Monday, January 24, 2011


I haven't posted in a long time. This is partly due to how busy I was last semester. I assigned too many writing assignments which resulted in non-stop grading. As such, there wasn't a lot of time to devote to this blog. However I did find some time to work on the larger project. Mainly I have been researching different topics I see connected to the index. There is some interesting literature emerging on the topic of citizen archivists, especially with the emergence of the Internet that I think might be valuable. I have also been thinking about the way collecting has been portrayed in the culture both as a form of celebrated consumption (Antique Roadshow) and as a form of deviant consumption (Hoarders). I just recently submitted an abstract that explores this tension and hopefully it will be accepted. In a couple of months I will be presenting my preliminary work on my grandmother's legacy at a material culture conference about consumption, production, and reuse. I will try to use the blog to update my progress on these ideas.

One of the books I have been reading is Acts of Possession: Collecting in America, which was edited by Leah Dilworth. There are several good essays about individual collectors in American history. The introduction highlighted the early American painter Charles Wilson Peale. The first page of the book prominently displays his painting, "The Artist in His Museum" which I have included here:

Peale had an interesting history. As a painter, he was most famous for his portraits, which included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. "The Artist in His Museum" is his most important work, and is a self portrait. Later in his life, Peale created the first American Natural History Museums, which is featured in his painting.

So I return to the index. I checked and indeed she had a card for Charles Wilson Peale. On the front of the card she simply noted that he was a painter and he had a brother named James. Inside are two images taken from a newspaper. The first is a painting by Charles Wilson Peale entitled "John Cadwalader's Family." The second is "Still Life With Fruit" which was painted by James Peale (Charles' brother). Also included is a photocopied essay, "The Peale Family" which focuses primarily on Charles and his connection to the history of museums in Philadelphia. The essay itself was promoting an exhibit of Charles' work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In his essay about Peale, "Inside the Cabinet of Wonders," Andy Sturdevant points out that collecting became Peale's major passion. I think Peale could become an interesting model for thinking about The Ethel Index. Strudevant concludes his essay by writing, "Peale's interest in creating his collection was principally to help the viewer understand the world in a rational, ordered way. However, there are always those objects that inspire in us, the viewers, unadulterated wonder; we're like Peale's museum visitor in the high-waisted golden dress, throwing up our hands in amazement and delight." I do get the sense that my grandmother was attempting to make sense of a complicated world and at the same time, she was able to create something quite amazing in its one right.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A is for ...

The last couple of weeks have been so busy as the semester started today. I have been working on my syllabi and trying to work on some other of my writing projects. In between I have been reading a couple of books that I hope to use in some form on this project, but this has little time to actually explore the Ethel Index. As this semester is going to be pretty hectic, I wanted to figure out something that I could do with this blog that wouldn't be too time intensive. So my plan is to take one carton and completely digitize it. Sometimes I will present just the cards, while others I will add my thoughts. The obvious place to start is with A, since my grand-mother took so much time alphabetizing her index.

Here are a couple pictures of the first carton, which I have labeled "A-Absolutely TR."

This is another re-purposed laundry detergent box. The bottom, which I neglected to take a picture of, includes the "Arm & Hammer" logo.

Initially I thought I might digitize 20 cards tonight, but then I took a look at the first one and thought that would be enough. Here is the first card in the index:

In the top left corner are the capital and lower-case versions of the letter in print and in cursive. There is also a cut-out included that gives a basic history of the letter. On the right side, she has written different ways the letter has been represented in various languages (arabic, german, hebrew, yiddish, french, and russian). On the bottom she relates the letter to Hawthorn's Scarlet Letter and also has a reference to shorthand which was developed by Gregg and Pitman.

Once again the card folds open to uncover various other tidbits of information about the topic. Here are scans of all the included materials:

I am not going to go into every detail but there are several really interesting things collected here. It is hard to appreciate from the scan because the pencil markings are so light, but her A drawings are really cool. I especially like that she drew a piano keyboard in order to note where the A is. It is also noted on this card (and at least one other) that the A note has 435 vibrations per second. My other favorite fact is from the cut-out with the bull on it. Here we learn that the A was originally upside down. Before the Greeks took the alphabet from the Phoenicians, the point at the top of the A was its root. The Phoenicians named the letter aleph because it meant ox, and the upside down A resembles the head of an ox. Fascinating!

I think it is great that there is so much information included about the letter A. Though it is also important to state that it seems as if much of the information is repeated on various included materials. It might be fun to at some point attempt to edit all the information into a single entry and figure out exactly how much information is presented.

Anyway, I will start finding time to digitize the rest of this box, hopefully updating the blog at least twice a week.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

First Interview

I have been too busy the past couple of weeks dealing with some annoying home owner emergencies and trying to get ready for the upcoming semester. As such the blog has suffered. This doesn't mean I have stopped working on the Ethel Index. While I haven't been examining the physical index, I have been giving a lot of thought to the project. Much of my time has been spent reading various books I think that will prove fruitful to my project. Several of these books are related to the process of writing a family history. Partly I am reading these to help me prepare for a series of interviews with family members about their memories of Ethel. Last week my Uncle Jimmy contacted me wanting to visit in order to drop off some additional entries he found while cleaning her house out, as well as some miscellaneous pictures. I invited him over for a bbq on Saturday and asked if he would be ok if I interviewed him. I conducted the interview yesterday. It lasted right around an hour and proved to be very helpful. Now I just have to find the time to transcribe the interview. For now I thought it would be good to just relay some initial thoughts.

If anyone is interested here is the list of questions I came up with before the interview. I started with general questions and then focused in on the index.

I was hoping you could talk about your relationship with grand-mom, especially as a child growing up.
What are your early recollections (before and after the divorce) of the relationship between your parents? What did they have in common, such as sense of humor, thirst for knowledge, etc?
How were education and knowledge viewed by your parents? How was their value enforced in the house? How did this shape your academic pursuits?
Would you characterize grand-mom as a collector? When did her passion for collecting begin? How was her collecting viewed by the family? Did you and your siblings collect things as well?
Was she always a reader? Did she always read the newspaper? How did she talk about her work with various newspapers?
One thing I remember as a child were the gift packages I would receive from grand-mom which would often include items that appeared to be purchased second hand (colored in coloring books etc). Was this tied more to an economic condition or to a personal view of the relative value of things? It is also interesting how this idea is reflected by the recycled nature of the index.

When did you first learn about the index? What were your first reactions?
Did you ever talk with grand-mom about the reasons for her creating the index? Was she proud of the index? Did she actively share it with other people? Did she try to involve other people?
While they don’t appear that regularly there are some entries with information gathered from the internet. My assumption is that these were gathered from her working and volunteering at libraries. Did she ever express a desire to have a internet connected computer at home? Or was it ever suggested and did she show resistance?
Can you talk a little about Grand-mom's interests as related to the topics covered by the index. The thing that strikes me is how general it is. For example did she enjoy watching television and movies?
What are your thoughts about the index now? What is its value?
I was hoping you could talk about your card. Was its creation organic or did you have a role in it? What is the family crest?

While I didn't read the questions to him, I referred to them during the interview and I think I asked most if not all of them in one form or another. I thought the interview went very well and look forward to transcribing it.

If there was one thing that stood out from the interview it was his views on the index. I remember at some point hearing him tell grand-mom that she was wasting her time because the Internet had already been invented. The interview pretty much confirmed that this was how he felt. When he first got to the house on Saturday I took him to see the index and we started talking about his card. I will update this post in a couple of days to include his card (and my cousin Heather's) but for the time being I will just describe it. Basically on the front is a family crest for Snyder, though we don't think it is our family crest but rather some more historically established Snyder family clan. Inside the card are two of Uncle Jimmy's business cards. There is no mention of a family relation. Uncle Jimmy was actually surprised that he had a card at all. His interest was actually in the other people named Jimmy Snyder. According to him, there are five Jimmy/James Snyders of note. The Ethel Index only includes a card for one of them, Jimmy The Greek Snyder. The lack of the other Jimmy Snyders confirmed for my uncle that the index wasn't as exhaustive as it could have been.

I will expand on this at some time, but for now I will just say that I was more surprised that Jimmy was her only child who had a card at all. And even with Uncle Jimmy's card, there is no mention that this is her son. In a way this makes sense because her goal seemed to be to capture facts and persons of note (though while my Uncle has had an interesting career, the information in the card does not justify its inclusion). The index wasn't a way of tracking personal family history, but rather as a way of tracking information worthy of print. Still, her card, as discussed in an earlier post, highlights her willingness to add something personal to the project. This inconsistent perspective will be something that I will continue to think about and look into.

Anyway, back to my reading list for the project. I have been reading A. J. Jacobs humorous memoir, The Know-It-All where he chronicles the year he spent reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB) from A to Z. If you haven't read A. J. Jacobs, I highly recommend that you do. He is probably most famous for his book, The Year of Living Biblically, where he reads various religious texts and tries to live by all of their rules for a year. So at one point he finds out a friend has committed adultery and he throws stones at him. Anyway, I have been reading The Know-It-All because the Index is a kind of encyclopedia in itself. It is a very strange encyclopedia but still the same idea is there. As I go on I know I will have a lot more to say about this book as it relates to the index (for example about the accumulation of knowledge as it relates to intelligence and wisdom) but in this post I want to focus on one entry I found especially interesting (I am actually only up to G in the book).

In the book he is writing about reading the entry on Frigate Birds. One thing to know about the book is that A. J. Jacobs rarely completely stays on topic. Frigate Birds aren't mentioned until the last paragraph of his entry. Instead he talks about his interview with Jeopardy host Alex Trebek and how he intended to show him up with all of the knowledge he had gained from reading the EB. Instead Alex proves to be a pretty nice guy so A.J. backs down from his initial goal to make him look silly. As they talk, A.J. asks Alex for his perspective on the philosophy of knowledge. Here is Trebek's response: "I'm curious about everything--even things that don't interest me." I think that this perfectly sums up my grand-mom's index. As I uncovered through an earlier post, she didn't have any interest in the Beatles, but yet there is still a large amount of information about them in the index. Today I was looking at the index with my soon to be 6 year old son Jake and we pulled out the card for Legos, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones. I am positive my grand-mom had no interest in any of these things, but she had enough of a curiosity to include them in her index.

Which brings me back to the interview with my Uncle Jimmy. It was clear he initially felt the index was a waste of time. At the end of the interview I asked him if he still felt the same way about it now. I thought his answer was great. I am paraphrasing until I have the time to transcribe. Basically he said that it would have been a waste of time for him to create the index, but maybe it wasn't a waste of time for his mother.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

AKA or Why Jacob Cohen "Get's No Respect"

When I was retrieving the index there were all kinds of things lying around that seemed interesting. While there was definitely a depression era feel to the house it didn't really feel like my grand-mother would be classified as a hoarder. I don't think it was a compulsive need to keep everything, but rather that because of the index, everything had value. In the main room there were stacks of magazines and travel brochures. She didn't hold onto them because she couldn't imagine life without them, she held onto them because they contained facts of value. I can just imagine her taking time out of every day to explore the piles ready to learn something new. It would have been impossible to keep everything and I felt the index gave me a sizable enough project that would take years to explore. There were a lot of collections that have been disposed of. In the basement there was an entire wall stacked with cigar boxes. Each cigar box had a different collection in them. The collections were varied and included (among others) fabric materials, doll clothing patterns, and rocks. I only kept one of these boxes, which was a collection of buttons you pin to your clothes. Sometime soon I will take some pictures and share them on the blog. Across from the cigar boxes was a desk and a file cabinet. I only looked through the materials for a couple of minutes but it seemed to me that it was a larger and clumsier attempt at the index. There were file folders filled with newspaper clippings, instruction manuals, and catalogs. I thought that if after I loaded the index and there was more room in the car then I could go back and grab some of it. But the index barely fit into the car so the file cabinet has been lost to history.

The index was spread out over three spaces. Most of the index was housed in one of the guest bedrooms. In that room I found a stack of papers which seemed to have names listed from top to bottom of each one. As I was trying to beat rush hour I didn't really pay much attention to their content other than to think it was probably a list of names my grand-mother was planning on creating index cards for. I quickly stuffed the papers into one of the crates and put it into the car.

Last week when I was unpacking the index I came across those papers and handed them to Jill. She quickly observed that it was a list of aliases. There are roughly 320 "stage names" in one column and an equal amount of "given names" in the other. Here they are:

It is hard to figure out when exactly she made this list or if it was used to update or check the index but once again it really illuminates the degree of detail my grand-mother poured into this project. It seems as if the index cards do contain this information, though I have only checked two of them. Here is Woody Allen's card (along with just a sample of the clippings included in the card):

The first piece of information listed on the card is his given name "Allen Stewart Konigsberg."

This seems to validate that the list was used in connection to the index. I also looked up Rodney Dangerfield's card. I did this because on the list posted above his name actually includes two aliases. The first alias which is written in the same pen as the "stage name" is Jack Roy. However next to Jack Roy is another name, Jack Cohen. Jack Cohen is crossed out in pencil and next to that is written Jacob Cohen, which is Rodney Dangerfield's given name. His father, Philip Cohen, was a vaudeville performer who used the name Phil Roy. When Rodney was 19 he began as a joke writer and used the name Jack Roy. Then in the 1960s he changed his name to Rodney Dangerfield. Here is the card for Rodney Dangerfield with a selection of its contents:

What I find interesting about this card as related to the list is that while the name Jack Cohen is included, the name Jacob Cohen is not. As I mentioned the list was written and then edited by pencil to include the Jacob Cohen name, but somehow this information never made it to the card.

Every time I interact with the index I find it becomes more and more interesting. I have decided that this will become my full time research project and have already started researching relevant books and thinking about family interviews. While there are a million ways to approach this project I have started by thinking about the brain and memory. As I mentioned in an earlier post, part of my grand-mother's justification for this project was that the act of creating the index was viewed as mental exercise. She was attempting to keep her mind sharp. The book I am currently reading offers a really good layman's overview of how the mind has been perceived and understood. I actually started reading the book to see if it could be used in one of my media and communication courses (I think it will be) but quickly realized that it was as relevant to the Ethel Index. The book is Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. I was interested in the book because of Carr's 2008 Atlantic essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Basically Carr examines McLuhan's famous phrase "the medium is the message" in order to examine how our brains our being rewired from the zeitgeist shift from print to digital media. While I find the entire argument extremely interesting and it all fits in really well with my courses, for the purpose of this blog and the Ethel Index, the point he makes in the book is that the while the synapses in our brains do become harder to reprogram as we age, if we choose to do so we can continue to make new links, which can for the post part be considered mental exercising. There is a lot more to be said about this and I haven't given it enough thought as of yet but I do believe that my grand-mother's creation of the index effected her mind differently than if she had just decided to read an encyclopedia. She was actively participating in the creation of knowledge, even if this knowledge was being filtered through her unique perspective of culture and the world.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

DWF Seeking Short Jewish Fat Messy Retired Man

Now that the index is starting to take shape it is a lot easier to locate individual cards. Even though I wasn't sure if it existed, the card I was most hoping to find was the one for my grand-mother. And sure enough, she did make herself a card. If you didn't know her, I am sure you are getting the sense from my examination of the index, that she was a complete character. I will share a little bit about her history later in this post but of specific note to this card is the fact that she divorced my grandfather at a time when divorce seemed more scandalous, and that after the divorce and up until the end of her life she dated a lot. If she was a "Golden Girl" she would have definitely been Blanche. Every time we visited with her throughout my life it seemed as if she had a different boyfriend. All of this information makes the card she created for herself so perfect.

As you can see cut and pasted to the top of the card is a personal ad for herself. Now I am not sure if this was an actual personal ad, a joke, or something in between but I think it is fantastic. I can't help to smile at the words "warm affectionate lively creampuff."

The other information contained in the ad is pretty illuminating. I think it is clear from the index that my grand-mother was intelligent and educated, and these seemed to be characteristics she viewed as central to her identity. The other word I find interesting is "Jewish." This will be something I continue to explore through the index and hopefully through family interviews but I always got the feeling that Jewish to her was much more a cultural indicator than a religious one. I don't think that she went to Temple, though I could be wrong. When I was a child I attended Jewish school and went to Temple regularly, but ultimately decided organized religion wasn't for me. I didn't mind the rituals, foods, and holidays, which makes me, like my grand-mother more of a cultural jew than a religious one. There will be a little more about my grand-mother and her Jewish history a little later in the post.

The other two pieces of information on the card I also find interesting. She has recorded her cholesterol levels for 1990 and 1991. Both levels are dangerously high but at least she managed to drop 20 points over the year. She also included the obituary for a different Ethel Snyder that passed away in 1989.

Once again this is a folding card. However, there is only one document found inside. A relatively small (almost business card sized) piece of paper she cut out from a Nassau Inn (in Princeton) brochure. Here is the side which she scribbled on.

The only names I know of on the card are Ethel's and Masse's. Masse was Ethel's brother who currently lives in California. If anyone has any information on the other names I would appreciate the help.

And that's it for her card. While I love the personal ad, personally I feel that there should be so much more information included.

Last year, my cousin Erica sat down with our grand-mother and had her hand-write a short history. Erica transcribed the document and shared it on geni. I am reproducing it here:


As told to me as I remember. These facts could be wrong, memory is often unreliable.

My father (Harry Bloomfield) Hershel Belaroos came from Russia with his mother Freda. (She was a widow) & 6 other brothers. All his sisters died young. They came to N.Y. Harry was approx age 17.
Freda was told that a bunch of Polish workers were coming to Franklin, N.H. & a grocery catering to them would be profitable. She started a grocery in Franklin. The Poles did not come. Harry worked in the store & got excused from army service in WWI to help his mother.

Brothers: Aaron ran a drugstore – soda fountain in Windsor, Vt
Willie – after marriage ran a stationery store in Dallas, Tex.
Max – lived in Windsor, Vt
Harry –
Ben – engineer in Springfield, Vt
Joe – school principal in Cranston, R.I. summer camp director
Barney – childhood accident left him retarded. Worked for his father-in-law as a rag sorter. He inherted when his father-in-law died.

My mother (Ida Steinberg) Chaika Zatsepitsky came from Grodno, Russia-Poland. Her father’s 1st wife gave him 8 children before she died. His second wife was a divorcee. Charles thought she was barren & a good stepmother for his kids. She gave him 8 more, my mother, Ida, the oldest. When Ida was 15 her parents said they could no longer afford her & told her to go to your half sister in N.Y., which she did. It colored her life. All the family that remained in Poland were wiped out in the holocaust. Charles was in a synagogue when the Nazi’s told him to leave. He said he wasn’t finished & was shot. My grandmother was hiding in a basement [and] started to scream she couldn’t stand it any more & was strangled to keep her quiet. One sister & 2 nieces survived & came to U.S. Survived because they were women, & abused.
Ida’s cousin Minnie knew Willie Bloomfield & asked Ida to accompany her to N.H. for a visit. They both went. Minnie married Willie & moved to Texas.
A while later Freda said to Harry “that Ida was a nice girl, & she will make a nice wife.” Harry agreed, proposed by mail & Ida accepted. No romance, no courtship. They lived in Franklin, N.H. Then they started a grocery in Laconia, N.H. on Water St. & lived upstairs. During WW2 the store was sold twice & demolished.
1st child – Ethel. Born in Phila 1921 because Ida wanted to be near her family & soon returned to N.H.
Masse born in Franklin
Theresa & Sally born in Laconia
Enos died 9 mo due to loss of blood at circumcision

Bought Lakewood Cottages for $1,000, a 16 acre empty lot between Rt 3 & Lake Winnisquam. Started with 2 cabins – cheated out of a summer’s rent. Built a few each year. Rt 3 was re-engineered & a new entrance was created, giving Harry $1,000.
Bought 3 cabins from Swedish Villager. Ida ran it, Harry came 5 miles from Laconia every evening. It was sold contingent that they would get paid when lots & cabins were sold. It worked out as agreed.

Ethel married Arthur Snyder who was born in Brooklyn, moved to Vermont. His father Morris had a shoe store, was wiped out in a fire. Went to work for Mr. Ginsberg’s shoe store in Rutland, Vt. Arthur worked for him as truck driver, even with his bad eyes. No eye tests in those days. Arthur carried a vision of Mr. Ginsberg as feet on a desk in a big cigar getting rich on other people’s work. It was a dream for Arthur, never attained. He tried photography, billiards, Greystone Inn – all failed.
He was bi-polar & after his 3rd meltdown the marriage collapsed. He went to live with Fred, then Aunt Evelyn, then a home.
Ethel worked at various jobs, moved many times, had many boyfriends and found steady work at the Inquirer – Daily News from which she retired. She started as a research analyst, & through job changes downward became a clerk at lungher?? Salary
After retirement Ethel spent several years as a volunteer at the Camden Co. Historical Society.

Thanks so much to Erica for having the foresight to have our grand-mother do this! The history is incomplete but the parts highlighted are so interesting. Obviously the Nazi Holocaust story is completely disturbing. The mental health issues of my grand-father were well known to the family and I witnessed them first hand during my childhood as he lived with us for a good period of time. The allusion to his driving and his poor eyesight also makes me slightly chuckle. He was legally blind and had a seeing eye dog. The seeing eye dog actually bit my nose and somewhere there is a great picture of me as a kid on a couch with my nose taped up like Jack Nicholson's in Chinatown and my grandfather is laughing as his dog is snapping at my face. And even though he was legally blind I remember he had a moped that he would ride around on.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A New Home

I haven't had a lot of time to analyze and write about The Ethel Index over the last week because most of my free time has been spent building it a new home. After discussing with my brother Scott the process of creating a bookcase from scratch (which would have been a nice homage to the diy crafting of my grand-mother) we decided it would be much more economical and expedient if we just went to Ikea. There was a perfect space in our extra bedroom which basically measured 8' x 7' x 1'. We found the perfect combination and I went to work building it. Here is a picture of the finished bookcase:

I then began the process of organizing the index. I started by bringing the individual crates out of the garage and into the house. Each crate has eight to fifteen variable sized cartons of cards in it. Here is the first crate that made it into the house:

The ultimate goal is to completely alphabetize the index so that it can be easily searched. For the most part my grand-mother worked to keep the cards in order. However, it is clear that there are overlapping cartons and cards that were never filed. So, at the moment I am just trying to get all of the cartons onto the shelf without worrying too much about the inconsistencies. Conveniently, my grand-mother placed a blank cardboard holder at the front of each carton which offered me a nice space for adding labels. Here is what the labels look like:

Aside from adding a label to each carton, I am also performing minimal preservation work. Following my grand-mother's lead I have employed duct tape as my primary tool. Here is a picture of a carton which was pretty much destroyed and one of my handy work:

Currently I have completed labeling 15 out of the 21 crates. The last couple of days have been tough because both of the kids are sick. I should be able to finish them sometime this week. Then I will have to make a couple of new cartons (should be a fun project which I will document) and start fixing the alphabetizing issues and filing the loose cards. For now here is what the bookcase looks like:

I think that after I finish I will start organizing a family bbq so anyone interested can take a look around it.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

I Turn My Camera On

I am back from vacation and have started the project of building a new home for the Ethel Index. Scott and I (with Ayse, JIll, Jake, and Nora) went to Ikea yesterday and pieced together a nicely sized storgage unit. I will probably start putting it together tomorrow. Then the goal will be to alphabetize. I hope the entire Index fits into the space I have allotted for it. We shall see.

In the meantime, my cousin Erica has been posting family pictures on Facebook. This one I thought should be shared on the Ethel Index. Thanks Erica!

From Left to Right is Grand-mom Ethel and then her children, Jimmy, Janet, Fred, and Martha.