Thursday, February 27, 2020

Fountain Pens & Journals

Antique pen & pencil set
I recently received an advertisement from The Goulet Pen Company, and among their pens was a beautiful fountain pen with a deep green finish that reminded me of my father's pen.  I was never allowed to use his pen, nor was my mother, although she wrote beautifully in cursive.  It was his alone, and no one was allowed to injure the point and spoil his favorite writing instrument.

How many of us today own a fountain pen?  When I was younger, a nice pen and pencil set was still an appropriate graduation gift, and perhaps the sets I received as gifts were for one or more of my graduations.  Perhaps I even bought one of the sets when I graduated from law school, believing it would reflect dignity on a young lawyer to use a fountain pen to sign important documents.

I own my father's pen, a treasured object associated with memories of him at his desk, a Victorian desk first owned by his father and now owned by his lawyer grandson.  Many times I played nearby as he wrote checks for his farm business and for the church he served as secretary-treasurer for many years.  Those days imprinted on my mind the association of using a fountain pen for important documents, just as my mother's beautiful script imprinted the importance of beautiful penmanship.

Sadly, today I write with disposable pens and my cursive penmanship will never match my mother's script.  I remain convinced, however, that cursive writing and even the printing now taught in schools are an important reflection of the person.  Even if letters are rare, cards are still signed, and a personal note is appreciated.  Documents still require signatures.

Page from Isaac's journal 1871
In other blogs I have written about penmanship, and in doing research for those blogs I was shocked to learn that many younger people cannot read cursive writing and are unable to decipher treasured family documents.  That brings me to the subject of this blog, which is the penmanship of Isaac Werner.

When I found Isaac's journal and recognized what a valuable historic document it is, I decided to transcribe it.  That process, which also involved annotating it and researching all of the names mentioned in his journal, took 11 months.  Of course, far deeper research related to the contents of his 480-page journal has since expanded over a decade, but this week's blog is about his penmanship.

The early years reflect the confidence of a younger man, living in a small Illinois town where access to supplies was simple.  His script is strong, and the ink remains dark.  When he resumed his journal as a homesteader on the Kansas prairie, his script was tighter, seeming to hint at a thriftiness required of homesteaders, who wasted nothing.  Recycling was essential in a place where money was scarce and trips to town took all day, even though today they would be ten minutes away.  I suspect that Isaac may have watered his ink when he noticed that his ink well was getting low and he might run out before his next trip to town.

Page from Isaac's journal 1887
The pen set pictured in this blog was among family objects saved after our parents' deaths, and I do not know whose they were.  The two images of Isaac's penmanship show the bold script of his younger years in Illinois and the tiny, tighter script of his later years on the prairie.  The ink from the 1887 page is faint, and my assumption  is that Isaac had diluted it to avoid running out, since pages before and after are not faint and do not indicate a likelihood of a habit of leaving the journal exposed to sunlight that would have faded the ink.

I hope you enjoy this reflection of lost customs, as well as a peak at the interior of Isaac Werner's 480-page journal that I transcribed, which has become the heart of my manuscript about the history of the populist movement in Kansas.

Remember, you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Meat Market

  I have wanted to use this ad in a blog post since I first copied it from the St. John County Capital newspaper, but I had not found a reason for using it.  Today it occurred to me that maybe it was worth sharing without a particularly good reason!  

I find it interesting to see images of the living animals alongside the images of them after being butchered and offered for sale.  The advertisement includes the farm barn name--Pyles' Barn--, and the Saturday sales each week of their stock--horses, cattle and hogs.

A related entry in Isaac Werner's journal involves his idea of forming a small country town in their community.  He even suggested a business to anchor the new town--a slaughter house!  As he visited neighbors to discuss the potential of a town, many people expressed interest.  Rather, they expressed interest in the town, but not necessarily for the slaughter house.

The idea was encouraging enough that they selected a location, and several men pledged to buy stock in the town company if plans progressed.  An entry in the County Capital reported that investors from Kansas City were planning to proceed with building several businesses, but nothing more was heard about the town--or Isaac's idea for a slaughter house.

Advertisement from the County Capital in St. John, Kansas

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Love is in the Air

Love is in the Air, and Cupid is firing his arrows everywhere!  Happy Valentines!  With Valentine's Day's arrival, it seems appropriate to share its history.

The most common explanation connects the modern celebration of Valentine's Day with the Christian Feast of Saint Valentine, but specific details vary.  Perhaps it is related to the Roman prohibition of soldiers marrying Christian women and the martyrdom of a priest who ignored that prohibition.  

Other explanations refer to the idea that birds mate in early spring, which is considered romantic.  Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in 1382, For this was on seynt Volantynys day When euery bryd comyt there to chese his make, or as translated, "For this was on St. Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate."

However it may have begun, February 14th is certainly a romantic tradition today.  The history of the exchange of Valentine cards is better known.  As early as the 1700s, special notes and letters were exchanged, but the exchange of printed cards began in the mid-1800s, perhaps first in England but soon adopted in America, particularly after the Civil War.

Some of the cards were quite elaborate, with hidden gifts such as jewelry inside.  Other valentines were given the name of "Puzzle Purses," which consisted of a series of love letters which collectively could be arranged to make a beautiful design or convey a message.  

Of course, the gift of chocolates remains a popular valentine gift, and I remember the elaborate chocolate boxes that were so beautiful and well built that they became treasured keepsake boxes once the chocolates were gone. 

Another gift from clever young men who want to be sure they always remember their engagement date is giving yjeir beloveds an engagement ring on Valentine's Day, the typical stone given today being a diamond.  The first documented example of a diamond engagement ring dates back to 1477 when Archduke Maximilian of Austria gave his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy, a diamond ring.  Upper class couples copied the tradition, and in 1866 when diamonds were first found in South Africa, that discovery eventually lead to diamonds that were more affordable for less affluent young men to give their sweethearts. 

In the United States, after W.W. I and especially during the Great Depression, diamonds declined in popularity.  Gradually the popularity of diamond engagement rings has returned, as most of us know, and in most cases what follows is marriage.  The image at the top of this blog page is of a wedding dress advertised in 1892.  I thought it would be fun to go online to find examples of what a bride might chose for her wedding in 2020.  Traditional gowns remain popular, but I thought you might enjoy seeing some less traditional choices!  Happy Valentine's Day.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Art is for Everyone!

Isaac Werner's Invention
At noon on Friday, February 7, 2020, I will be sharing some of my art at the Filley Art Museum in Pratt, Kansas.  The Museum has initiated a series of noon time programs on the first Friday of the month called Lunch & Learn, featuring artists from the region who speak and share some of their work.  It is especially nice for working people who can bring their sack lunch and enjoy the program during their lunch break, but everyone is welcome, with or without a snack, and admission is free.

My theme on Friday will emphasize that whether you are an artist, someone who wants to learn more about art, or someone who loves to visit art museums and support the arts, Art is for Emeryone.

It certainly had an important place in Isaac Werner's life.  Isaac was creative, and the sketch, shown at left, of his invention to wash bottles when he was a young druggist in Rossville, IL appears in the margin of his 488 page journal.  Most of his margin drawings relate to ideas for inventions or furniture, but some are like his tiny illustration of a local church.  There was also a large drawing of his invention for a thatching machine folded inside the journal, as well as his design for a chicken house.  Among Isaac's many talents was art!

However, his appreciation for art was not simply his own practical drawings.  There was his stereoscope, probably similar to the one at right which belonged to my Beck ancestors.  Isaac mentions in his journal sharing his stereoscope cards with my great grandparents.  

His library included such wonderful books as Classical Antiquities  written by a professor at Amherst College and containing elaborate illustrations such as full page  engravings of the Pantheon and the Ruins of Athens, the Pyramids, and Greek sculptures.  In order to understand the sort of books Isaac collected, I found an  edition of Antiquities online published at the time Isaac lived, as well as other titles from his collection.  One of the many books in his library was Cuba with Pen and Pencil, published in 1871.  I bought a beautiful facsimile edition published in 1989 containing all the lovely drawings of Cuban scenes and people.

Antique and facsimile titles in Isaac's library
The books in the photograph are some of the titles from Isaac's library that I acquired in editions near years Isaac's was collecting.  The book with a black cover and a red rectangle with the title in gold is the book about Cuba and to the right is the Antiquities book.

Another example of how people of the late 1800s valued the arts is how quickly they built opera houses in their small towns.  Some served multiple purposes, with level floors also used as skating rinks.  That was true in St. John, and is true in Red Cloud, NE where the lovely opera house has been restored and is the heart of the Willa Cather Foundation.  The dual use as skating rinks should not mislead your image of the elaborate structures.  Other early opera houses, however, had fixed seats on sloped floors, and were designed strictly for performances.  Once these communities could be reached by trains, performers and stage sets arrived to entertain. 
St. John, KS Rink & Opera House

When I drive the main streets of Kansas towns  that date back to the late 1800s, I ignore the current store fronts and look up at the second floors and roofs that escaped the 'modernizing' of the 1950s and 1960s.  I admire the intricate brickwork and carved stone figures and designs.  Many of them proudly display the carved date of their construction.  The beauty of these details reveal the refined aesthetics of the day, even if there were still people living in dugouts on country farms.

Second St. John, KS Courthouse from the late 1800s

This respect for beauty was shown in the public buildings as well.  The first courthouse in St. John was a simple building in the square, today's city park but then a dusty square.  But citizens wanted a fine courthouse to represent their community, so funds were raised to build the elaborate brick building at left.  Unfortunately, it had to be replaced, probably for a combination of reasons, including these two:  first, the bricks were soft and gradually eroded, and second, the robbery attempts involving dynamite exploding in the County Clerk's office, in an attempt to access the safe, weakened the structural stability of the building.

St. John, KS School House
The St. John School House of that era also reveals the esthetic taste of their citizens.  I cannot help but marvel at the ability to build such structures at that time, lacking the powerful equipment we have available today.  County schools of that time may have been sod or wood, and by the turn of the century brick, but the respect for education was just as strong in those crude structures.

The arts were important then and remain essential today, but I wonder if we prioritize them as highly today as our ancestors did.  Certainly leather bound books and the universal passion for reading seems less important.  The efficiencies of our buildings seem more important today than the elegance of the past.  Many schools place the teaching of art at the bottom of the budget, if it remains a part of the curriculum at all.

How fortunate our region is to have so many resources that preserve history and the arts.   Pratt is particularly fortunate to have schools that value the arts, museums that preserve our past and respect the plants and animals of our region, a  newly remodeled library and a state-of-the art museum like the Filley.  I am honored to have been asked to speak at the Filley at noon on Friday, February 7, 2020, and I look forward to seeing some of you who read my blog at the Filley!