An Efficiency of Seal Presses

Posted on May 17th, 2018 by

A blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

There are arguments to be made in favor of collecting multiple iterations of an artifact.  Our focus here is history, not decorative arts, thus manufacturing techniques, stylistic development, and change over time are not as much our concern as is the story each individual artifact can tell about its creation, owners, and uses. But the opportunity to compare similar items can be useful to a history museum, allowing us to look at them across a broader spectrum, and to combine those individual elements into a larger context. Think of wedding gowns, for example, or sports trophies: On their own they can help us share a single story; shown as a group, they can illustrate the varying choices made by brides from different cultures, classes, or religions, or the shift in a community from one favored athletic activity to another.

Those might be obvious choices for ‘they’re-the-same-but-different’ artifacts, but I’ll offer another: the humble embossing or seal press.

What do you call a group of vintage office supplies like this – a herd? A flock? A flotilla? Then it came to me: of course, this is an efficiency of seal presses.

We recently accepted a seal press from the Jewish Convalescent & Nursing Home of Baltimore. By itself, it can serve as a material introduction to this long-standing institution. But that will have to wait for another blog post! For our purposes today, it has joined its friends. We have fifteen embossing presses in the collection, covering many decades and representing an impressive variety of social, religious, and charitable organizations, as well as businesses.

Back row, table-top presses, left to right:

-“Hebrew Education Society, Baltimore City, 1860 amended 1900.” Anonymous gift. JMM 1997.051.001

-“Jewish Convalescent & Nursing Home Society, Maryland, Incorporated Nov. 6, 1936.” Gift of Michael Moranz. JMM2018.018.001

-“Chevrah B’nai Abraham, Incorporated. Organized Jan. 25, 1916.” Gift of Lillian Sapperstein. JMM 1999.164.002

-“Tifereth Israel Congregation of Forest Park. Incorporated 1926. Maryland.” Gift of Howard L. Cohn. JMM 1999.014.007

-“Hebrew Orthodox Free Burial Society, Baltimore, Md.,” with the organization name in Hebrew in the center. Gift of Victor Resnick. JMM 2001.105.001

-“The Hebrew Ladies Free Loan and Charities of Baltimore, Md. Incorporated 1902.” Gift of Roslyn Tamres. JMM 2003.042.001

-“Twentieth Century Athletic and Literary Club, Organized Dec. 16, 1901. Incorporated Oct. 20, 1903.” Gift of Edwin B. Early. JMM 1991.161.001

-A long-reach press. “Grand Order Brith Shalom [sic] of Baltimore City, Incorporated Aug. 16, 1902.” Gift of Paul Miller for Brith Sholom. JMM 1995.209.021

Front row, hand-held or pocket presses, left to right:

-“Pickwick Cemeteries, Inc. Incorporated 1985.” Gift of Howard L. Cohn. JMM 1999.014.009

-“Ruth Kessler, Notary Public, Baltimore, Maryland.” Gift of the Kessler family. JMM 2005.055.002

-“Har Zion – Petach Tikvah – Tifereth Israel Cong. Maryland 1972.” Gift of Howard L. Cohn. JMM 1999.014.008

-“Petach Tikvah Congregation, Incorporated 1921.” Gift of Howard L. Cohn. JMM 1999.014.006

-“Rodfe Zadek [aka Rodfe Tzedek or Zedek] Congregation of Baltimore,” with the congregation name in Hebrew in the center. Gift of Ken Zajic for Rodfe Zedek Cemetery. JMM 1996.168.001

-“Anshe Beth Jacob Congregation, Maryland. Incorporated 1922.” Gift of Ruth Mandle. JMM 1982.014.003

-“Hebrew Friendship Cemetery Company of Baltimore City, Incorporated June 20, 1902.” Gift of The Associated. JMM 2015.003.001

So what is a seal press? Each of these, whether designed to sit on/attach to a table (the large, heavy, cast-iron presses in the back row) or to be held in the hand, contains a pair of metal die.  Slip a piece of paper between the die, press down the handle, and you end up with an embossed imprint of your desired text or image.

Samples of three of our seals, made for curator reference.

The incorporation dates of the organization do not necessarily mean that’s when the press was purchased, though it does provide a handy terminus post quem, the earliest date it could have been produced (i.e., it wasn’t made before the organization was incorporated).  It is also possible to change out the seal imprint, meaning an older press might hold a newer seal. However, other info can help us narrow down the dates during which a particular press was made, purchased, and used.  Several of the hand presses have patent dates, ranging from 1895 (the Rodfe Zadek Congregation press) to 1961 (Pickwick Cemeteries). None of the table-top presses have patent dates or maker’s marks, unfortunately, and like their smaller friends, this basic design was used from the 19th century well into the 20th. This example, from suburban DC, looks old-school but its seal dates it fairly specifically to the 1960s; similar tools were used as early as the 1780s.  In the case of these presses, the dates of the organization are our best bet for determining dates of use.

At least one Baltimore firm is known to have made the cast-iron presses; here’s an example by the Pearce F. Crowl Company of Baltimore, at the Museum of Vancouver.

This may be the same company (under a mis-read name or taken over by a relative?) as the Pearre E. Crowl Company, Engravers, Printers, Stationers and Rubber Stamps, found in the 1905 Baltimore directory.

The same directory includes several firms that could make the die for your press.

So what do these artifacts, as a group, tell us?  Several of the hand presses are the same brand, “Official Pocket Seal,” with successive patent numbers proudly stamped on the handles: the earliest example boasting the 1937 patent, with later presses adding patents from 1939, then 1953, then 1961.  That’s a nice little material culture comparison exercise right there.  Of more specific use to us, three of the seals – one table-top, two hand –  trace the merger of congregations: separate seals for Petach Tikvah (founded 1921) and Tifereth Israel Congregation of Forest Park (founded 1926), and a later seal for the now-combined Har Zion – Petach Tikvah -Tifereth Israel Congregation (founded 1972).

Even though the rest are not directly related to each other, altogether they provide an overview of the types of organizations and businesses that were important to Baltimore’s Jewish community: a sampling of the broader JMM collections, in one tidy batch.

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Performance Counts: The Book of Joseph

Posted on May 11th, 2018 by

Our monthly look at JMM “by the numbers” comes to you this week from Director of Collections and Exhibits, Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

Our lobby exhibit The Book of Joseph: Giving Voice to the Hollander Family may take up only a little over sixty square feet of space in the orientation space, but nonetheless it requires many hours to research, write, and install even small displays like this one.

I had the privilege of looking over the primary source material, reading the book based on the family story, watching the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s production of the play, and talking to Richard Hollander, whose family’s story is told through all these different media.

In 1939, Joseph Hollander and his wife left Poland just days before the Germans invaded, and after an arduous journey through Europe, they ended up – accidentally – in New York. While they were fighting to keep from being deported, Joseph’s family in Cracow wrote hundreds of letters to him about the worsening conditions under which they were suffering. Despite his work to secure them safe passage, and later attempts – after the letters stopped in 1942 – to find them, Joseph never learned the fate of his family. Nor did he tell the full story to his son Richard, instead carefully storing all the letters, photos, and other memories away in a briefcase.

Richard only discovered the case, and the stories it contained, after his father’s death.

Some years later, he delved into the material, had the letters translated, and with scholar Christopher Browning wrote the book Every Day Lasts a Year. Playwright Karen Hartman then turned the family’s story into the play “The Book of Joseph,” first produced by the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and enjoying its East Coast premiere at the Everyman Theatre in Baltimore.

In order to narrow this history – relating the lives of 14 people, over the course of six years – down into something that could be conveyed in a small exhibition, the full story had to be known.

To that end, I cataloged 157 letters and postcards written between 1940 and 1942 by the Hollanders in Poland to Joseph Hollander in the U.S.; matched those letters up to the translations in the book; and selected letters that could best illustrate important elements of the family’s story, even to those visitors unable to read German or Polish.

Even though each letter tells its own small piece of the story, only 23 of those letters ended up in the exhibit itself. (If you haven’t had the chance to read the English translations of the full collection in the book Every Day Lasts a Year, I strongly encourage you to do so.)

In addition to the exhibit itself, I and our Marketing Manager, Rachel Kassman, have been collecting and developing additional content to augment the story, including an interview with playwright Karen Hartman and Joseph Hollander, blog posts highlighting individual letters not included in the exhibit, and news coverage related to both the exhibit and the play. You can check out that bonus content here.

To celebrate the opening of the exhibit, three actors from Everyman Theatre’s upcoming production of “The Book of Joseph,” along with the play’s director, and Richard Hollander himself, joined us at the JMM on April 26th for a special reading of two scenes, and a question-and-answer session with the audience. 89 people attended this unique opportunity to compare two very different ways of experiencing this poignant story: through the original handwritten letters themselves, and through spoken, dramatic interpretation.

The Book of Joseph: Giving Voice to the Hollander Family is on view at the Museum through June 3, 2018. “The Book of Joseph” is now open at Everyman Theatre and runs through June 10th.

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Photos of Mount Vernon – A Long-Standing Tradition

Posted on April 30th, 2018 by

A blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

Mount Vernon, Virginia, home of the Washington family, has been attracting tourists for over two hundred years – even before the mid-19th century when Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased it, renovated it, and turned it into one of the United States’ first historic house museums.   That means it’s one of those places that pops up in museum collections all over the country, from postcards and souvenirs to photo albums and scrapbooks.

Full disclosure: I love Mount Vernon. The house, its history as a museum, and the Ladies Association all served as the basis for many of my grad school research papers, and I have a small collection of historic guidebooks and vintage souvenirs.  (You, kind readers, are saved ‘enjoying’ proof of my collection only because I forgot to take photos this weekend.)  I’m always delighted to find yet another vintage photo of someone’s long-ago visit to Mount Vernon. I visited the estate a few weeks ago, to help welcome a friend to her new role as Martha Washington, and afterward I was inspired to look through the JMM’s collections to see what I could find.

“Mt. Vernon, Va.” Taken August 14, 1925.  From an album created by Lee Labowitz of Baltimore. Donated by Paul and Janet Kramer. JMM 2003.94.5.17

“G. Washington’s Home.” Taken in the early 1920s. From an album created by Miriam Dannenberg Hecht of Baltimore. Donated by Eleanor Hecht Yuspa. JMM 2015.8.10

“Mount Vernon, Va.” Taken October 20, 1930. From a collection of photos taken by Harry Klawan of Baltimore. Donated by Pete Lesher. JMM 2005.9.515

Photographs of popular tourist destinations have a delightful sameness across the decades.  Everyone wants a good photo of the house (or the waterfall, or the giant tree, or the building shaped like an elephant), and the same views of the same places can be found in album after album after album.  I noticed that a photo I took on April 21st this year is, coincidentally, pretty much the same angle as one of Mr. Klawan’s photos from October 1930:

Left: A side view of Mount Vernon, October 20, 1930, by Harry Klawan. Gift of Pete Lesher. JMM 2005.09.515.  Right: The same view, minus a bench, a few trees, and a side portico, 87 ½ years later in April 2018, by the author.

And everyone takes a picture of themselves or their kids, as two of my colleagues helped demonstrate:

Left: “Isaac & Alan [Hecht] at Mt. Vernon,” early 1920s. Gift of Eleanor Hecht Yuspa. JMM 2015.8.10.  Top right: Alan and Anna Pinkert at Mount Vernon, summer 1994. Courtesy Marvin Pinkert. Bottom right: Lucas and Elan Mann, January 2016. Courtesy Lorie Rombro.

Lee Labowitz (right) had someone take this photo of herself and her friends – one of whom looks less than impressed – in 1925:

“Entrance to kitchen, home of Geo. Washington” on August 14, 1925. From an album created by Lee Labowitz of Baltimore. Donated by Paul and Janet Kramer. JMM 2003.94.5.17

In more recent decades, as the museum added character interpretations, opportunities for visitor photographs expanded. Now, for example, on the right day you can have your photo taken with Martha Washington and her family, or one of the many other historical interpreters – though I hope you will also listen to what they have to say, and ask questions, as well as posing for a selfie.

Yours truly – the one NOT wearing a cool hat – with the first family, April 21, 2018.  You too can visit with the younger Mrs. Washington, Monday-Thursday at Mount Vernon!

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