It seems appropriate to be posting this in honor of Labor Day, which is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. A few years ago I picked of a mixed lot of vintage and antique ephemera at a Pace Auction. I sold most of the items – which ranged from political tie tacks to celluloid pinbacks, but held onto one piece for quite a while. Pictured above, this was a well-worn, but intriguing employee photo badge of a woman, circa 1940s from the M.H.R. Company. I’ve always been drawn to vintage photographs of random people and have collected a few over the years, including daguerreotypes in beautiful tooled leather cases. I love doing research, especially in the realm of Americana and defunct industries, so this type of collectible is a perfect fit for my sensibilities. These badges offer a glimpse into yesteryear – back to a time and place in America where workers sometimes toiled long and hard hours in poor conditions. I found out that these badges are highly collectible and most of them are well out of my price range. I wonder why they are so sought after – are others as fascinated by the visual qualities and historic aspects as I am? The finest examples sell for as much as $200 – while even poor, damaged badges sell for $25 and up. Since my interest is primarily historic, I don’t need to own any to fulfill my fascination with the companies’ history, so I sold mine. Alas, it only fetched about $20.00, likely due to the obscure company. While some have the names of the employees, most are random faces and employee ID numbers of workers who have grown old and passed away. Only surviving relatives would possibly know who they are, but nevertheless, they possess an intriguing aura. Here is a selection of…
The F. W. Woolworth Company, also called Woolworth’s or Woolworth, delighted children and their parents alike for more than a century. In Illinois, 25 Woolworth stores, mostly in Chicago and the suburbs, were shuttered forever in July 1997. In the UK, the stores lasted a decade longer, going out of business in December 2008. The very last thing I bought at Woolworth’s when the store was liquidating stock, was a pair of Barbie roller skates for my then 9-year-old daughter. The store closures symbolized the end of quite a run that began on February 22, 1878 when Frank Winfield Woolworth opened “Woolworth’s Great Five Cent Store” in Utica, New York. The first store failed after a short time, however, the second store that opened on July 18, 1879 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania was a big success. When he launched the Lancaster store, Frank enlisted his brother Charles Sumner Woolworth to join the business.
My obsession with Patti Smith began in 2011, after reading Just Kids, her brilliant, touching memoir about coming of age in NYC with Robert Mapplethorpe. When I was an art student at RISD, I was aware of her music because my freshman roommate Katherine played Horses over and over again. Her music back then was too raw and visceral for my immature tastes, so I did not worship her like many of my art school peers. However, by my senior year, I worshipped Robert Mapplethorpe – strictly for his bold imagery – which inspired my marble carvings of nude muscular males. I met him at the Young Hoffman Gallery in 1982, where he was standing all by himself – a handsome, soft-spoken cowboy whose demeanor completely belied his promiscuous sexual proclivities and frank sexual imagery. As I wrote in a prior blog, by a stroke of serendipity, I briefly talked to Patti Smith in December 2012 at a little Nepalese boutique in Soho that was going out of business. When I read Just Kids, I found myself sobbing at times, and it was this poignant book that provided my opening line, so I endeavored to maintain some composure. While she was nice enough to engage me for a few seconds, she turned her back before I was done talking and clearly wanted her privacy. I will never forget this chance encounter, as fleeting as it was.
It was really nice that so many family members reached out to me and commented on my first Howard Clothes article. This yielded a good deal of insight and information, which inspired the desire to write this epilogue. Based on my communications with family members, I found out Elaine Winik is the sole surviving child of Samuel and Minnie Kappel. I also discovered she wrote a book entitled Still Looking Forward, published in 1996. I decided to purchase a copy on Amazon and gave this to my dad to read first. After all, it was his family with the connection to Howard Clothes and to Minnie and her mother Mollie Sennowitz. Elaine’s book filled in a lot of blanks including first names of people who were unknown to me when I wrote the first article, and had escaped my dad’s memory at this point in life – he is 92 after all. A few weeks later, I had the pleasure of talking to Elaine on the phone, and she graciously sent me a few clippings and photos that I have added to this blog. My dad got a real kick out of this passage from Elaine’s book: After living with us, grandma came to my parents and said that although we all were wonderful to her, the house wasn’t kosher, and besides, she missed her Yiddish-speaking contemporaries. If mother and dad would pay rent to “the greenie,” (all immigrants were referred to as greenhorns) her newly arrived cousin from Russia, she would live with him and his wife. Of course we could come and visit her there. She also mentioned that it would be very nice if my parents would furnish the apartment for the “the greenie” as he had no money at all. They did, as they asked.
I have written in the past about toys from the 1960s-1970s that would not pass today’s more stringent safety standards. I have also written about how much I loved picking out toys from the Sears Wish Book every holiday season. This post is a tribute to simple toys that are still around today, despite the incredible technological innovations children have at their fingertips. Children these days are often computer literate to some degree before they are out of diapers! They are playing video games and Wii as little tykes and many have tablets with tons of apps. Yet these simple toys have endured for ages and appear to be just as beloved as they were back in the Stone Ages when I was a child! Candy Land Designed by Eleanor Abbott, Candy Land was acquired by Milton Bradley Company (now Hasbro) and first introduced in 1949. My personal love for this game came from the visuals – I loved the candy graphics that appeared on the Candy Land board and little cards, no doubt due to the sweet tooth that was nurtured by my dad. My nostalgia for this game is tied strictly to the visual elements, because the game itself was rather basic and simplistic. I don’t like the newer graphics which look tacky and ostentatious. I am not surprised that a VCR version and electronic version were released in 1986 and 1998, respectively. Licensed versions include Winnie the Pooh, Dora the Explorer, Disney Princesses, and SpongeBob.
My love for NYC goes back to when I was a teenager and visited my older sister, who at the time was living in her first dive apartment, a 3rd floor walk-up on Sullivan Street north of Houston. However, it was during my four years at RISD, from 1976-1980, that I became immersed in NYC. I have written about this before, in Reflections on a New York City Christmas, Own a Small Piece of Vanishing New York – Vintage 1970s, and The Times Square of My Mind. I have photographed the gritty streets of NYC going back to my RISD years. Every time I return, another small or large chunk of my youth slips away, swallowed up by gentrification and cookie-cutter commerce.
Howard Clothes was a name I heard throughout my childhood, as my dad regaled us with tales of his youth. However, I never took the time to learn more until recently, which proved quite a challenge. My 92-year-old dad has a spectacular memory, but I was seeking concrete information on this rather obscure clothing company that has seemingly been lost to history. The first Howard Clothes store opened in New York in 1924 and was founded by Samuel Kappel, Joseph Langerman, and Henry Marks – named after Langerman’s son Howard. A corporation was subsequently organized in New York in 1925 under the name Howard Clothes Inc. and was later changed to Howard Stores Corporation. The company operated a massive factory in Brooklyn, just on the other side of the Manhattan Bridge, in the neighborhood now known as Dumbo. They sponsored a radio show called Howard Dandies, broadcast on WABC. Their line was limited to men’s clothing, with a major competitor being Bond Stores. Bond operated numerous retail outlets across the U.S., with a factory in Rochester, N.Y. and a flagship store at 372 Fifth Avenue at 35th Street in NYC. Although Bond was primarily a men’s clothier, by the mid-1950s some stores carried women’s clothing, and in their heyday, like Howard Clothes, they also had around 150 stores.
My paternal grandfather Abraham immigrated by himself to America in 1905, leaving behind my grandmother Nettie to fend for herself with their firstborn infant, my Aunt Ella, in a small village near Lomza, Poland. Once my grandfather settled in NYC, he worked in the garment industry as an embroiderer – the trade he learned in the old country. He returned to Poland in late 1911, already a U.S. citizen – Jacob (my Uncle Jack) was born in 1912 and when Abraham left again for America later that year, he was unaware that my grandmother was pregnant with Dora (my Aunt Dottie), who was born in 1913. When World War I broke out, he was separated once again from his family, this time for even longer. He returned to Poland in 1919, moved the family temporarily to Lomza, and worked towards the goal of immigration for his family. Abraham, Nettie, and the three children stepped foot on Ellis Island on April 9, 1921, after sailing from Southampton on the Aquitania. My dad Sam was the only member of his immediate family to be born in America, in September 1923.
A few days ago, I posted an ad of a backyard roller coaster on a Facebook page dedicated to advertisements from the 1960’s-1970’s. This ad and another photo were shared by a reader on my Toys from the 1960s-1970s blog. I know nostalgia strikes a chord with many people, but that blog has elicited far more comments and views than anything else I have ever written. Published in December 2013, the blog still generates a good deal of interest. What is even more amazing is that the Facebook post has evoked a torrent of comments, some of which I will share further on in this blog. Reader Robert Jaye shared information about this backyard roller coaster in June 2014: We had a backyard roller coaster set from Montgomery Ward. It was little more than a tubular slide set. The tubes slipped over one another and one climbed to the top of the slide, and sat on a cart with wheels that were molded to ride the tubes. You pushed a release and down you went, all of five or six feet at a gentle slide angle. You rolled on for another five feet before encountering two small bumps that slowed you down before you rolled off into the grass.
Although certain candies bring back really sweet memories of childhood, I’ve been thinking lately about some of the bath and beauty products from my youth. These items are associated with vivid memories of a simpler time, devoid of all the gadgets and high tech products kids have today. Some of them, like unopened feminine products from yesteryear, are actually collected now for their nostalgic factor – I have personally sold a few on Ebay. If you have any products you used in your youth that bring back memories, whether fond or angst-ridden, please share. Procter & Gamble introduced Prell shampoo in 1947. Growing up, the clear green concentrate packaged in a tube was my family’s shampoo of choice. The color really looked radioactive, but the plastic tube was ingenious – lightweight and no risk of breaking a glass bottle. Although Prell was also available in a plastic bottle, the tube is what I associate with its iconic image. According to the website, in 1955 Prell was marketed for “women who wanted their hair to have that radiantly alive look”. Honestly, I cannot remember if the shampoo was good for our hair, but thinking about it brings back a host of memories. Procter & Gamble sold Prell to Prestige Brands International in November 1999. Prestige sold Prell, along with its other two shampoo brands (Denorex and Zincon) to Ultimark Products in October 2009 in order to focus on other product areas. Much to my surprise, the tubes are available for purchase on Amazon.