The Thomas Birch & Son Auctioneers employed rather exotic type for ‘Oriental’ auction catalogs in the 1870s:
In honor of Edith Wharton’s 155th birthday, the Author wishes to recount the pilgrimage she took to The Mount, Edith Warton’s estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, which is now a house museum.
At the time of the visit, the Author was searching for a topic for her upcoming dissertation. Inspired by Wharton’s short story “Roman Fever”, as well as, Henry James’ Daisy Miller and the diaries written by her ancestor, Caroline Hyde Butler Laing, when she lived in Rome from 1869-1871, the Author was toying with the idea of writing about American women in Rome.
This gave the Author a good enough excuse to contact The Mount and ask to research from their archives. Little did she expect that the wonderful staff at The Mount would set her up at Edith Wharton’s desk in Edith Wharton’s library to look at Edith Wharton’s very own books! The Author was giddy with excitement, but she tried (mostly successfully) to appear like a most serious scholar.
The Author, who is usually resistant to asking for her photograph to be taken, couldn’t possibly let this event go by without proper documentation, so she asked a tourist passing through the library to take her picture. This fuzzy photograph doesn’t come close to capturing the Author’s delight. To the right: Edith Wharton at her desk (photograph taken from the opposite side as the Author’s photo).
The Author ended up writing her dissertation on Vanity Fair‘s Becky Sharp, but Edith Wharton-and her heroines Lily Bart and Ellen Olenska-still hold a dear place in her heart.
Readers might recall previously shared posts about Edith Wharton: a new House of Mirth cover and this brilliant bit of dialogue written by an 11 (eleven!) year old Edith Wharton:
“‘Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown?’ said Mrs. Tomkins. ‘If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing room.’”
Lucretia’s devastating critique:
‘Drawing-rooms are always tidy’”
The Author is forever grateful to Google for sponsoring the digitization of million and million of books, and to the people who undertook the tedious task of scanning billions and billions of pages.
Also, there is no doubt that the sight of bright pink finger protectors is a cheerful interruption from scrutinizing name after name.
However, woe be the Author if her current research project hinges on a ‘Married Maiden’ between ‘Phelps’ and ‘Rich’ in the 1909 New York Social Register.
Also on the topic of impeded reading, Diligent Readers might recall this rather comical misprinting of E.M. Forester’s Where Angels Fear to Tread.
The Author encountered these signs for the William J. Burns Detective Agency on two different occasions, both in Northeast Philadelphia.
Much to the Author’s delight, the man behind the sign, Mr. William J. Burns, and his Detective Agency have quite an interesting and slightly unsavory history! You are welcome, Dear Reader, to accompany the Author on her dive into archives to learn more about this fellow and his involvement in noteworthy scandals further below.
William J. Burns, born in 1861, was known as “America’s Sherlock Holmes”. After success in the Secret Service, he started the William J. Burns International Detective Agency in 1909 and quickly gained national fame thanks to involvement in cases such as the 1910 Los Angeles Times building bombing, the Wheatland Hop Riot and the Murder of Mary Phagan.
In 1921, William Burns was appointed as the Director of the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the F.B.I.), no doubt thanks to the influence of his childhood friend Harry Daugherty, who was President William Harding’s Attorney General. “Billy” Burns returned the favor in kind throughout his tenure.
One notable occasion: Daugherty and President Harding were at a raging house party hosted by Ned McLean, publisher and owner of The Washington Post. Harding, Daugherty, and other West Wing chums and hangers-on regularly went to shindigs at McLean’s, but on one evening the debauchery turned fatal: in the early hours of the morning, the dinner table was enthusiastically cleared so the visiting chorus girls (a euphemism, perhaps) could dance on it. Plates, glasses and bottles were thrown with great vigor and one woman was hit in the head by a projectile. She was knocked unconscious and died a few days later. Billy Burns covered up the entire episode.
Burns took some of his strong-arming and intimidation techniques from the Detective Agency and brought them to the B.O.I.. This eventually lead to his downfall, as he was forced to resign less than three years into his tenure after his B.O.I. agents intimidated newspaper journalists who were portraying the B.O.I. in a negative light. Tut tut. He was succeeded by J. Edgar Hoover.
Freed of his governmental duties, he returned to his detective agency and soon found himself in another spot of bother: his agency was hired by an oil company executive on trial for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government (the Teapot Dome Scandal). Burns put 14 of his agents on the case to “investigate” (read: intimidate) the jurors. The plot was discovered and Burns was sentenced to 15 days in jail and his son, William Sherman Burns, to pay at $1,000 fine. Papa Burns was later cleared by a Supreme Court ruling. He later moved to Florida and published detective novels.
Well, that was fun! For further reading, the Author recommends Front-Page Detective by William R. Hurt and The Teapot Dome Scandal by Laton McCaryney (which is currently on the Author’s bedside table).
This 15th Century French roundel depicts, if you can believe it, a courting game. What romance!
The game, Quintain, was originally a training exercise for jousting. It evolved into a flirting technique that seems more Middle School than Middle Ages. Here are the rules of Quintain: a seated person holds up one leg, placing his/her foot against the foot of a standing person. One person tries to upend the other.
The Author wonders if, in this particular game of Quintain, the maiden with the flaxen hair maiden might be cheating by holding her right leg. The fellow with the flaxen cap seems to be accusing her of doing so.
Perhaps not the most successful courting game.
You might know of Charles Eames for his famous chair , but he was also quite the clever fellow with phonograms. He wrote some very charming, if somewhat indecipherable (for the Author, at least) rebus letters to his daughter Lucia. Can you decipher it? The Author presents her attempt below.
I am so sorry that I cannot take you to school. Are you drinking milk like a saint.
[the Author really has no clue what the last sentence is. Any guesses?]
Three industrious apes construct a table in this late 15th Century German glass roundel at the Met Cloisters. It’s a rather whimsical scene to be found next to roundels of souls being tormented in hell, the crucifixion of various saints and tales from the Bible.