Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Robert Leicester Wagner and The California Almanack

I'd never heard of this little book before, but it looked interesting so I brought it home from a recent estate sale.  It's a slender volume, in the proverbial plain brown wrapper, with the title Rob Wagner's California Almanack, Sixth Edition.

Inside, it's dated 1922.

I had never heard of Rob Wagner, so I started looking for information on him on the Internet.  What I discovered was absolutely fascinating.  Someone needs to write a screenplay based on the life of this man.  Or a biography at least. 

Robert Leicster Wagner (1872-1942) helped pioneer film criticism and coverage of the film industry with his magazine Rob Wagner's Script.  Born in Detroit, Wagner started out as an artist for the Detroit Free Press and The Criterion magazine, and was art editor for Encyclopedia Brittanica in London from 1900-1902.  

Wagner moved to Paris to study art, then returned to the States and worked as a portrait painter.  He moved to Santa Barbara, California and in 1910 he migrated down the coast to Los Angeles. There he connected with his cousins, who were working for a guy named D.W. Griffith in the nascent film industry.  It didn't take Wagner long to jump into the film industry with both feet.  In 1911 he made an autobiographical film featuring his two sons and his own artwork, called "The Artist's Sons."  

Wagner got a job teaching at Manual Arts High School in LA and in 1915 filmed a documentary about the Los Angeles school system. Among Wagner's students at Manual Arts were a young man named Frank Capra and another named Jimmy Doolittle.

The Internet Movie Database picks up the story:

During this period [Wagner] switched from portrait painting and teaching to writing, penning a series of articles on the film industry for the Saturday Evening Post, which was eventually compiled into a book, "Film Folk" (1918). The series helped revive a sagging industry that was suffering economically before World War I.

By 1918 he was a good friend with Charlie Chaplin, becoming his publicist and confidante. ... 
He briefly worked for Mack Sennett as a gag writer, and then shifted over to Hal Roach Studios to direct a series of short films featuring Will Rogers. He also was under contract for Famous Players-Lasky where he wrote for or directed some minor films. He also was associated with actor Charles Ray.

[Sidebar:  Someday I'm going to tell you about Charles Ray.  He's another lost star of early Hollywood.  Now back to the story....]

In 1921, Rob Wagner, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith co-founded the Motion Picture Relief Fund, which later became the Motion Picture & Television Fund, to provide financial aid to film industry workers who fell on tough economic times. Wagner was an original member of the Board of Trustees, along with Harold Lloyd, William S. Hart, Jesse Lasky, Irving Thalberg and others. 

During the 1920s, Wagner wrote for many magazines including Liberty and Photoplay. In 1929, he founded Rob Wagner's Beverly Hills Script, which later became simply Rob Wagner's Script. It carried film reviews and features on film, art and literature.  Wagner never paid his writers (some things never change) but his contributors used Script as a forum for their own views.  Script's contributors included Charlie Chaplin, Upton Sinclair, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Will Rogers, Louis L'Amour, and Ray Bradbury.

IMDB.com continues:  Often Wagner, who was an ardent Socialist, opened his magazine to explore political issues. He gave Upton Sinclair fair coverage of his bid for governor of California in 1934 when most other news organizations refused. And he published the controversial final speech from Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" in 1940.

In 1942, Wagner died of a heart attack in Santa Barbara with his wife and brother, James R.H. Wagner, at his side. His son, Leicester, took over the magazine for a short period. His widow continued publishing Script until 1947 when it was sold to Robert L. Smith, general manager of the Los Angeles Daily News. But without Wagner, the magazine lost its personality. It folded in 1949.

Wagner's personality also shines through in the little Californa Almanack I found at the estate sale.  He modeled his Almanack after others:

"Courteous Reader [Wagner wrote]:

" There are two great geographic divisions on the earth's surface -- California and Elsewhere; and as the Almanacks of Elsewhere, with their absurd seasons, weather predictions, and hints on the care of the body are utterly useless in this Terrestrial Paradise, I feel it my duty to publish a California Almanack, both in the interest of science & the Wagner family.

"...I shall include recipes for making griddle cakes and glue, suitable epitaphs, hints on health, happiness and vacuum cleaners, the best times for marriage and divorce, snappy stories from Hollywood, the use of divining rods in oil speculation, how to get into the Movies, and other useful information." 

Wagner even created an "advertiser" for the Almanack: 

"CAL-ORINE -- The Fountain of Perpetual Youth!  For ages men have sought it...but it was not until Cabrillo said his galleons int San Diego harbor, that the age-old search was rewarded!  Here in CALIFORNIA men first bathed in The Magic Fountain and were made young.  Here they came to partake of The Lotus, never caring to return Elsewhere.

" Since that time the sons of Adam have poured into CALIFORNIA -- somnambulists, scenario writers, neurotics, ne'er-do-wells, morons, extra people, sad-eyed Susans and weary Williams -- all the inframen of Elsewhere -- and after one bath in the glorious sun and moonshine, have come out beautiful in body and spirit.... For sale by all Elsewhere druggists (except in Florida where the word California is forbidden by law).

"If you can't come to CAL. -- use CAL-ORINE."

Since this is a family blog, I'll let you decide whether you want to squint at the picture above to see what Wagner's "Cal-orine" was supposedly made of.  No wonder they called this era "The Roaring Twenties."

Bohemian lifestyle references and tongue-in-cheek approach notwithstanding, Wagner articulated the California dream that so many people sought between the Civil War and the middle of the 20th century:  the land of sunshine, where you could reinvent yourself.  How interesting to know that this fellow most of us have never heard of, was so deeply involved in the industry that (for better and worse) promoted and perpetuated the dream.


Here's the IMDB short bio of Rob Wagner:  http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0906080/?ref_=fn_al_nm_2

You can look at a back issue of Rob Wagner's Script here:


Wagner's papers are stored at UCLA:  http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/kt2n39n8xr/

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Tiny Tea Set, During a Time of War

From time to time I find children's tea sets at estate sales.  This morning I found several pieces that looked like the kind of vintage glass called "jadeite" for its milky green color.

Each tiny cup is about two inches across, a perfect little Art Deco design.  There were also two pale milky blue pieces, a creamer and sugar bowl:

The mark on the base of each piece looked like a large bird superimposed over the letter "A."  A few minutes' online research pointed me to a company called Akro Agate.  The Kovels.com website says:

Akro Agate company was founded in Akron, Ohio, in 1911 and moved to Clarksburg, West Virginia, in 1914. The company made marbles and toys. Before Akro Agate produced marbles of its own, it distributed marbles made by other companies. In the 1930s, it began making other products, including vases, lamps, flowerpots, candlesticks, and children's dishes. Most of the glass is marked with a crow flying through the letter A.

The Three Rivers (Pennsylvania) Depression Era Glass website provides more information.  It seems that the crow in the Akro Agate maker's mark is holding a marble in each claw, and has another one clutched in his tiny beak.  Three Rivers adds to our store of information:

Akro Agate added an extensive line of children’s dishes in 1942 and during the WWII years, the operation grew from $600,000 annually to almost $2,000,000 annually. The growth came almost exclusively on the strength of their children’s dishes. 

So the tiny tea service dates to World War II.   Two million dollars in 1945 is the equivalent of almost $26 million today.  (That's a lot of tea parties.)  Three Rivers continues:

After WWII, plastic children’s dishes became the hot item and it spelled the beginning of the end.  In 1951 Akro Agate closed its doors and went out of business. 

I'm glad someone played carefully with these pieces from their tea set, and thought to save them.  

It's not difficult to imagine a group of little girls (and maybe some of their brothers, if they promised to be nice) during the war years, carefully pouring "tea" into the cups and adding imaginary milk and sugar, reenacting a cherished ritual of innocence while the grownup world was going mad.   

Or the war-weary father, home at last, sitting slightly bemused on the floor of his daughter's bedroom, surrounded by her dolls and stuffed animals, patiently watching his little girl pour out a cup of imaginary tea for him.  A cup for herself.  And a cup for each of the toys.  

She won't really understand until she is older that Daddy was willing to lay down his life in war so she could safely enjoy her tea parties.  A man at war is a symbol of strength.  But a man is also strong when he's being gracious, and patient, with a child.  

"Thank you for coming to my tea party, Daddy."

"You're welcome, sweetheart."  

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Knitting Behind the Wheel

We hear a great deal today about the dangers of sending text messages while driving, and talking on a cell phone when driving.  

I've been equally concerned when I've observed drivers in other cars shaving, putting on makeup, eating and drinking (with both hands full), engaging in a shouting and slapping match with the front-seat passenger, and even reaching into the back seat to change a baby's diaper, all while they're behind the wheel (and sometimes traveling much faster than was prudent).  

But I have to admit, I've never seen anyone get pulled over for knitting while driving.  At least not until I found this old Needlecraft magazine at an estate sale.

The image is interesting not only for the subject matter, but also for the artist.  Ralph Pallen Coleman (1892-1968) worked during what has been called the "Golden Age of Magazine Illustration."  He produced hundreds of illustrations not only for Needlecraft, but also for Home Arts, Country Gentleman, Ladies' Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Liberty and others.  Coleman's magazine illustrations covered many subjects, but he seemed particularly fond of painting young women getting in trouble for not being able to put down the knitting needles.  

Needlecraft, September 1935

Country Gentleman, August 1934

She's still at it.  Needlecraft, April 1937.

Even at school, the young lady is devoted to her yarn.  Needlework, September 1937.

During the 1930s, Coleman's art enhanced dozens of books by several authors, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Booth Tarkington.  Active as an illustrator during both World Wars, Coleman combined military and religious themes in many of his works.  From the 1940s on, much of Coleman's work centered on illustrations of stories from the Bible.  


Coleman's work The Lonely Christ is included in this website showing lots of religious illustrations: 


In his later years, Coleman turned to stained glass design.  His 20+ windows for his home church, Grace Presbyterian in Jenkintown, PA, were executed by Willet Hauser Architectural Glass:


There are several websites dedicated to the art of Ralph Pallen Coleman.  Here's one:


Research by the University of Maine sheds some light on the origins of Needlecraft magazine:


Sunday, August 11, 2013


I come across interesting collections at estate sales.  Over the decades of their lives, people save all sorts of things -- but why?  Sometimes the things are truly valuable antiques.  Or they have sentimental value.  People who grew up during the Great Depression in the 1930s may have become accustomed to saving things for future use, and never got out of the habit.  Or maybe the owner hoped to  "repurpose" the collected objects in the future. 

Perhaps the most unusual collection I've found (to date) was at the estate sale of a woman who had carefully saved old foam rubber shoulder pads that she had cut out of innumerable jackets and blouses over a lifespan of more than 85 years.  The used shoulder pads -- hundreds of them -- were stored in a huge box in her garage.  (Perhaps she believed that if she waited long enough, padded shoulders would come back into style.  But why would she need to keep so many?)

Collection of pencils and other items, seen at an estate sale.  No, I didn't buy them.

At one recent sale, I entered the room that had been a home office, already full of shoppers.  On display were boxes full of collections of things.  A shoebox full of matchbooks.  A crate full of golf balls.  Green Stamps and Gold Bond Stamps.  A couple of boxes of pens and pencils. Jam jars full of rocks, of sea shells, of assorted nuts and bolts.  Paper clips.  Marbles.  Craft supplies.  Tall stacks of National Geographic and Arizona Highways magazines. 

A small, elderly Asian-American couple entered the room and started making their quiet way around, dodging half a dozen of their fellow shoppers as everyone tried to see the items that were for sale.  The elderly gentleman stood next to me, picked up the shoebox of Green Stamps, and commented, "People save all sorts of things.  But only God wants to save us."

He and I chatted about this topic for a minute.  Then I noticed that the room, previously noisy, had gone quiet. I looked around.  The elderly man, his wife and I were the only ones left.  As soon as the elderly man started talking about God, the other shoppers left.

The elderly man and I looked at each other.  He shrugged and turned his attention back to the box of Green Stamps.  I rooted through the boxes of writing instruments and found a couple of nice old mechanical pencils.

A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to help some family members assess the collection of antiques their mom had left when she passed away.  She had many lovely items -- glassware and dolls, textiles and toys.  What she had the most of, though, in terms of sheer numbers, were buttons.  Hundreds of them.  Thank goodness they're small and didn't take up much space.

Buttons on the dining table

As I understand it, this relative had obtained some of her button collection from the estate of another relative, who had owned a dry cleaning business and saved buttons at work.  That means saving buttons was important to at least two family members from the Greatest Generation.  

We spread the buttons out on the kitchen table and sorted through them one evening. 

Bakelite (?) buttons

Glass buttons

Mixed materials buttons

Shades of red buttons

Shades of green and blue buttons
(some blue ones had been painted red, but the red paint had chipped off over time)

Why did the Grandmas save buttons?  It could have been because their families had lived through the Great Depression and they were accustomed to saving things they thought they might need someday.  

But would they have needed several hundred buttons? Probably not.  It must have been because they valued the buttons, and thought they were worth saving.  Other people might see them as fairly useless pieces of plastic, glass, and metal, few of which would ever be put to their intended use.  Certainly a glass button wouldn't survive long in a modern washing machine and clothes dryer.

But Grandma and Grandma must have believed that some things -- however archaic, however redundant -- are unique, beautiful, and/or potentially useful, and therefore worth saving.  

Perhaps the elderly gentleman at the estate sale knew that about God, too.        


For more information on collecting buttons, there are any number of websites you may visit.  Here are a couple:



Monday, August 5, 2013

Tony Sarg's Animal Circus

Often at estate sales, I find items that someone else has saved since their childhood (or their child's childhood) -- dolls, Tonka trucks, handmade Christmas ornaments and Valentines.  I brought home a handful of treasured items from someone's childhood after an estate sale last weekend.

From a distance, they don't look like much -- a small stack of gray cardboard rectangles with blue designs.

On closer inspection, they proved to be cereal prizes from the late 1930s.  The left side of each card reads:

Tony Sarg's Animal Circus
In every package of National Biscuit Shredded Wheat are 3 Animal Cards.  After coloring them with crayons, show them to your Mother or Teacher.  Punch holes through circles and tie together.  Ask Mother to get more "National Biscuit Shredded Wheat," the original Niagara Falls product, so you can get all 35 cards.

This child (whoever he or she was) had collected and saved seven of the cards.  In the center of each is the cartoon animal picture you're supposed to color with crayons.  And on the right is a poem and what would later be called a "factoid" about the real animal.

Circus Bear

Billy Goat on Ball

Singing Turtle

Seal with Ball


Smart Dog

Little Dog

These are busy animals, entertaining and educating us while we eat breakfast.

So who was Tony Sarg, the creator of these talented critters?  A few minutes' online searching told me that Sarg was a renowned puppeteer and illustrator in the first half of the 20th century.  He is well-known for designing the first helium-filled animal balloons for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1928, and for designing Macy's animated storefront windows in the 1930s and '40s.  

Certain life lessons are common to many children, including the quest for that special box of breakfast cereal with the prize inside.  The stuffing of the small hand (and forearm) inside the box.  Feeling carefully among the cereal bits for the prize itself.  Removing the small treasure, and then realizing that your parents expect you to eat the cereal, too, whether you like it or not.   

Shredded Wheat has certainly stood the test of time, although it's not being actively marketed to kids anymore.  I'm glad the child who had to eat those boxes of cereal back in the 1930s, saved the prizes inside so we could see them now, and learn about Tony Sarg. 


Here's what a box of Shredded Wheat looked like in the late 1930s:  http://www.thestrong.org/online-collections/nmop/5/18/95.399

Here is a 1922 animated short film by Tony Sarg:

Here is a 1929 video of Tony Sarg's marionettes:

And here's a short piece of rare footage of one of Sarg's inflatable creatures, from 1937:

Here's Tony's Sarg's bio at the Internet Movie Database:

Here's a website that provides a short biography of Tony Sarg and lots of pictures of his work: