Avery-Abex Metallurgical Collection: All Plugged In

I began work on processing the Avery-Abex Metallurgical Collection at the beginning of November 2019, and boy has it been a rollercoaster so far. This collection, which spans 248 cubic feet, consists of case files, general company records and correspondence, photo negatives, glass plate negatives, photographic prints, and some 40,000 metal samples encased in resin plugs (more on these later). The collection has largely been languishing in Special Collections since it was acquired in the mid-1990’s. 

Over the years, several student employees have chipped away meaningfully at portions of the collection, but the majority of the boxes remained untouched. Because my time to process this collection is limited, I will need to strike a comfortable balance between getting all the work done on the remaining boxes before the end of July- a high priority- and processing the materials to the highest useful level- also a high priority. (Note that I did not say “to the highest possible level”. There is a point of diminishing returns to optimizing arrangement and description, and archival resources are scarce enough that frequently this equation must favor a more rough-and-ready processing style in order to reduce backlog and make more collections accessible faster.)

This balance is especially important to consider, given the large size of the collection. The boxes that much of the material arrived in are significantly bigger than the standard sized archival record carton, which necessitates a certain amount of space planning for both pre-and post-processed containers. The increased volume makes them very heavy and awkward to handle, and so much more prone to accidents when retrieving them from shelves.

I haven’t dropped any yet, but hauling them around really makes me appreciate the elegantly dainty standard sized boxes I’m moving the records into. This is infinitely more so the case with the boxes of glass plate negatives, which are substantially heavier than their paper-holding counterparts and have the additional challenge of being very fragile. Let no one tell you that the life of an archivist is boring or sedentary.

Another quirk of this particular collection is that the boxes were more or less put where they would fit in the offsite storage facility when they were first acquired about 25 years ago, without recording their shelf locations, which makes finding the boxes a bit of a scavenger hunt. Pictured is one of three aisles of shelves at the storage facility. Attempting to process the boxes in any particular order would be a waste of time as a result, and so I’ve had to change my approach to arranging this collection. 

Instead of refoldering and replacing the records into their final resting places, I am processing box by box, keeping careful track of what ends up where, so that I can rearrange things as needed once I finish and have a better idea of what order best suits the materials. This way is much faster on the frontend than doing the boxes in order, and the surprise of not knowing what’s going to be in the next box has proved a lovely diversion from the occasionally tedious tasks of pulling boxes, refoldering, relabelling, and filling in spreadsheets.

My favorite part of the collection so far has definitely been the metal samples. There are approximately 40,000 squat resin plugs, each with a small chunk of metal embedded in it with one surface exposed for testing, and a serial number etched on the outside. They are quite unique, in my experience, and are an instant point of interest for anyone who sees them. Their quantity, their different sizes and shapes, and the complete obscurity of their purpose to the uninitiated, makes them a valuable showpiece for the collection. However, these characteristics also make them a challenging processing project. Several have sprouted highly colorful oxidation growths over the years, which are fascinating and delicate. I have not yet decided whether they are more valuable remaining intact, or if I should attempt to clean off this reaction residue, knowing full well that it will likely grow back in time, as the fresh metal is exposed to air and humidity.

Another slight wrinkle in processing that I’ve encountered was the significant presence of mold on the cabinets housing the metal samples in the basement storage room used for some Special Collections and University Archives materials. The samples themselves were not in immediate danger, because resin and metals do not tend to support mold growth, but the mold would need to be killed and the plugs cleaned before they could be moved into appropriate archival boxes and placed near other, more vulnerable materials. I had planned to process the plugs first, but this had to be put on hold until the mold issue was dealt with. Luckily, we managed to employ a company specializing in mold remediation fairly quickly, and the problem was taken care of before it could spread to other collections being stored in this space. Now, the work of cleaning and boxing up the sample plugs can commence.

The Loch Ness Monster: Exploitation of Myth or Happy Coincidence? And Does It Matter?

Not quite a year ago, I took a call at the Special Collections and University Archives reference desk from Dr. Henry H. Bauer, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry and Science Studies and Emeritus Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences here at Virginia Tech. Dr. Bauer had been contacted not long before by a researcher exploring the life of British author Digby George Gerahty, better known by pseudonyms Stephen Lister and Robert Standish. Hoping to pass them along to his new acquaintance, Dr. Bauer wished to retrieve from the papers he donated to SCUA in the 1990s any copies of his brief correspondence with Gerahty in the summer and fall of 1980.

I was intrigued as to the exact contents of the correspondence, but thought I had a good sense of how the exchange would read. Maybe Gerahty wrote to pick Dr. Bauer’s brain about the particulars of some chemical reaction he wished to feature in a story. Maybe he wrote to run some dialogue by Dr. Bauer to ensure a scientist character sounded authentic. Surely, Gerahty was the one seeking information and surely the answer would be based in some cold, hard truth tested a thousand times in a sterile lab.

You must realize from the title of this post that I had set myself up for a bit of a shock.

Continue reading “The Loch Ness Monster: Exploitation of Myth or Happy Coincidence? And Does It Matter?”

Introducing CARLA: Pioneering Technology in Urban Planning

The Beverly Willis Architectural Collection, open for research at Special Collections and University Archives, holds many treasures: sumptuous drawings, correspondence, and photographic materials documenting the work of one of America’s great twentieth century designers. One such project we’ll be highlighting here shows Willis and Associates, Inc.’s (WAI) work on an early land analysis program called “CARLA.” CARLA, or Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis, was a program developed by the firm in the 1970s that was on the vanguard of employing computing applications in site development.

The program’s aim was to reduce construction costs by instrumentalizing and automating much of the initial planning process and environmental impact research. To this end, the firm enlisted the skills of a young urban design grad student, Jochen Eigen, to study and model the architectural planning process. His work aggregated and analyzed data on the proposed project’s user needs and the site’s zoning and topography (via a client-submitted map), which was then correlated with an internally developed database that contained information on thousands of residential sites and floor layouts – planners would iterate through the process repeatedly to determine ideal land allocations for building.

CARLA001

At the time of CARLA’s advent, land analysis was a fairly lengthy ordeal. It would take companies 4-6 months using traditional methods before they would be able to properly estimate financial cost and environmental impact. Implementing and using this new tool reduced that timeline to about three weeks. The process would result in a site perspective, analysis of soil and natural drainage patterns, areas of a plot suitable for development and areas in need of cut and fill. The program allowed easy comparison of design solutions and their respective costs.

While CARLA was specifically geared toward site analysis, it is still ancestrally linked to modern computer aided design programs. Its primary function was to optimize land use by determining the best planning unit, its placement on a parcel, the cost of doing cut and fills, etc., and these are all necessary design considerations that are layered into modern CAD/BIM software (the “BIM” stands for Building Information Modeling). The program turned a time-consuming, bespoke research process into something comparatively data-driven and efficient, enabling Willis’s firm to maintain its competitive edge during the recession of the 1970s. At the time of its implementation, its aim was to get more contracts for lucrative housing developments, while it also addressed another fundamental need, namely, environmental considerations in urban design.

The first such development WAI used the software for were condominiums commissioned by the Alpha Land Company, to be located on a sloping 9-acre beachfront property. In her book Invisible Images, Willis writes about the beginning of her work on the Pacific Point Condominiums—the inadequacy of available tools for assessing cost and estimating damage to existing ecosystems. Early iterations of mapping and topographical analysis programs were created by the government during World War II and later adapted for use by oil companies for industrial use; by 1971, the Kansas Geological Survey department at the University of Kansas had developed a mapping and contour program called SURFACE II. This program would form the backbone of Eigen’s/WAI’s land analysis software. Willis recalls,

With these tools I carefully planned stepped terraces on the bluff side of the site downward toward the ocean and designed a bridgelike entry to the three-story building’s mid-section. My design used diagonally placed interior walls that slice through the apartment facades, elongating one side like a fan. These subtle diagonal wall planes direct the eye to a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean.

PacPt_reduced

PacPt001
Top: presentation drawing for Pacific Point Condominiums; bottom: photograph of development, found in Invisible Images

The history of CARLA’s development is further documented here. Some of the firm’s internal documentation of the software’s development is available in the Beverly Willis Architectural Collection and will soon be digitized and made available online as part of the library’s new digital platform.

A Peter Newell Tangent

With the growth of a literate middle class and the greater availability and affordability of paper and printing, children’s literature came into its own in the mid-19th century, and here in Special Collections and University Archives, we hold many of examples of colorful, richly illustrated children’s literature from the late 19th / early 20th century.

Included within our holdings are at least two “movable books,” publications that enhanced young children’s reading experiences by allowing them, though the use of pull tabs, flaps, and other gimmicks, to simulate action. Among our holdings are at least two examples of movable books: a reprint of Ernest Nister’s Revolving Pictures (1892) and a 1979 reprint of The Doll’s House by Lothar Meggendorfer, considered the father of the pop-up book, a form that continues to be very popular today.

Though his books didn’t rely on movable parts, Peter Newell (1862-1924) was an innovator in creating novelties that appealed to young readers. The rare book collection includes two unusual books published by Newell. In both The Shadow Show and The Hole Book, as well as his other works, Newell manipulated the book form to help tell his stories.

Peter Newel (frontispiece from Through the Looking-Glass (1901))

Peter S. H. Newell (1862-1924) was born to a family of farmers in Illinois. He studied at the Art Students’ League and by the time he was in his mid-twenties had become a popular illustrator for various periodicals, his work regularly appearing in such publications as Harper’s Weekly, Scribner’s Magazine, and The Saturday Evening Post. He was particularly noted for his imaginative caricatures, some of which would be regarded today as racially insensitive.

In The Hole Book (1908), also one of Newell’s more popular works, the story follows the path of an errant bullet as it causes mayhem through a neighborhood. The story’s inventiveness is found in Newell’s imaginative use of an actual small, round hole that pierces each successive illustration in the book.

A sample illustration and rhyme from The Hole Book

Similarly, The Slant Book (1910) tells the story of a runaway baby carriage, with the story being enhanced by the book’s shape, which, instead of the usual rectangle, is a slanted rhomboid. (Newman Library holds a 1966 reprint of The Slant Book in its circulating collection.) Newell’s idea for The Slant Book led him to file a patent claim, in which he wrote, “In books made according to my invention the shape of the book itself and of the pages therein suggests the action or motion in which is intended to characterize the illustration contained therein.” Newell was granted patent 970,943 on September 20, 1910. It was one of several patents granted to Newell for book and toy designs.

Newell’s A Shadow Show (1896) relies on the translucency of paper for its gimmick. Rather than telling a story, the book simply presents a series of rather oddly contrived colored illustrations. When the reader flips the page, the previous page’s illustration appears in silhouette, revealing a much different subject. Unfortunately, the copy in the rare book collection has not held up well over time, and the illustrations have all transferred to adjacent pages, making the silhouettes difficult to distinguish.

A sample from A Shadow Show (Due to the condition of the original, this digital copy has been altered for illustrative purposes.)

Newell is perhaps best remembered for his first book, Topsys and Turvys (1893) and its two sequels. In the Topsys and Turvys series, each page contains an illustration and accompanying first line of a rhyming couplet as a caption. When the page is inverted, a much different illustration is revealed, and the caption appearing below the flipped image completes the rhyming couplet, explaining the illustration. Illustrations from these books continue to be frequently used as examples of optical illusions. A digitized version of The first Topsys and Turvys book may be found on the Library of Congress website.

In addition to providing illustrations for popular magazines and publishing his own books, Newell also illustrated the works of other authors of children’s literature, chief among them, perhaps, being his illustrated edition of Through the Looking-Glass (1901), which also may be found in the rare books collection. Later, Newell tried his hand at comic strip illustration. For 18 months in 1906/1907, Newell’s “The Naps of Polly Sleepyhead”  appeared among such acknowledged comic strip pioneers as “Buster Brown” and “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” A second strip, “Wishing Willy,” wasn’t so successful and lasted through only six installments in 1913.

I’d planned here to provide the briefest of overviews on our holdings in children’s literature but instead got sidetracked by this Peter Newell tangent. Suffice it to say, the few books mentioned here comprise just the smallest part our children’s literature holdings, many of which overlap with our collection focus areas in the history of food and drink, the Civil War, local and regional history, etc. Together, these works can provide a different perspective on their subject matter or be used to examine popular culture and early childhood education in earlier eras.  Or they can  can simply be enjoyed for what they were intended: fun reading for the young and young at heart.

 

A Complete, Balanced Breakfast: Battle Creek, Cookery, and the Kellogg Legacy

This week, I put up a new exhibit titled “A Complete, Balanced Breakfast: Battle Creek, Cookery, and the Kellogg Legacy.” This idea has been on my board for months now, for better or worse, and I’ve finally had an opportunity to dive into it. There’s a fair bit I did not include about John Kellogg’s belief and medical practices to save visitors the sometimes weird or disturbing details, but there is plenty of reading out there for those interested. Given our penchant for food & drink history here at Special Collections and University Archives, it’s no surprise we might have some material on the Kelloggs and breakfast cereal. More than will fit in our display cases, as is often the case. So, there are two main parts to this story: The works of John and Ella Kellogg, which were largely instructive texts or published lectures and the history and advertising of the food companies that came from the Battle Creek legacy. If you can’t visit us in person, here’s a little virtual tour!

John and Ella Kellogg

John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943) was born in Tyrone, Michigan in 1852. His family moved to Battle Creek in 1856. Raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist, the church shaped much of his early life, his medical education, and much of his medical career–in particular, the teachings of Ellen G. and James Springer White. In 1876, after graduating from the NYU Medical College at Bellevue Hospital, Kellogg returned to Battle Creek and took over the Western Health Reform Institute, which he renamed the Battle Creek Medical Surgical Sanitarium. There, he preached a vegetarian, caffeine/alcohol/tobacco-free diet, among his varied–and often controversial–practices and beliefs. Over the course of his life, he wrote more than 50 books and at least as many articles, pamphlets, and lectures detailing his views on health, nutrition, hygiene, sex, and raising families and children.

Part of the Kellogg display: books by John Kellogg relating to health, diet, sex, and family.

Ella Eaton (1853-1920) studied at Alfred University and with an interest in sanitation and hygiene, she enrolled at the Sanitarium School of Hygiene in Battle Creek in 1876, where she met John Harvey Kellogg. They married in 1879. Over the course of her lifetime, Ella would break ground in a variety of ways. She was an early founder of what we now consider the field of dietetics; she founded a cooking school and a school of home economics; she was a prolific book and article editor and author; at various times, she led organizations focused on childcare, motherhood, dietetics, hygiene, temperance, and “social purity”; she supported women’s suffrage; and she helped raise more than 40 foster children, several of whom she and John formally adopted.

Her most well-know work was the 1892 Science in the Kitchen: A Scientific Treatise on Food Substances and Their Dietetic Properties, Together with a Practical Explanation of the Principles of Healthful Cookery, and a Large Number of Original, Palatable, and Wholesome Recipes (picture here in the front right).This extensive book was a reflection of her career and went through five editions by 1910. It was heavily illustrated and was Ella’s essential guide to everything domestic. Special Collections and University Archives has two editions of this book available digitized and online (http://digitalsc.lib.vt.edu). In addition, we house copies of Healthful Cookery (1908), Every-Day Dishes and Every-Day Work (1896), and an 1893 edition of Science in the Kitchen.

Part of the Kellogg display: Books by Ella Kellogg on dietetics, nutrition, cooking, and morality.

The Battle Creek Food Legacy

In 1897, brothers John and W. K. Kellogg founded their first food company, the Sanitas Nut Food Company (sometimes the Sanitas Food Company), which mainly sold nut butter-like products as a meat substitute. (John Kellogg is listed among those responsible for the creation of peanut butter precursors and he corresponded with George Washington Carver on the subject). In the mid-1890s, partially by accident, while working on their version of granola, they stumbled onto something else: wheat berry flakes. These flattened wheat berries would lead to–you guessed it–corn flakes! A patient at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, C. W. Post, witnessed the process for these products, and also jumped on board, launching the Postum Cereal Co. in 1895. Postum Cereal Co. made Grape-Nuts in 1897 and Post Toasties Double-Crisp Corn Flakes in 1904.

A disagreement between the two brothers led to a split. W. K. took the flakes and launched the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company in 1906 (renamed the Kellogg Toasted Corn Flake Company in 1909 and the Kellogg Company in 1922). The company would continue to develop new products based on the brothers’ work and teachings, with a particular emphasis on vegetarianism and meat substitutes. The company would also develop divisions with broader interests, like quantity cooking for schools, camps, and even the military. Advertising materials for children’s products were created to target that audience.

Part of the Kellogg display: Materials from Kellogg’s and Postum Cereal Co. advertising for children, school lunch programs, and military meals.

Between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, the Kellogg Company and the Battle Creek Food Company (started by John to promote foods and supplements after the split between the brothers) created endless product- and recipe-based pamphlets advertising meat substitutes, cereals, nut butters, laxatives, and dietary supplements in particular. John Kellogg’s beliefs included a hearty disdain for both tea and coffee. He considered caffeine, like tobacco and alcohol, to be a poison, going so far as to link all of them to “moral deficiencies.” Whether or not W. K. shared his brother’s views (very likely), by the early 20th century, the Kellogg Company began producing “Kaffee-Hag,” a low caffeine coffee substitute. (John seemed to be against this alternative, too, and he wrote that “[n]ature has supplied us with pure water, with a great variety of fruit juices and wholesome and harmless flavors quite sufficient to meet all our needs.”) Some years earlier, in 1895, Postum Cereal Co. had already launched their coffee alternative, “Postum.”

Part of the Kellogg display: Ads for coffee alternatives from Kellogg’s and Postum Cereal Co., as well as pamphlets from Kellogg’s and the Battle Creek Food Company, advertising products and sharing related recipes.

I’ve previously written about the Kelloggs’ (John, his wife Ella, and his brother W. K.) on our food history blog, so if you’d like to delve a little deeper that’s a good place to start. That series has links to digitized books, other readings on this fascinating (and sometimes controversial) family, and more images.

And if all of this doesn’t satisfy your curiosity about the Kelloggs, C. W. Post, early breakfast cereal, or Battle Creek, feel free to visit us and learn more. There is a lot more to John Kellogg’s theories, inventions, and methods at the Battle Creek Sanitarium; to the early days of breakfast cereals; to corporate and family competition; and to the history of food advertising! We’ll be here and we’d love to share!

Fries Textile Plant Records Processing Project Post-Mortem

Here I am, on the final day of my grant-funded project to process the records of the Fries Textile Plant. It’s been a fun year, and I’ve truly enjoyed working on this project. Wrapping it up the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself quite pleased with the amount of work I’ve managed to accomplish. Go me! 

Shameless self-promotion aside, I’d like to do a sort of post-mortem on the past year. More and more new (or not-so new) archivists are finding themselves in time- and scope-limited jobs, which require a different set of skills than the endurance race into posterity that is the lot of the traditional archivist. Rather than thinking about the long term health and wellness of the archives as a whole and wearing a variety of necessary hats as a result, we temporary members of staff are typically asked to execute very particular orders along a strict timeline, and then- frequently- to leave, occasionally with our work unfinished. It can be heartbreaking, and freeing, and terribly restrictive, and wonderfully lax. 

Ultimately, the success of the project- and your own success as a project archivist- depends on the project you’re employed on, the team you’re working with, and your personal career goals. Unfortunately, almost none of us can afford to be picky these days when hunting for archival work. While I understand the temptation to take the first job offered in the field (boy howdy do I, but that’s another story), often it is the jobs taken out of desperation that lead to the worst fits professionally.

Luckily, that is not the case in this instance. I have loved working with the textile mill records, the other staff in Special Collections and University Archives, and the people of Fries. I have learned an enormous amount about the region, the textile industry, and being an archivist from my time here. I liked it so much, tomorrow I’m embarking on another collection processing project here at Virginia Tech, this time with the records of a defunct metallurgical company. To put a nice bow on the past year, though, I offer the following summary and thoughts.

The majority of my time this year was spent in processing the records. Previous student employees had made a dent in this work, but there still remained a large number of boxes as-yet untouched. The day-to-day of processing involves a certain tolerance for repetitive tasks, but the frequent discovery of interesting documents in this particular collection kept me engaged and happy with my job. Processing is often the bulk of project positions such as these, so it’s a valuable skill to be able to find joy it.  This photo shows a (tiny) fraction of the staples I pulled this year, a task which does not give me joy but which does offer a certain small satisfaction.


By far the most rewarding part of the project has been working with the people of Fries, and bringing this collection back to them in the form of 3 community events I put together over the course of the year. The Fries-ians are warm, passionate, and deeply committed to their town, which was both refreshing and touching. They were wonderfully eager to interact with the collection and learn more about the place that they lived in. It has been an honor to facilitate their historical interest. This picture was taken of attendees at the first event I put on in Fries, March 30, 2019.


My work also involved a small digitization project, resulting in a digital exhibit hosted on the Special Collections and University Archives site, which can be found here. I am pleased with the result, overall. I gave several presentations on the project and my work for peers within Virginia Tech and the larger archival community as well, to make them aware of the collection and share what I had learned. I love being able to share my efforts, and I hope that these presentations have shed light on what we do in the archives and helped those facing similar processing projects. 

Finally, I’d like to close with some thoughts about what I’d do differently, if I had it to do over. First, I would put more effort into the community engagement with the events I put on. My points of contact for setting up the events were frequently busy, so relying on them to spread the word in town about these events led to a poorer turnout than I had hoped for, given the deep interest in town history that I knew many residents had. In future, I will do more advertising for community events to make sure that everyone who might want to attend knows about them.

Second, I’d have liked to take more careful notes on items within the collection that I wanted to digitize. Several times, I found myself with such helpful comments as “Folder 7, really neat”, with no further context. In the haze of processing, I had prioritized moving on to the next folder over giving my future self any but the vaguest clue. This led to several instances of poring through folders, looking for the particular document I had been referencing. I will save time in the future by taking a few extra seconds to describe the materials I found “really neat”.

Lastly, I would have liked to do more digitization. I got the necessities done, the fascinating and the context-giving documents featured in the online exhibit, but ultimately I wish the whole collection could be made available online. I know that this is rarely feasible and occasionally not particularly desirable, but with this collection, I want very much for the people of Fries to be able to look through it at their leisure without needing to come up to Tech and sit in the reading room. Personally, I believe that as an archivist, access is my highest calling. In an ideal world, this small town would have its entire history to peruse at will. However, this is not that world, so I must be content with the circumstances as they lay. 

All that being said, I am proud of what I’ve accomplished here, and I hope the next project will be even more successful. 

It Came from the Archives!

Virginia Tech’s Special Collections and University Archives owns as part of the William J. Heron Speculative Fiction Collection roughly 4,500 issues from over 200 titles of British, Australian, and primarily American pulp magazines, dating from the 1910s through the 1980s.

In honor of the upcoming Halloween holiday, let’s take a look at a lucky thirteen spooky, suspenseful, or otherwise spine-tingling covers to be found in the collection.

Continue reading “It Came from the Archives!”