Sunday, November 29, 2009


Into the Vault!

I'm on a NPR Weekend Edition segment about Shakespeare's First Folio this weekend; Scott Simon and I ventured into the vault of the Folger with library director Gail Paster. It's very rare that they let anyone into the underground vault -- it literally has a giant time-lock door -- so we were lucky indeed to have a look at such treasures as this Folio cheerily defaced by a girl in the 1720s.

This was still before critics like Theobald and Johnson had made it clear why perhaps you might not want to use old Folios as scratch-pads for your kids.

One neat detail that didn't make it into the finished piece: Scott asking Gail if it wasn't perilous to have all these valuable books in one place, because what if there was a fire?

"Well," Gail smiled, "in a fire the oxygen is evacuated from the room and replaced with halocarbon gas. We'd have about five minutes to get out."

Which, I suppose, is why you don't want to fall asleep in the vault. Oh, and also because you could end up like this guy:

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Paper Castles

I love that a book like this needed to exist in the first place -- an 1859 guide to creating architect's models out of paper:

There's a full text at Google Books...


Bear vs. Thief

Last year I noted the UK publication of Madeleine Goold's Mr Langshaw's Square Piano, which follows the social history of a single Broadwood square piano -- and I lamented at the time that there was no sign of a US publisher. Well, now it has one!

Friday's Wall Street Journal lauds the book:

The author has a gift for gathering charming and peculiar historical details, from the niceties of producing ornate copperplate handwriting to the trained bear who guarded Broadwood's premises... Ms. Goold's researches take her from graveyards in Lancashire to archives at Emory University in Atlanta, and her narrative touches on the American and French revolutions, the British diaspora in India and Australia, and the Victorian-era Age of Mahogany. But no matter how far afield the author's interests take her, she maintains her focus on one culture-changing development that has only in recent decades lost is force: the piano in the parlor.

Here's an 1822 Bradshaw square piano at work:

Saturday, November 14, 2009


DC Reading

I'll be reading this Monday night at the Folger!


1927 London in Color... (Colour?)

Via Boing Boing, footage taken with the early color process of Claude Friese-Greene...

Sunday, November 08, 2009


Another Victim of the Recession: Player Piano Rolls

After last week's post, I belatedly came across this extraordinary story: player piano rolls were still being manufactured in Buffalo, NY for the old instruments, right up until last year. (!)

Until Thursday, QRS was the only continuously operating mass producer of piano rolls in the world. The only other company, in Australia, stopped earlier this decade. Sales dropped about 80 percent from 15 years ago to around 50,000 annually, Berkman estimated...

Berkman said reassembling the piano roll factory elsewhere will be difficult.

One machine dates back to the 1880s when it was used to make shoes, and for the past 100 years has made the tabs with brass eyelets used to hook the roll into a piano. There are also aging machines to perforate and punch the holes, to cut the stencils to print the lyrics, to spool the rolls and to glue the roll boxes together.

“There are so many facets of it. The perforating machines are old and cantankerous, and they’re one star in a constellation of machines that all have to be functioning,” Berkman said.

Saturday, November 07, 2009


Sinclair Lewis's Other Racket

For Halloween, Abebooks had up a "Top Ten Ghostwritten Books" list. My favorite: a tennis guide ghosted by Sinclair Lewis.

Sunday, November 01, 2009


Playing, Sir!

Lately my son Morgan has become fixated on Youtube videos of old player pianos in use. He loves the whole thing, from feeding the cylinder into the machine to final flap-flap-click-click of the rewinding piano roll: he's particularly fond of this 1927 foxtrot "Changes."

This is sometimes the first thing I hear in the morning, which makes me feel like I'm waking up in the middle of a Wodehouse story.

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