The Dastardly Past: Kodak.
Like Laurel with Hardy, like peanut butter with jelly, like Waffle House with people of the land, so too do cameras and detection belong together. In 1888-89, Kodak introduced the first cameras that allowed people to simply point and shoot. With the press of a button, photography shifted from a specialist’s pursuit to something almost anyone could do. And they did—in droves—making Kodak the leader of popular photographic equipment, film, and film processing in the world.
The Dastardly Past: on this day, the pencil.
Raymond Chandler with pipe in mouth and pencil poised.
In the olden days, writing mysteries (or anything else) wasn’t even possible without a pad and pencil. Even today, many authors prefer the flexibility of outlining, brainstorming, writing, editing, or revising with a pencil in their hands. And with pencils come erasers. Naturally. We don’t even think about it. Before the 1850s, however, we’d have had to.
Pencils and erasers were two separate items until Hyman L. Lipman, a stationer in Philadelphia, came up with the idea of combining them. (He was a wizard of a stationer, also establishing the first envelope company in the United States.) Lipman received a patent for his idea on March 30, 1858. His model differed from today’s Ticonderogas in the placement of the eraser. Rather than using a metal collar to attach a rubber tip to the end of a pencil, he actually inserted the rubber into one end of the hollow core that held the lead. Despite this difference, he was onto something. So much so that it’s hard to even imagine life without it.
When it comes to change, I like to think I’m a centrist. Some things, like making single-malt scotch or a finely bound book, are best achieved using the old ways. Other things, like dentistry with benefit of painkillers or communicating via electronic devices, have been life changing. So I am having difficulty nailing down my reaction to the fact that schools are no longer teaching children how to write using cursive.
When I first heard about it, I was appalled. Part of that had to do with the hours spent perfecting my handwriting so that I would not be the last kid in the class allowed to use a pen. In my school you had to earn that privilege. But part of it went deeper than that. Then this week, I gave an addressed envelope to the young man at the UPS store and asked him to send it with a tracking number. He could not read the address. He couldn’t even get close, thinking “Stephanie” was “Daniel,” and “East” was “Oak.”
There I had it! A tangible objection that went beyond the increasingly arcane Emily Post reasons of wedding invitations and handwritten thank-you notes. If you can’t write in cursive you most likely can’t read it either. This is will become less of a problem in the next thirty to fifty years as the cursive generations shuffle off, yet the notion still nags. What are the implications for the use of archives and archival research? Or the impact on the humanities in general? Genealogical hobbyists need knowledge of cursive to read family documents, and cook’s too or else grandma’s recipe for snickerdoodles will be lost forever. Graduate schools offer courses in Medieval paleography; will mid-twentieth century paleography represent the coming trend?
Further, is the abandonment of handwriting one that other first-world nations are following? Or like never learning second and third languages, is it another symptom of being American? Will the Axis powers of the future be able to thwart us, not with the use of microdots and Enigma machines, but with Spencerian penmanship? OK, that’s a silly example, but the knowledge gap between the United States and other countries remains real.
Finally, there is the notion that brains process information differently using different techniques. Cursive is said to work better for people with dyslexia. Taking class notes in long-hand has been shown, in some studies, to improve retention. Realistically, however, this may be clutching at straws, and probably only experts can give us an answer. So I continue to straddle the fence in an uncomfortable position that is hard to maintain over the long term. Please help me. What do you think about it? If you think about it at all?
On this day in 1997, Miami nightclub owner and Ukranian mobster Ludwig “Tarzan” Fainberg is charged with trying to buy a Russian nuclear submarine for $5.5 million to smuggle cocaine to the U.S. for Colombian drug lords. Fainberg gets high marks for creativity, but falls short of actual success.
I am sitting in the lobby of the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans, waiting for my esteemed spouse and enjoying the quiet and the air conditioning. Across from me, partially hidden by a potted palm, is the hotel’s brass letter box, and I wonder if it’s still in service. In a hotel known for the famous authors it has hosted—Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Welty, Hammett & Hellman, Capote—the idea of the letters, possibly even manuscripts, that box has held over the years dazzles the imagination.
Is it because the brass is so highly polished that something as mundane as a mailbox conjures up images of Crane stationery and fountain pens? Or Underwood manual typewriters and penny postage? It looks so elegant it’s hard to imagine it holding Dear John letters, contract disputes, or payments made with checks destined to bounce. Yet those must have passed through it as well.
That box also invites consideration of some of the things that are vanishing from our lives. For example, when exactly did school boards decide to stop teaching cursive? If the coming generation can’t manage writing in cursive, how will they be able to read it? Archivists take note. Will people get the same bang out of trips to the Library of Congress to see the Declaration of Independence if they can’t actually decipher it?
Don’t get me wrong, I love email, Facebook, and paying bills online so I don’t have to use a stamp that costs the equivalent of five 1972 Hershey bars. I’ll have a party when they finally get rid of the fax machine at the office. I’d probably mourn the passing of Macintosh 128K, as well, but frankly it’s really ugly. So perhaps it’s not the shift in communication technology making me wistful. It’s the shift in aesthetics. We need our everyday props to be as beautiful as they were 80 years ago. “Dear Samsung, when you configure the Galaxy 8, can you make the case out of engraved bronze? I hear its melting point is well over 1100 degrees Fahrenheit.”