Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Dog of the Day

March 17th

At most of the estate sales I've attended lately, there have been a number of antique (or rather, vintage/retro) dealers and collectors interested in what they call "Mid-Century" items:  stuff from the 1950s and 1960s, the "Mad Men" era.   Pastel pink appliances, pale gold Naugahyde chairs with short narrow wooden legs, "Jetsons"-looking lamps and bowls all fly out the door at good prices.  There is one particularly dedicated set of young men who, I suspect, may run a flourishing business selling Mid-Century items to interior decorators and Hollywood set designers. 

I haven't noticed that this increased interest in Objets Mid-Century has extended to the family dog, however.  Many of the ads I see in magazines from the mid-20th century feature dog breeds that, for whatever reason, have fallen out of favor or popularity.  For example, how long has it been since you saw someone walking a Collie?  A Scottish Terrier?  Or especially an Irish Setter?

The Irish Setter used to appear in all sorts of magazine advertisements in the early to mid-20th century.  His glossy red coat and happy smile were used to sell everything from dog food to silverware to whisky.   The Irish Setter's dark chestnut coat also appeared on the backs of playing cards, like this one I found a couple of weeks ago:

Now, if you do an Internet search for "Irish Setter," the first thing that pops up is a brand of shoes.

Who knows why the red dog fell out of favor?   Perhaps it's because not every dog owner has the time and energy to take care of a Setter.  As the American Kennel Club website notes:

One of the most distinctive Sporting breeds, the mahogany red Irish Setter is an active, aristocratic bird dog.... Over two feet tall at the shoulder, the Irish is known for his style, powerful movement and clown-like personality.

A rollicking breed, the Irish Setter is high-energy and requires regular exercise. His outgoing and stable personality make him a favorite with families. Their long, glossy red coat, although beautiful, must be groomed regularly to prevent snarls or mats.

In other words, the Irish Setter can be a bit of a drama queen, and will take it upon himself to get regular exercise, whether his owner feels like going "walkies" and playing fetch, or not.  Every knock on the front door, every squirrel scurrying up a tree, is a good enough reason for the Irish Setter to rev up and explode in a shower of ecstatic barking and running.  And if you don't take him to the groomer every few weeks, he'll start looking like a walking curly red haystack.  He's rather high-maintenance.

And yet whenever we take the red dog who lives at our house for a walk, strangers rush up to pet him and indulge in a little nostalgia.

"You don't see Irish Setters very much any more!"

"We had one of those when I was a kid!  He was the dumbest dog I ever saw, but he was so friendly...."

"When I was a boy growing up in New Jersey," said one older gentleman who stopped to pet the Irish Setter, "the family who lived next door to us had two of these guys.  Mick and Molly were their names.  We usedta take 'em out into the woods and let them run.  Man, those dogs could run, and so could I."  He paused thoughtfully.  "I don't remember the names of the kids next door, but I sure remember those dogs...."

It's good to remember the happy times.  And the Irish Setter is happy to help you do it.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day, everyone.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Mr. R. Dox in the City of Light (and rain)

In the dark garage at the estate sale house was a large blue trunk, falling apart with age and wear.  Inside the trunk were a packet of letters tied with a rough string and four old postcards.

Usually when I find personal letters at an estate sale, I ask the people holding the sale if they are sure they want to sell them.  These folks said they had been friends of the old man who had lived in the house; he only had distant relatives on the other side of the country, and none of them was interested in the contents of his estate after he died. 

The people holding the estate sale then gave me a paper grocery bag and told me to fill it with the things I wanted, so I added the letters and postcards to my bag and went to look at old books and magazines from the same estate.  When I got home, I looked at the four postcards first.


All four cards had been sent from Paris in 1909 and 1910, written and addressed in the fine, careful hand of one R.D., or R. Dox.  He had sent the postcards to other people with the same last name, so they must have been related.

He didn't have much to say.   He put an "X" over his room in a picture of one building. 

He commented on the weather in the other three postcards; it was raining.

A few minutes' online research told me that R. Dox was Ralph W. Dox, and the recipients of his postcards were his parents.  R. Dox was from upstate New York. He graduated from Columbia University and worked at the US Embassy in Paris.   An online copy of the school's yearbook even had a picture of him:

The yearbook went on to describe Ralph Dox as "eccentric."  "Boring" might have been more like it,  I thought, judging from the contents of his postcards home to Mom and Dad

I didn't think about the postcards or their abrupt messages for many months.  Then I ran across a Facebook post from a group of French history buffs.  The photo they posted showed the Gare D'Orsay (train station then, fantastic art museum now) under several feet of floodwater from heavy rains in January 1910.

Rain.  In Paris.  In 1910.  The postcards from R. Dox.

Time to do some more online research.  It turns out that it usually rains in Paris in January, and some flooding is not uncommon.  But in January 1910 there was so much rain that the Seine River flowed into the sewers and tunnels, flooding the city.  Outside Paris, the Seine overflowed its banks, swamping the suburbs.  Because the water rose rather slowly, there were no fatalities, but the damage estimate was 400 million francs -- $1.5 billion in today's US dollars.   As you might expect, there are videos of the flood damage on YouTube:

Ralph Dox's parents must have known about the Great Paris Flood of 1910, and they were probably worried about their son.  I got out the postcards again and studied them.  He'd sent a postcard home on New Year's Eve 1909 showing them his flat high above the city streets, then three in rapid succession May 10, 11 and 12, 1910, all commenting on the weather. 

It's raining here today.  Perhaps Halley's Comet is the source of all this rotten weather.  They tell me, however, that it is sometimes this way here.

The eccentric young American diplomat had run into typical French understatement. 

Now when I look at the postcards, I wonder if this was his way of reassuring his folks that all would be well.  Or were the short messages on the backs of his postcards, examples of dry wit that his parents recognized?  Further online research provided me with a copy of a newspaper clipping that said that R. Dox and other American diplomats had fled France after the outbreak of World War I.  He returned to New York State and practiced law.

Perhaps there were more postcards or letters from R. Dox to his parents in New York in the packet I'd found at the same sale?  I wondered.   But no, at least not in the items I brought home from the estate sale.  Almost all of the letters I found there were from three women in Van Nuys, California to the same young sailor during World War II, and none of them had the last name Dox. 

I looked again at the contents of the estate sale grocery bag.  Some greeting cards; some books; an owner's manual for a 1951 Hudson.  A school workbook owned by a young woman with the last name Gehring, who was studying French in 1928:

And there, as I leafed through the pages of the workbook, I saw again the precise, careful, tiny handwriting of Mr. R. Dox.

Why were the postcards from R. Dox in this estate, and what was his relationship to the Miss Gehring who was learning French?  I'm afraid most of their story has been lost to time.  But I'll tell you what I was able to discover, in future blog posts.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Mystery from Muzaffarpur

I found a stack of old photographs at a recent estate sale.  They were mostly studio portraits and group shots of men, women, small children from the Midwestern United States. 

I see pictures like these all the time at estate sales and yard sales.  But mixed in with them, was a large photograph the likes of which I'd never seen before.  Torn at the edges, apparently well over a hundred years old, was a group shot that had been removed from a photograph album.

What in the world was going on in this picture? I thought.  I turned it over and saw the words written in ink:

"1st Conf" in where?

Thank God for being able to search the Internet for the correct spellings of far-off locations:  Muzaffarpur.  The city is in Northern India, said to be one of the gateways to Nepal. 

I looked more closely at the people in the photograph.  My guess is that the men on the left in the front row (pith helmets removed for the photograph), and most of the women in the front row, were English or otherwise not-from-around-here:

The rest of the people in the photograph were perhaps locals. 

The man on the end of the top row, right, and the short man in the center are holding books.  The tallest man in the top row holds a violin, and his expression seems to show he's ready to play as soon as the photographer dismisses the group.  None of the people in the photograph is wearing a caste mark.  Another person stands to the far right, next to the building.

But who were they, and why were they together?  Does "1st conf." stand for "First Conference?"  If so, of what?  Are the books religious or philosophical treatises?  Does this photograph relate to the Indian independence movement?  I also wonder, why was this photograph in with all the American studio portraits?  (And what did the violinist have to do with the gathering?)

I'm e-mailing a link to this blog entry to some Indian history organizations, to see if they can help solve this puzzle.  I'll keep you posted.