Anthony Ernest Pratt

The Dastardly Past:  Anthony Ernest Pratt.

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Anthony Ernest Pratt was born in obscurity in England on August 10, 1903.  He died in obscurity ninety years later.  In between, Mr. Pratt undertook many occupations, including apprentice in a chemistry lab, professional musician, civil servant, and shopkeeper.  In World War II he worked in a factory making tank components and volunteered as a fired warden.  It was during the tedium of his wartime occupations that Pratt conceived his most remunerative idea.  He invented a board game called Clue (Cluedo in Great Britain), immortalizing the likes of Col. Mustard, Mrs. Peacock, and Prof. Plum.  The game went on the market in 1949 and has remained in the ranks of top-selling board games ever since.  In 1985 it was made into a movie with an all-star cast.  Adapting to the changing times, it is currently available in a variety of versions, including the Big Bang Theory, Dr. Who, Firefly, Game of Thrones, Golden Girls, Harry Potter, the Legend of Zelda, Scooby Doo, the Simpsons, Star Wars, and Twilight.

Sir Thomas Lipton

The Dastardly Past:  Sir Thomas Lipton

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What better to accompany a good crime thriller or mystery novel than a cozy room and a cup of tea?  Today (May 10) we celebrate the 1850 birth of grocer and tea magnate Thomas Johnston Lipton, who popularized tea drinking in the United States and among the working classes of Great Britain.  Deciding that the cost of tea was far too high, Lipton purchased his own plantation in Ceylon in 1890.  He kept growing and shipping costs at a minimum, and sold his tea in packages of full, half and quarter, making it much more affordable for the masses to enjoy.

In Praise of Persephone Books

The Dastardly Past: In Praise of Persephone Books.

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There is little of a dastardly nature is today’s post, mostly because I have been sick and not doing much research.  Instead, I’d like to praise Persephone Books of London.  If you are unfamiliar with them, rejoice in the lacunae about to be filled in your life and library.  Persephone specializes in reprinting neglected twentieth-century books, mostly by women writers.  They produce visually and tactilely pleasing volumes at reasonable prices.  If you enjoyed the film adaptation of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, for example, you’ll be delighted with the novel on which it was based, by Winifred Watson.  In addition to humor, Persephone’s list encompasses a wide variety of categories, fiction and non-fiction, basically something for everyone.  I cannot praise them too highly, but I leave it to you to discover them for yourself.  You will not be disappointed.

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The Dastardly Past: on this day, the pencil.

The Dastardly Past:  on this day, the pencil.

chandler_2624086b 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.

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In Defense of Cursive. Or Not.

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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?

Edward Gorey

A Mystery Writer’s Almanac–Edward Gorey.

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On this day in 1925 Edward Gorey, illustrator of the macabre and mysterious, is born.  He is the author and illustrator of dozens of highly-prized  and darkly humorous books and may be best known for creating the opening sequence for the PBS program Mystery!

A bibliography of Gorey’s work includes

  • Three Books From The Fantod Press (3), Fantod Press, 1971
    • The Deranged Cousins
    • The Eleventh Episode
    • The Untitled Book
  • The Awdrey-Gore Legacy, 1972
  • Leaves From A Mislaid Album, Gotham Book Mart, 1972
  • The Abandoned Sock, Fantod Press, 1972
  • A Limerick, Salt-Works Press, 1973
  • The Lost Lions, Fantod Press, 1973
  • The Green Beads, Albondocani Press, 1978
  • The Glorious Nosebleed: Fifth Alphabet, Mead, 1975
  • The Grand Passion: A Novel, Fantod Press, 1976
  • The Broken Spoke, Mead, 1976
  • The Loathsome Couple, Mead, 1977
  • Dancing Cats And Neglected Murderesses, Workman, 1980
  • The Water Flowers, Congdon & Weed, 1982
  • The Dwindling Party, Random House, 1982
  • The Prune People, Albondocani Press, 1983
  • Gorey Stories, 1983
  • The Tunnel Calamity, Putnam’s Sons, 1984
  • The Eclectic Abecedarium, Adama Books, 1985
  • The Prune People II, Albondocani Press, 1985
  • The Improvable Landscape, Albondocani Press, 1986
  • The Raging Tide: Or, The Black Doll’s Imbroglio, Beaufort Books, 1987
  • Q. R. V. (later retitled The Universal Solvent), Anne & David Bromer, 1989
  • The Stupid Joke, Fantod Press, 1990
  • The Fraught Settee, Fantod Press, 1990
  • The Doleful Domesticity; Another Novel, Fantod Press, 1991
  • The Retrieved Locket, Fantod Press, 1994
  • The Unknown Vegetable, Fantod Press, 1995
  • The Just Dessert: Thoughtful Alphabet XI, Fantod Press, 1997
  • Deadly Blotter: Thoughtful Alphabet XVII, Fantod Press, 1997
  • The Haunted Tea-Cosy: A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1998
  • The Headless Bust: A Melancholy Meditation on the False Millennium, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1999

Tiffany & Co.

A Mystery Writer’s Almanac—Bait for Criminals

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On this day in 1812, Charles Lewis Tiffany is born.  With a partner he begins a stationery and fancy goods store in 1837 in Lower Manhattan.  By 1841 the store is manufacturing its own line of jewelry, and in 1853—having assumed control of the business—Tiffany shifts the business’s emphasis to jewelry.  The rest, as they say, is history—all wrapped up in a distinctive robin’s-egg blue box.

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