -- both that they were able to find the funding to restore it, and that the very new nation that first built it has survived (so far), in spite of how unlikely that seemed in the first few decades.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Of Wheels and Raccoons

Will this post be about LeRoy's transportation museum, or will it be about roadkill? I'm not sure yet, so I guess we'll have to take our chances.

When Ivan and I went to the Jell-O Museum in LeRoy, we were surprised to discover that there's another entire museum in the basement, which is full of old carriages and sleighs and transporty things of that nature.

Covered wagon (1840s)


The first thing you'll notice is that this wagon is not covered. You can't have everything. It's the non-covered part of a covered wagon, which is cool enough. Having written and thought about covered wagons a lot lately, I was kind of horrified by how small it is. Imagine putting your entire family's necessary belongings in this wagon. I think I have more toiletries than would fit comfortably in here. What also impressed me is how thick the wood is, and how sturdy the wheels are. This is one tough wagon. Which probably would still have needed constant repairs. And really tough horses.

Example 2: Market wagon


The market wagon is to the covered wagon as a tarantula is to a daddy long-legs. The covered wagon could eat the market wagon for breakfast. On the other hand, the market wagon seems to have shock absorbers, which would make riding in it much more pleasant. And since you'd probably only go short distances, I'd much rather be in this wagon than the covered wagon. Sucks to your asthmar, pioneers! Your wagon is terrible.

Example 3: Penny farthing


If you really want to travel in style, and have impeccable balance, this set of wheels is for you! However, if you fall off, you may break something, or crush someone else due to the great height from which you will fall, so this is a use-at-your-own risk-and-employ-a-lawyer mode of transport.

The basement museum is a bit cramped, and it was hard to get good pictures of the rest of the things - a number of carriages and sleighs that smelled a bit musty and creeped me out a bit. Especially the ice skates lying on the seat of one. As I believe I've said before, I do not approve of two hundred-year-old shoes. History and anthropology and archaeology be damned: shoes of dead people should be destroyed immediately! I believe this so fervently that I think I might start a Cult of the Destruction of Shoes, which will entail shoe destruction and also a money-laundering scheme, which I think is typically how modern cults operate.

Anyway, by the creepy sleighs full of creepy shoes there was a sign. And on the sign there was a poem. A poem that I thought either Ivan or I had taken a picture of, but it turns out we didn't, even though we stood in front of it for ten minutes mocking it. So I will summarize the poem: it was a moral tale about a very shallow young lady who was asked to go on a sleigh ride by a gentleman caller. She said yes, because no one in their right mind turns down a sleigh ride, but she wanted to look beautiful so she refused to put on her hat and mittens, or muff and cape, or whatever. People told her she should really be properly dressed, and she waved away their warnings. At one point during the sleigh ride even her beau turned to her and said, "Don't you want to put on a hat or something?" And she said, "No no, I am fine." But of course she wasn't fine. She was slowly freezing to death. Because apparently this was a less of a sleigh ride and more of an iditarod. By the time she admitted she was "a little cold" it was already over for her. That's right, SHE DIED. It was a moral poem about the pressing issue of delicate ladies not wearing proper outerwear. Let this be a lesson to you! Do not go on sleigh rides!

In addition to this wonderful glimpse into how weird the Victorians were, the basement also boasts a small collection of what I'm guessing is early-twentieth-century medicine. These are my favorites.

Allen's Foot=Ease


In attractive yellow packaging. I'm not being sarcastic. I would buy this. It has the must-have signature on it! (Now I'm being sarcastic.)

Mother Grey's Sweet Tablets for [Everything]


I assume this is chocolate?

Raccoon Corn Plasters


The raccoon gets the corn! I can't express how much I love this approach to marketing. More advertisements these days should focus on how pests can relieve your bodily ailments through the use of puns. They say laughter is the best medicine. This made me laugh quite a lot.

Hopefully this will convince each and every one of you that the $3 entrance fee to the Jell-O Museum Complex is absolutely worth it. If not, don't worry, because at this point we were only 3/5 done! For another small fee (or donation, I can't remember), you can also go into the LeRoy Historical Society and look at cool stuff in there.


I wasn't allowed to take pictures, but I remember liking a lot of the art. And there was an astonishing amount of crockery. For such a small sum, the LeRoy Experience, as I'm now calling it, was an amazing deal. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Of Jell-O and Giraffes

When Ivan came home to visit last summer, we decided to have an adventure. This adventure started, as they usually do, with a small smackerel of something.

This case of delights is in the Pittsford Dairy, where they also keep many other delights such as fresh milk in glass bottles, tubs of wholesome-looking butter, ice cream, and loaves of apple strudel bigger than your head (which is the appropriate size for apple strudel).

After the Pittsford Dairy, we went on our way to the Jell-O Museum, which is about an hour away in LeRoy. We didn't know what to expect. What is there to discuss about Jell-O, really? It's Jell-O. So we were unprepared for the bizarre and delightful experience that we ended up having.

We made guesses beforehand on the ratio of old gentlemen to old ladies behind the counter, and we were both wrong: it was one elderly woman and her granddaughter. The elderly woman took us to the entrance of the museum, sat us down on a bench, and gave us an incredibly charming oral history of Jell-O and the museum. You could tell that she had given this history many, many times, simply because it was so polished, but she still enjoyed making the jokes and still laughed at them. Ivan and I were thoroughly won over. The entire museum was like that: it looked like very dedicated people who really cherished Jell-O had gotten together, raised a bit of money, and put together a pretty decent museum with whatever artifacts they could get their hands on, and construction paper.

It turned out they could get their hands on quite a lot, most of which was advertising. That sounds boring, but   it was a fascinating lesson in graphic design during the last hundred or so years. Because they used painting in advertisements, there were a lot of really lovely still lifes . . . of Jell-O. Jell-O is such an odd substance, I found it impressive that it was so nicely rendered. I would put this on my wall, no joke.

What's hilarious about these paintings is how they make it look like Jell-O was the center of American culture. Of course all advertising wants to depict its product that way, but for some reason the fact that it's Jell-O is particularly absurd to me. For example: behold this Eskimo bringing his hard-won Jell-O back to his igloo.

Then again, maybe Jell-O actually was at the center of American culture, because the Jell-O company thought it was a good idea to make these little figurines based on the ads that are pictured in the background.

I wish there had been a figurine for this ad, but I don't think they had it.

One of the best parts was a notebook where people could write down their stories about Jell-O. Ivan and I really liked this one:

"The year was 1982 and I had to come up with a model of a plant cell. Overnight, my sister and I made the model out of Lime Jell-O & mints & pieces of licorice. I told the class it was edible & my science teacher gave me a spoon and & told me to eat."

There was also this brief tale about Jell-O salesmen:

"As I recall, I was with the Jell-O company in 1915, and was on the last wagon that they had in operation. . . . The salesman was an ex circus man. He was delightfully tough and remarkable for his ability to wear a derby hat on the side of his head, even while eating, and for his knack of chewing tobacco and smoking a cigar at the same time. . . . We covered Ohio south of Columbus, hitting towns of 2500 and under. Most of them were under. We started in Xenia on Thanksgiving and worked through the winter, which was probably the ghastliest, coldest job that ever existed outside the trenches. . . . While driving through the country, we were supposed to tack up big canvas signs. This was a sporting proposition, as farmers were never much in favor of the idea. We were shot at several times by outraged natives but only once with any effectiveness. The bird shot was removed from the salesman at the next town, and the operation was charged up as a veterinary fee. (Repairs on horses were a legitimate expense--but not repairs on salesmen.) [Excerpts from "On the Wagon," by Sid Ward, General Foods Magazine, 1931.]

In addition to these strange and wonderful stories, they also had strange and wonderful old Jell-O flavors that have been discontinued. Did I say wonderful? I meant horrifying and revolting.

Arguably, the best part of the museum is when you turn a corner and suddenly you see this:

This is a giraffe. Why? WHY NOT.

It so happens that this giraffe was part of a visiting circus near LeRoy when it suddenly expired, and since Jell-O had had an ad campaign involving giraffes, the obvious solution as to what to do with the giraffe carcass was to stuff it and give it to the Jell-O museum. Possibly it was dissected first by the local doctor -- I might be mixing this up with a novel I read once, but it might also have happened for real with this giraffe. I am uncertain and in cases when facts are uncertain I report them anyway just in case they're true. This is known as responsible journalism.

With this, our visit to the museum came to the end.

BUT DID IT REALLY? NO IT DID NOT. It turns out that in the basement of the Jell-O museum is a small museum of transportation, and a collection of old medicaments that made me grateful that I was born no earlier than I was, for raccoons seem to be too much involved for my personal taste. Part two of our trip to what I am now referring to as the LeRoy Museum Complex will be covered in the next post. I will also quote at length from a moral poem about vanity and outdoor safety, so you won't want to miss THAT.

Monday, January 07, 2013

In the Conservation Lab

Some time in August, my co-worker in the library's conservation lab told me she was going to wash a book and asked if I was interested in watching. My jaw promptly fell off, indicating that yes, I was interested in that. I waited and waited and waited, and finally the day came: the day of the washing of the book. I cannot express how excited I was.

Book washing is both complicated and simple. Basically, you unbind a book, put the pages in a solution, let them sit, air-dry them, press-dry them, and re-bind them. But obviously there's more to it than that. My conservator friend said a lot of things about chemistry that went over my head, for example. The solution she used in this case was, I think, just ethyl alcohol, but sometimes it's more complicated than that. It has to do with what's in the paper and what's on the paper. Some inks do not agree with some chemicals, and terrible things can happen.

Nothing terrible happened to this book. It had very sturdy pages because its paper was made of rags. I learned a lot about paper-making, including the delightful fact that paper-making used to seriously injure and sometimes kill people. Paper used to be made by putting a kind of mesh screen in a vat of rag pulp and lifting it directly up so that the screen remained horizontal. As you can imagine, this would strain even very powerful shoulders after a while, and I was told that sometimes people would just pop. They'd give out. Their arms would just be destroyed. Sometimes the pressure it put on their muscles would kill them. Paper-making was serious business.

Rather remarkably, rag paper withstands water extremely well, and ink usually does, too. I was surprised how rough our conservator could be with them without harming them at all. Which is not to say that she wasn't extremely careful -- but she wasn't moving at a snail's pace and biting her lips like I would have been. The paper was practically as sturdy as cloth, although it would tear quite easily if you went with the grain.

Check out those ligatures! omg!

But the paper does bond with itself and is difficult to separate if it touches in the water, so it's necessary to put a piece of this special kind of paper in between:

I wish I could be more specific than "special kind of paper," but it's very difficult to take photos and notes at the same time! This is what makes the ink in the above two images look gauzy and dreamlike - it's very thin and transparent when wet, but is enough to prevent the pages from bonding.

The book pages sit in these shallow vats for a while, making the water a yucky shade of yellow.

This book wasn't all that disgusting, but since the alcohol can be reused, you can see how dirty other pages have been.

When the pages have soaked long enough, they are laid flat on these absorbent sheets (which are also reused) and set in a drying rack. After this, they are dried in a press, but that's a delicate process. If you put too much pressure on the paper, you can lose things like the indent into the paper where you can see the edge of the printer's block. Which is the kind of thing that's terrifying and one reason I don't allow myself to be around precious objects. O the responsibility!

Once the pages are dry, they can either go back in their original binding (if it's in good condition or unique or important in some way) or into a new binding (if the old binding is not original, full of damaging acid, or too decrepit to save). I've seen some pretty incredible bindings in the conservation lab, including one our conservator did of a sixteenth-century book (if I'm recalling correctly) -- re-bound in snow-white pigskin.

It's pretty cool that we have a conservation lab in our library, and even cooler that our conservationist is so happy to talk about her work with fascinating underlings. She even puts up with me gasping and clutching my chest every time I learn a new and interesting fact, which is every two seconds. Next time I'll take better notes so that you can become as ridiculous as I am.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

"Superb stalactites of a blue green color"

Detail from Rockwell Kent's Seascape (1933-35)

(I've set up weekly Monday posts through March, but I may post intermittently between them as things come up. This one is too wintry to post after March, when we're no longer getting serious snow. At least, I hope we won't be.)

I recently finished reading Andrea Wulf's Transit of Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens, which was wonderful and fascinating. In 1761 and 1769, astronomers dispersed all over the world to see Venus cross the sun. They wanted to record how long it took in as many locations as possible so that they could use the differences between their observations to calculate the distance between the earth and the sun - something no one had been able to do before. Many astronomers traveled unimaginable distances and suffered pretty terribly in the name of science. Five of them even died. Jean-Baptiste Chappe d'Auteroche went all the way from Paris to California (which of course involved going all the way around Cape Horn), and set up his observatory where he landed even though there was an outbreak of typhus. There was no time for him to sail further on, and he refused to give up his mission, which he'd started nine months earlier. He was able to make his observation, but couldn't avoid getting the disease and died two months later. Only one person who came on the ship with him survived and managed to get his results back to other scientists. I may have gotten misty-eyed reading that part.

But the part I particularly wanted to share was this description of Anders Planman's trip to Kajana in eastern Finland to observe the transit of Venus in 1761, because of the rather incredible images of the frozen waves and the bursting trees:

"To reach Finland, he had to cross the frozen Gulf of Bothnia by sledge, but the severe winter had laid an unusually thick blanket of snow over Scandinavia. The whipping waves had congealed into a frosted picture, as if someone had snapped a finger to stop the world. In place of a smooth surface the Gulf of Bothnia was a treacherous icescape of 'superb stalactites of a blue green color'. Though stunningly beautiful, it made for dangerous travelling. Sledges had to follow hardened lines of the waves, regularly overturning when one side would suddenly be 'raised perpendicularly in the air'. Wrapped up in thick pelts, the passengers were often catapulted out of their sledges like furry cannonballs and the horses then galloped off, scared, as another traveller described, 'at the sight of what they supposed to be a bear or wolf rolling on the ice.'

"By the time Planman arrived in Abo on the Finnish side of the Gulf of Bothnia, he was so ill that he was forced to rest for three weeks until he recovered his strength. To make up for lost time, he then travelled day and night through lonely forests towards Kajana. There was a "dreary silence," other travellers remarked, the only noise the erratic choir of bursting bark which exploded with a bang when a tree's sap froze and expanded."

If this doesn't make you feel warmer in your house, no matter how leaky your windows are, read it again!