Wednesday, November 30, 2011

True Class Shows Itself in Taiwan

Reggie Darling has given us a set of civilized rules guaranteed to restore decorum to the experience of dining in fine restaurants. Yet he fails to give us a simple way of finding those restaurants in the first place. Luckily, in Taiwan the government has taken the mystery out of this difficulty by posting the following sign in Taipei's Main Station. What could be easier?

New Yorkers, eat your heart out. This is the Big League.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Abandoned House Adventure in Fair Haven, Connecticut

Ruined house in the Fair Haven neighborhood of New Haven

Fair Haven, Connecticut is the old riverfront area of the city of New Haven, near the Mill and Quinnipiac rivers. In the early days a lot of money was made there in the oyster business. Today there are old industrial areas near the rivers, and lots of old homes in the adjacent streets. This long-abandoned home on East Grand Avenue had a curious history. 

According to the lawyer who gave me permission to enter the building, the old owner bequeathed the property to his two children by dividing the long, narrow lot right through the center of the house. Unfortunately, the heirs quarreled, and neither would agree to sell to the other, or to co-develop the property, so the house lay there decaying for most of the twentieth century. 

By the time my college roommate and I went there the building was derelict; almost every single pane of window glass was broken. This early 19th-century home was rather large—probably one of the largest built in Fair Haven, although it was seemingly built as a double. Brick walls created the tall, raised basement, and at one time stairs led to an entry porch. Here is another home in Fair Haven built on the same general plan, although with more insistent Greek Revival trappings:

This old neighbor, at 37-39 Grand Avenue, shows how the abandoned house might have looked in better days.

We entered though a basement window at the back, and immediately fell though the floor. Fortunately, the wooden boards were only a few inches above the true dirt floor beneath, so there were no casualties. However, the floor, which was rotten everywhere, was a cause for concern, as was the condition of the foundation bricks:

Usually it is the mortar that falls out from between the bricks, which must then be repaired by repointing. Here the bricks themselves have disintegrated, leaving behind a honeycomb of intact mortar.  At this point, considering that these bricks were also holding up the structure, we decided to leave the house and go to a nearby fire station, explaining that we were photographing the home and if we didn’t report back by such a time, they should come to look for us.

The old beehive oven

Early homes often had their kitchens in the basement, as evidenced here by a large fireplace equipped with a beehive oven. Often these ovens are set into a wall, so the backs cannot be seen, but it this case the back was exposed, giving us a rare glimpse at this attractive spiraling masonry work:

Back of the beehive

We cautiously ascended to the main floor (the stairs were broken and rotting), to find a curious hodge-podge of rooms; it wasn’t exactly one house, but it wasn’t exactly a double, either. Although there was evidence of some early woodwork and remnants of hand-blocked wallpaper, there were also cheap moldings that indicated that perhaps the dwelling had been cut up into a rooming house, not an unusual fate for old buildings.

Climbing another questionable staircase to the second floor, we encountered a hallway floor riddled with large holes that allowed us to see through to the first floor below. One of the bedrooms still gives me nightmares. Aside from the overwhelming water damage and the incredible dreariness, the cheap, institutional-looking iron bed is another sign that this could have been a rooming house. To be fair, there were some very attractive features in the house, but we never got a chance to photograph them.

Hollywood could not have dreamed this one up...
We then mounted the final stairs to the attic, which apparently had never been finished and was just one large space, although it was fully floored. We started walking toward the chimney, when a strange thing happened—the whole floor under us started to move, slanting as though the very structure of the house were giving way. 

We looked at each other, then gingerly but quickly made our way out . The next time I was in Fair Haven, the house was gone. I never found out if it fell, or if it was torn down as a safety concern. I have never seen an old house in such bad condition as this one. Often owners of historic buildings will claim that a reasonably sound house cannot be saved because they want to develop the property, but this house was truly beyond repair.

The site today, still undeveloped, from a Google Maps view.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bats: Terror of the Night, or Omen of Good Luck?

With its gauzy blue wings and glittery details, the above Chinese bat is perhaps the most delicate and pretty one that I have seen. Since Halloween is coming up, with its frightening images of attacking vampire bats, I thought this would be a good time to compare Eastern and Western bats.

"I want to suck your blood...."

This bat, with its matted fur, sharp fangs, and glowing red eyes, shows the Halloween bat at its fearsome worst. However, even Western scientific treatises manage to capture the most menacing and unfriendly aspect of bats, as in this hand-colored engraving from a natural history text of 1840:

In Chinese culture, bats have a positive symbolism, and are considered to bring good luck, because the Chinese word for bat (fu,蝠) resembles the one for luck (fu,福) and is also written similarly. Here are a couple of  good-luck bats that are meant to be hung in the home, one in wood, and the other in gilt bronze. (Neither of these is very old; in future posts, I plan to examine how bats were incorporated into antique and vintage items.)

Bats are very auspicious commercially, as in this sign for “One Luck” take-out food.

If these outlines of Chinese bats are starting to look familiar, that is because bat-shaped hardware was borrowed by the heavily Chinese-influenced furniture designer Thomas Chippendale. Once you see this connection, a lot of Chinese-inspired scroll-work will resolve itself into bat-forms. Here are a couple of bonnet-top high chests from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts which incorporate Chinese Chippendale drawer-pulls and other brasses.

An Eighteenth-century Massachusetts high chest.

Detail of Massachusetts chest.

Another high chest, this one by famed Newport cabinetmaker John Townsend, c.1750’s.

Detail of Townsend chest.

Bats are truly ubiquitous here in Taiwan. They are found in good-luck charms, jewelry, home furnishings, stationery—just about anywhere. Taking a look around my apartment, I noticed a bat motif in the tile floor of the balcony, which has a repeating design of four bats facing inward in a circle:

The corners of my coffee table are enhanced with carved bats.

Here is an especially festive and friendly bat that adds an additional good-luck element to a New Year’s decorative firecracker.

So now that you have compared both types, which bats do you prefer:  auspicious, friendly, attractive Chinese ones, or dreadful, unlucky, ominous Western ones?

One more look at a scary Western bat.

Photo credits: The two high chests are courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, All other images belong to the author.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Zhu Bajie: The Pig God (Nice ladies please DO NOT read this)

A fascinating aspect of Asian culture is the vast number of religious statues. Many of these are deities, although others are demons, generals, teachers, ancestors, and even animals. Some statues such as Guan Yin are peaceful and beautiful, but there is an amazing variety.

One of the more interesting ones I’ve come across is Zhu Bajie, a character from the Ming dynasty novel, Journey to the West, also known as Monkey. Zhu Bajie, represented as a human body with the head of a pig, was a heavenly commander who was cast down to earth because of his piggish appetites, and who then had many complicated adventures.

My first indication that this was an unusual object was when I bought it, and I was warned not to give the effigy to any female friend or relative, because this character was rather unsavory, and was the special “guardian saint” for prostitutes. Keith Stevens in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch had this to say about Zhu Bajie:

"Although he is usually regarded China-wide as the epitome of gluttony, in Taiwan he is also revered by prostitutes who call on his divine title Shoushou Ye, offering him incense and chants morning and evening whilst calling on him to bring them rich guests, foolish and witless, to be fleeced." 

Quite a reputation this Zhu Bajie has. Since I brought him into my apartment I have not noticed any material change in the quality of my guests and other visitors (although naturally I would be too polite to tell the truth on that score. Furthermore, maybe I didn't get the chant right.)

I have managed to find a couple of other images of Zhu Bajie. The above panel came from a piece of furniture, and is a mahogany-like wood, inlaid with boxwood and bone. Unlike the happy 3-D statue, this one looks disgruntled, and the bird next to him doesn’t look too happy, either. Also, he is holding a large flower, whereas Zu Bajie’s normal attribute is a rake which he holds as a weapon. He may look like he is waving, but actually he is about to wreak destruction.

Zhu Bajie with Rake. (Source:

This rather trim and stylish example is very similar to the top one, though perhaps a bit more brightly colored. While both of these small statues have lost their rakes, their right hands are eternally raised to wield them.

Normally, statues like the above are placed on home altars or in temples, so I had assumed that Zhu Bajie dates back into Chinese mythology, but apparently he originated in the Journey to the West novel, many scenes from which have made their way into Chinese art. I find these little statues appealing and a little bizarre, but strangest of all is how a fictional character was deified by prostitutes.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Jingling Johnny Puts in a Rare Appearance

The Rehearsal
Taking the time to examine historic objects brings out details that imbue the articles with interest. The above photo is from an 1870’s stereoview and shows a typical genre scene of a musical rehearsal, but a second glance shows that the photographer recorded something unusual. 

There are four male musicians accompanied by a woman playing a keyboard instrument. Two of the men are playing a cornet and a trombone, both perfectly ordinary. One is playing an early tuba, highlighted in a blue square, but the most interesting is the performer on the right, highlighted in red, who is playing the Turkish crescent, also known as the Jingling Johnny.

The jingling Johnny blends in with the elaborate sconce behind

The Turkish crescent was a percussion instrument, basically a pole hung with bells. Mostly a flashy parade instrument, it was meant to be shaken or twisted to ring the bells. It is still made and used to some extent, so is not entirely obsolete. This one is very typical, with a crescent on top, conical “hat” below (yet another name is chapeau chinois, or Chinese hat), and a larger crescent below that, all hung with bells. Their polished brass and exotic shape make them popular with musical instrument museums, as with these examples:
Turkish crescent in Boston MFA
Example in Basel

and one in Germany

The Turkish influence was popular in Western music starting from the 18th century—think of Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca. Many pianos of the period had Turkish or Janissary stops which controlled various bells, cymbals and drums.

Although the jingling Johnny itself was popular, photographs of it are rare, especially in use, and this is the only photo I have seen that shows it in a home environment. Thus this photograph, even if possibly staged, gives evidence of how people used and thought of the instrument.

Notice the very wide conical bell on this tuba, with almost no flare

Most mechanized brass instruments were developed in the 19th century, but this tuba seems primitive even by the standards of 1870. It is still shaped very much like the earlier ophicleide, from which it was developed. Notice that the bell end is simply a wide truncated cone, with very little flare to it. The tuba in this photo resembles the Moritz tuba, which Phillip Young remarks is noted for its early primitiveness.

Ophicleide, early brass bass instrument, by Guichard, MFA

Early tuba by Moritz
Early American tuba by Gilmore

More modern tuba by White (made in Cleveland!)
This baritone also shows the typical modern brass profile

Here is the entire stereoview. (The two halves were taken at slightly different angles, and appear three-dimensional when viewed through a special viewer.) The image as a whole helps tell us how people spent time and entertained themselves 140 years ago, playing instruments, forming home music ensembles, and even looking at stereoviews. An interest in musical instruments lets us notice the individual elements of this photo, with the result that two early and unusual instruments are brought into focus.


MFA crescent, Guichard ophicleide and Gilmore tuba courtesy Boston Museum of Fine Arts,
Basel crescent courtesy HISTORISCHES MUSEUM BASEL,
Moritz tuba from The Look of Music, by Phillip Young.
White tuba courtesy U. of Michigan Stearns Collection,

Monday, September 5, 2011

Back to Harvard: Fall, 1899

Issue from September 27, 1899.

Labor Day is upon us, and students everywhere are returning to their dorms to prepare for another year of  studying and partying. This immemorial custom was true even for the patrician students of Harvard college back in 1899, as we can see from glancing though old issues of the Harvard Crimson.


Many of the ads feature furniture and other appurtenances of the late nineteenth-century dorm room. Most of it seems pretty fancy. We are solidly in the golden oak period, and there is still quite a bit of Victorian frippery in evidence.

One often thinks of dorm furniture as miscellaneous cast-offs, with perhaps a parsons table from Ikea thrown in. Naturally, one would expect a higher standard at Harvard. Richard Bissell, in his classic You Can Always Tell a Harvard Man, quotes an 1876 letter from Theodore Roosevelt (Harvard 1880) describing his room: “The curtains, carpet, furniture—in short, everything is really beautiful; I have never seen prettier or more tasteful wall paper. When I get my pictures and books, I do not think there will be a room in College more handsome or comfortable.”

This dandy analyst’s couch would have been just the thing for budding Harvard psychoanalysts at the turn of the century.  Freud was then at his zenith, and in 1899 William James, one of the founders of modern psychology, and brother of psychological novelist Henry James, was teaching at Harvard, so there was likely a strong demand for this particular piece of furniture.
Freud's actual couch, in the Freud Museum


The above ad for carpeting features an unlikely conversation between two students. It’s just a trick of the shading, but the standing one looks like he’s wearing a monocle, adding to his supercilious bearing, and making him resemble P.G. Wodehouse’s character Psmith. He doesn’t seem to be looking at his friend, but rather at the burning cigarette without an ash receptacle in sight, leading to new-carpet anxiety. He apparently has never heard the maxim that ashes are good for rugs.

Clothing of all type was heavily featured to outfit the returning students. The Cygolf shoes above look appropriately Victorian, but the Tuttle ones below in every detail could still be sold today. How many products have a 112+ year life-span without any modification or design changes? Classics endure.

Harvard students needed to relax following all that strenuous decoration, and there were plenty of options available. They might go to see Mlle. Fifi, not a young lady, but the controversial play by Oscar Méténier, based on a story by Guy de Maupassant.

Tobacco pipes were practically the emblem of the college student back then, and fine meerschaums were none too good for the Harvard undergraduate. Luckily, they didn’t have to depend on puritan Boston tobacco, or some questionable Harvard blend, but indulged in Yale Mixture tobacco.

Billiards were yet another option. Students could amble down to Sanborn’s Billiard Parlors, or the more exclusive could purchase their own table  from J.E. Came and Co.—notice the 4-digit phone number in Boston. If you look closely, you see this is a true billiards table, with no pockets. Anyone who has seen The Music Man knows how déclassé pool and pool halls are, compared to billiards; I’m sure that pool is still beneath the notice of Harvard students.

I had always associated Stover with Yale, but apparently he needed a career after his gridiron glory days were over. I realize they were tying to demonstrate customer and staff loyalty, but somehow their testimonials seem peculiarly unappealing--their constancy seems more like addiction or mesmeric coercion. I would not base my choice of pharmacy on the sole fact that their scrubwoman (presumably Old Mother Hubbard herself) has scrubbed the floors continuously for 35 years. Note the interesting use of the archaic word “goody”.

These old ads from the Harvard Crimson are amusing because they reflect the world of the 1890’s, yet are curiously relevant over 100 years later. Oriental rugs and briar pipes are no longer de rigueur, but the basic nature of college students has not changed. College and a dorm room represent the first taste of independence, and students want their quarters to be comfortable and attractive, while proving their maturity and sophistication.