Thursday, December 24, 2009


As long as I'm re-publishing old blog posts about Christmas, here's one more. I actually forgot about this one until I read the latest post from Sarah Faragher's blog, a beautifully written collection of observations on books, painting, and living the good life in Maine. She ends this particular piece with the Christmas wish, Joyeaux Noel, for her readers. That triggered my memory of an earlier post I wrote about an interesting French Christmas tradition I discovered in a book titled, Little Saints of Christmas: The Santons of Provence.

Here is Joyeaux Noel en Provence from Christmas Day, 2006:

Here’s one for Christmas: Little Saints of Christmas: The Santons of Provence, by Daniel J. Foley; Dresser, Chapman & Grimes; Boston, 1959. This book tells the story behind the handcrafted terracotta figurines that have decorated the countryside in Provence, France for centuries at Christmas time. In addition to the traditional manger scene figures, the folk of Provence have included figurines representing themselves--peasant in the field, tradesmen, and artisans--all bearing gifts and paying homage to the Saviour. These figurines have become quite collectible, the author being a collector himself. As has been the tradition for generations, families prepare the crèche, or manger, at Christmas. The santons, which are often handed down from generation to generation, are placed in the crèche. Below are some photos from the book that show the artistry and tradition behind these special figurines.

Merry Christmas!

Time again for the Cowboy Christmas Ball

In last week's edition of the hometown newspaper, I found a syndicated piece by John Cornyn, the Republican senator from Texas, Christmas on the Frontier, published earlier this month in Cornyn's Texas Times Weekly Column.

His article deals with an historical event called the Cowboy Christmas Ball, which I wrote about here in 2007. It originated in the 1880s as a real cowboy dance held at Christmas in Anson, Texas, and was celebrated in poetic form by rancher/journalist Larry Chittenden.

As I had been thinking about posting it again for the holidays, I think I'll take a cue from Cornyn's fine column on the Texas tradition and re-publish my post below before the big day passes us by.

From December 12, 2007...

This time of year found me revisiting a favorite old antiquarian volume on the shelf: Ranch Verses, by "Larry" Chittenden, "Poet-Ranchman;" 1893, G.P. Putnam's Sons, NY. My volume is a Fourth Edition from 1897, Revised and Enlarged. It's also illustrated with drawings and photographs. Perhaps the First Edition was as well--I'm not sure about that. I'm sure I read through it when I bought it circa mid-1980s, but it would be another ten years before I would discover the seasonal gem in its collection: The Cowboy Christmas Ball.

Michael Martin Murphey popularized this poem in song on his concept album, Cowboy Christmas: Cowboy Songs II, released in May of 1991. He was not the first to put the poem to music; that had been done in Chittenden's day and collected by John Lomax in 1922 in Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. Murphey may have been the first singer to record the song.

Chittenden's poem commemorates the first Cowboy Christmas Ball, held in Anson, Texas in 1885. Chittenden, a reporter for the New York Times, was staying at the hotel while visiting his uncle who owned a ranch nearby. The dance that evening for all the area cowboys inspired his lighthearted verse an it eventually found its way to publication in 1890 in the local paper. Chittenden later inherited his uncle's ranch, moved to Texas, and in 1893 published his first book, Ranch Verse, which included The Cowboy Christmas Ball.

Incidentally, the soiree that Chittenden witnessed that night was not the first dance of that kind in Anson. The ball had been organized each Christmas for several years before that. And it continued somewhat irregularly afterward, with little regard for Chittenden's poem until Leona Barrett, an Anson teacher and folklorist, revived it under the title of The Cowboy Christmas Ball. She sought to preserve the old dance customs in such a way that her group was invited to the National Folk Fetivals, including the 1938 event held in Washington, D.C. There, her Anson, Texas Cowboy Christmas Ball dancers danced on the White House lawn.

By the 1940s, the interest and attendance had increased to the point that the event was copyrighted and a Board of Directors was created. There was even a new venue, Pioneer Hall, built as a permanent home for the three-day event. 1946 appears to have been the first year that Chittenden's ballad was put to music and sang at the ball. What John Lomax collected several decades earlier may or may not have resembled the 1946 composition by Gordon Graham, a cowboy folklorist from Colorado. Graham's rendition started a tradition of having a soloist sing the ballad before the ball. The music from that early 1885 ball consisted of a bass viol, a tambourine, and two fiddles. As the music and vocals evolved over the years, they were always held to a certain standard, which itself has been clarified over the years.

Currently, Michael Martin Murphey carries the torch for this American "old west" classic event that started with a bunch of cowboys in search of a good time, a New York reporter's creative writing, and an emerging interest in a fading way of life to preserve the old ways in song and dance. You can see Murphey's rendition via music video for however long it lasts on Which reminds me...

Having listened to the Murphy recording hundreds of times before picking the book Ranch Verses back up one day and learning that the song was in the book as a poem, and then learning the history, I had thought the characters in the song were fictitiously penned by Murphey or another songwriter. Characters like Windy Bill and Z Bar Dick and Cross P Charley seemed like old cowboy folk characters. But here in Chittenden's book is a photograph of one of the dancers in the song: the leader from Swensen's Ranch, Windy Bill from little Deadman's Branch. This is an old west character if ever there was one.

Merry Christmas from the ghosts of Windy Bill, Z Bar Dick, Cross P Charley, old Chittenden himself and the other cowpokes and their ladies!

Santa Claus in America

From the book 1776-1976: Zweihundert Jahre deutsch-amerikanische Beziehungen (Two Hundred Years of German-American Relations), a documentary with 468 illustrations and plates, edited by Thomas Piltz, there is a brief description of the German influence on American Christmas customs, accompanied by the Santa Claus image popularized by Thomas Nast.

In the book's penultimate chapter, Santa Claus Meets Buffalo Bill: Folklore and Humor, Piltz writes of the German immigrants:
Many national customs of the immigrants always remained a mystery to their neighbors, but there was one which quickly found acceptance all over--the Christmas tree with its festive decorations.
Decorated though a Christmas tree may be, it is incomplete without the gifts Santa Claus leaves underneath it on Christmas Eve. Of St. Nick, Piltz writes further:
Father Christmas also became very popular, but had to undergo quite a transformation before emerging from the pen of German-born caricaturist Thomas Nast as Santa Claus, of the round belly and rosy cheeks.
By the way, it was Nast who also created the figure of Uncle Sam as well as the symbols of the two big political parties--the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant.

A full-page illustration of Nast's Santa Claus (pictured above) accompanies the chapter. The illustration's caption refers to Santa Claus as a joint creation of Nast and the poet "Clark Moore" (should be Clement Clarke Moore), who first mentioned the figure in his famous poem "The Night Before Christmas." Or was he the first?

On this Christmas Eve, 2009, acknowledging the customs we enjoy in America, I'd like to paraphrase Moore (or whomever authored the classic Christmas poem) and repeat the famous last line of the poem:
Frohe Weihnachten to all and to all a good night!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Bergismeinnicht impression

Bergismeinnicht. That’s the title of this little German book published by Joseph Wesener in Paderborn in 1820, nearly 190 years ago. It took a small amount of detective work with Fraktur letters to decipher the title from the sounds associated with some of the symbols, with which I was unfamiliar.

This title also seems to be a variant of Veriss Mein Nicht, but both seem to translate into Forget Me Not.

Among Johann Sebastian Bach's vocal works is a chorale melody attributed to Bach under the title, Vergiß mein nicht. But this book appears to be a collection of quotations or thoughts from great minds such as Geothe and Schiller. There’s a lot from those two in particular.

However, the forget me not for me is the impression or embossed seal on the title page. The impression is deep enough to be visible on several subsequent pages.

I'm making an educated guess here that the seal, if that's even the proper term, is an ownership mark. It has crossed my mind that it could also be a publisher's mark, but its application to the page makes it unlikely. It's slightly askew and steps on some of the printing. In either case, could I have found a more appropriately titled book for such an item?

It’s a beautiful, detailed image quite different from the embossed ownership seals found in many books from the 20th century. Those are usually nondescript in design with a circle containing the name of the owner and sometimes the words library or ex libris.

Not so for this little masterpiece. Several things distinguish it from other ownership seals I'm used to seeing. First, it’s octagonal. Second, there is no indication of a name or ownership--quite odd, I would think, for an ownership seal. Third, the design is so detailed—it’s actually an image or three images, to be exact, of a man with a hat engaged in some activity. I could almost swear the man is holding a fishing rod in one or all of the images. There's also a vase of flowers.

The incorporation of these images into an ownership seal is something I've not seen before, or at least I don't remember. I don't deal with books of this vintage too often.

I'd like to see other examples of similar seals from this or other eras, but I'm not having any luck finding them through Internet searches. Maybe I'm not using the correct terminology or key words. I've also tried cameo with no luck.

These days, anything is collectible it seems and there are all sorts of collectible items pertaining to books. I know because I collect them and write about them on the Bibliophemera blog. There are bookplates, bookseller labels, bookmarks, billheads, etc, but I can't find anywhere a documented collection of antiquarian ownership seals, stamps, embossings... whatever.

Like the identifying marks on antique silver or pottery, I had hoped to find a collection of famous ownership seals against which I could compare this curiosity.

Forget me not? I'm trying not to, but so far this bergismeinnicht is proving rather forgettable.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ambiguous book covers

I found some interesting books on a recent bookscouting trip--some Western Americana, biography, poetry. But two stand out among the others merely because of their titles: Scouts in Bondage and Other Violations of Literary Propriety and Best Foot Forward.

I bought Scouts in Bondage for fun. It's a humorous look at books with unfortunate titles that could have used a bit more thoughtful editing. Some were innocent enough in their origins many decades ago, but the times have caught up with them and twisted the words into sexual inuendo and humorous ambiguities. Others were just poorly named to begin with.

English bookseller Michael Bell collected more than forty-five of these covers and presents them in facsimile in a 2006 publication from Simon & Schuster. More on these farther down.

I took a chance on Best Foot Forward for resale, though it didn't turn out to have much resale value. What I did discover, or snap to, after getting home with it is the questionable title. I had previously failed to see any continuance from the theme set forth in Scouts in Bondage.

I got disconnected from the book's title while reading about the subject of the book. It's all about a young man who overcame adversity to serve in World War II as a decorated pilot and later became a successful businessman. All this after losing both his legs in a flying accident!

Metaphors aside, for a story about a man with no legs, is Best Foot Forward really the best title to give this book?

Returning to the Scouts in Bondage book, following are images of some of the titles that make you chuckle, raise your eyebrows, or go hmmm...

Click the image for a larger view.

The Book of Blank Maps must have been created for travelers who like a challenge, I guess...

This author's name evokes images of a snickering Beavis and Butt-head.

The book's title cover.

The Girl Guide Knot Book. Hmmm... A companion volume to the one above?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Don't judge a Dorothy Parker by her cover

If you were at a book sale and saw this book on the table amid hundreds of other books, would you look twice at it?

The old adage about not judging a book by its cover must have been reverberating through my subconscious the other day when I came across the book above, a soiled, jacketless specimen with a splitting spine.

I about passed it over, but saw the author's name, Dorothy Parker, and, being a fan of her wit and writing, I decided to give it a courtesy look. I didn't have this particular title of hers and wanted to browse its contents. I could always buy a decent copy if I liked it. The book is After Such Pleasures, second printing from Viking, 1933, a short story collection that includes her O. Henry award winner, Big Blonde.

But I was in for quite a shock when I opened the book.

Signed copies of her books are scarce, even more so for this title. For the price of a junk book, I brought it home to research the mystery surrounding the inscription.

Parker inscribed the book:
"To Helen DeWitt-- Who was so darn nice to me-- Gratefully, Dorothy Parker Presbyterian Hospital January 16- (I think)"
I wish she had added the year to the date. It could be a contemporary inscription with regard to the book's second printing in 1933. Or it could be from Parker's last years when she was frequently in and out of hospitals--the 1960s. The ink would indicate a fountain pen, which would have been more consistent with the 1930s, though.

And what of Helen DeWitt? She took good care of Parker at Presbyterian Hospital (New York, I assume), so undoubtedly she was a nurse. And did DeWitt already have the book and asked Parker to sign it, or did Parker send it to her as a thank you? And why that book?

Clues for nailing down the background on this inscription are thin, to say the least. I have a copy of her biography, You Might As Well Live, by John Keats (Simon & Schuster, 1970) and have researched it for clues. All I could find out about hospital stays is what I reported above--that she was a frequent patient in her final years in the 1960s. She lived from 1893-1967. A sardonic sense of humor and razor-sharp wit most often characterize her writing and personality, but happiness eluded her through several marriages, alcoholism, and suicide attempts. Her poem from Enough Rope (1926) is perhaps her best remembered:

Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
This poem was recited by Angelina Jolie in a scene from the film Girl Interrupted

Not wanting to get too biographical of Dorothy Parker, I'll just mention a few more books in my collection that may be of interest to anyone wanting to get acquainted with her prose and poetry. In addition to short stories and poems, she also was well known in the 1920s and 1930s for her book reviews for the New Yorker, collected in a volume titled, Constant Reader (Viking, 1970).

But if it's her verse you're interested in, try her collected poems from Viking, 1936, Not So Deep As A Well, which includes her first three volumes of poetry.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Young actors frozen in Time

Found between the leaves of some inconsequential book (translation: I forgot which one), these young actors are forever young on this accidental bookmark.

Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow (their images anyway) were supposed to travel back to Time for a new subscription for the sender. At least that's what Time Magazine hoped with this magazine insert. Instead, they went directly into a contemporary hardbound book (that much I remember) and now to the vast impermanence of cyberspace via this blog.

The Time Archives dates this piece to February 7, 1969.

Hoffman would have been coming off an astounding pair of films, The Graduate (1967) and the soon-to-be-released Midnight Cowboy (1969), with Little Big Man (1970) on the horizon. He was definitely in a zone.

Mia Farrow had scored big with Rosemary's Baby (1968) and would be paired with Hoffman later in 1969 with John and Mary.

And you could find both appearing on this 1969 Time Magazine cover in a timeless, youthful pose. Forty years ago.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Boring Books

This post is book-related, but it doesn't really fit the format of this blog. Rather, it's a YouTube video about books. Very boring books. It's so boring that it's actually funny (your humor mileage may vary). I appreciated the humor in it and so am sharing it here.

I actually watched the whole five minutes plus, but if you just can't get that far, fast forward to the last book at 5:10 on the time bar. There, the video ends appropriately, if not mercifully, with a title by none other than M. Eugene Boring!

The creative mind behind this is author/songwriter Nick Currie, who uses the pseudonym Momus and has the YouTube name, bookofjokes. His latest book is titled Book of Jokes and is reviewed by the LA Times here.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Shaker Sister's Drawings

Continuing down the botanical pathway I started on yesterday beside the Bonnie Brier Bush, here's a recent find that takes root in the Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire: A Shaker Sister's Drawings: Wild Plants Illustrated by Sister Cora Helena Sarle (Monacelli Press, NY, 1997).

This quietly elegant volume of drawings evokes the simplicity and subtle beauty of the Canterbury Shaker Village in the late nineteenth century. Thanks to two Shaker historians, June Sprigg Tooley and Scott T. Swank, who have provided the Introduction and Afterword for this book, and to David Larkin who designs illustrated documentary books, there is a printed record now to share the creative artistry of Sister Cora Helena Sarle and the Shaker village that inspired her.

Cora Helena Sarle came to live there in 1882 at the age of fifteen and eventually committed her life to the Shakers, signing the Shaker Covenant in 1888. Under the watchful and encouraging eye of Elder Henry Clay Blinn, the village patriarch, Sarle's artistic talent was discovered and nourished. It was also seen as a useful tool for creating a record of botanical life in the village and for teaching the younger people who came to live there about nature.

Sister Helena (she went by her middle name) flourished creatively and within the Shaker community. Her notebooks of drawings were accompanied by Elder Henry's written text. Their work remained in the Canterbury village until a Shaker collector was able to purchase them for a private collection sometime after Sister Helena's death in 1956.

Now, the notebooks have returned to Canterbury where the Shaker village is a National Historic Landmark site and museum, and they inspired the publication of this book, a facsimile edition of Sister Helena's illustrations. Examples of her work follow.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Found in the Bonnie Brier Bush

I found this little volume by Ian MacLaren last night: Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1895).

The tan cloth covers with green decoration and titles was the eye catcher along with the obvious age. Just the kind of book that might yield an interesting bookplate, inscription, or a long-gone bookseller's label. Or who knows what. You want to follow that winding path on the cover into the leaves...

Ian MacLaren was a pseudonym for Scottish author and theologian, John Watson (1850 to 1907). He traveled to America at least a few times, once as the Lyman Beecher lecturer at Yale University, and the last trip would be his last anywhere. He died traveling through Iowa.

As an author, Watson/MacLaren was best known for his tales of rural Scottish life, this book, Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush, being his first.

The front endpapers of this volume share a bit of the book's provenance--an ex libris and a gift inscription with names other than that on the ex libris, which reads: FROM THE PRIVATE LIBRARY OF FREMONT LEIDY.

The gift inscription was dated 1897, only a few years after the book's publication. Looks like Mae Simpson gave the book to Zola Martin that year, and that's about all that can be known of previous ownership.

However, flipping through the pages, I found a few interesting surprises. Pages 24-25 opened up to reveal what looks like a four-leaf clover and a few other unidentifiable botanical specimens. Could this lucky piece of clover have been picked beside the bonnie brier bush?? I haven't a clue what a bonnie brier bush is, but it would make for a nice symbolic gesture to have stored these plants in a book set in their habitat.

I doubt it. This edition was published in America (Dodd, Mead in NY) and the folks whose names appear on the front endpapers were likely Americans who bought the book in local area book shops. So these four leaves of green are likely from the red, white, and blue.

But how lucky to find a four-leaf clover, if that's what it is (it's four leaves of something), whether in a field, a bonnie brier patch, or in a book pressed between leaves of another kind. And not only once, but twice! Toward the end of the book, there's another four-leaf clover pressed between the pages, but this one has a detached leaf. Still present, but detached nonetheless. A broken four-leaf clover? I wonder if that is something akin to a broken mirror bringing bad luck.

At least I have one intact. I thought my wife would like the book with the good luck clover. She likes small, old, decorative books accenting the decor of various rooms in our home. Plus she's half Scotch-Irish (the other half being Italian) and we have fond memories of a visit to Edinburgh, which I discovered after the purchase was where the book's author lived and ministered for a time.

But with all those signs pointing to a purchase, it was the book's dedication that sealed the deal. The author states simply: To my wife. And so to my wife it goes. After all, twenty-seven years ago today we exchanged vows and rings and got this marriage kicked off.

So in lieu of a Hallmark card, why not say Happy Anniversary with a meaningful antiquarian book? But good luck finding one with an old four-leaf clover inside.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering the victims and heroes of 9/11

Remembering the disbelief and horror of eight years ago today, as well as the heroic efforts in the aftermath of the tragedy, I once again have opened this book of photographs to view the grim, necessary reminders of what happened that day:
Above Hallowed Ground: A Photographic Record of September 11, 2001, by photographers of the New York City Police Department
The book is edited by Christopher Sweet and published by Viking Studio/Penguin Group, 2002.

Two years ago, I visited New York City for the first time since 9/11--five years after the attacks. I drove by where the Twin Towers once stood and took a harbor tour to get this view from the water of that empty space. It was an indescribable feeling.

Contrasted with the NYPD photo, below, of the same spot on 9/11.

This NYPD photo shows the Woolworth Building coming into view after the World Trade Center Towers fell. It was the tallest building in the world from 1913 to 1931.

And my photo from the water in 2007.

National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center

Pentagon Memorial

9/11 Flight Crew Memorial

American Airlines Flight 11: A Memorial List of the Victims

American Airlines Flight 77: A Memorial List of the Victims

United Airlines Flight 175: A Memorial List of the Victims

United Airlines Flight 93: A Memorial List of the Victims

Flight 93 National Memorial, Pennsylvania

FDNY Memorial Wall

NYPD Memorial

New York - New Jersey Port Authority Police Department September 11, 2001 Memorial