The Greatest Magician of the Early 20th Century Wasn’t Houdini

A few months ago I was looking for vintage magic images to use in my collages. I stumbled upon wonderful posters for a magician named Howard Thurston. Well, you know how one things lead to another – I soon found myself engrossed in a superb book about said magician and the early history of magic in America. The Last Greatest Magician in the World by Jim Steinmeyer sheds light on the greatest magician of the early 20th century who essentially faded into oblivion. Unless you’re a magician, magic aficionado, or collector, you likely haven’t heard about this guy. Everybody has heard of Harry Houdini, but as Steinmeyer points out, while he was a great escape artist, Houdini wasn’t all that impressive when it came to card tricks and illusions. Thurston was five years older and four inches taller than his peer and oft adversary Houdini. Early Beginnings Born on July 20, 1869 in Columbus, Ohio, Thurston had four siblings – May (Myrtle) the eldest was born in 1865, followed by Charles, Howard, Harry (who figures prominently in this story), and William. Their father’s carriage business collapsed in 1873 and he subsequently tinkered with making a wide array of inventions, none of which were successful. Unable to support his family, his father had a mild nervous breakdown and started spending a lot of time at the corner saloon. By all accounts, he was a wretched and abusive father and husband who regularly beat his children and wife. Other than Harry, the only mention of the other siblings in the book is when Charles was murdered in February 1920 while working as a railroad detective in Columbus. The murderer escaped after pumping eight bullet holes into Charles’ back. When he was just 12, Thurston started earned money selling newspapers on trains between…

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Jack Delano – Working on the Railroad All the Live Long Day

I’ve long admired the photography of Jack Delano, one of many talented photographers hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Works Progress Administration to document America, but knew little about him. When I discovered his masterful railroad photographs of Chicago, this provided inspiration to dig deeper. Born Jacob Ovcharov in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) in 1914, he immigrated with his parents and younger brother to the U.S. in 1923, settling in NYC. In addition to his photography, he was a prolific music composer and wrote children’s books with his wife Irene. When he was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1928-1932, Delano won a Cresson Traveling Scholarship. During his four-month fellowship in Europe, Delano bought a tourist camera, sparking his interest in photography. It’s also at school, during a beer-soaked party, that his classmates convinced him to change his name. A female friend suggested her own – Delano, while Jack had been adopted earlier in honor of the boxer Jack Dempsey. In 1941, he was sent on assignment to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands by the FSA. This had such a profound influence on him, he moved there in 1946 after serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a photographer in the Pacific and South America. Soon after moving to Puerto Rico, Delano became the official photographer of the government, chronicling the island’s transformation from agriculture to industry.  The book Photographic Memories was published by the Smithsonian shortly before his death in 1997. In it, Delano was quoted, “Light, color, texture and so on are, to me, important only as they contribute to the honest portrayal of what is in front of the camera, not as ends in themselves.” During his long career, Delano photographed coal miners, sharecroppers, railroad men, and Puerto…

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What History Revealed – Visual Insights From the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 to 1920

It feels a little like the Twilight Zone right now, but unfortunately, this isn’t a fictional nightmare. As the COVID-19 (coronavirus) takes a huge health, economic, and psychological toll, many media outlets and bloggers are making insightful comparisons to the influenza epidemic of 1918. Prior to finding countless current articles comparing the worst flu epidemic in history with the coronavirus, I decided to mine historic photos to see what they revealed. I discovered that efforts to stop the 1918 epidemic were quite remarkable, all things considered. While 100+ years of insights, knowledge, progress, and sophistication in every facet of life in the developed world have transformed life so significantly, some things never change. Despite incredible advancements in science and medicine, many of the precautions are the same today as they were back then. The one semi-political comment I’ll make is that President Woodrow Wilson was a highly skilled leader – no comment about you know who, because once I start, I won’t stop and raising my blood pressure isn’t helpful. Medical quackery and cures were all the rage 100 years ago, which in a sense can be compared to scams today. Jim Baker you’re a flimflam man and jerk! And sadly, in times of crisis, the number of scam artists seems to proliferate.   In any case, rather than attempting to compete with all the other blogs, I’m presenting a few interesting facts and photos that are a testament to the resourcefulness of our ancestors. A Few Facts and Stats The 1918 influenza epidemic didn’t originate in Spain. It was dubbed the Spanish flu because Spain was neutral during WWI and as such, didn’t have to censor its news for morale. Thus, Spanish news outlets had no issues publicizing the flu outbreak in all its gory details. One theory suggests…

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10 Female Artists I Didn’t Learn About in Art School

I’ve been reading old Art in America issues and it hit me like a ton of bricks that I learned only about a handful of female artists at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). I do remember the visiting artist Jackie Winsor talking about Eva Hesse and Ana Mendieta. On the other hand, we were introduced to many female authors and several famous ones gave lectures. I met Elaine de Kooning, who was a guest lecturer during my art history class with Baruch Kirschenbaum freshman year. She showed us photos of the sketches for her commissioned JFK painting, among other pieces. It made sense that she was invited to RISD – apparently she was tight friends with Lee Hall, then president of RISD. Hall would betray her good friend four years after de Kooning’s 1989 death from lung cancer in her book, Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage / The Lives of Willem and Elaine de Kooning. By all accounts, this was a salacious, tell-all, shoddily researched book with mediocre writing that was butchered by critics. I think the reason we didn’t learn about more female artists was tied to the era in which I went to RISD, 1976 – 1980. Moreover, many female artists who later gained fame were virtually unknown when I was in art school. So in honor of Women’s History Month, here are 10 trailblazing female artists I’m glad I learned about – better late than never. This list barely scratches the surface, but it’s a start.   Grace Hartigan (1922 – 2008): I certainly was aware of Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, but somehow didn’t know anything about Hartigan until recently. Interestingly, she was the first female Abstract Expressionist to gain fame in 1950, when art critic Clement Greenberg and art historian Meyer…

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A Visual Tribute to Barber Shops

As a fine artist and photographer, I’ve always been obsessed with barber shops – visually. I don’t particularly like going to beauty salons to get my hair cut. I think barber shops are far more interesting and less snooty. After graduating early from high school, I would go on outings with my mom (who is also an artist) on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, where I photographed interesting storefronts. Even back then I was drawn to barber shops. My admiration of a few select photographers informed my early photographic work – especially those who worked for the Farm Security Administration, such as Walker Evans and Russell Lee, as well as the great photographer Berenice Abbott. All of them took wonderful photos of barber shops.     Back when I was an art student at RISD, I photographed quite a few barber shops in Providence and NYC. Unfortunately, I didn’t note where the NYC barber shops were located, however, I do remember one because of the circumstances. The below barber (on Lafayette Street) came outside when he saw me photographing the exterior. He volunteered to pose, which seemed nice enough. Nobody else was there and after he made a few suggestive comments and asked inappropriate questions, I high tailed it out of there rather quickly.     Many barber shops are still decorated with really cool ephemera and antiques that add to the appeal of getting your hair cut. An example is the JMC Barber Shop, which I stumbled upon last August in Elmhurst, Ill. I have never seen such a visual explosion covering every imaginable wall space – you couldn’t possibly get bored when you get your hair cut here!   While I prefer my vintage late 1970s black and white shots, I have taken color photos of barber shops when…

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The RISD-Chicago Vintage Party Favor Connection

  My friend Barbara recently sent me a stack of old student newspapers from our days at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Perusing these was an enjoyable trip down memory lane and I certainly plan on mining these for future RISD and Providence-related blogs. I uncovered a completely unrelated, unexpected, and delightful surprise in the October 28, 1977 Halloween issue. Lo and behold, one of the contributors included visually-intriguing catalog pages from Van Housen’s Favor Co., Inc. My assumption is that they found this in the RISD clipping room (now called the Picture Collection), a wonderful historical archive of all sorts of paper ephemera. Naturally, the cool-looking graphics beckoned to the sleuth in me and I had to do further investigating. Dennison Was Primary Competitor Van Housen’s was a Chicago-based company located at 81 W. Lake Street. Their primary competitor was Dennison Manufacturing Company which was founded in 1844 by Colonel Andrew Dennison. They opened their first store in Chicago in 1864, with subsequent store openings in the 1870s in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Although Dennison already had a longstanding reputation for manufacturing high-quality paper goods, it was crepe paper decorations that set them apart. If you recognize the Dennison name, it’s likely because the company merged with Avery International Corp. in October 1990.   I couldn’t find definitive dates when Van Housen’s was in business, but I did uncover ads from 1922, 1923, 1924, and the 1930s. I also uncovered an interesting article on crepe paper decorations that appeared in the Autumn 1924 issue of Fort Dearborn Magazine, with excerpts below: During the holiday season when entertaining is the order of the hour, many a social affair is given festive background by the use of appropriate crepe paper decorations, favors and novelties. While the demand for…

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Howard Clothes: The Final Chapter

  When I wrote the second article, Howard Clothes Tribute: Epilogue in January 2016, I thought I was done. Yet, this is still a topic of discussion in my family and clearly resonates with others, given the ongoing comments. As the sole surviving child of Samuel and Minnie Kappel, Elaine Winik provided a great deal of insight for the second article, as did her book Still Looking Forward, published in 1996. Elaine, who sadly passed away in September 2017, was a pillar of the Jewish community with a deep passion for and commitment to Israel. This article is dedicated to Elaine, her family, and all the relatives of the owners. In the last four years, I uncovered additional images and intriguing facts about Howard Clothes worthy of this final third article. The image below was being sold on eBay and I shared it with Elaine’s family members on Facebook. Unfortunately, nobody recognized anybody in the photo. Given the caption, I’m guessing this was a gathering for employees of one of the Brooklyn stores, rather than the factory.     The second photo is an undated Magic Lantern slide being sold on eBay. The back of the slide reads: A section of the Hand Sewing Department where the careful tailoring of our most skillful tailors is reflected in the fit and finish of Howard Clothes. It’s not a great photo technically, but it certainly has historic importance. I’m guessing it was taken in the 1940s or 1950s, given the media it was created on.     A Chicago Tribune article dated June 2, 1936 revealed that Howard Clothes made its first foray into the Midwest market with a store at the northwest corner of State and Quincy Streets in the Consumers Building at 220 South State Street. I found this great…

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A Chicago Kind of Christmas – Childhood Favorites

  Although my family isn’t Christian, I was fortunate as a child to get presents for eight days of Hanukkah, visit Santa Claus at Marshall Field and Saks Fifth Avenue, eat lunch once at the Walnut Room with my mom, and enjoy the wonderful Christmas window displays on State Street. I grew up in Lincolnwood just east of the Edens Expressway – a few blocks from the famous Lincolnwood Towers with its magnificent Christmas displays. This holiday season, I’m sharing a few of my favorite memories and some wonderful nostalgic photos that embody the holiday spirit, Chicago style.   Picking Out Gifts From Sears Wish Books   As I mentioned in this old blog, my little sister Janet and I would spend hours picking out gifts from Sears Wish Books. Our parents always let us select one impressive toy for the first night of Hanukkah and a few small “stocking stuffer” gifts for the other seven nights. The one present that will always stand out is my first Thingmaker by Mattel – classic Creepy Crawlers.     Downtown Christmas Lights and Window Displays   My dad worked on North Michigan Avenue his entire career and as such, we spent a lot of time there. I would often go to his office and drive home with him in his white Porsche. I loved the classy white Christmas lights that illuminated the chic boulevard before it became an over-commercialized street.  Of course, no Chicago Christmas blog would be complete without mentioning the great window displays on State Street, especially at Marshall Field and Carson Pirie Scott & Co. I remember one Christmas season my mom took me to an eye doctor appointment in the Pittsfield Building and the doctor dilated my eyes. I didn’t have any vision problems when I was young,…

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Majestic and Delicious – Memories, Chicago Style

What started out as a blog solely about Wimpy restaurants morphed into a broader blog when I discovered the above photos. What a shame it would be to not write about the Shubert Theatre and other businesses captured in these great photos. Wimpy Restaurants Originally called Wimpy Grills, the Wimpy brand was incorporated on September 12, 1934 by Edward V. Gold, with its first location in Bloomington, Indiana. The name was inspired by the hamburger-loving character J. Wellington Wimpy from Popeye, created by E. C. Segar. Gold opened the first Chicago area restaurant in 1936, after opening grills in five other Midwestern cities. The restaurant on the Northeast corner of Randolph St. and Wabash Ave. was the 10th Wimpy Grill in Chicago and the 25th in the U.S. when it opened in 1940. I don’t know when the location opened on the northeast corner of Clark and Madison, but these photos date back to 1955 and 1958. I wonder how many people grabbed a bite at Wimpy or the Bamboo Inn before going to the renowned Blue Note Jazz Club next door!   In the 1950s, Gold closed most of the U.S. locations and expanded his operation to Europe, working with J. Lyons & Co., a British catering company. In 1967, he sold the European operations to Lyons, which had more than 1,500 restaurants at that time, while retaining the U.S. restaurants. United Business acquired the UK restaurants in July 1977 and in February 2007, Famous Brands, owner of the Wimpy franchise in South Africa bought out Wimpy UK. As of 2011, Famous Brands operated 509 Wimpy restaurants in South Africa, making it the largest Wimpy franchise. When Gold died in October 1977 at the age of 70, nine Wimpy restaurants in the Chicago area were still in business, including…

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A Tale of Cribbage – Boards & Fun Facts

In 1998 when I met Jeff, he introduced me to the game of cribbage. He grew up playing this game, while I had never played it. It quickly became a Sunday morning routine along with Jeff’s delicious homemade pancakes. It was also a nice activity to involve both our daughters, who enjoyed playing with us when they were pre-teens. Jeff and I played regularly for a few years and now only play once in a blue moon. Over the years, we also accrued quite a collection of vintage cribbage board and playing cards. If you’ve never played cribbage and are curious about the rules, click here. If you decide to play, be warned that the odds of attaining the elusive perfect 29 score in a two-player cribbage game are 1 in 216,580, and 1 in 15,028 for 28. Just once, I had a hand of 28, but not really because Jeff counted his hand first and won the game! A Brief History of Cribbage     British poet, playwright, and gambler Sir John Suckling popularized and described the rules of cribbage in its approximate modern form around 1632. Suckling lost his mother at age 4 and subsequently his father at age 18, inheriting significant wealth that he squandered on travel, women, and gambling. He invented a variation of an earlier Tudor-era game called Noddy, in which only three cards were dealt to each player, no discard, and therefore no crib. The turn-up card was counted in both players’ hands and the game was 31 points. Suckling’s cribbage game introduced the crib and was played with five cards versus today’s six. As for Sir Suckling, he lived a charmed and cursed life, was charged with treason in 1641, fled to France, and committed suicide by taking poison. He died destitute after…

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