Like other races, the Wellfleet Road Race is still happening, still raising money for a good cause. In this case, that cause is the Wellfleet Recreation Department summer program.
But it’s no longer a gathering of 300 or so people at Mayo Beach, and running for five miles, breathing hard at close quarters. Instead, participants register as usual, pick up a cool, new t-shirt, select a route for the required distance, run or walk, and record their times online.
Chances of winning go up since there are fewer participants. The race also has ample categories for gender, age, running versus walking, and Wellfleet residents. I’m fairly sure that I’m the only one in the male walker, Wellfleet resident, over 70 category, so I have a good shot at winning!
Today, our family entered this great race. I wanted to deduct some time for including Snake Creek Road in our route, since it’s become rough and overgrown.
For the 17th year, Wellfleet hosted its State of the Harbor Conference. It was held at the Wellfleet Elementary School on a beautiful, sunny, fall day––Saturday, November 2, 2019.
Participants included ordinary citizens, fishermen, students from K-12 through graduate school, town officials, and staff of the Mass Audubon, the National Park Service, the Center for Coastal Studies, Wellfleet Conservation Trust, and other organizations. They came to report on what they are learning about the ecosystem of the harbor.
There was coffee, snacks, and ample time for informal discussions as well. Americorps workers focusing on the environment helped with the organization, logistics, and even serving Mac’s clam chowder for the lunch.
Q/A with Martha Craig and Kirk Bozma on Herring River restoration
On Sunday, there was a follow-up field trip to look at Wellfleet Harbor’s history and its “black mayonnaise”.
Interactions Within Ecosystems
As was the case in previous years, this was a learning event throughout.
Continuing what’s now a 17-year tradition, the conference showed the complex connections between humans and other living things including phytoplankton, striped bass, menhaden, horseshoe crabs, oysters, quahogs, seals, terrapins, molas (sunfish), phragmites, bacteria, protozoa, resident and migrating birds, as well as the land, sea, and air.
Presenters discussed ideas that went beyond the everyday understanding of harbor ecosystems. These ideas included bioturbation––the disturbance of soil, especially on the sea floor by organisms such as crabs and other invertebrates. There was talk of organism lipid levels as a measure of their nutrient value for predators. One poster emphasized the rise in Mola mola population attributable to increased numbers of jellyfish.
John Brault with Krill Carson’s poster on the Mola explosion
One presentation discussed a major meta-analysis of ocean phenology studies. This research looks at when significant events such as spawning, migration, or molting, occur in an organism’s life cycle. Those times are shifting as a result of global heating, changes in ocean currents and nutrient availability. In some cases there are critical mismatches between the cycle for a predator species and its prey, which has major consequences for both and for the larger ecosystem. A population may increase earlier than in the past, but its food source doesn’t necessarily match up with that.
Correlating sightings of right whales with copepod density
Most notably, the Conference considered the impact of these diverse aspects of nature on people and vice versa. In every presentation or poster, one could see major ways in which human activity affects other aspects of nature.
The Harbor Conference is a good example of how to improve what Doug Schuler calls civic intelligence, becoming more aware of the resources in our community, learning of its problems, finding ways to work together, and developing civic responsibility.
In any locality, civic intelligence is inseparable from the nature all around. But in Wellfleet this connection is more evident than in most. Every issue––transportation, affordable housing, employment, health care, fishing and shellfishing, waste management, history, and more––affects and is affected by our capacity to live sustainably. The harbor and the surrounding ocean, rivers, and uplands are deeply embedded with that.
There is a depressing theme through much of the Conference. The studies reported in detail on the many ways that humans damage the beautiful world we inhabit, through greenhouse gas emissions causing global heating and higher acidity, increased storm activity, and sea level rise. There is pollution of many kinds, black mayonnaise, and habitat destruction.
Mark Faherty offered a promising note for the horseshoe crab population. But even it has a downside: As the whelk population falls there will be less call on horseshoe crabs as bait, so that may help their recovery.
Nevertheless, it is inspiring to see the dedication of people trying to preserve what we can, and to learn so much about the ecology of the unique region of Wellfleet Harbor.
Maps for Learning
A striking feature of every presentation and poster was the use of maps. These included maps showing tidal flows, migration patterns, seasonal variations, sediment accumulation, human-made structures, and much more.
Maps of process and monitoring
If we extend the idea of maps to visual displays of information, then it evident that even more maps were used. These included flowcharts for processes such as the one for adaptive management shown above, organization charts, and timelines for events in temporal sequences.
1887 Map of Wellfleet
The maps are not only for communication of results. They are also a useful tool for the research itself. The most useful applications involved overlays of maps or comparisons of maps from different situations or times.
As an example, the population of horseshoe crabs could be compared with the management practices in a given area. Is the harvest restricted to avoiding the days around the new and full moon? Can they be harvested for medical purposes? For bait? The impact of different regulatory practices across time and place could easily be seen in graphical displays.
The Conference as a Site for Learning
You would find similar activities at many conferences. But the Harbor Conference stands out in terms of the cross-professional dialogue, the collaborative spirit among presenters and audience, and the ways that knowledge creation is so integrated with daily experience and action in the world.
This learning is not in a school or a university; there are no grades or certificates of completion. There are no “teachers” or “students” per se. However, by engaging with nature along with our fellow community members, conference attendees explore disciplines of history, statistics, politics, commerce, geology, biology, physics, chemistry, meteorology, oceanography, and more.
Nature itself is the curriculum guide. It is also the ultimate examiner.
[Note: This text will be cross-posted on the Wellfleet Conservation Trust blog.]
The annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference was held at the Wellfleet Elementary School on November 4, 2017. See the schedule here.
This was a learning event throughout. Janet Reinhart started off with a reference to Wallace Nichols’s Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. Before we could become complacent about that, we began to see the many threats to the water around us.
Elizabeth McDougall (R) and coworkers from the Cape Cod National Seashore on estuarine restoration (water quality)
Continuing what’s now a 15-year tradition, the conference showed the complex connections among trout, whales, menhaden, horseshoe crabs, shellfish, seals, terrapins, sunfish, eel grass, phragmites, bacteria, protozoa, other living things, the land, sea, and air. Most notably, it considered the impact of these diverse aspects of nature on people. In every presentation or poster, we saw the major ways in which human activity affects other aspects of nature.
Presentations at WES
The Harbor conference is at once depressing and inspiring. It’s depressing as it details the many ways in which humans damage the beautiful world we inhabit, through greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming, increased storm activity, and sea level rise, pollution of many kinds, black mayonnaise, habitat destruction, and more. But it’s inspiring to see the dedication of people trying to preserve what we can, and to learn so much about the ecology of the unique region of Wellfleet Harbor.
Americorps workers helping to prepare Mac’s clam chowder for the lunch
The conference is billed as an opportunity to hear about the latest research, a task it fulfills admirably. Beyond that, I see it as nature school, or nature as curriculum. Participants, including volunteers, fishermen, students, town officials, and staff of the Mass Audubon, the National Park Service, the Center for Coastal Studies, and other organizations, come to report on what they have learned.
The sessions are not simply reports. For example, Geoffrey Day and Michael Hopper spoke for the Sea-Run Brook Trout Coalition. They’re studying the history of anadromous trout in the area and whether traditional runs could be restored. The research is part ecological, looking at the hydrology of Fresh Brook and part historical, using archival data. The presenter, Day, asked for listeners to share any family accounts they might have–letters, maps, and so on– which might document the conditions for the trout population from a century or more ago.
Inquiry in and for nature
Whether for brook trout, or many other examples, investigation thus becomes collaborative, a community activity. Moreover, in each case, participants ask “what can be done?” Sometimes the answer is to create, which may be an aesthetic response, political dialogue, collective action for the environment– solar energy, harbor dredging, dam removal, pollution monitoring, and always, more research. Participants continue then to discuss and to to reflect on what they experience, thus enacting an inquiry cycle of learning.
You might find similar activities at many conferences. But the Harbor Conference stands out in terms of the collaborative spirit among presenters and audience and in the ways that knowledge creation is so integrated with daily experience and action in the world.
Poster on monitoring diamondback terrapins nesting on the Herring River
This learning was not in a school or a university; there were no grades or certificates of completion. There weren’t even “teachers” or “students” per se. However, by engaging with nature along with our fellow community members, we explored disciplines of history, politics, commerce, geology, biology, physics, chemistry, meteorology, and more. Nature itself became our curriculum guide.
My friend and former student Beena alerted me to a wonderful blog post by Nicholas Delbanco. It’s a celebration of Wellfleet’s Transfer Center from U-M’s alumni publication Michigan Today: The order of ordure.
Driving down the hill away from the landfill, windows shut against the stench of it, I congratulate myself on having completed my task. I am, after all, helping to organize the planet. “The order of ordure” — I try out a phrase — “the composition of compost, the transfer of trash, the way of waste.” There’s something deeply gratifying about such distribution. Every item has its place and all can be redeemed.
This is absurd, of course. We make small difference here. Rumor has it that the 16-wheelers hauling garbage lump everything together after our dutiful sorting. And day by week by month the waste accumulates again. But as the air clears and I open the car windows, I’m seized by the conviction that what I’ve done is similar to what I also do each day: distribute words on a page.
Delbanco writes as a summer resident. As a full-time one, I can confirm what he says, and perhaps add a little texture. During the winter, the Transfer Center remains as the top attraction in town, the place where you see your friends and catch up on gossip. But it loses the bustle that Delbanco sees and definitely the stench.
By the way, I don’t experience that smell as a uniform aroma, but as one that guides you through the site, noticeable at the bottle and cans area, a little stronger near the discarded sea shells and fishing gear, not so noticeable at the metal recycling or the mulch pile.
Delbanco also emphasizes the dropping off aspect. That’s of course the reason for the very existence of the Center. But he may not appreciate how much some clients (the “cadre of those who pick over what others discard”) find to remove from the site. Only some of those do it for cash.
We go to the dump (aka Wellfleet Transfer Center and Recycling Station) with our Forester filled to its gills, but often return with just as much stuff. That leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand there’s a sense of the great find, such as the canoe we retrieved, which only leaks a little. We typically come home with eight buckets of compost or mulch for the garden. The swap shop often has the perfect item that even Amazon can’t find.
On the other hand, there’s a feeling of complete failure to progress. We use up Energy to make the exchange, but the Conservation of Mass is maintained.
Delbanco suggests that transferring and recycling trash is not so different from doing the same with words. He mentions E. E. Cummings in that regard, but may not realize a connection to Wellfleet.
William Slater Brown was a friend of Cummings, best known as the character “B.” in Cummings’s The Enormous Room. That book details their temporary imprisonment in France during World War I. B. was arrested by French authorities as a result of anti-war sentiments he had expressed in some letters, and Cummings stood by him. Today, Brown’s daughter Rachel is a prominent photographer living in Wellfleet.
On Friday, staff from More Than Words (MTW) worked with members of the Friends of Wellfleet Library (FWL) to load donated books for sale in one of two Boston-area stores and online. The books filled a medium-sized truck and weighed 2.75 tons.
That’s a lot of books! Even so, the MTW truck will need to return for more books in a couple of weeks. Once, they managed to carry twice as much, but that pushes the safety limits on a medium-sized truck.
Backing the MTW truck up to the shed
On this day, a couple of MTW workers joined with Friends volunteers loading books by passing them in a chain from one hand to another.
I thought the names would be easy for me since I was positioned with two Stephen’s before me and one after, but I found that it caused confusion when I’d call out, “careful, Stephen, that box is breaking!”
Book donations to the Library
These books and others were donated by people who care about the Wellfleet Library. Occasionally a book may fit Library collection needs, but generally the idea is that they will be sold during the two summer book sales or from a sale rack in the Library. Some of the children’s books are given to new parents or to families involved in a summer reading program.
Filling gaylords with books, 500 pounds each
The sales have been extremely successful, raising thousands of dollars for Library needs. Receipts from the sales supplement the Library budget, making possible museum passes, children’s programs, online tools such as Freegal and Zinnio, special equipment purchase, computer user support, special books and periodicals, and audio visual materials for documenting the life and times of the community.
But there are always some books that don’t sell. In the past, many of these met their end in the recycle bin. But for the last three years, MTW and FWL have partnered to give the books an extended life, one that amplifies the reach and benefits of the Library.
More Than Words
The partnership helps More Than Words (MTW), a significant, nonprofit social enterprise in the Boston area. MTW “empowers youth who are in the foster care system, court involved, homeless, or out of school to take charge of their lives by taking charge of a business.” Youth in the program have managed an online bookselling operation since 2004. They are challenged with authentic and increasing responsibilities in a business setting, along with high expectations and a culture of support.
MTW opened a lively bookstore on Moody St in Waltham in 2005 and added a coffee bar in 2008. The model was replicated in the South End of Boston in 2011, doubling the impact of the program. Even so, the Wellfleet donation is about all that MTW can handle from Cape Cod.
Serving multiple needs
Helpers of all ages
I’ve always felt that the summer books sales serve multiple worthy goals: raising money for Library collections and programs, making low-cost books available to those who need them, bringing community together through a shared project, informing people about the Library, and preserving a literate tradition. Even a book that doesn’t sell helps with some of those purposes. But I was sad to think that even one book might end up as recycled paper.
Through More Than Words, many books continue their good work. They become available to a larger audience, both in the metropolis of Boston and through the worldwide online market. More importantly, the book sales offer young people an opportunity to learn business skills, to further their education, and to develop as individuals. Now, although I still hope that FWL racks up good numbers in the summer sales, I’m glad to see that many of the books continue to serve additional purposes.
Cape Cod Modern, by Peter McMahon & Christine Cipriani
Each age tries to form its own conception of the past. Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time. –Frederick Jackson Turner, “The significance of history”, 1893
Tiny Wellfleet has been a significant home for histories of all stripes. These include psychohistory (Robert Jay Lifton, Erik Erikson, etc.), history employed to support social justice and civil rights (Howard Zinn, William McFeely, etc.), histories of colonial settlements, pirates, and whaling, and accounts of the daily lives of artists, shellfishers, and innumerable interesting characters. Wellfleet historical writing has for a long time been a vital participant in the story of Wellfleet, not simply a spectator.
A recent example is the winner of the 2015 Historic New England Book Prize, co-authored by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani: Cape Cod Modern: Mid-century Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape.The book uses architectural and personal photos, and interviews with designers, their families, and their clients to document the experimental homes designed by a cosmopolitan group of designers who settled in Wellfleet and Truro in the mid-20th century. The book has stimulated renewed interest in Bauhaus, in the so-called modernist houses, and in the community around them.
Preparatory drawing for playroom mural in Kepes House, Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Julia Kepes
A complementary project can now be seen with the summer opening of the Wellfleet Historical Society and Museum today. The Children’s Room, Art and Design of Wellfleet’s Mid-century Children’s Books is a collaboration of WHSM with the Cape Cod Modern House Trust and the Wellfleet Public Library. Here’s a description from the WHSM site:
During the 1930s Wellfleet’s population was just barely 800 people, and yet over 1,000 books have been published by, or about, the town’s mid-century denizens, around 200 being inventive books for children. Many of these books were designed and illustrated by some of the most acclaimed graphic artists of the era. This exhibit includes a selection of books, artifacts and original artwork.
Dwellers of the Tundra, by Aylette Jenness & Jonathan Jenness
Many of the artists and authors of the children’s books were connected with Bauhaus, and its emphasis on learning, science, experimentalism, and progressive politics. That can be seen in the wide variety of nature topics and in sympathetic depictions of diverse cultures.
As with Bauhaus, the exhibit invites participation. Visitors can observe blown-up versions of artwork from the children’s books, and peruse the books themselves. There are specially designed benches on which to sit or to spread out the objects. There are also crayons and paper to create your own artworks.
I like the fact that the museum is opening just after the summer solstice (a special one at that, coinciding with a strawberry moon). Bauhaus was very aware of new technologies, materials, and scientific discoveries. A love of nature and its meanings for humans was evident throughout its history. Wellfleetian Ati Gropius, who was the daughter of founder Walter, would gather people in late June and ask “What does the summer solstice mean to you?” Several of the Bauhaus-connected houses took advantage of solar or lunar movements in their design. So, it’s appropriate that this wonderful new exhibit welcome the summer season.
Fidelia, by Ruth Adams & Ati Forberg (Gropius)
The new Children’s Room is filled with wonderful individual items. There are Caldecott award winners and artworks that are surprisingly fresh and striking a half century or more after they were created. But the exhibit as a whole brings the items together in a provocative way, adding new meaning to the specific items and to our understanding of that mid-century era.
As I think about how our history-making enriches life in Wellfleet, I’m reminded of William James’s comment about teaching:
You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics, are humanities when taught with reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to which these sciences owe their being. Not taught thus literature remains grammar, art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures. –William James, “The social value of the college-bred,” 1907
We had a wonderful group of visitors from the Dorchester area over Memorial Day weekend: Priscilla (6), Nia (8), Phoebe (10), Sam (12), and Jane (73).
I knew that we were in for some special experiences when Phoebe ran in asking “Can we go to the Library?” That had been the highlight of a previous trip. Then Sam added, “Can we go to the beach, too?” The latter seemed like a reasonable request to add for a sunny holiday weekend.
At the Library
We managed to visit bay, ocean, and pond beaches. And the Library, of course. But we also set out to evaluate some local trails. You can see the evaluation sheet below. I fear that some of the drawings don’t reproduce well. But we got some good feedback on trails.
Priscilla, discussing books with Anna
On the Wellfleet Conservation Trust’s new Drummer Cove trail, Sam identified the #1 hit, fiddler crabs, especially one in particular, who is named Bob. He also called for more trail markers, which was understandable, as the trail was just cleared last week and hasn’t been marked yet.
Phoebe’s favorite thing “was the breeze and the shells on the way.” Her refrain throughout was for more shells. She and the others identified oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, slipper shells, winkles and more. For improvement, she recommended less pollen, which seemed to color everything yellow and cause some sneezing.
Sharing books and a swing
We also walked across Uncle Tim’s Bridge, through Hamblen Park, down to the “yes” benches. Priscilla, who perhaps wishes she were older, claimed her age as 6000, but I think it’s closer to 6. Her favorite thing was “fiddler crabsssssssssss” (there were many). For what to improve, she said “??????nuthing?”
Nia’s favorite was the baby diamond-back terrapin, which the group wanted to keep, but we let go on his/her way. For improvement, she wanted “to write more in Steve [Durkee]’s notebooks by the ‘yes’ benches.”
We also saw an osprey at the pier, and somehow managed to locate ice cream.
Yet these sweet sounds of the early season,
And these fair sights of its sunny days,
Are only sweet when we fondly listen,
And only fair when we fondly gaze.
There is no glory in star or blossom
Till looked upon by loving eye;
There is no fragrance in April breezes
Till breathed with joy as they wander by.
Heidi Clemmer and Marisa Picariello, creators of Cape Cod Eco-Tales
In his 1857 poem, An Invitation to the Country, William Cullen Bryant celebrates the joys of April. But more specifically, he invites his daughter Julia to return for a visit:
Come, Julia dear, for the sprouting willows,
The opening flowers, and the gleaming brooks,
And hollows, green in the sun, are waiting
Their dower of beauty from thy glad looks.
For Bryant, the sweetness of nature appears only when we “fondly listen” and its beauty only when we “fondly gaze.” At first glance, he contradicts Keats, who had told us that unheard melodies are sweeter. But actually not, since both call for our loving eye to be part of the beauty we see. Both poets conveniently conclude that it’s the poetic imagination that imparts real meaning to what we see or hear.
In any case, the idea of bringing our gaze to nature is central to the Tales & Trails: Nature Walks for Young Explorers program, sponsored by the Wellfleet Conservation Trust (WCT).
I was lucky enough to go along on the latest walk last Wednesday along an ephemeral pond beside the Walker Trail. It was a beautiful April day with clear skies and fresh breezes. There were no fragrances other than fresh clean air. We heard, or rather interacted with, Vernal Pool Visitors, and compared it to what we observed.
Walks through some of Wellfleet’s conservation areas are led by Heidi Clemmer, author of a new series of nature books for children called Cape Cod Eco-Tales. After 21 years as an elementary school teacher, Heidi retired and began to focus on teaching children about nature in informal, specifically, natural settings. She launched Eco-Tales with illustrator and collaborator Marisa Picariello. The target audience is children aged 6-9 and their families, but everyone from infants to those well into the their quatrième âge enjoy it.
Each walk focuses on a different ecosystem and is paired with one of the books in the series. Children explore the ecosystem, hear a corresponding nature story read by the author and illustrator, and then create their own souvenir of the experience in art, writing, or photography. The event combines fellowship, keen observation, story-telling, art, experiencing the beauty of Wellfleet’s conservation lands, speculation about science, and learning.
Last fall, Heidi led a trip to Hamblen Park, where she read from her book Salt Marsh Secrets. There will be five more walks this year. Next up is “Heathland Habitat” in May, followed by“Barrier Beach Bums” in June, “White Cedar Swamp Gang” in September, “Tidal Flat Friends” in October, and “Dune Dwellers” in November (more information).
Tales & Trails is funded by WCT and supported in part by a grant from the Wellfleet Cultural Council. Wellfleet Conservation Trust is a non-profit organization established in 1984 to assist and promote the preservation of natural resources and rural character of the town of Wellfleet. There is no cost to participate in Tales & Trails, but advance registration is required. To inquire about the walks, email Heidi Clemmer.
The Friends of wellfleet Library presented another in its Favorite Poems series yesterday, with Mort Inger ably hosting.
My own contribution was from one of my favorite writers, Jorge Luis Borges. Suzanne Jill Levine calls him “the most important writer of the 20th Century,” an assertion supported by Jane Ciabattari in a BBC article last year.
I became fascinated with Borges when I was in high school, the time that his first book-length publications began to appear in English (Ficciones and Labyrinths). His works wandered across a labyrinth of genres, including romance, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, metafiction, philosophy, literature, and language. His interest in time challenged my own dissertation work on time and formal logic.
I like other musings of Borges on philosophical issues, including this:
Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant.
Borges was also a translator of English, French, German, Old English, and Old Norse into Spanish. He translated Oscar Wilde’s story “The Happy Prince” at the age of nine. And his ideas about translation are even more relevant today. He saw language as a creative force that shaped us as much as we it. I think that he’d want me to learn better Spanish, but would also support the fact that nearly all my reading of his work is in translation. I know at least one Borges.
His work on time and language come together in his ideas about literary precursors:
the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; …not all of them resemble each other….if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist….The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors.
Despite being acknowledged by many as an outstanding, even the (or one of the) most important writers of the last century, Borges was never awarded the Nobel Prize. He writes:
Not granting me the Nobel Prize has become a Scandinavian tradition; since I was born they have not been granting it to me.
In 1955, after Peron was deposed, he became Director of the National Library of Argentina. Soon thereafter he became blind. He focused on poetry, since he could memorize an entire work and keep it in memory until he had perfected it.
No one should read self-pity or reproach
Into this statement of the majesty
Of God; who with such splendid irony,
Granted me books and night at one touch
–Seven Nights, 1984
A decade or so later, when he was exactly my age now, Borges published a collection of poems, Elogio de la Sombra (In Praise of Darkness). Of the same name, the last poem in the book, is the one I read yesterday:
In Praise of Darkness (1969/1974)
Old age (the name that others give it) can be the time of our greatest bliss. The animal has died or almost died. The man and his spirit remain.
I live among vague, luminous shapes that are not darkness yet.
whose edges disintegrated
into the endless plain,
has gone back to being the Recoleta, the Retiro,
the nondescript streets of the Once,
and the rickety old houses
we still call the South.
In my life there were always too many things.
Democritus of Abdera plucked out his eyes in order to think; Time has been my Democritus.
This penumbra is slow and does not pain me;
it flows down a gentle slope,
My friends have no faces,
women are what they were so many years ago,
these corners could be other corners,
there are no letters on the pages of books.
All this should frighten me,
but it is a sweetness, a return.
Of the generations of texts on earth
I will have read only a few-
the ones that I keep reading in my memory, reading and transforming.
From South, East, West, and North
the paths converge that have led me
to my secret center.
Those paths were echoes and footsteps,
women, men, death-throes, resurrections,
days and nights,
dreams and half-wakeful dreams,
every inmost moment of yesterday
and all the yesterdays of the world,
the Dane’s staunch sword and the Persian’s moon, the acts of the dead,
shared love, and words,
Emerson and snow, so many things.
Now I can forget them. I reach my center
my algebra and my key,
Soon I will know who I am.
Envision, if you can, a technology that sharply improves the efficiency with which goods can be delivered to the consumer; that, in the view of one prominent economist, is the ”most effective innovation during the preceding decade in speeding up American retail sales”; that within only a few years of its introduction becomes a pervasive feature of American life.
Such a technology, according to the historian Daniel J. Boorstin, was the square-bottomed paper bag, invented circa 1870 by one Luther Childs Crowell. –Krugman, 1997, “Technology makes us richer; the paper-bag revolution”
It doesn’t take long in Wellfleet to be impressed with the local lore. There’s a lot to learn, about native peoples, Pilgrims, pirates, psychiatrists, and painters. We hear about Baker inaugurating the banana trade, Marconi sending the first trans-Atlantic wireless, and Crowell inventing the paper bag. There is a little truth in this lore. However, as with any item in history, there’s more to the story than often claimed.
Kraft paper bag
One widely held idea, as evident in the quote above and some of the citations below, is that without Luther Childs Crowell of Wellfleet we’d never have the square-bottomed paper bag that makes shopping so convenient (and competes with the ubiquitous plastic ones). That’s an appealing story, especially for a small town that was in the doldrums during much of the industrial revolution.
Although he wasn’t born in Wellfleet, Crowell became a prominent, long-time resident. He’s considered the third most prolific American inventor of the 19th century. Among his inventions were an aerial machine (helicopter), a double supplement printing press, and a bottle-labeling machine. He’s a figure to remember.
Margaret E. Knight
Moreover, Crowell did play a role in the development of machines to make paper bags. He received one patent for this in 1867. Five years later he devised a machine to make square-bottomed paper bags, and later, the side-seam paper bag.
But the story is a bit more complicated than one inventor working alone to develop his brilliant idea. Paper bags were manufactured commercially in Bristol, England, starting in 1844. In 1852, Francis Wolle, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania patented and built a “Machine for Making Bags of Paper” (15 years before Crowell’s first bag patent). In 1869 Wolle and others founded the Union Paper Bag Machine Company. Many people consider Wolle to be “the” inventor. However, Wolle’s was an envelope-shaped bag, which was limited in terms of durability and interior space.
About then the plot thickens. In 1870, Margaret Knight designed a machine to cut, fold and paste paper bag bottoms. This meant that she could produce flat/square-bottomed paper bags, a great improvement on the earlier envelope-style bag design. Her work clearly preceded Crowell’s square-bottomed paper bag machine.
Knight became the first woman to achieve a U.S. patent in her own name, one of 89 in all. She held patents for improvements to automobile engines, for a window frame and sash, and for a shoe-sole-cutting machine. Almost immediately, she became the first woman to suffer patent infringement. Charles Annan filed a patent application making use of her design. Knight then filed a patent interference suit. In the trial, Annan argued that Knight could not have been the inventor. As a woman, she “could not possibly understand the mechanical complexities of the machine.” But Knight had full documentation, with drawings, paper patterns, diary entries, and more, demonstrating the complex and detailed work she had done over two years. She prevailed in court.
Patent model of Knight’s machine for making paper bags, 1879
A decade later, in 1883, Charles Stilwell was awarded a patent for making a “Square-Bottom Paper Bag w/ pleated sides.” His design was nicknamed “S.O.S.” (self-opening-sack), and provided the model for the mass-produced paper bags we know today. William Purvis and others received paper bag patents, with improvements such as the thumb cut to ease opening, serrated tops, and handles.
Crowell was an important player in this mix, but hardly the sole inventor. He actually acknowledged Knight as the true inventor, but declared that he had rights to make and sell the bag. Henry Petroski, who has one of the most thoroughly researched accounts of the paper bag development (see also Aidan O-Connor’s blog post), writes
The invention of the familiar square- or flat-bottomed paper bag–the “grocery bag”–is commonly but incorrectly attributed to Luther Childs Crowell, of Boston, Massachusetts, who in 1872 received a patent for an “Improvement in Paper-Bags.”
Note the use of the word, “improvement,” a sure sign that Crowell knew that he was helping the bag design to evolve, not inventing de novo. Crowell added several important features such as a bag top with unequal front and back sides. This made it easier to open the bag. He is thus rightly recognized as a major inventor, one who contributed to the design of paper bag we use today.
Stillwell patent, 1889
Knight’s contributions were for a long time under-appreciated, no doubt in part because she was a woman. But now, there are scholarly articles, museum exhibits, PBS shows (“History Detectives: Women inventors”) and children’s books about her: Margaret Knight: Girl inventor, In the bag!: Margaret Knight wraps it up, and Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight became an inventor.
It’s impossible to identify the top paper bag inventor. Francis Wolle started on the path to mechanized production of the bags, but his envelope design had limited usefulness. Margaret Knight arguably made the biggest jump up from that with her machine for making flat-bottomed paper bags. But Stilwell’s significant addition of the accordion pleats on the sides made the bags much more useable, easier to store and access.
Luther Crowell, William Purvis, and others also made important contributions. A search for “paper bag” in the title of US patents yields 212 since 1920, including the most recent to Noe Yanez Castro, Guadalupe Acevedo, and Cipriano Hinojos for a “clampless bar mechanism” for “paper bag bottoming.”
Crowell’s work was important and still worth sharing. But the fuller story involving the first major US woman inventor, paper bags in different countries, patent battles, and the evolution of design for multiple purposes makes a truer and far more interesting account.
Ament, Phil (2006, January 10). Paper bag. Troy MI: The Great Idea Finder.
Brill, Marlene Targ (2014). Margaret Knight: Girl inventor.