Monthly Archives: January 2010

Body Soap

Hotel soap bars from 1950s-60s. (Image by Patty Robert)

Hotel soap bars, circa 1950s-60s. (Image by Patty Robert)

The science of soap is more complex than one might imagine, requiring at least a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry. Even the most basic ingredients of soap rely on key reactions with other ingredients — a give and take that makes you wonder how we ever figured out soap in the first place. It makes some sense then, that the creation of cleansing products was supposedly discovered by accident.

Historians believe that the word “soap” is derived from the ancient Roman temple site at Mount Sapo, a spot used for the regular ritualistic sacrifice of animals. Animal fat would then run down the mountain into the nearby Tiber River, combining with fire ash to form a substance that women, innocently washing their clothes on the river’s banks, found particularly handy.

Vintage Ivory soap advertising with WWI soldiers, 1919.

Ivory advertising with WWI soldiers, 1919.


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Horn Spoon

One of nature’s very useful materials, horn (whether from ox, buffalo, stag, ram or bison) has historically been utilized in a number of applications. As seen here, it’s a material particularly suited to spoons. A true connoisseur of caviar and soft-boiled egg eating will tell you, nothing taints the flavor like metal, and horn offers an unrivalled purity of taste.

Horn spoon

Polished horn spoon.



Paper Making

Paper has been a key factor in communication and learning and can be traced back to 3000 BC. In those days, Egyptian craftsman cut the stems of the djet or tjufi plant (papyrus in Greek), a tall freshwater reed belonging to a group of plants known in Biblical references as bulrushes. The Egyptians cut the reed into thin strips, softened them in the muddy waters of the Nile, then layered them in right angles. They then pounded the mat into a thin sheet and left it out to dry in the sun. It was clearly a labor-intensive affair, and most likely won the respect of producers and consumers alike; for this reason, it was saved for very important records, fine art, and religious texts.

Stack of paper. (Image by John Hubbard)

Paper stacks. (Image by John Hubbard)


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Cockatoo by Johann Joachim Kandler, Meissen Porcelain, 1734. (Image courtesy Rijksmuseum, Netherlands)

Cockatoo made of Meissen Porcelain by Johann Joachim Kandler, 1734. (Image courtesy Rijksmuseum, Netherlands)

Time often functions as a test of a material’s worth, its usefulness in the grand scheme of things. The practicality and lasting relevance of materials like wood, wool, metal reach far back into our history, better equipping humanity for our spritely sprint towards inevitable obsolescence. While as awesome and as taken for granted as many fundamental building blocks for existence are, when taking a closer look at the less thoroughly appreciated, less obvious contenders, little revelations rear their heads, perhaps none more than porcelain.


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Mother Of Pearl Pocket Knife

In a time when it was unthinkable for a man to leave the house without his hat, it was just as unthinkable to leave without a pocket knife. Small, lightweight and high quality pocket knives were also called gentlemen’s knives and fit perfectly in the pocket of a suit, trousers or even a dress shirt.

Antique mother of pearl knife, closed

Mother of pearl pocket knife by Landers, Frary & Clark, New Britain, Connecticut.



George Nelson Flip Clock

What is the crowning glory of your civilization… the symbol as clear a statement as the pyramids, the Parthenon, the cathedrals? What is this symbol? What is its name?

Its name is Junk.

Junk is the rusty, lovely, brilliant symbol of the dying years of your time. Junk is your ultimate landscape. – George Nelson, 1965

George Nelson clock, circa 1950.

George Nelson design for Herman Miller Clock Company, circa 1950.



Butcher Block

Wood butcher block, detail

End grain butcher block.

Since I am still in search of a good butcher in L.A. (alas, none to be found!) – I am finding myself delving further into the dissection of strange and exotic cuts of meat – at home. A recent purchase of a meat grinder (more on that soon!) has lead to a whole lot of chopping and cutting, slicing and dicing and a new search – for a superior place on which to cut.



Du Pont Canvas Utility Bag

Sometimes, we as consumers don’t necessarily have access to everything quality and well-made. Throughout history, the military has provided a fine example of an institution that reserves the right to some superior products for themselves. The dependence of a person’s life on a functioning buckle or zipper or the endurance of a material under extreme conditions, draws an attention to detail that consumers often don’t get the luxury to experience. Industry is another good example.

Du Pont canvas utilitarian bag.

Well-travelled Du Pont canvas utilitarian bag.


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Corrugated Cardboard

Stamp on a corrugated cardboard box.

Official stamp on a corrugated cardboard box.

I was recently on a search, looking by the bins near our neighbor’s apartment complex, peeking behind the store around the block, looking for the right one. And then I found her — a flat yet sturdy beauty, about 6 feet tall, pleasantly thick in all the right places, clean around the edges, and in excellent overall shape. She was the mother of them all, a huge cardboard box, and what a great playhouse it would make for my 2-year old. As I threw the heavy carton into the back of my truck, I imagined what it must have carried, being so strong, and what it would become after I got through with it.


Long before cardboard played house, it played a role in the Industrial Revolution, when the increase in manufactured products signaled a change in the nature of the consumer market. As demand for goods increased, so did the need for a lighter means to transport them. Still, we owe the creation of cardboard and its many uses to a series of small design changes.

It all started when a new process enabled flimsy sheets of paper to be crimped into repeated undulating pattern, creating more rigid, stronger material for packaging fragile goods. Later, in 1856, Edward C. Haley filed a patent on “undulated paper,” finding it useful as a liner for tall hats. Another patent for corrugated cardboard was introduced in 1871, when Albert Jones of New York added a single liner sheet to one side of the undulated paper. This addition would make it more suitable as a wrapping material for Jones’ bottles and glass lanterns. Three years later, G. Smyth invented the first machine for producing large quantities of corrugated cardboard, and yet another gentleman named Oliver Long added liner sheets to both sides. This material is corrugated cardboard as we know it today.

Cardboard container advertising, 1942.

Ad for cardboard containers from 1942.

A Brooklyn printer and paper-bag maker named Robert Gair can be thanked for boxing it up. In 1890, he invented a carton made of pre-cut flat pieces. Gair’s creation (as with many other innovations) was the result of a happy accident; while he was printing an order of bags, a metal ruler used for creasing shifted in position and cut through the paper. Gair discovered that by simply cutting and creasing cardboard as well, he could make boxes in large quantities.

Inside view of a corrugated cardboard box.

Folded corrugated cardboard box.


A little structural engineering goes a long way, it seems. The secret to the strength of cardboard is all in that wave of fluting sandwiched between the flat liner boards and glued together, usually with cornstarch and some chemicals. When used in packaging, stacking boxes so that the flutes line up in the vertical direction greatly increases its strength potential. (It’s even possible to stand on a vertically stacked box, though that same box on its side will collapse.) Still, 70% of its strength is found in the corners of each box, making squarely stacked cartons incredibly strong.

Cardboard that is used for shipping is tested and rated using two standardized measures. One is the Edge Crush Test (ECT), which determines how well a box will hold up during stacking and is measured in pounds per square inch (psi). The Burst Strength Test (BST) or Mullen Test indicates how much weight a box can hold without failing. Both ratings can be found stamped on one of the bottom flaps of corrugated cardboard boxes in the Box Manufacturer’s Certificate. Higher numbers indicate sturdier boxes.

Cardboard eggholder patent, 1877.

Patent for a cardboard eggholder, 1877.


As so often with large production processes that make our lives a bit easier, the manufacturing of cardboard has a dark side. The most obvious danger lies in the unchecked harvesting of pine for paper pulp. The second is even more troubling.

In the nineteenth century, a chemical pulping process was developed that allowed wood (in this case, pine) to be turned into a soluble pulp for strong, relatively long-lasting paper. This chemical pulping is still used, removing all the parts of the wood which are not cellulose. Lignin, a carbohydrate that cements adjacent wood cells together, is taken out in this process.

Originally, wood pulp was cooked in lye alone, but this produced a rather weak paper. The addition of sodium sulfide to the pulp produced a much stronger paper. This process is called the kraft process (from the German word for strong.) About 80% of this kraft pulp is wood and the remaining 20% consists of lye and sodium sulfide. The pulp is cooked, or digested, at 338 degrees Fahrenheit for three hours until most of the lignin is made soluble. The liquid is then drained off and the pulp is washed to remove the chemicals.

cardboard box print, detail.

Detail of a cardboard box print.

The result: a pulp that is dark brown in color. Corrugated cardboard and grocery bags are both made from this kind of paper. (If white paper is desired, the pulp must be bleached.)

The problem with the kraft process is what remains; this black liquid contains lye, soda ash, sodium sulfide, and lignin. In the past, this would have been discharged directly into a lake or river, causing significant water pollution. Today, economical production of kraft paper relies on the recycling of these components in a furnace.

The problem of air quality around kraft paper mills is a continuing one and efforts to reduce emissions are costly to the mills, but many are making it a priority to make the process more efficient. More and more manufacturers use recycled cardboard. For those that do not, there has been a growing number of paper mills that have at least been using FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified sources. With the demand for more conscious production, these manufacturers will hopefully meet new strict standards.

Cardboard art: Claude Closky's "All the ways to close a cardboard box" (1989) (Image courtesy

Claude Closky’s “All the ways to close a cardboard box”, 1989. (Image courtesy


Besides being used to ship product, the versatility of cardboard makes it a perfect candidate for use in design. In the past 40 years, a number of high profile designers and architects began experimenting with cardboard as an alternative to  traditional building materials, using it in shelters and furniture. In 1972, L.A. architect Frank Gehry designed his famous “wiggle chair” completely out of cardboard, and his design continues to sell over thirty years later. In 1995, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban used columns of cardboard tubes in the Takatori Kyokai Church in Kobe, Japan; he later used them in his UN design for refugee shelters in Rwanda in 1999 and in the stunningly beautiful Japan Pavilion in Hannover, Germany for Expo 2000. Most of all, these designs focused on the innovation of non-traditional materials, creating a new set of possibilities.

Vintage ad for cardboard container from 1942.

Ad for cardboard containers, 1942.


It goes to show that simple materials such as cardboard can be strong, playful, serious, versatile, and even aesthetically pleasing all at once. Who of us hasn’t used a box as a playhouse during childhood? Moved her entire life’s possessions to a new home in a bunch of boxes found at the local grocery store? Or, sadly, come across the body of someone sleeping on the sidewalk, their feet sticking out of a carton? Cardboard continues to remind us of its steadfast presence in our daily lives, a material that lends itself out readily when we need it the most. Though new innovations will undoubtedly signal the arrival and departure of less-than-natural manufacturing materials, cardboard may continue to serve as a valuable tool for years to come. Ultimately, however, we must respect materials like this one if we’re to continue benefiting from them.

Cardboard container advertising, 1942.

WWII ad for cardboard containers, 1942.

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Wooden Snowshoes

Vintage wooden snowshoe.

Vintage wooden snowshoe with some steel wire repairs.

Fresh powder snow doesn’t just look beautiful, it also swallows noise, making everything impossibly silent. But walking through deep snow is so strenuous that it’s nearly impossible to enjoy this simple pleasure — unless you strap on a pair of snowshoes. A recent article on the excellent 10engines blog sparked my interest to read more about the history of wooden snowshoes.


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Seersucker Suit Jacket

The lapel of a seersucker suit.

The best design offers innovative solutions to the relentless stream of everyday challenges, uniquely reflecting and interacting with their origins. Seersucker, the brightly colored cotton fabric associated with Southern Gentlemen, J. Crew catalogs and Easter egg hunts, is certainly no different. Both an iconic achievement in fashion design and functionality, seersucker’s ceaseless timelessness stands as one of America’s finest fabric achievements.

While different origin histories cite Muslim traders and former British colonies, for contemporary purposes, our attention is drawn to balmy New Orleans at the turn of the humid century, 1907 to be exact, and its master tailor Joseph Haspel. Realizing the lightweight fabric would serve the masses of workers sweating their way through work days mercilessly devoid of air conditioning, coupled with his marketing concept of ‘wash and wear,’ a new American classic was born. He is said to have christened his creation of alternating stripes of blue and white, the rough and the smooth, “seersucker” from the Persian words for “milk” and “sugar.”

Seersucker’s distinctive crinkly shape is achieved through a slack tension weave, resulting in a versatile fabric of bunched threads that not only looks great in a dashingly disheveled, devil-may-care way, but is lifted from the body, thusly allowing for said cooling air flow. Again harnessing its slack tension weave crinkle powers, no doting care is necessary; any ole washing maintains the look.

Gregory Peck Wearing a Seersucker in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' 1962

Gregory Peck Wearing a Seersucker in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ 1962

And about that look, mirroring the trajectory of countless trends in modern America, what started as a working class thing, soon began appearing on college campuses. Then, in the 1920s, the suits were adopted by well to do Northerners vacationing in the South. Its utilitarian functionality continued to catch on, particularly in the nearby regions of the sweltering South, where it continues to carry its heaviest associations with the so-called Southern Gentleman.

Even the U.S. Senate, historically known for its poor ventilation, on the second or third Thursday in June, holds a Seersucker Thursday, founded by Trent Lott, where caricatured images of those gentlemen brighten up the usually dourly dressed denizens of the capital.

Before the fashion forward Senate, the U.S. government recognized the potential of seersucker, decking out World War II nurses with matchy-matchy numbers, colored accordingly: brown and white for Army and gray and white for Navy nurses. Designed to take advantage of the fabric’s ruggedness in the field, its radical departure from stoic military tradition meant its longevity was for naught.

Seersucker Navy Working Uniform, Circa 1944

Two women wearing seersucker Navy working uniforms, circa 1944.

Seersucker not only reigns supreme in suits, shorts, skirts – even the curtains of homes utilize this fabric. That said, the weaving process of alternating tight and slack weaves is labor intensive and expensive and companies stand to make little profit, resulting in fewer companies producing true seersucker. Harsh chemical treatments replicate the crinkle affect, but there ain’t no crinkle like a real seersucker crinkle, so make sure you get the real deal.

And in the real deal department, our old friend Joseph Haspel remains in the business of tailoring fine men’s suits via his family’s commitment to his vision. After flying the seersucker flag for years, even outfitting Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in the film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird, and winning over recent presidents with their fine suits, it’s inspiring to see a brand’s dedication persevere.

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J.A. Bauer Pottery

J.A. Bauer pottery bowl from the 1940s.

J.A. Bauer pottery bowl, circa 1940s.

Founded in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1880s, J.A. Bauer Pottery originally specialized in containers for the most popular of local products… whiskey. Manufacturing stoneware crocks and bottles, John Andy Bauer built his business on traditional earthenware techniques, thick and sturdy liquor, and water jugs which were meant to follow function more than form. It wasn’t until Bauer relocated to Los Angeles in 1909 that his innate creativity began to take root.