Saturday, October 27, 2012


This is Mr. Camel; he lives in my living room here in Maine.

He seems to have one and one-half humps, which puts me in a difficult position: Most camels have either one or two humps, by which they’re classified as either Dromedary or Bactrian camels.

A Dromedary has a single hump. Dromedaries are more at home in the hot deserts of Arabia.

The Bactrian is the two-humped model, which makes him better suited for the cold deserts in Mongolia. In reality, though, his humps are identical – big, tall humps with a definite valley inbetween – not like Mr. Camel’s.

So: One for a Dromedary, two for a Bactrian.

Now you know.

My maternal grandfather, William W. Howell, was first and foremost a pediatrician (which gives him an excuse, I think, for not being clear on this hump business). He was a Harvard Medical School graduate (Class of 1900), and was associated with at least two hospitals – Infants in Boston, Faulkner in Jamaica Plain). He also had a private practice; his office was at 330 Dartmouth Street in Boston.

One of his off-hour hobbies was woodworking. He made lovely trays (all his grandchildren have at least one each) of varying sizes, made with wonderful woods and small brass screws. He cut, assembled and finished them in his basement; I remember the lovely smell of linseed oil and varnish that drifted up the cellar stairs into the laundry room in my grandparents’ house in Jamaica Plain.

He also made wooden toys to entertain his young patients – mostly pull-toys, cut from plain pine board. His waiting room had several of them, and kids apparently dragged these things all over his oriental carpet and through the doorway into his examining room.

There are two surviving toys: Mr. Camel is one, and my brother John has the other, Mr. Crow, a black bird with moveable wings and a beak that opens and shuts as you pull him across the floor.

Here’s a remarkable Small World Incident: When my parents moved into a house in Maine in the late 1950s, a neighbor came by to introduce herself – an informal Welcome Wagon, you might say. She saw Mr. Camel and Mr. Crow sitting together on a bookshelf in the den and flashed back forty years; she proceeded to tell my mother about her old family pediatrician in Boston who had toys just like that in his waiting room...turned out to be my grandfather, of course!

So, what do you think?

Is my one and one-half humped Mr. Camel a Dromedary or a Bactrian?

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Sepia Saturday #148

Sticking with the theme of policemen, here’s a Big Wig of 1880 or so: Samuel Gibson Adams (1825-1886), Boston, Massachusetts.

He was born in Brighton in November of 1825 to Milton and Esther Gibson Adams; his sister Roxanna was my great-great grandmother. They were two of five children, their mother died when they were very young, and they were farmed out to relatives and neighbors – a common practice at the time. While all of the other Adams children scattered, Samuel and Roxanna stayed in touch throughout their lives.

Samuel grew up in Brighton and Boston, and as an adult lived on Walnut Avenue in the city. He married twice (his first wife died) and had four children, one of whom – Samuel Gibson Adams, Jr. – died at 18 years of “inflammation of the lungs” (probably consumption).

He doesn’t look like a policeman in this photo – no brass buttons, no shield, no funny hat or billy club...but he wore a uniform when he started out as a Boston Police Department sergeant in 1861, a position that kept him out of the army – he managed to stay away from the battlegrounds of the Civil War. (He reminds me of Ulysses S. Grant in this photo, though!)

Sam was, apparently, pretty good at his job – appointed Captain of Station #7 in 1863 and, in 1878, became a Boston Police Superintendent, an office he held until 1885.

This photo was taken when he was a Suit, not a Uniform!
He was also good at keeping in touch with his sister. I have lots of old Christmas cards, Valentines, notes, etc., that he wrote to her over the years. I’ll post some of them later on. She notes in her diaries whenever “Sam” comes to call, usually with a basket of fruit (her favorite? Oranges), a bag of hard candy (which she loved) or some flowers. Sam and his family came to the family house in Newton Upper Falls for dinner often, and it was clearly a relationship that both he and Roxanna valued highly.

Samuel Gibson Adams died May 16, 1886.


Sunday, October 14, 2012


In 1883, a group of New England civil engineers went to Oregon to survey for the railroad. One of them, David Loring, came from Massachusetts, and when the town was incorporated in 1885, he named it after his home town back east – Medford.

Medford offered a perfect climate for fruit trees – grapes, peaches, pears in particular. And, because it was on the railroad line, there was plenty of opportunity to ship the fruit back east. Eventually, due to the incredible local production, Medford was known as the Pear Capital of the World.

Before the 1800s, wooden packing crates and barrels were stenciled for identification: product, producer, or, more often, product only. Pretty simple, really – PEARS.

But when railroads opened up the markets to many different producers, farmers understood that in order to survive in this new market, they needed a way to make their product more attractive to consumers – to make their crate of pears more appealing to customers than any other brand. They had to capture the attention of wholesale dealers who might buy crates of their produce for shipping and distribution.

So they each designed an individual packing label – a bright, colorful paper label with catchy graphics to glue onto the end of the shipping crate – a 10x7-inch marketing tool for promotion, distribution and identification. There were hundreds of orchards, and each one generated its own label. Some brand names you might recognize: Anaco (still around today), American Maid, Diamond, Duckwall (guess what’s on their label?) Federated, Peacock (again, guess...).

And one of them was Medford’s Highcroft Orchards...Piggy Pears.

In the 1950s, the technology caught up with the times: cardboard was being mass-produced; information was printed right on the cardboard instead of having a label stuck on a wooden crate. Cardboard was cheaper, weighed less, and was far more convenient; wooden crates (and their wonderful labels) disappeared.

But I’ve got my Piggy Pear crate – with label – in my house in Maine. Don’t you love her little cloven hooves, her basket, her Mr. Spock ears?

Sunday, October 7, 2012


It’s a face only a mother could love!

Pyrrharctia isabella in the adult stage is a Tiger Moth, but in this stage of the game we call him the Banded Woolly Bear.
I spotted him on one of the slate steps in my walkway, taking a nap, maybe, or just warming up on a cool fall morning.
I had to lie down to photograph him, stretch myself out on the back lawn and push the camera through the grass. He was harder to photograph than I thought: at the slightest provocation, this little guy curled into a ball (more like a tight comma). I had to wait, motionless, while he figured out things were safe enough to unroll, and when he did, he moved lickety-split across the flagstone!
I’d miss the shot, of course; I had to pick him up (he’d curl up instantly), set him gently back on the slate, wait for him to uncurl again.
It took five tries!

The Woolly Bear emerges in the fall. One of its favorite foods is the aster, so I always plant extras, and it also likes sunflowers, grass and clover. It spends the winter under leaves or other plant material; I mulch my lily gardens with lots of straw and compost, so my Woolly Bear population is always high.  
WBs survive the Maine winters by literally freezing solid – no heartbeat, no blood circulation...nothing!
In the spring, after they thaw out, they’re back again, but only for a short while. They spend a week or so feeding, then spin themselves inside a cocoon; the adult moth appears in about thirty days.

Old New England tradition has it that the Woolly Bear is a weather forecaster – the wider the orange-brown segment band in the middle, the milder the winter will be. (I’ve heard that some scientist actually collected data for ten years or so trying to prove this, but I’ve never found his results!)
If there are really thirteen segments to a Woolly Bear, and this fellow has four distinct brown segments (with a little spillover on either end), I’d guess that we’re looking at an average winter this year in Maine – lots of snow and moderately cold. I’m close to the ocean, though, and temperatures here are usually a few degrees warmer than inland.

What are weather predictors in your part of the world?