Sunday, August 26, 2012


On my desk (which is really an inexpensive interior door stretched across two sets of double filing cabinets) I’ve got an old Dedham Pottery mug full of colored pencils.  I use them to fill in my appointment calendar, and each week turns into a wild splash of colors marking lunch and dinner dates, appointments, swimming schedules, and reminders of birthdays and anniversaries.

Pencils have been around since the 1400s, although the initial technology was a little rough – pencils were simply slender pieces of graphite bound with carefully wound string, which gave minimal support to the weak core. In the late 1500s, people figured out how to glue strips of wood around a piece of soft lead (much more support than the old string method!) and that led to the process of producing two distinct wooden grooved halves, inserting the lead, then gluing the two pieces together.

In 1858, a genius named Hyman Lipman patented the idea of sticking an eraser on the end.

Colored pencils appeared in the early 20th century, and they’re made the same way, except that their cores consist of dye and pigment mixed with a binder; bases can be of wax, clay (very dry), oil (smudges easily) or water.

There are plenty of company brands: Crayola, Derwent, Faber-Castell, Felissimo (500 colors!), Pantone, Prismacolor, and Steadler to name a few, and the imaginative color lists from those companies include Raspberry, Bubblegum, Dollar Bill, Electric Green, Guppie Green (I thought guppies were a murky brown), UFO Green, Canary Yellow, Pale Lemondrop, Artichoke, Espresso, Snow White, Steeple Gray, Copenhagen Blue.

A company called Lakeshore makes a set of jumbo colored pencils for kids called “People Colors” (for diversity, because not all people have the same skin color), and it includes: Olive, Chestnut, Ebony, Gingerbread, Peach, Cinnamon, Wheat, Melon, Toast, Fawn.

So...I’m a Fawn (toss in a few Toast freckles and some Cinnamon age spots) with a mix of Pale Lemondrop & Steeple Gray hair and Copenhagen Blue eyes.



Sunday, August 19, 2012


I always thought Queen Anne's lace was named for the British Queen Anne; it turns out, though, that it was named for her great-grandmother, Anne of Denmark, consort of King James of England, born 1574. Anne was an accomplished lace maker, and her name became associated with the flower, which looks a lot like fine lace. She pricked her finger with her tatting needle one day; the little dot of dark red (visible in the photograph) that appears in every blossom is said to be a drop of her blood.

Queen Anne's Lace, Darcus carota, grows in meadows and pastures throughout North America. Native Americans boiled it for tea and also used it as a contraceptive (the details of that are a bit shaky to me, but it had something to do with the seeds).

Another common flower that oftentimes grows as a companion to Queen Anne is Solidago, known to most as goldenrod. There are more than eighteen species of it, and all have bright golden flowers on leaved stalks -- some smooth-edged, some serrated. Its medicinal applications include tonics for kidney troubles, colds, and other infections.

I come from a long line of wildflower pickers: My great-grandmother, grandmother and mother all picked huge amounts of Queen Anne's Lace and goldenrod. I remember bowls and vases full of the stuff -- lovely mixtures of bright yellow and soft white in their living rooms, on their dining room tables, on their grand pianos.

And now it's my turn. There's this vase, full of lace and rod, on my dining room floor right now; I'll refill it every four days or so until blooming season ends for both of them.

It reminds me of where I come from, who I am.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


They were called "Larkin Secretaries," and they covered the neighborhoods and communities around the turn of the twentieth century selling Larkin Soap Company (Buffalo, NY) products door-to-door; housewives, mostly, earning premium certificates for every item they sold. They redeemed those premiums for home furnishings -- tables, chairs, sideboards, rugs, curtains -- even a grand piano, although I can't imagine how many bars of "Sweet Home" soap they had to sell to earn enough certificates to buy a piano!

One Maine woman who bought Larkin products was Ella Thompson, who lived in East Pittston from the 1870s to the early 1900s. I lived in her farmhouse 100 years after she did, and spent many hours picking over the house dumps. I know she bought perfume and china from the Larkin catalog -- I found her discarded bottles and broken plates and cups behind the stone wall up beyond the barn.

Ella also bught lots of Larkin Cold Cream: I have seven intact jars (four with lids), and found enough broken ones to indicate she used three or four jars a year, at least. They're made of milk glass (a beautiful floral pattern is visible in the photograph here), with single-screw aluminum lids that still fit snugly.

Every time I pick one up, every time I hold one in the palm of my hand, I am aware of Ella Thompson; I am touching what she has touched, and the two of us are connected, somehow, over all those years.

I have a name for that connection -- I call it history.

Sunday, August 5, 2012


Print it as it stands -- beautifully.

                                                     Henry James

Long before offset printing, the standard was letterpress -- a system of reproduction in which typeset copy (consisting of lines of reversed letters locked into a frame called a chase) was inked, then "pressed" onto paper, creating a left--to-right reading image.

You've seen this process in historical movies: the hardworking printer in Boston, for instance, churning out editions of the local broadsheet around the time of the American Revolution (think Benjamin Franklin, printer, before he got into bathtubs, kites and fireplaces).

One of the most famous type designers was a man named Giambattista Bodoni, who was born in Italy in 1740. His father was a printer, so he grew up in the trade; he apprenticed at the Vatican, and later became a well-known typecutter and engraver.

In 1798, he designed a new typeface, a font that blended the thicker lines of older typefaces with the finer, thinner ones of newer designs.

Bodoni gains its gracefulness from a balance between those thick and thin strokes of the letters. If designed well, books typeset in Bodoni can show that same graceful loveliness on an entire page, especially when the letters have some space between them, which keeps the lines smooth and easy to read.

You can see Bodoni in larger sizes, too, usually on movie posters and other advertising art. It's distinctive and powerful, especially in the bolder faces, as in the photo above.

Bodoni -- over two hundred years old, still being used.

Sometimes older is better.