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Arts & Culture

Let’s All Go Down to the Bridge and Get Our Teeth Pulled

November 17, 2014 | by

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Louis-Leopold Boilly, 1827.

I’ve been enjoying The Smile Revolution, Colin Jones’s trenchant, very readable history of the smile—specifically its evolution in eighteenth-century Paris, where smiling was once, as the jacket copy puts it, “quite literally frowned upon.”

Obviously the emergence of the smile owes plenty to the emergence of dentistry, but the story as Jones tells it owes as much to shifting social mores as it does to science—and much of the fun in The Smile Revolution is in reading about this cultural shift. Here, for a taste, is the story of Le Grand Thomas, a charlatan who made a career of yanking people’s teeth out. Apparently you could find him standing on the bridge every day, barking and hawking his talents, dressed in a baggy scarlet coat. He traveled with a pair of musicians and a large cart with an enormous tooth (“Gargantua’s awesome molar”) hanging from it. Here’s Jones:

Every day, from sometime in the 1710s until his death in 1757, Jean Thomas stood on the Pont-Neuf, alongside the cheval de bronze … and offered to pull out the teeth of all and sundry.

[…] His portrait proudly proclaimed:

Our Grand Thomas, beplumed in glory,
The Pearl of Charlatans (or so’s the story).
Your Tooth aches? You need never doubt
Le Grand Thomas will yank it out.

[…] The demeanor of le Grand Thomas was such that it seemed that he could terrify peccant teeth into submission. Everything about him exuded mythic power. The medicines he described were made up in doses suitable as much for a horse as a man. He himself weighed the same as three men, and ate and drank for four. His barking voice could be heard across the city. If a client’s tooth resisted his assaults he would, it was said, make the individual kneel down in front of him and then, with the strength of a bull, lift him three times into the air with the hand still clenched on the recalcitrant tooth.

Le Grand Thomas was no mere physician—he was a folk hero. In 1743, toward the peak of his massive popularity, there was a character based on him in a play called Le Vaudeville. A few of his lines:

Beware the lure of windy exaggeration
Which doctors use—for our assassination.
Tho’ I, Thomas, am tongue-tied in truth
At least I can help with the ache of a tooth.
I pull it right from the root.
Crack! Right from the root.

In all my years of dental, orthodontic, and periodontal care—years of care that, don’t get me wrong, I’m quite grateful for—I’ve never encountered a figure with such panache.

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Nostalgia

Tools of the Trade

November 17, 2014 | by

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Foote‘s nib of choice. Photo: Elizabeth, via Flickr

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard that during the middle of writing The Civil War you bought all the dip pens left in the United States.

FOOTE

My favorite pen-point manufacturer had all but gone out of business—Esterbrook. I was running out and fairly desperate. On Forty-fourth Street just east of the Algonquin Hotel, on the other side of the street, there used to be an old stationery shop, all dusty and everything, and I went in there on the chance he might have some. He looked in a drawer. He had what I wanted—Probate 313. I bought several gross of those things, so I’ve got enough pen points to last me out my life and more. Another problem is blotters. When I was a kid and when I was writing back in the forties on into the fifties, you could go into any insurance office and they had stacks of giveaway blotters for advertising.

INTERVIEWER

What precisely is a blotter?

FOOTE

This is a blotter [pointing] and if you haven’t got one you’re up the creek. You use the blotter to keep the ink from being wet on the page. You put the blotter on top and blot the page. I was talking about blotters in an interview, what a hard time I had finding them, and I got a letter from a woman in Mississippi. She said, I have quite a lot of blotters I’ll be glad to send you. So I got blotters galore. Ink is another problem. I got a phone call from a man in Richmond, Virginia who had a good supply of ink in quart bottles. I got three quarts from him, so I’m in good shape on that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you reckon you’re the last writer to be using dip pens in the United States?

FOOTE

There’s probably some other nut somewhere out there doing it.

—Shelby Foote, the Art of Fiction No. 158, 1999

Shelby Foote was born on November 17, 1916, and died in 2005, six years after this interview was published. Though he was a prolific novelist, he remains best known for his three-volume history of the Civil War.

His is one of my favorite Writers at Work interviews, and not coincidentally it’s probably one of the longest—Foote’s three (!) interlocutors find him in a loquacious and expansive mood, such that almost whenever he opens his mouth he seems to speak in wry, eloquent, discursive paragraphs. He declaims on everything from pajamas to the Ku Klux Klan, and he appears to have known more or less every writer of relevance; his anecdotes include the likes of Faulkner, Hemingway, O’Hara, Kubrick, and Walker Percy, among others.

He also relishes the role of gentle, aging eccentric, as evidenced in the passage above. I’ve just spent an embarrassingly long while trying to find the name of the defunct stationery shop he references—no luck. I can report, though, that the Esterbrook Probate 313 is readily available for all your dipping needs, even as blotter paper seems now entirely relegated to the realm of LSD paraphernalia.

The Esterbrook Pen Manufacturing Company, founded by Richard Esterbrook in 1858, was once the oldest and largest manufacturer of steel pens in the United States. A midcentury brochure (“INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT ESTERBROOK STEEL PENS”) notes that the company once turned out more than two hundred million pens a year, “used in every civilized country in the world.” The factory went under in 1972.

“You have to communicate sensation,” Foote said of the writer’s mission,

the belief in what life is, what it’s about, and you do it through learning how to handle a pen. That’s the reason why I have always felt comfortable with the pen in my hand and extremely uncomfortable having some piece of machinery between me and the paper—even a typewriter let alone a word computer, which just gives me the horrors.  

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On History

A Brief History of Insect Control

November 17, 2014 | by

Long before environmentalism, Charles Valentine Riley had a problem with pesticide.

Spraying the capitol with pesticide, 1886.

In science, good ideas often trump great ones. Take, for instance, Charles Valentine Riley, the most prescient scientist of whom you’ve never heard. The man had a great idea. Then came Leland Howard, his prickly and calculating successor. He had the good one.

These men were late nineteenth-century entomologists, a humble vocation by the standards of the day. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture—new then, having been formed in 1862—asked them to accomplish something not so humble: they were to learn everything there was to know about agricultural pests, and then to destroy them. The intended beneficiaries of this project were panicked farmers whose fields were being decimated by insect invasions. Riley and Howard were charged with exterminating the very creatures they studied. If the irony registered, they never said so.

Riley was the older of the two gentlemen. He’d assumed leadership of the U.S. Entomological Commission in 1876 after spearheading the country’s first Grasshopper Commission. His big idea—the great one—was to merge the observational folk-wisdom of everyday farmers with the financial largesse of the federal government to help insects kill insects. Biological control, we now call it. If the concept of exterminating insects with insects seemed moony, American farmers were game. They’d seen it happen on the ground and they were desperate. Between 1860 and 1900—a time when agriculture began to pursue high-yielding monoculture in earnest—armies of chinch bugs, locusts, San Jose scales, boll weevils, Colorado potato beetles, and Hessian flies capitalized on the smorgasbord, moving steadily eastward and shredding the foodscape with biblical power. One Illinois farmer reported that there were so many locusts in his fields that “the ground seemed to be moving.” Pick up an agricultural report from the period—you know, just pick one up!—and you’ll find that an apocalyptic strain of agrarian rhetoric echoed across America’s amber waves of grain.

I’ve read nearly every word Riley wrote, at least every available report and letter, and my overwhelming impression is that the guy was one charming cat. He rode his bike all over D.C. for exercise. He had six kids and doted on them. Like many entomologists, he was a brilliant illustrator of insects. When he taught entomology classes at the University of Missouri in the 1870s, he was so thrilled to be talking shop that he would draw insects on the board with both hands at once. He grew his hair into a cascade of curls and his students adored him. I have no hard proof, but there was something about Riley’s zest for life in general—and for insect life in particular—that dissuaded him from the easy answer to the insect problem, the one that the power brokers of the day wanted: chemicals. Read More »

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Our Daily Correspondent

Banned Books

November 17, 2014 | by

Once Upon a Potty

An illustration from Once Upon a Potty.

Once Upon a Potty was written in 1975 by the Israeli author and illustrator Alona Frankel to help her son toilet train. (Its Hebrew title is Sir Ha-Sirim, literally “Potty of Potties.”) Since it was translated into English in 1980, it’s never gone out of print, and now it’s regarded as a picture-book classic, a helpful resource for the parents of young children. 

It was banned in my house. My mother disliked the use of euphemisms she deemed babyish—wee-wee, potty, “a hole to woo-woo from”—and illustrations she found “creepy” and “disgusting.” I can still recall first hearing what would become one of her most oft-repeated phrases: “I don't care for that at all.” She sniffed at households that owned the book and curled her lip when we saw it on store shelves. 

As a result, Once Upon a Potty took on the luster of the taboo. Like a nineteenth-century schoolboy with a French postcard, I would read it—or, anyway, look at it—furtively whenever I was unobserved: at other toddlers’ houses, in the children’s room of the library, at the local Y where I did tumbling. Particularly shocking to me was the final illustration: the triumphant coil of tempera feces in a puddle of yellow urine. And the accompanying text! Exuberantly babyish, frankly scatological, my mother's nightmare incarnate. “Bye-bye wee-wee,” it reads as the excrement disappears down the toilet. “Bye-bye woo-woo.” Read More »

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On the Shelf

Painting the Invisible Hippo, and Other News

November 17, 2014 | by

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Peter Paul Rubens, Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt, 1616.

  • A new book looks at the history of the literary feud—with an abundance of ripe examples, including “the battle between Bevis Hillier and AN Wilson in the 1980s. Wilson had published a devastating review of Hillier’s authorized biography of John Betjeman, calling it ‘a hopeless mishmash.’ When Wilson announced his own biography of Betjeman, he received a letter from a mysterious French woman including the copy of an unpublished letter from Betjeman to Honor Tracy, describing their affair. Wilson could not resist including it in his book, and when the biography came out Hillier gleefully revealed that the letter was an acrostic, spelling out ‘AN Wilson is a shit.’”
  • Today in evolving forms of literacy: Emoji as language. On Twitter, emoji are now used more frequently than hyphens, tildes, and the numeral five. Whither emoji-speak? And does this wordless tongue have any antecedents? (“In 1974, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Transportation, designed a new system of symbols to be used in airports around the world in response to the increase in global travel … the design committee also made the following deduction: ‘We are convinced that the effectiveness of symbols is strictly limited.’ ”)
  • In 1616, Peter Paul Rubens painted a hippo. Problem: He had never laid eyes on a hippo. How did he do this?
  • A debut, of sorts, for Denis Johnson—as a visual artist. “His sketch is what I like to think of as three-quarters Basquiat, one-quarter ninth-grade geometry class.”
  • Writers and musicians seem to collaborate constantly, and yet it’s seldom a collaboration in the truest sense of the word. “Superficially, these collaborations fit into a pattern of writing and music as natural partners, one—to paraphrase Katharine Hepburn on Astaire and Rogers—providing the other with class, the other giving sex appeal … Perhaps tellingly, however, such liaisons tend to be one-off or short-lived … A novelist, playwright or poet providing words for someone else to turn into music and perform, although it is a model inherited from opera and musicals in earlier eras, is now surprisingly rare.”

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On Design

Shep and Dorothy

November 15, 2014 | by

A husband-and-wife team and their influential midcentury designs.

Page 34-35

From Dorothy and Otis: Designing the American Dream.

Lucky is the designer who can see in both two and three dimensions. Luckier still is she or he to be married to someone with equal gifts—especially if that mate is a collaborator and not a competitor. So appears to have been the case with Dorothy and Otis Shepard, whose enviable creative lives have been captured in the absorbing, moving, and lushly illustrated new book Dorothy and Otis: Designing the American Dream, by Norman Hathaway and Dan Nadel.

Both Dorothy and Shep (his nickname since childhood) got their start as commercial artists during San Francisco’s billboard boom of the 1920s. The Federal Highway Act, signed in 1921, helped fund the expansion of U.S. roadways, and advertisers took the opportunity to reach audiences beyond the traditional black-and-white pages of mail catalogs by posting colorful advertisements along America’s highways. Shep, a veteran of World War I, was a man of great adventure, with a strong and lasting interest in the theater. He was well regarded as a commercial painter while employed as an art director at Foster & Kleiser Outdoor Advertising Company, a top Bay Area agency of the period. In 1927, he wisely hired the gifted and highly praised Dorothy Van Gorder straight out of the California School of Arts and Crafts, from which she had graduated in only three years, as valedictorian. According to family lore, Dorothy was unabashedly outspoken (and just plain unabashed—she was once evicted from an apartment for sunbathing nude on the roof), and it cost her the Foster & Kleiser job, but almost as soon as she was let go, she was rehired for her prized skills. Hathaway and Nadel write that either in spite of or because of Dorothy’s brashness, Shep, the “raconteur,” soon began courting the “young bon vivant.”

And so their joint artistic adventure began—most markedly with a honeymoon in 1929 to Paris, Venice, Zurich, and Vienna. While there, they purchased Bauhaus furniture and had the good fortune to meet the great modernist Joseph Binder, who was a leader in the European abstract graphic style. “Shep and Dorothy already wanted their work to convey meaning through compositional structure—instead of realism,” write Hathaway and Nadel, but Binder’s reduction of “an image to a series of shapes and forms and [integration of] typography into his pictures” helped refine their approach to design and illustration. Both Dorothy and Otis had been following the modernist movement with great interest back home, but seeing this work and the new techniques in person and to scale had a profound and lasting effect on them. Read More »

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