Archive for the ‘History’ category

Postage Stamp History and Books

June 22, 2016

I never made it as a postage stamp collector when I was a child, I had no patience with the gummy hinges and trying to fill a book pre-printed with particular stamps that you were supposed to find. I do however love the art on postage stamps. People say mail is dying out and in many ways it has, but post offices keep designing and releasing wonderful stamps with wonderful art. I’ve recently been using these lovely hydrangea stamps from Canada Post on letters to people.

Mmmm, yummy super delish!


I bought a book years ago that is still in print is called Stamping Through Mathematics by Robin J. Wilson. It’s a history of mathematics, countries, and people through various postage stamps from around the world. It has beautiful large clear pictures of stamps and the text is more of an overview, just enough for those of us who aren’t stamp collectors, but full of meaty examples for people who do collect.


Yesterday I decided to look up and see if there were any similar publications to this and found two books by Chris West. One was called A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps, and the second was called A History of America in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps. Very expensive to buy, but my local library has the one on British stamps so I’m going to hurtle in and borrow it.

I find the older monochromatic or duotone stamps kind of boring visually but a book like this will have the history and stories behind them so you can’t beat that. Expand my awareness why don’t you Chris.


Up the library. Everybody sing.

I always like to mention a book about one of my heroes, science or otherwise, physicist Richard Feynman. He was a stamp collector when young and back in the 1930s desperately wanted some postage stamps from Tannu Tuva which is a country in Siberia just outside Mongolia. This ties in nicely to exploring stamps and being passionate about learning. One of my favourite quotes is this:

“The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery…” [Richard Feynman]

It’s rare to find people who feel that way. I’m like that, Richard Feynman was like that, there are others of us in the world, beavering away finding out about stamps and art, armillary spheres, the origins of words, what plastic is made of, insects, reptiles, poets and writers, and a tiny country named Tuva which has throat singers who sound eerily like the Inuit throat singers of Canada, leading one to speculate about ancient land bridges to North America from Siberia.


Tuva Or Bust: Richard Feynman’s Last Journey by Ralph Leighton is a sad book in many ways because Feynman’s life was winding down, but it pinpoints this thirst to know and explore that is the best part of being human.

Plus it has postage stamps, you can’t go wrong.




Several Books and More Handmade Envelopes, Mail, and Letter Writing

June 1, 2015

I first read The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of the American Myth in November 2011 on inter-library loan, and I wanted to reread it. I’ve held it in my mind for years and because of the large amount of information, and I can see myself reading this over and over. I found a used copy for under $10 including shipping so I have ordered it. This pertains to American women and early settlements but is still vitally interesting for me as a Canadian.


I really, really like books on needlework and the history of women making things. I have a collection of books on both embroidery and quilting history that I reread all the time, both for the images and my fondness for the stories of women and their lives. I just love needle arts and biography; I’ve missed a few gems that have gone out of print and are too expensive on the secondary market, so I wanted to nab this while it was affordable.

I also received a great book I had ordered in on inter-library loan.


To the Letter by Simon Garfield and is a good overview of the history of writing letters. He has information here on the Romans, early postal systems, books on how to write letters which seem to proliferate in every generation, and discussion of writers, poets, and other famous people who are also famous for writing letters. Woven in among this is an actual correspondence between a man serving overseas in World War II, and a woman back home. Along the way we learn about them through this correspondence and I found it quite gripping, like I wanted to race to the end and see what happened. (No, I won’t tell you the outcome.)

Simon Garfield has quite a rambling way of writing, but he makes all the details interesting. I notice he has a book on the history of mapmaking and a book on the history of fonts and typography that I might try and read through inter-library loan.

While reading this I got the urge to make some more handmade envelopes. I made eight in a smaller quarter-fold size, one of which has already been mailed out. I made the template based on an 8.25 inch square so it would fit on letter-size paper. Then a week later I decided I needed some more of the large half-fold size, so created four new envelopes in that size.


I have placed three inter-library loans for books that looked interesting. The ones on mail art strike me as being very similar to books and examples of altered books with lots of collage and ephemera used. I won’t buy these books until I look at them, as they might duplicate what I already have, but I do want to see them for information and eye candy.

Mail Me Art: Going Postal with the World’s Best Illustrators and Designers by Darren Di Lieto is going to be quite a revelation I think. I often look at books by artists and designers on advertising and business cards and similar things, so this looked vital to have a look at for inspiration.


Good Mail Day: A Primer for Making Eye-Popping Postal Art by Jennie Hinchcliff and Carolee Gilligan Wheeler. This is the book that most reminds me of altered books and collaged art journals. Mostly, it looks like a lot of fun and colour and paper, all things I like to look at.


The Handcrafted Letter: Get Inspired, Find Your Voice & Create Unique Projects to Keep in Touch by Diane Maurer-Mathison. I had the feeling, perhaps from the cover photograph, that this is more about fancier, formal sort of writing. There are instructions on making your own decorative stationery, different inks and implements, improving your handwriting, and various projects in a more understated way. A different view from the other two books at least.


That’s it for creative endeavours last week.

Remember, there is always the library! We are fortunate here not to have to pay extra for inter-library loans as they do in other countries, so I take advantage of that often. Free library services are a privilege that may not be around in the future, alas, due to funding issues and the mistaken belief that books are no longer important. A self-educated and learned, questioning populace is important. For that we need books.



Oh-Oh, Two More Books on the Way

October 28, 2014

Apparently these two books by Lindsay Nixon have some terrific recipes in them and the ingredients aren’t difficult to find. I’ve been running out of lunch and breakfast ideas, and don’t want to start eating too much peanut butter.


I absolutely hate trying recipes as they seldom work out, but I am trying. I made a nice creamy cashew dressing for salad from an Isa Chandra Moskowitz recipe that was nice, so after reading some reviews and recommendations for individual recipes I thought I’d try these two books.

I found my NutriBullet is good for doing small batches of vegan dressing.



One Art History and One Italian History Course

August 3, 2014

I received some birthday money so was able to buy two of The Great Courses on sale for 90% off with an additional $15 off coupon. It didn’t save me from the $25 shipping but it helped.

The first course I bought with 24 lectures of 30 minutes each, was Italians Before Italy: Conflict and Competition in the Mediterranean. The Professor, Dr. Kenneth R. Bartlett, is from the University of Toronto, so I felt obliged to check him out, since I grew up in Toronto.


In November 2003 when I bought the Leonardo Da Vinci Tarot, I did a few personal studies of some of the historical characters on the cards. On the King of Swords was Bartolomeo Colleoni, a professional soldier for hire, a mercenary at a time when the various Italian city states always seemed to be at war. They called these soldiers condottieri and they served rulers under contract, often switching sides. Their treachery and political canniness was well known and you can see this in Colleoni’s face, which is best known from the equestrian statue by Verrocchio. Yes, he doesn’t look like a man you would mess with.


So, you see why I wanted this course, I’ve always found the subject interesting. The course discusses both the Sforza family and the Este family, notables in tarot and art history as well. Mostly though, it was the intrigue of these city-states that grabbed me; I’d like a visual meander through the history of it all.

We are still viewing the first two art history courses I bought, but I saw they had The Art of the Northern Renaissance on sale, so I had to get it. It has 36 lectures and covers several artists like Dürer, Bosch, and Bruegel, artists whom I also own card decks and books about, plus it also covers woodcuts and religious paintings that I find interesting.


That’s it then, birthday money spent, but providing many, many enjoyable hours of learning. I know many people prefer to buy clothes or wine or dinners out with birthday money, but I like to buy things like books that you can revisit and continually learn with.



Carl and Flo and Irving Introduce Me to Anna Held

January 12, 2014

Two days ago I was browsing through The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg and I came across a poem mentioning the death of Anna Held. I thought I should look her up because I had never heard of her, but let it go.

The next day I was reading the biography of Irving Berlin called As Thousands Cheer by Laurence Bergreen, and page 62 had another mention of Anna Held. Synchronicity told me to look her up.

She was famous for many things, but as the mistress of Flo Ziegfeld for a time she was responsible for the idea of a European, slightly risqué review that became the famous Ziegfeld Follies and made a fortune for both of them.

Sadly, she died when she was in her 40s. Since there is dispute about her birth date I winged it and picked one for the photo, but it might not be accurate.


It was such a different time. Gritty, rather awful in many respects due to poverty and death, grim, and yet we romanticize it. The image of Anna Held echoes that romanticism of the Belle Époque, or the Gilded Age before World War I that wasn’t really all that golden unless you were wealthy.

Carl Sandburg always seems to be able to get at the grittiness of things:

by Carl Sandburg

Poland, France, Judea ran in her veins,
Singing to Paris for bread, singing to Gotham in a fizz at the pop of a bottle’s cork.

“Won’t you come and play wiz me” she sang … and “I just can’t make my eyes behave.”
“Higgeldy-Piggeldy,” “Papa’s Wife,” “Follow Me” were plays.

Did she wash her feet in a tub of milk? Was a strand of pearls sneaked from her trunk? The newspapers asked.
Cigarettes, tulips, pacing horses, took her name.

Twenty years old … thirty … forty …
Forty-five and the doctors fathom nothing, the doctors quarrel, the doctors use silver tubes feeding twenty-four quarts of blood into the veins, the respects of a prize-fighter, a cab driver.
And a little mouth moans: It is easy to die when they are dying so many grand deaths in France.

A voice, a shape, gone.
A baby bundle from Warsaw … legs, torso, head … on a hotel bed at The Savoy.
The white chiselings of flesh that flung themselves in somersaults, straddles, for packed houses:
A memory, a stage and footlights out, an electric sign on Broadway dark.

She belonged to somebody, nobody.
No one man owned her, no ten nor a thousand.
She belonged to many thousand men, lovers of the white chiseling of arms and shoulders, the ivory of a laugh, the bells of song.

Railroad brakemen taking trains across Nebraska prairies, lumbermen jaunting in pine and tamarack of the Northwest, stock ranchers in the middle west, mayors of southern cities
Say to their pals and wives now: I see by the papers Anna Held is dead.



Artist John Saarniit – From Estonia to Canada

October 24, 2013

In the house where I grew up,  my parents had a painting in the living room that always fascinated me. It was done on location near Midland, Ontario by artist John W. Saarniit. This painting shows up in a number of family photographs over the years, and I can remember gazing at it and making stories about it when I was young. In this photograph, I am standing with my siblings in front of the painting circa 1961. That’s me in the lower left.


The painting is now hanging in my dining room and every time I look at it it gives me joy. The frame is unusual by today’s standards, and there is a plaque at the bottom of the frame that says “By John W. Saarniit”.


Click to enlarge this one.




Saarniit’s Art Gallery

Sunnybrook Plaza

660 Eglinton Ave. e. Toronto

567 Roehampton Ave. (hand written below printed address)

BY J. W. Saarniit

TITLE Place Near Midland

PRICE $90.00

#27 is hand-written in the upper right of the label.

A second label gives the address more fully on a printed card as 567 Roehampton Ave., Toronto. It looks like he moved the gallery at some point. As you can see, the phone numbers are very short and use alphabetical designations (I am assuming “HU” stands for Hudson), proof that Toronto was very small in the old days.


When I looked Mr. Saarniit up I found scant information, but I saw another blogger with a similar picture. The artist is dead now, and considering how popular he was and the newspaper and magazine articles about him, it seems a shame that there is not more information about him.

So for all the people trying to track down some information on J.W. Saarniit, I have typed up verbatim, the sheet of paper that is attached to the back of our family’s painting. He seems to have had a trying time but persevered and was successful as an artist, once settled in Canada.


Saarniit was born in Estonia in May of 1909. From 1925-1932 he studied with the Academy of Arts in Tallinn, Estonia, and graduated with a diploma in 1939. He studied in several European countries: Finland, Sweden, Poland. He has independent exhibitions of his paintings in Estonia, Finland, Russia (1943), Denmark (1947), Sweden, Stockholm (1948), Canada, Halifax, N.S., Lord Nelson Hotel (1948), Toronto, Laing Gallery (1949), Montreal (1950), 1951–1953 coast to coast, London, Ont., University of Toronto, Peterborough, Winnipeg, Oshawa, Vancouver etc.

In 1941, when Russia suddenly invaded and occupied the Baltic States, he was conscripted into the Russian Army and later Saarniit was thrown into a concentration camp in Siberia. With many difficulties he managed to escape from the concentration camp across the battlefields, and fled through Nazi-Germany to Finland. While living in Sweden he organized, for the first time in history, an anti-Communist exhibition.

In the Fall of 1948 Saarniit with many other countrymen, crossed the Atlantic Ocean by small boat and arrived at Halifax, N.S. The Immigration authorities of Canada recognized the artist Saarniit as a legal immigrant. Articles have been written about him and his works in newspapers and magazines of which only a few may be mentioned here: Halifax Chronicle, Halifax Herald, The Standard, Chicago Tribune, Toronto Star, The Telegram, The Globe and Mail, London Press, Time etc.

At the end of this long voyage, Saarniit has found a new and friendly country, Canada, where he is settling down and has learned to know the beauty of this country which he tries to show in his paintings. Saarniit is highly recognized by art critics.

We had good family friends who were from Estonia (we think they gave this artwork to my parents), plus Midland, Ontario was where our closest family friends kept their boat, and the father drowned there, so it’s important to me to have this picture for those reasons as well.

I was reading through meditations last night from the book by Deng Ming-Dao called 365 Tao: Daily Meditations, and it talks about the world being terrible and full of suffering, and yet we can also enjoy happiness when it comes to us.

“Life has its sad and happy moments. I accept them all. Life has its times of dispassion and utter serenity. Those are the moments that I seek. They give me my path through the myriad phenomena of this existence.”

So here’s to the John Saarniits of the world, who go through terrible times and suffering but find a path to serenity through their art, and pass it on.



The Soapstone Man

May 10, 2013

After my Dad’s house was sold we each took some mementos. One that I took was an Inuit soapstone carving that my parents were given for Christmas circa 1971. He was in good shape with no chipping or cracking but I guess my Dad forgot that you can oil soapstone to keep it looking shiny and bring out the colours in the stone.

This was carved in Povungnituk, which is an Inuit settlement in the northern Nunavik area of Quebec. I find it hard to read the signature, and some bits of felt have been glued on the base of the carving to protect furniture from being scraped by the stone, so I’m not sure if I can get discernible markings.

When it arrived here I cleaned him to get rid of any lingering dust, and then I gave him a rub and polish with some canola oil. Some people use mineral oil on soapstone but I didn’t have any and I find it very heavy anyway.


I would love to know who carved him, so I might try to photograph what markings I can and write to someone online and see if they know who the artist is.