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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Double Your Pleasure, Double Your Fun with Doublets

A few nights ago I was reading through a parenting magazine that I somehow became subscribed to (I think it may have come free with something I bought on Amazon?) and I saw an ad for the new version of the Electric Company on PBS. Some of you may remember the original Electric Company,which aired 1971-1985; anyway, the ad for the new version was urging folks to go online and check out a game where you "slip and slide" letters to turn one word into another. If you go to the Electric Company Website, it's the "chain game." But what struck me is that this is simply a modern, flash-based version of a game which Lewis Carroll invented in 1879 and called Doublets.

The goal of doublets is to turn one word into another by changing one letter at a time; each of the linking words must also be a word. Or as Carroll explains:

"The rules of the Puzzle are simple enough. Two words are proposed, of the same length; and the Puzzle consists in linking these together by interposing other words, each of which shall differ from the next word in one letter only. That is to say, one letter may be changed in one of the given words, then one letter in the word so obtained, and so on, till we arrive at the other given word. The letters must not be interchanged among themselves, but each must keep to its own place. As an example, the word 'head' may be changed into 'tail' by interposing the words 'heal, teal, tell, tall'. I call the given words 'a Doublet', the interposed words 'Links', and the entire series 'a Chain', of which I here append an example:







It is, perhaps, needless to state that it is de rigueur that the links should be English words, such as might be used in good society."

It's a fairly simple concept, and Carroll himself acknowledges that"I am told there is an American game involving a similar principle." But it is a game with enduring appeal, as evidenced not only by the Electric Company, but by its inclusion in modern puzzles compendia, such as Games Magazine (which I also get), where it often described as "word ladders."

You can read the whole Doublets book here, courtesy of Google Books and test your brain power with the puzzles he proposes. Carroll himself notes that the easiest doublets are those in which the position of vowels and consonants is stable, so you just have to swap vowel for vowel or consonant for consonant. Transforming vowels into consonants and vice versa is much trickier.

As a parting note, there was also a very nice article on Carroll in this month's issue of Smithsonian Magazine (yet another one I subscribe to). It focuses on his relationships with children and the various ways that has been treated by his biographers over time.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Around the Web

This has been a fairly odds-and-ends week for me--a little cataloging, several public tours, reading applications for summer internships, tracking down object sizes for this summer's Westward Ho! exhibit. Nothing especially noteworthy, so I thought I'd devote this blog entry to some really cool Internet finds that have come across my desk.

First, courtesy of my mother, was this New York Times article about the "Art Handler Olympics" held at a New York gallery. Art handlers are professionals who specialize in moving, packing, transporting, and installing works of art. Here at the Rosenbach we do our own exhibit installation and do a lot of our own moving and packing, but we also use Philly-based art handlers when we're dealing with especially large or complicated items (such as when we moved the Baillon clock from the second floor down to the dining room). Anyway, the "art handler olympics" included such events as being dragged around NYC streets in a packing box and holding 60 pound framed pieces of lead steady on a wall. The New York Daily News also did a piece, which included this fun video. (Warning, there is an ad that plays at the beginning)

Next is the American Centuries website from the Memorial Hall Museum in Massachusetts, which I found out about via the American Historical Association blog.

I have seen lots of museum web projects over the years, but this one made me want to waste my day playing with it and then run home and show it to my kids (if my boss is reading this, don't worry, I didn't actually waste all day on it....). It has tons of different activities, from dressing people up in period clothing, to watching videos of reenactors using 18th-century tools, to testing your ability to read old manuscripts, plus oral histories, ability to search the collection and more. I was pretty darn impressed.

Also brought to my attention by the AHA blog, is "Wet With Blood" from the Chicago Historical Society, which allows you to explore whether or not their Mary Lincoln cloak has the blood of Abraham Lincoln on it using both historical and scientific analysis.

It's really neat interactive website, especially for Lincoln buffs like myself, although it is a bit wordy--I had to scroll through lots of screens to get to the info I was most interested in. But I do definitely recommend hopping over and taking a look.

Finally, a quick heads up about a new Marianne Moore blog, run by Patricia C. Willis, formerly of the Rosenbach and then curator of the Yale Collection of American Literature. I particularly like the photo of Moore's "Arctic Ox" on a zoo stairway.

Hopefully these sites can keep you busy until next week, when I will return to Rosen-news.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Road Trips

After last weekend's cold and gloom, it has been a beautiful sunny week here in Philadelphia--the kind of week that makes me glad that I work only three blocks from Rittenhouse Square and can soak in the sun on my lunch break. It's also the kind of weather that gets me in the mood for a nice scenic road trip and, in fact, the collections department has been on the road a lot recently handling loans to a couple of exhibits at other museums.

For those of you Philadelphia-area folks, you should check out The Brandywine River Museum's exhibit "Drawn From a Story: Illustrations by Selected Caldecott Winners," which opens tomorrow. Obviously Sendak's Wild Things will be there (on the title wall, no less) but there are also tons of other really fantastic drawings, all the way from the first-ever winner, Dorothy Lathrop, to the 2010 winner Jerry Pinkney.

I looked up Lathrop's 1938 Caldecott acceptance speech and it's really fascinating. Apparently she was attracted to the more dramatic animals, including Elisha's bears and the pigs which ran over a cliff after Jesus cast a man's demons into them, but her editor said they were too scary for children and made her pull back to tamer scenes. As she commented "Who would have believed that those young beings whose weekly fare is the animated cartoon in which great wolves with wide open mouths and dripping jowls tower in relentless pursuit like the nightmare creatures of delirium until they blot out all else and engulf at last even the beholder - who would have believed that those children would blanch at the story of Elisha's two she-bears?"

The question of what is too scary for children comes up over and over again in discussions of Sendak's work and Lathrop's comments made me realize what a universal problem this is for innovative children's books creators. Sendak himself said in his own acceptance speech,"Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences. That is obvious. But what is just as obvious --and what is too often overlooked-- is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, that fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, that they continually cope with frustration as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things."

So anyway, the Brandywine River show is well worth a trip, especially on a beautiful spring day. To sweeten the deal, they are offering free tickets to children who read (or have read to them) 8 Caldecott winners. See their website more more information on this

The other Rosenbach collections on the road have a much longer trip. A selection of Sendak drawings will be part of "Monsters and Miracles: A Journey through Jewish Picture Books" which opens at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles on April 8. So for all you left-coasters who missed the Sendak on Sendak show in San Francisco, here's your chance to show some Rosenbach love. East coasters, don't despair, the show was developed collaboratively between the Skirball and the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, MA and it will be coming to the Carle this fall.

And as always, there's also lots of great stuff happening right here at the Rosenbach, from new objects in our Friend or Faux exhibit (including Jefferson's letter-copying machine, on loan from the American Philosophical Society) to this weekend's Sendak in Spring festivities. I'll be spending a sunny Sunday helping out at Sendak in Spring, so I hope to see lots of you come by--you could even combine a visit here with a picnic in Rittenhouse Square. That's what I'm thinking of doing with my family, so if you see me, give me a wave!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Personals with Personality

Our fabulous collection intern Joanna Hoover has been going through our Civil-War-era newspapers and creating summaries, to be used in our upcoming Civil War 150 web project (coming this fall to a computer near you!). She admitted to me that she wasn't expecting much from this January 26, 1861 issue of The New York Herald--after all, the front page was merely a list of letters to be picked up at the New York City post office.

New York Herald. New York, 26 January 1861. Gift of The Raab Collection.

But things started to look up when she saw the personals section at the lower right of page 1. As any researcher who works with newspapers knows, sometimes the ads are the best part. This American Life did a great radio show a few years back in which they tracked down stories from the Sunday classifieds. Anyway, this issue of The New York Herald had some really intriguing personals.

and a bit further down the page...

And then this cryptic message, which seems like it could have come straight from a Sherlock Holmes story.

As a fan of Sherlock Holmes, I must point out that Holmesian references to personal ads, which in England were known as the agony column, appear as early as the 1892 Adventure of the Noble Bachelor, in which Holmes admits to Watson" I read nothing but the criminal news and the agony columns." In the 1911 Adventure of the Red Circle, Holmes describes them as "a chorus of groans, cries, and bleatings! What a rag-bag of singular happenings. But surely the most valuable hunting ground that was ever given to a student of the unusual." I couldn't agree more!

Finally, the matrimony section of The New York Herald is separate from the personal section, and it includes this amusingly forthright ad from a man on the make. (Please pardon the skewed photo.)

So thank you, Joanna, for brightening my day with these fascinating tidbits of the past.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Quick Correction: Carroll Tours Are March 10, 14, and 19th

In my last post I noted that I will be giving three Carroll-themed hands-on tours this month in honor of the movie. However I incorrectly gave the third date as March 17th, when it really should be March 19th (I think my mind was somewhere through the looking glass as I was typing furiously to get the post up before running out the door). So the correct three dates are March 10, 14, and 19th. Sorry for any confusion.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Much of a Muchness

In case you missed all ads during the Olympics (and the ads that are plastering bus shelters around my house), Tim Burton's adaptation of Alice in Wonderland opens tomorrow, March 5. On one hand, I think it's great since I'm sure lots of people will go to see it and I'm always in favor of people getting acquainted with Lewis Carroll fantastic world. On the other hand, I'm a bit disappointed, since most of the reviews I have seen seem to be pretty negative.

As you may already know, the conceit of the Tim Burton version is that Alice is returning to Wonderland after a ten year absence and although the characters there remember her, she does not remember them. Variety agreed that the script needed some sort of "narrative backbone" not provided by the books, but claimed that this one "turns "Alice" into a formulaic piece of work, which Carroll's creation was anything but. Climactic action setpiece, with an unlikely young warrior taking on a fearsome beast while gobs of CGI soldiers clash, smacks of "The Lord of the Rings," "Harry Potter," "The Golden Compass," "The Chronicles of Narnia" and any number of other such recent ventures." The LA Times is similarly unimpressed, describing the set-up as "old-school" and citing the same problems with the CGI climax reminiscent of LOTR. It's overall take is that the film is "surprisingly inert overall" and words like "tedious" and tiresome" pepper the review. You can check out more reviews at Rotten Tomatoes and there are some that are more positive, but the overall opinion seems to be definitely on the downside. Not quite what I had hoped. Oh well. Of course I haven't seen the film yet myself and reviews aren't always the be all and end all. I'd love to hear from any of you who do see the film--please add your comments and let us know your thoughts.

In the end, no matter what Tim Burton does,we always have plenty of really neat Lewis Carroll stuff here at the Rosenbach: books, drawings, letters, photographs, and more. I'll be running Carroll-themes Hands-on Tours on March 10, 14, and 17th so you can see for yourself. I hope that you can join me.

Now for something completely different. If you are more interested in history than literature, you might be interested in what I spent my day today doing--I was a volunteer judge for the Philadelphia competition of National History Day. For those of you who haven't heard of History Day, I like to think of it as a science fair for History geeks. Students in grades 6-12 pick historical topics related to an annual theme and then present their research to judges in a variety of formats: papers, performances, documentaries, exhibits, and websites. The top finishers from our region go on to compete at the state level and then the Nationals.

This year's theme was Innovation in History and there were projects on everything from blood banking to the Emancipation Proclamation to the history of the computer. The competition puts a big emphasis on doing original research using primary sources and from what I saw today, it's working! Several of the students I judged said that the best part of their project was getting to go to archives and work with documents--this was something they had never done before. The emphasis on primary sources also tends to encourage students to seek out local history topics, where the resources are close at hand and I think it's great for them to learn more about the ways that history surrounds us right here in Philadelphia.

Basically, I can't praise History Day enough. I competed seven times as student myself back in Connecticut and I think it was really critical in my developing historical research skills and my skills in writing and editing. So I was thrilled when Philly got involved with the program five years ago, thanks to the leadership of V. Chapman Smith at the National Archives. And having judged five years ago and judged today, I can see the difference in the work the students are producing. So kudos to them and to their hard-working teachers and to the folks who put History Day together every year. And if any of my readers know a budding historian who's in middle school or high school, you might want to encourage them to consider entering History Day. You don't have to do it as part of a class, you can do it on your own (I did it that way 6 out of my 7 years) and it's a really great experience. Also, for those young historians out there, please remember that the Rosenbach is a functioning research library and anyone is more than welcome to make an appointment and use our resources. We are here for you.