Monthly Archives: December 2009

Happy Holidays

Wildcat, New Hampshire, 1946. (Image courtesy of Wildcat Mountain)

Hitting the slopes of Wildcat, New Hampshire, in 1946. (Image courtesy of Wildcat Mountain)

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Pocket Lighter

Vintage Ronson Varaframe lighter from 1957.

Ronson Varaframe lighter, 1957.

Man’s fire, the gods’ greatest gift. Forgive the overused metaphor, but I was as inspired as young Prometheus when I held hot fire in my hands, produced by my very own steel pocket lighter. A skinny eighteen-year-old takes on a serious swagger when he smokes a cigarette, and half of it happens right when he lights up.

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Alice Waters

Alice Waters. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Alice Waters at a gathering with friends and food. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Alice Waters (born 1944) is one of the unrivaled pioneers of California cuisine, owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, among the first U.S. restaurants to promote locally grown, seasonally available, organically produced ingredients. While this now might seem a given, this philosophy was groundbreaking in 1971, when Waters first opened her restaurant.

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Transistor Radio

I was happy when I found these photos of the Telefunken Match transistor radio in the archive on the Delft University of Technology website. When transistor radios first came out in the mid 1950s, they were considered a status symbol. The very first one, the Texas Instruments Regency TR-1, cost more than 350 dollars by today’s standards.

Telefunken Match II Transistor Radio 1963.

Telefunken Match Transistor Radio from 1963.

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Natural Cork

Harvesting cork. (Image by marylandcork.com)

Harvesting cork from the tree. (Image by marylandcork.com)

Ah, the small squeak of the stopper against glass as you open a bottle of good wine, what could be more pleasing? Perhaps the subtle-spring in your heels as you walk across flooring from recycled wine stoppers? Or the dampened, acoustic softness that seems to seal out the noisy bustle of the world beyond? Yes, cork is a material that does it all, and does it well: it’s natural (derived from an evergreen oak, Quercus suber), beautiful, and regenerates quickly. Best of all, this wonder material is making a comeback.

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Kitchen Towels

Dishtowels, with their no-nonsense pattern design (that blue/white or red/white check or plaid or stripe has endured for decades) and soft texture (the finest are usually 50 percent cotton/50 percent linen), are not only nostalgic (lay one over that apple pie while it cools!) but well… handy. You can clean up messes, dry things, spray your cleaner and wipe away stains.

Kitchen towel made with cotton and linen.

Kitchen dish towel made with 50% cotton and 50% linen.

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Stainless Steel

Inside a washing machine. "A Clean Stainless Steel Will Never Corrode." (Image by Rene Sahli)

Inside a washing machine. (Image by Rene Sahli)

Stainless steel is a material that’s easy to fall in love with. It is sleek, shiny, strong, doesn’t flake or wear-off and has a nice smooth feel to it. And stainless steel’s beauty is long-lasting, which it owes to its most notable characteristic – it doesn’t rust. Stainless steel has brought such vast changes to industries as automotive, aviation, food, machinery and medicine that it can easily be called the metal of the 21st century.

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Scott Nearing

‘The good life is never stable, never secure, never easy and never ended. It is a series of steps or stages, one leading into the other and all, in their outcome, adding, not subtracting; augmenting, not diminishing; building, not destroying; creating, not annihilating.’ – Scott Nearing, 1965

Helen and Scott Nearing on a rock.

Helen and Scott Nearing outdoors.

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Swiss Army Bread Bag

Vintage Swiss Army bread bag.

Detail from a vintage Swiss Army bread bag.

I found these great vintage Swiss military bread bags at an Army-Navy surplus store the other day. Amazingly well-made. I was immediately drawn to them aesthetically, and seeing how I’ve been building up a vintage Italian road bike as of late, I thought they’d be perfect candidates for panniers. The steel and honey leather accents would match my Brooks saddle and leather handlebar tape. They were also a far superior alternative to what I’d found online. With the exception of the thin shoulder strap (which I probably wouldn’t use anyhow) everything about them just works.

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Book Darts

Bronze book dart.

Bronze book dart dutifully keeping a reader’s page.

The advent of Kindle may be a boon for techies and a fine way to carry around a library in your luggage – but it certainly takes some of the romance out of reading. What about the pleasure of turning a page, the dusty, nostalgic smell of old paper, the scattered notes and underlining left behind by past readers? If you’re like me, you like nothing better than the feel of a heavy hardcover or a tattered paperback and half the joy of reading is gazing triumphantly at the stacks of conquered pages against the wall. Book darts are another bit of class and old school style that come in handy, the perfect accessory for the avid reader. The tip of the backside is bent upwards, which makes it easy to slide them over a page.

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Canvas

Plain weave of canvas fabric.

Plain weave canvas detail.

Perhaps one of the more interesting facets of innovation, despite advances in technology and engineering, is the reliance on successes of yore. Nature’s unflagging way of providing the most effective solution to a design problem continues to amaze.

This conundrum has recently surfaced more and more in the mainstream, in relation to our shopping habits and reliance on the vilified plastic shopping bag. While synthetic blends, sometimes even recycled from plastic bags themselves, make up a large part of the available alternatives, the canvas bag’s simplicity and efficacy remains the most attractive solution, due in large part to the natural integrity and lineage of canvas itself.

Twill weave of denim.

Denim twill weave of a pair of jeans.

Canvas refers to a heavy-duty weave of fabric, a plain weave as opposed to a more complex weave, like denim. Duck canvas is a tighter, stronger weave, incorporating linen. All canvas can be measured by weight or through its reverse numerical system where a number ten canvas is the lightest and a number one, the heaviest.

Historically its use is tied to painting and dates back to the progression from artists utilizing wood surfaces for their work to canvas. Prior to cotton, hemp was used, with the likely etymology of the word canvas essentially deriving from cannabis.

Manufacturing canvas boxing punching bags in 1918. (Image by Shorpy)

A man sewing a canvas punching bag in 1918. (Image by Shorpy)

Over the years, the strength and versatility of its fabric weave lead to integration in a diverse smattering of industries. Waxed canvas found widespread use in the 1500s for sailing and by the 1700s, America’s oldest continuing company, J.E. Rhoads & Sons got its start making canvas conveyor belts for water mills.

Over time, the rarity of hemp, despite its superior strength, coupled with the corresponding price increase lead to a switch to linen canvas and eventually its current incarnation, cotton. A quintessentially American crop, cotton boasts a number of benefits; renewable, biodegradable, reusable, it ages well and in terms of decoration, it is canvas after all, and functions as quite a palette for silk-screened or embroidered designs.

Waxed canvas detail.

The sturdy fabric of waxed canvas.

While in recent history, canvas mainly served the outdoor camping, military and industrial fields, a bit of a canvas reassessment and revival has accompanied the contemporary ecological renaissance, with waxed canvas in particular enjoying a revival.  Again boasting a rich history, with sailors using linseed oil to keep them dry at sea, each fiber is coated in a wax treatment, often close guarded secret ingredients,  that  create a remarkably water resistant fabric that ages quite gracefully. As new and novel as technological innovations to old problems may be, the timelessness of a classic simply can’t be beat.

The Indianapolis Star canvas bag, 1972. (Photo by Shorpy)

Newspaper boy and his Indianapolis Star canvas bike bag, 1972. (Photo by Shorpy)

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Stainless Steel Ashtray

Designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1967.

Stainless steel ashtray designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1967.

If the main purpose of an ashtray is to hide cigarette butts so you always think it’s your first one, then Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971) did a good job. I like it when form follows function. Jacobsen is mainly known for his chairs, but he also designed about twenty household products for the Danish company Stelton.

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Mezcal

Bottle of mescal.

The star ingredient of mezcal: Agave.

While a bikini-clad, shot-chugging, glut of Spring Breaking tequilas dominate the popular imagination, there exists no greater thrill than the grand daddy drinking, sipping-not-shooting experience of them all – mezcal.

A trillion times more robust than tequila and delivering an intensely warming experience through its formidable smokiness, mezcal’s arduous craftsmanship, made almost exclusively through small scale producers employing traditional techniques 200 years old and laborious history, make it a standout tour de force of drinking.

Made from the agave plant, Oaxaca and its unique topography serve as the epicenter of mezcal production. Grown for two years in garden plots, the agave are then uprooted, roots cut, leaves bound and left to heal in the shade for two weeks. They are then transported to the hills, where they are transplanted and left to grow for another four to ten years.

Making mescal. (Photo by lagaleriephoto.eu)

The labor-intensive endeavor of making mescal. (Image by lagaleriephoto.eu)

After harvesting, the cores are placed and buried in an eight feet deep pit, where a complex roasting/baking process lasts from three days to a month, imparting the flavors of earth, wood, smoke and rocks. After shade resting for a week and fermenting with airborne microbes, a horse powered stone wheel crushes the plant.

From there, wooden vats hold the fermenting liquid for four to thirty days. After being transferred to stills, a 24 hour wood fire distillation process, which happens twice, resulting in mescal. As you would expect, a process this in depth and labor intensive, coupled with the albeit limited export demand, provides vital employment for around 29,000 people. But when playing the numbers game, perhaps most remarkable is: of the the two million liters of certified production, only 434,000 of that is exported, meaning Mexico means mezcal.

Mezcal distillery in Matatlan, Oaxaca, Mexico. (Image by Colors Magazine, Issue 69)

Los Danzantes distillery in Matatlan, Oaxaca. (Image by Colors Magazine, Issue 69)

When looking for a good bottle of mezcal, it’s important that it’s labeled “100% agave” as cheaper mezcal has an unfortunate history of color additives, including the marketing gimmick of a worm, which in fact used to indicate sub standard quality as that worm was a parasite from the plant. The purity of 100 percent agave is also fabled to be hangover free.

Not often found on menus, and lacking a signature genre defining cocktail like the margarita, mezcals are traditionally and best enjoyed neat, free from distractions. Del Maguey Single Village and Sombra are two highly drinkable names you’d do well starting with. Enjoy!

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Beeswax

Honeycomb detail with eggs. (Photo from commons.wikimedia.org)

Honeycomb with eggs at the bottom of each cell. (Photo from commons.wikimedia.org)

There has been much noise about the possible disappearance of the honey bee in parts of the United States, and the hoopla is certainly for good reason. The bee, as the saying goes, is busy — being an essential cog in the natural cycle of life’s growth and decay.  The honey bee is an industrious multi-tasker whose absence would most certainly be missed. Among their indespensible contributions to the environment is a remarkedly useful byproduct that many take for granted — beeswax.

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