Sunday, May 5, 2013

Dr. Owl

You can tell, or at least guess, a lot about people's lives and hobbies by the things you see in their estate sales: 

Three sewing machines + several boxes of pieces of pretty cloth = She liked to sew.

A box of carnation pink square tiles in the garage of a house built in the 1950s = There is, or was, a fashionable pink bathroom (or kitchen!) inside.

Six Norwegian-English dictionaries and phrase books, all dated prior to 1920 = Someone's older relative moved to the US from Norway.

And so on.

I often see owl figurines and other owl-related collectible items at estate sales.  Owls are, and were, popular (if dust-catching) objets d'art.

(I knew what these little guys were the minute I spotted them at a recent estate sale.  They were made by Hagen-Renaker, a Southern California pottery.)

Why do people collect owls?  Well, they're cute (some more than others).  They represent wisdom.  Or a collection of owls might mean that the word got out that Beatrice liked owls so all her friends, co-workers and family members started giving her owl figurines and plush toys for her birthday and Christmas (and she didn't have the heart to tell them that while she liked owls, she didn't like them that much).

I found another sort of owl collectible at another recent estate sale,  This time, the sale featured the estates of a man who had served in World War II and of his father, who came to the US from Norway around the turn of the 20th century.  (Thus, the presence of all the dictionaries.)  On a table inside the house were a large number of owl figurines -- more than I'd seen in one place in awhile -- all dating from the time that the son and his kids were adults, during the 1940s through about the 1990s.  I remember thinking, "That's a lot of owls for this family to collect over the years...."

As I was getting ready to pay for my other items -- a box of pens and pencils (always fun to explore) and a couple of vintage tablecloths (coming soon to a blog post near you), I spotted a box full of very old cases for glasses.  I selected a couple and put them in my bag of things-to-pay for.  

When I got home, I examined the glasses cases.  Dust and crumbs, the stuff of age and storage, were inside this case, and so was a paper sticker in an odd shape.  I didn't realize what the shape was, until I turned the case sideways.

And now we know not only who the optometrist was, and where he practiced, but also how he pronounced his name.   And I bet he had a good sense of humor.  (This also explains the large number of owl figurines in the estate, that his family had collected after he passed away in 1948.)
A few minutes' worth of research on the Internet showed me that C.N. Oulie had a jewelry shop in Wisconsin before he came west to Los Angeles.  The Wisconsin Historical Society has a photograph of his jewelry shop in 1906 on their website:

And there he is, looking out at us more than a hundred years later. 
I looked up the location of C.N. Oulie's shop in downtown Los Angeles.  Unfortunately, it now appears to be a parking lot.  Thanks to some old postcards and photo collections, we can look back into Dr. Oulie's day and see what the area around his office looked like.

A little more online research and I can see that Dr. Oulie probably was indeed a wise businessman.  In 1913, shortly after he moved to Southern California, his practice was in a mostly-residential neighborhood a few miles from downtown LA.  By 1921, Dr. Oulie had relocated to Spring Street, right in the thick of the growing business and banking district.  Neon lights would soon illuminate the streets at night.  Hollywood was only a few miles away. 
"Dr. Owl," his legacy and the images of his time, look out at us from our computer screens.  How surprised he would have been, to see us looking back at him.
More images of Spring Street in old downtown LA are available here:
And the USC project LA As Subject has many more vintage views of the city:

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