The Children’s Room

Cape Cod Modern, by Peter McMahon & Christine Cipriani

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

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

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)

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

 

Who invented the amazing paper bag?

Luther Childs Crowell

Luther Childs Crowell

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

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

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

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

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.

References

Reverse silhouettes

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot — “Little Gidding”

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I knew the name, György Kepes, mostly because he’s one of those notable Wellfleetians, but I can’t say that I knew much about him until recently.

My exploration started with a “Picture of the Day” in New Scientist, showing one of his reverse silhouettes, and describing an exhibition of his works at Tate Liverpool. More images are shown in the slide show above, on the website of the new Kepes Institute, Museum, and Cultural Center in Eger Hungary, and at Hommage à György Kepes.

Cape Cod Modern,  Peter McMahon, Christine Cipriani

Cape Cod Modern, Peter McMahon, Christine Cipriani

I looked up Kepes in the wonderful new book by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani, Cape Cod modern: Midcentury architecture and community on the Outer Cape. There are interesting stories and photos there about the house that Marcel Breuer designed for the Kepes family on Long Pond, and about their interesting relationship with Wellfleet and Cambridge, Mass, including living in Wellfleet without a car. There is some about his wife, Juliet Kepes, who has had considerable accomplishments of her own, including winning the Caldecott Award for Five little monkeys. They had met in London when she was then 17-year-old Juliet Appleby.

I then started examining more of the Kepes art, writings, and history.

The Wellfleet library may be small, but it’s an excellent source for this kind of investigation. It has many books by György Kepes, including his Vision + value series. As I read through the contributors, I couldn’t believe what I saw.

Kepes (1906-2001) was a Hungarian-born painter, photographer, designer, filmmaker, educator, and art/design theorist. As a young artist, he was concerned about the relation between art and social justice, seeking to alleviate “the inhumane conditions of the Hungarian peasantry.” He followed László Moholy-Nagy to London, and later, to teach design at the New Bauhaus in Chicago and later founded the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT.

Five Little Monkeys, Juliet Kepes

Five Little Monkeys, Juliet Kepes

Kepes promoted an idealistic conception of visual communication as a universal language that could enhance communication and social relations:

Visual communication is universal and international; it knows no limits of tongue, vocabulary, or grammar, and it can be perceived by the illiterate as well as by the literate (Language of Vision, p. 13).

There are many reasons to question that bold statement, and Kepes must have done so as well. While at New Bauhaus he developed ideas about design theory, form in relation to function, and the “education of vision.” This implies that although visual communication may be universal it is not immediately apprehended. Kepes’s teaching and writing, including the anthologies he edited argue for it as something to be studied and learned. Kepes goes on to say: “Visual language must be adjusted, however, to meet its historical challenge.” This challenge is to reunite people and knowledge, to establish a more integrated being in a changing world.

What especially struck me about Kepes’s work was how much it tied together disparate threads in my own life. He saw fundamental connections between people in fields that are often considered to be far apart. In exploring his work I felt that I was getting know a new friend, but also, as Eliot suggests, getting to know myself better as well.

Kepes’s Bauhaus strand is strong in Wellfleet, including in the life and work of friends Ati Gropius and John Johansen, Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Serge Chermayeff, Paul Weidlinger, and others. He worked with science educators, such as Gerard Holton and Philip Morrison. He was involved in the development of computer sciences, especially regarding data visualization, and worked with Norbert Wiener and Jerome Wiesner. He worked with psychologists, including Rudolf Arnheim and Erik Erikson, mathematicians–Stanislaw Ulam, biologists–C. H. Waddington, communications theorists–Marshall McLuhan, artists–Piet Mondrian, Mark Rothko. And he is most strongly identified with designer/theorists such as Christopher Alexander, Buckminster Fuller, and Charles Eames. Thus, the worlds of art, science, education, technology, and social justice were in the same mix. This can be seen in his exhibition/book, The new landscape in art and science, in which artwork was interlaced with images from x-rays, stroboscopes, electron microscopes, sonar, radar, telescopes, and infrared sensors.

Some more examples are his reverse silhouettes. Using a technique that has become a children’s museum staple, Kepes made “photograms” by arranging objects directly on top of light-sensitive paper and illuminating them. I wish I could see the new display in Liverpool, but in lieu of that am enjoying the art and ideas in his many books. These ideas are still fresh and have inspired many others, including the whole field of computational aesthetics (see for example, Form + code)

References

  • Kepes, György (1995/1944). Language of vision. New York: Dover.
  • Kepes, György (1949). Graphic forms: The arts as related to the book. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Kepes, György (1956). The new landscape in art and science. Chicago: Paul Theobald.
  • Kepes, György (1965-66). Vision + value [series] (The education of vision; Structure in art and science; The nature and art of motion; Module, symmetry, proportion, rhythm; Sign, image, symbol; and The man-made object). New York: George Braziller.
  • Kepes, György (1966). The visual arts today. Wesleyan University Press.
  • Kepes, György (1972). Arts of environment. New York: George Braziller.
  • McMahon, Peter, & Cipriani, Christine (2104, Spring). Cape Cod modern: Midcentury architecture and community on the Outer Cape. New York: Metropolis.
  • Picture of the day (2015). Reverse silhouettes capture the beauty of nature. New Scientist.
  • Rawsthorn, Alice (2010). A master of image and information. The New York Times.
  • Reas, Casey; McWilliams,Chandler; LUST (2010). Form + code: In design, art, and architecture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press.

Light from the Castagna

Castagna

Castagna

Over a century ago, on February 17, 1914, the Italian bark Castagna was thrown on the backside of Cape Cod near the Marconi Lifesaving Station. See Italian bark Castagna comes a cropper on the Marconi Station beach and Shipwrecks on South Wellfleet’s Shore.

There’s a large photo of the Castagna in the Wellfleet Post Office and the general story is well known. But there’s a side to it that not many people know.

The Castagna was bound from Montevideo for Weymouth loaded with guano. It struck ground during a blinding snowstorm and northwest gale. Lifesaving crews shot three lines for breeches buoys across the Castagna’s deck, but the sailors were so cold that they were unable to handle the tackle. The skipper of the Castagna was washed overboard, four men froze to death in the rigging and one died in the lifeboat on the way to shore. The loss of life was the largest in a wreck on Cape Cod in 12 years.

The Life Line, Winslow Homer, 1884

The Life Line, Winslow Homer, 1884

My Great Uncle Jack Whorf, had just turned 13 years old. When he heard about the ship going aground, he and a friend decided that going to see the wreck would be more interesting than whatever was planned for school that day. When they arrived at the ocean, they saw the crews from the Nauset and Cahoon’s Hollow stations set up with their beach gear.

The crews had managed to rescue the ship’s cook with a breeches buoy. Presumably he had survived in part from being in the warm galley, rather than up in the rigging. He was set up in a chair on the beach. Jack and his friend were told to rub his arms to keep him alive.

The next day, Jack and his friend scavenged some teak from the wreck and made a desk lamp from the wood. A Wellfleet lampshade maker painted a Cape Cod map and a picture of the ship on the shade. He and Great Aunt Polly used that lamp in their den. For them it was a quite ordinary fixture; for me, it was a talisman to adventure and tragedy.