18 October 2019


Today's post brought a postcard from Gina: the picture is captioned "James Baldwin's writing room" and includes a portrait sketch, a drawing of his house in southern France, and a drawing of his Smith-Corona Coronamatic 2200; the text from Gina asks "Do you own a typewriter? Or is it only us GenXers (and beyond) that feel the need to fiddle with type & ribbon?" The card is from Bibliophile postcards, published by Chronicle Books.

What? She had to ask? How did she not know that I was the last cataloger at Cornell to still have a manual typewriter at his desk? There were those increasingly rare moments when you needed to, what, type an envelope? Get some exercise? When I left Cornell in 1989, they gave me the typewriter as a going-away present. (All of the others had long before been abandoned and/or replaced by electric typewriters.) Foolish me, I didn't keep it. My typewriter looked something like this and I think it was a Smith Corona. All of us catalogers had had a card platen as well as the smooth one. The head of the typing section always kept us current on replacing our ribbons and cleaning our type. Rubber erasers work well to clean the keys.

Long before that, when I was getting ready to go off to college in the mid 1960s, I bought myself an Olivetti Lettera 32 with script type. I did like it for its sleek design but kind of outgrew the script type so I traded it with my grandmother for her old Royal portable.
I used that Royal portable in college, grad school, and library school, and after. It stayed in storage at the family home when I moved from my two-bedroom apartment in Texas to a studio apartment in New York City in the mid 1990s. Now I'm back in Alfred and actually have used the Royal now and again. I even bought it a new black-and-red ribbon this year. Now I probably should try to get the back space key repaired. It's kind of annoying to grab the platen and move it back when I need to overtype. I guess I could try to type perfectly, a skill the modern world doesn't require.

Typewriters, especially manual ones, are having a renaissance in art making. Lots of people have used them in artist books or zines. The "Won't you be my neighbor" show closed at the Cohen Gallery at Alfred University a couple weeks ago. Sam Horowitz and I collaborated on a piece called "Time becomes us: theses concerning materials and persons." I used the Royal portable to type the title page of the booklet that was part of our work.

The big question now is whatever happened to the Olivetti. I haven't seen it for years. I did go look in the attic over the back shed, without success. Another work in the Cohen show seems to have used a manual typewriter with script type. Perhaps they know where the Olivetti is.

15 October 2019

Clarke House and family gatherings

The Clarke House, now a museum, is the oldest house in Chicago. It was built in 1836 for Henry Brown Clarke and his wife Caroline Palmer Clarke and their family. Photo from the city website on the house. It is now in a park a mile or so south of downtown Chicago. I visited the house in, probably, the 1980s when my main destination was the nearby Glessner House, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson. The Glessner House is "hiding" behind the blank wall to the left in this picture. It's a grand Romanesque Revival house, perhaps Richardson's best house. Still, I was struck by the CLARKE sign on the house next door.

Both houses are in the Prairie Avenue District, at least some parts of which are registered historic properties. When the Clarke House was built on Michigan Avenue and 17th Street, this was a fancy neighborhood. It was moved further South as the neighborhood became less fancy to 45th Street and Wabash. For thirty years, it housed the St. Paul Church of God in Christ, serving as the parsonage and social hall for the ministry of Bishop Louis Henry Ford. It was moved back to city land at 1827 South Indiana, after being bought by the city in 1977. Kind of going back home. South Indiana is one big block east of South Michigan Avenue. The Wikipedia article on the house is linked under the name at the beginning of this paragraph.

Since my family name is Clarke, I was drawn by the possible connection but never seriously investigated the genealogical tables. I did buy the coffee mug with the slogan "oldest house in Chicago" since I was then collecting postcards of superlatives, e.g., oldest, best, only, first, longest, biggest.

Time passed. Life went on. I used the mug. This past weekend, the Maxson Family Association held its biannual gathering in Alfred, hosted by my sister Carol with her local planning committee (aka siblings). A fellow from Lompoc, California, whom we've become friends with via Facebook, was able to come out to the reunion and meet some Clarke cousins. His family was small and they rather lost the Rhode Island connections as they worked their way west, to Chicago and California and elsewhere. So Cyrus Clarke, guitarist and musician, was curious about these Clarkes that he'd finally encountered in the vast universe of the internet.

Cyrus came to the family house for breakfast on Monday morning, after most of the reunion activities had ended on Sunday. He was talking about what he knew about his lineage and happened to mention that his father, an only child who had spent part of his childhood in Chicago, was descended from the Henry Brown Clarke who had moved to Chicago and built a grand house. Son of a gun.

We got out The "Clarke" families of Rhode Island by George Austin Morrison, Jr. (1902) to see what we could find. We found where our families went out on different branches. The generation counting starts with three generations who lived and died in Westhorpe, Suffolk, England. The fourth generation included John Clarke (1609-1676) who co-founded the colony of Rhode Island as a place of religious freedom. In the seventh generation, Rev. Joshua Clarke (1717-1808) had eleven children including the Henry from whom Cyrus is descended and the Job Bennett from whom I am descended. That Henry had a son Henry who married Catherine Brown and they had a son Henry Brown Clarke who built a house in Chicago. Interestingly, the Clarke genealogy says that "in 1836, [Henry Brown Clarke] erected the second largest dwelling house in Chicago, costing $10,000, with broad pillared porch, on the south side of the Chicago River, near the site of Fort Dearborn." Superlatives can be slippery or ambiguous. Fort Dearborn is not near Michigan and 17th. Henry Brown Clarke had a brother and a son named Cyrus.

So, Cyrus and we Clarke kids are fifth cousins, perhaps at a remove or two.