Paris in Color (c. 1909-30)

These vintage views of Paris are breathtaking.

They also are a particularly lovely and haunting reminder of how our imagined view of the past can be limited in ways we don’t even think about. It’s been mentioned before with regard to vintage color photography — and I really think it’s true —  that the dominance of black-and-white historic images has us unconsciously assuming that the world of our ancestors was sort of gray and grimy. When we’re lucky enough to find well-preserved color images from the turn of the century, it truly feels like a peering through a window into a lost universe.


After the storm: Fighting for a slice of local history

Life is not a disaster movie. This is generally a good thing. But one important way in which real life falls short is its lack of a boffo end scene. Real life is full of messy loose ends and aftermaths that won’t quit.

The rest of the country may have moved on from Hurricane Sandy, but Sandy hasn’t moved on from the Northeast, as evidenced by this item by Mark Di Ionno of the Star-Ledger on the Keyport (NJ) Steamboat Dock Museum. The museum collection was a unique take on the area’s history as a steamboat hub, moving Jersey produce and timber to consumers in New York City. Read how the museum volunteers performed a sad triage as the storm approached, “putting red dots on the things we knew we had to move,” as a longtime coordinator said. 

Volunteers managed to save a lot — maps and deeds and photographs; examples of glass that reflected the local bottlemaking industry. But they just couldn’t move everything in time, and Sandy’s raging storm surge gutted what was left. “Heartbeaking,” says one of the museum’s founders.

Slowly, volunteers are salvaging what they can, and thinking about a new home for the Steamboat Dock Museum. Here’s wishing them well as they do what local history buffs around the country do best — reclaiming a unique heritage for future generations.

Straphanger history, GIF-style

Readers of this blog might have noticed that I have a lot of ancestral ties to Brooklyn. With this comes a long and honorable heritage of subway ridership.

And my oh, my, subway geeks will LOVE this animated map depicting the evolution of the New York City subway system.

It’s a terrific reminder of how something so synonymous with NYC was not always a part of city life.

(via Atrios)

Sisterly Advice, Syndicated

Pauline ‘Popo’ Phillips has died at the age of 94.

If that headline doesn’t ring immediate bells, it’s because she is somewhat better known as “Dear Abby.”

Although her column continues to be written by her daughter Jeanne, Phillips’ passing severs a link to a golden era in syndicated advice-giving. Phillips and her twin sister Eppie Lederer, better known as Ann Landers, were media superstars, their nationally syndicated columns daily institutions for countless readers. It’s difficult to describe their massive audience, their appeal and authority, to the children of an age in which the answer to just about any problem is “Google it.”

In my childhood, Ann and Abby were a zinger-slinging Greek chorus. They dispensed wisdom to the nation on every imaginable subject and some unimaginable, including love, marriage and the best way to hang the toilet paper. (True fact. Landers, who fielded the toilet-paper question, once said that it generated 15,000 responses, making it one of her most commented-upon letters.)

I can’t be the only voracious reader for whom their work provided an education on many topics — some of which my mother would rather have left alone a while longer. I still remember my nine-year-old self running down to the laundry room, where my mom was folding the latest load, to ask what was the big deal about unwed mothers.

“What?!” Her voice went up several keys. “Where did you hear about THAT?”

“Ann Landers wrote about it,” I said.

“Ann Landers writes about a lot of things,” my mother replied tightly.

So did Abby. Like her twin, she did not shy from the controversial. As the San Francisco Chronicle recalls, Abby “replied to letters about serious social issues such as teen sex, divorce, alcoholism and AIDS, and answered them with a mix of candor, common sense and an occasional wisecrack.”

Personally, I suspect that future family historians seeking context and flavor for describing Americans in the mid-20th century could do a lot worse than Dear Abby and Dear Ann. Yes, the advice column survives today online and in print media, but today’s successors don’t have the breathtaking ease with which the sisters moved between deadly serious issues and day-to-day dilemmas. They could reach out to a domestic-violence victim one minute and the next, weigh in on what to do about a bad case of acne.

Though their styles were very similar, consensus often held that Ann (who died in 2002) tended to be the straight-shooter, while Abby had a matchless flair for witty one-liners. The writing from their heyday still has a startlingly fresh appeal — bright, succinct, with a tough-mindedness behind the humor that lent authenticity to their advice-giving. “The audibly human voice … rising above our collective impersonality, ” was how Cornell University professor David I. Grossvogel described Ann’s appeal, and that could be said of Abby’s as well.

(A compilation of Pauline’s columns, The Best of Dear Abby, appears to still be available, at least in Kindle edition. Grossvogel’s out-of-print study, Dear Ann Landers, is worth seeking out for those interested in the evolution of Eppie’s advice over the years.)

And truly, Abby had a way with a zinger that you just don’t see anymore:

Dear Abby: I have always wanted to have my family history traced, but I can’t afford to spend a lot of money to do it. Have you any suggestions? — M.J.B. in Oakland, Calif.

Dear M.J.B.: Yes. Run for a public office.

RIP, Dear Abby.

Inheriting Headaches

As I once wrote, gifts and bequests can carry a double edge for the institutions which receive them.

Here is an interesting problem for the Brooklyn Museum, as reported today by the New York Times. A major bequest made in 1932 of nearly 1,000 fine paintings and artifacts seemed at first like a wonderful windfall, but is now, to some extent, a white elephant.

The huge collection was left to the museum by Col. Michael Friedsam, head of the legendary Altman department store and an associated philantrophic foundation.

First snag: About a fourth of the items were either forgeries or misattributions or basically not up to snuff in some way. So the museum wouldn’t mind selling the 229 pieces it no longer wants (but has to spend lots of money storing).

Second snag: Friedsam’s will specified that nothing could be disposed of without permission from the executors. And the last executor died in 1962.

Sounds like a job for a forensic genealogist. From the Times’ story by Patricia Cohen:

Noting that the will specified that the art should go to the colonel’s brother-in-law and two friends if the collection were not kept together, Judge Nora Anderson told the museum in December 2011 that it must search for these three men’s descendants before she would rule.

Nothing’s ever simple, right?