Saturday, May 21, 2022

New York City Built a Temple Monument to Books

The grand and glorious New York Public Library in a hand-tinted linen post card from the early 1930's.

There may be taller buildings.  There may even be more beautiful buildings. There are certainly more profitable uses for prime Manhattan real estate.  But maybe no building in New York City is more justifiably admired and beloved than the Main Branch of the New York Public Library which opened its doors for the first time on this date in 1911 at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street.

It was recently named the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in honor of the billionaire banker who pledged $100 million to restoration and repair of the structure.  It hardly put a dent in his personal fortune.  Schwarzman made headlines in 2012 when he compared President Barack Obama’s proposal to raise taxes to “Hitler’s invasion of Poland.”  Luckily, no one outside his immediate family and his billionaire buddy former Mayor Michael Bloomberg ever uses that name for the iconic building. 

Several smaller libraries were consolidated into a new city institution in the late 19th Century. Big gifts from a bequest by former Governor and Democratic Presidential Candidate Samuel J. Tilden and from library patron and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie made possible the erection of an imposing building.

A rough design of the building was developed by the System’s first Superintendent, Dr. John Shaw Billings.  His vision was the basis for a well-publicized competition among the top architects in the country.  A relatively little known firm, Carrère and Hastings, won for its Beaux-Arts design.


In this 1920's cartoon famous writers are depicted using the Reading Room.  The most recognizable is James Joyce with the dramatic wing on his hat.

Construction began in 1897 and the cornerstone laid in 1902.  It was the largest marble building ever constructed in the United States with walls three feet thick.  It cost a hefty $9 million when that was an almost unimaginable sum.  It took 14 years for master craftsmen, many of them European trained masons, to complete the building.  It took more than a year just to move in and shelve on miles of bookcases from the collections of the consolidated libraries.

President William Howard Taft joined Governor John Alden Dix and Mayor William Jay Gaynor for the opening ceremonies.

                           New York Herald coverage of the library dedication.

The library was not only immediately one of the largest in the world, but it was also noted for an efficient system to produce volumes from the vast stacks and deliver them into the hands of patrons within moments.  The first book checked out, a scholarly study of the ethical works of Friedrich Nietzsche and Leo Tolstoy in German was in the hands of the library patron in just 11 minutes.

The most famous feature of the library is the grand and vast Rose Main Reading Room.  Walls are lined with reference books, two rows of large tables accommodate readers, researchers, and students and the room is appointed with crystal chandeliers, brass lamps, and comfortable chairs.  On sunny days the room is flooded with light from a row of large arched windows.  The room has been featured in movies, described in novels, and memorialized in poems by the likes of E. B. White and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The Main Reading Room of the Library is an impressive public space with the reverence of a Temple. 

Almost as famous are the two proud lions which flank the wide stairs to the main entrance.  Original named, Leo Astor and Leo Lenox in honor of two of the library’s principal founders, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia dubbed them Patience and Fortitude during the Great Depression when the great reading rooms were filled with the out-of-work passing the time away in self-improvement and when some of the homeless reportedly found ways to sleep in the stacks.


One of the Library's famed pair of guardian lions.

It took until the 1970 for continual acquisitions to fill up the generous space that had been included in the original designs.  In the 1980’s the building was expanded by 125,000 square feet and literally miles of new shelf space by constructing an underground addition below Bryant Park.

Work began in 2007 to clean and restore the begrimed and damaged exterior of the building and remodeling continued inside.  More work with Schwarzman’s—and other donors—money continues to be done.

Meanwhile former Mayor Bloomberg slashed the operating budget of the Library, closed many branches, and reduced hours open to the public.  Money for staff and new acquisitions was cut to the bone. 

The grand and beloved edifice is in danger of rotting from the inside by neglect.

Friday, May 20, 2022

As Reproductive Rights are Under Siege The Old Man is Called to Testify Again


Not only are abortion rights under attack but women's control over their own bodies is being criminalized.

Note—A version this first appeared on my blog back in its relative infancy in 2007. And I have re-run it when the simple right of meaningful reproductive choice has seemed particularly threatened.  The post was drafted in response to an appeal from NARAL Pro-Choice America for stories about life before Roe V. Wade for use in a new campaign in defense of women’s right to choose, which back then unexpectedly seemed under attack again. 

Back in 2007 we were in shock that rights considered firmly and irrevocably won were once again under attack.  Fifteen years later that attack has become a tsunami.  Numerous attempts to sharply curtail abortion in several states were routinely over-turned in Federal Courts.  But now with a Supreme Court majority packed by the former serial-abuser-in-chief, word leaked out early this month that Roe v. Wade is about to be overturned.

The Roe v Wade decision did not come out of thin air--it was the result of prolonged and militant action by feminists--a victory hard won and not just benevolently granted.

That is the desperate situation women—and men who truly love and respect women—find themselves in today in the United States.  But they are not taking the attacks lying down.  From mass Handmaidens demonstrations to marches, rallies, and organizing at the polls new resistance is rising.

Women have taken to the streets in massive numbers across the USA to protest an anticipated Supreme Court Ruling overturning Roe v. Wade and they are not going to stop.

We will not return to the conditions described in this old blog post.

                            The Girl with Italian Renaissance hair.

It was 1971 in Chicago.  We’ll call her Ellen.  She was a friend from college, tall and willowy with Italian Renaissance brown hair.  She had a chorus part in an experimental rock cantata by night and waited tables by day.  She was not my girlfriend.  I wished she was. I was a forlorn looking hippy in a cowboy hat and bright orange goatee, the dopey/quirky best pal in a romantic comedy—the guy who moons around and ends up helping the bad boy with the megawatt smile get the girl.  We met for dinner about once a week and sometimes went out for a drink after her show on a Saturday night.

I came over to her place for dinner one night, Liebfraumilch in a stone bottle in hand.  She was crying.  “I’m pregnant.  I don’t know what to do.”  I held her and comforted her.  I didn’t ask who the father was.  She didn’t volunteer.  It was, after all, the lingering twilight of the ‘60’s.

But I was on the staff of the old Seed, the Chicago underground newspaper.  I had connections.  I knew people who knew people.

                                      I knew people who knew people.  Those people were Jane.

Those people were the Jane Collective, a semi-secret action group of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union who defied Illinois law and arranged safe abortions.  In later years I got to know names and faces of some of them.  They were true heroes in a desperate time.

I helped Ellen get in contact with Jane.  They arranged for her to see a cooperating doctor.  She had to go alone to the appointment, where she was given a chemical abortifacient.  I waited for her at her apartment.

The procedure was as safe as possible, but the cramping and pain from the induced miscarriage was serious in Ellen’s case.  It lasted three days.  I stayed with her the whole time.  We were afraid to seek further medical help.  Other women had been arrested in hospital emergency rooms. 

In the end, the procedure was effective.  Ellen recovered.  She got on with her life.  She went off the next summer on some high adventure and I never saw her again.  I got on with my life.

Within a few years, Illinois revised its laws in response to Roe v. Wade and safe abortions in clinical settings became available.  Jane dissolved.  But I will always remember Ellen’s needless ordeal and will never knowingly allow another woman to suffer so.


Thursday, May 19, 2022

Post Cards Evolved from Poor Man’s Telegrams to Souvenir Collectables


                            A late 19th Century official Post Office post card with decorative images.

Over the vigorous objections of the United States Post Office on May 19, 1898 Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act allowing private printing companies to produce postcards.  

Privately printed cards first appeared in 1861 under an earlier act and the first card bearing images were copyrighted the same year.

The Post Office had been printing and selling official post cards since 1877 for a penny apiece, less than half of the postage for a first class letter.  They had rapidly become popular with the poor and those who had quick messages and no desire or expectation of privacy. One wag called them “slow telegrams” comparing them to another terse but far more expensive means of communication.  They contributed to the explosion of Post Office business after the Civil War along with innovations like direct business and home delivery in urban areas and railway mail sorting which slashed delivery times.  Most official postcards were plain with a pre-printed stamp and space for an address on one side with the message written on the reverse.  But the Post Office did offer a limited number of decorated souvenir post cards with engraved decorations on the address side that were proving increasingly popular.

Private companies were allowed to print cards, but regular first class postage had to be affixed instead of the pre-printed post card rate, a powerful disincentive.  The Post Office was loathe to forgo the advantage this gave them and the growing stream of revenue.  But printers—many of whom were not so coincidently in the newspaper businessgot the ear of Republicans who were in firm control of both Houses of Congress, with their complaints of unfair government competition.  The Post Office never stood a chance.  President William McKinley signed the Act into law.

A Private Mailing Card authorized by Congress.

There were restrictions.  The private printers could not use the words post card or postal card.  Instead they had to clearly identify their product with the words Private Mailing Card Messages were not allowed on the address side of the private mailing cards, as indicated by the words “This side is exclusively for the Address,” or slight variations of this phrase. If the front had an image, then a space was left for a message.

The Post Office must have discovered that there was no revenue loss from selling stamps for private cards over their own cards with printed postage because after four years in 1901 Postmaster General Charles Emory Smith voluntarily loosened regulations and allowed printers to use the words Post Card instead of Private Mailing Card and dropped requirement for a fine-print explanation that they were produced under the Private Mailing Card Act.  At the time the sales of souvenir post cards with photos taking up the entire front of the card was booming.  But that eliminated the space for a message and the Post Office still did not allow anything other than address info on the back.  That rendered these types of cards of zero use for conveying any message other than the implied, “Hey, look where I am.”

It wasn’t until the Universal Postal Union which governed international mail cards produced by governments could have messages on the left half of the address side in 1907.  Congress acted quickly to authorize private printers to do the same.  It ushered in the period known as the Divided Back Era by collectors and set off huge new demand.  There was now space to scrawl “Wish you were here” or “home on the 10 o’clock train next Friday” in the somewhat limited space made available.  Producers ramped up production and images were produced of landmarks in even the sleepiest rural hamlets, hence a glut of shots of muddy main streets, local churches, and Civil War monuments that can be found nearly by the bale at post card collector shows.  The wide variety of images and the improving quality including bright color lithography by German companies for the American market meant this period is also called the Golden Age of Post Cards.

An example of the hyper-local post cards issued by small town printers--an early 20th Century view of the Woodstock, Illinois  Presbyterian Church, one of a series featuring  every church in town.

That ended when World War I abruptly disrupted the supply of German cards.  Even the best American technology could not match the color printing quality of the European cards and interest in collecting post cards, which had become an extremely popular hobby declined, as did sales.  During the war American printers produced cards with white borders to save ink and were sometimes faced with card stock shortages.  Most of the souvenir cards of this period now included a short description of the front image on the message half side of the back, reducing the available space for writing.

Novelty cards with cartoons and funny sayings also became popular, some becoming iconic like the many versions of a gap-toothed hick kid with a cowlick and the words “Me Worry?” which eventually morphed into Alfred E. Newman of Mad Magazine.  Bathing beauties and cars were other popular themes.   Companies also produced Holiday cards for all occasions and advertising pieces.

The forerunner of Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Newman was featured on several novelty post cards

Ordinary folks could make their own post cards with the introduction of the Real Photo postcards produced using the Kodak postcard camera.  The postcard camera could take a picture and then print a postcard-size negative of the picture, complete with a divided back and place for postage.  These could be sent to Kodak which would print them on glossy photo stock like that used in Brownie snapshots.  They were also used by small town companies for the limited runs needed by the local pharmacy, hotel, or even funeral parlor.  These became so popular other suppliers entered the market, but Kodak continued to dominate this which continued popular well in to the 1930s.

Both a souvenir and a novelty picture post card.  Wish you were here....

Commercial post cards got a huge boost in 1931 when Curt Teich & Co. introduced a new process of printing on high quality rag count.  These so-called linen cards had a rich texture and could hold brighter inks and dyes than previous methods.  The result was often almost painting like with highly saturated colors.  Many were hand tinted from black and white originals.  These cards are now highly prized by collectors.

A hand tinted linen post card of the Wyoming State Capitol building in my old home town of Cheyenne.  I have a framed copy hanging in my home study.

The linen cards dominated the market until the introduction of photochrom color postcards by Union Oil Co. for sale at its Western gas stations in 1939.  Printed on high glossy stock the public embraced the “more realistic” images and they had almost completely replaced the linen cards by the early 1950s.

This 1960s era glossy souvenir post card of San Francisco has everything--cable car, hills, a pier, the Bay, cargo ship, and Alcatraz in the distance.

Post cards remained popular through most of the rest of the century.  But the introduction of e-mail, cheap digital cameras and eventually cell phones, and social media rendered post cards obsolete as a means of communication.  All of the folks back home can now access dozens of your personal photos, including ubiquitous selfies instantly instead of getting a single post card two days after you already got home. 

As sales shrank, so did the number of companies producing cards and the images available.  Virtually gone now are almost all hyper-local cards.  Each major city or tourist attraction now is represented by a very limited number of stock cards which are harder and harder to find.  They are gone now from most gas stations, restaurant and hotel racks, drug stores, and are even harder to find at souvenir stands and airports.  Those that are sold are packed in the luggage as cheap souvenirs and seldom mailed.  After all, it costs 40 cents to mail a post card now and almost no one has the right stamp so those that are mailed usually have a regular First Class stamp pasted on them.

                                        A contemporary generic Chicago glossy post card,  hard to find on disappearing card racks.

Oh, and almost no one collects new ones anymore.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Lilac Time—Murfin Verse Redux

Three years ago we planted these lilac bushes on the Murfin Estate. This is the first year they have come fully into bloom. In twenty or thirty years--long after we are dust and assuming no one tears them out, they will form an arch over the sidewalk leading from Ridge Avenue. 

To paraphrase Walt Whitman without the mournful reference to Lincoln’s assassination, this is when Lilacs bloom in the dooryard.  Or in the case of the Murfin Estate, flanking the sidewalk from Ridge Avenue in Crystal Lake.  This is the first time since Kathy and I planted them in 2018 that they have fully bloomed—an occasion of much joy at the homestead.  That recalls old Murfin Verse.

One early poem from my high school days in Skokie, Illinois has apparently been lost.  It was a reverie about a bike ride on a Spring night.  It began “With Lilacs in his well-worn hat/he rode the evening day away…”  As juvenilia it is probably no great loss.

The typescript of the poem I wrote for daughter Carolynne years ago and she re-discovered.

Sometime around 2000 I penned this memory piece, a copy of which was discovered on a folded typescript a few years ago by my oldest daughter, Carolynne Larsen Fox.


There were Wyoming lilac caves

            from which we went Crocketing

            in that sweet aroma twined

            with the musk of dead raccoon

            nestled on our scalps.


Grandma’s bathroom

            tiled black and coral,

            pink flamingoed mirrors,

            crisp towels and Lifebuoy

            where parchment hands clasped

            lilac dusting puff

            from the mother-of-pearl canister

            to finish Sabbath ablutions.


The two seat barber shop

            with trout and geese,

            Field & Stream and Argosy,

            and Dizzy Dean’s laconic call

            where Swisher Sweets

            and lilac water splashed

            on new mown skulls

            made a Saturday man.


The Skokie nights

            with lilacs in my well-worn hat

            I rode the evening day away,

            peddled into adolescent reverie,

            sang the long gone partings

            of two infant nations’ war,

            chanted dreams of glory verse

            “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed.”


The Chicago days

            when only lilac could wrap

            Carolynne in fleecy warmth

            or cotton fluff,

            green eyes, and Farah Fawcett hair,

            Rick Springfield and Menudo,

            a laughing daughter of lavender secrets.


And now the ancient lilac grows

            at the marked corner of my lot

            overgrowing three surveyors lines,

            half dead wood but blooming yet

            although box elder and weedy elm

            with youth throw their vigor

            through the tangles.


Lilacs, lilacs pace my life

            And count my springs.


—Patrick Murfin

Circa 2000

Lilacs in a cold Spring rain.

Back when I was a janitor at Briargate School in Cary, Illinois a cool, foggy morning inspired this verse, a version of which was included in my 2004 Skinner House Books collection We Build Temples in the Heart.

Lilacs Again

Lilacs in the soft gray glove

                of a cold wet spring—


“Where has spring gone?”

                demanded the shivering lips

                as the asker speeds

                to a cozy nest

                of cappuccino and scones.


As if spring were all red and yellow tulips

                brilliant, tall and proud,

                swaying with God’s breath

                amid the verdant sweep,

                dappled with sun and shade,

                filtered through a glory of apple blossoms

                under a perfect sky.


And when the days pass and the gray is vanquished,

                the sun restored to its throne,

                the lilacs, past perfection,

                wilt and brown along their tips.


“Too bad the lilacs failed this year,”

                the morning voice

                refreshed by proper spring,

                chirps with the barest trace

                of disappointment.


—Patrick Murfin