Sunday, July 29, 2018

spermaceti makes a whale of a good candle, but maybe not so good for the whale

From Alice Morse Earle’s “Customs and Fashions in Old New England” (1893):
… In 1686 Governor Andros petitioned for a commission for a voyage after “Sperma-Coeti Whales,” but not till the middle of the following century did spermaceti become of common enough use to bring forth such notices as this, in the Boston Independent Advertiser of January, 1749:
“Sperma-Ceti Candles, exceeding all others for Beauty Sweetness of Scent when Extinguished. Duration being more than Double with Tallow Candles of Equal Size. Dimensions of Flame near 4 Times more. Emitting a Soft easy Light, bringing the object close to the Sight, rather than causing the Eye to trace after them, as all Tallow Candles do, from a Constant Dimnes which they produce. One of these Candles serves the use and purpose of 3 Tallow Candles, and upon the Whole are much pleasanter and cheaper.”
Observation: Every type of candle I have read about is touted as burning brighter, longer, sweeter, pleasanter than some other type, or maybe all other types, of candles. But not all are touted as being cheaper.

From Wikipedia’s entry on spermaceti (2018):
After killing a sperm whale, the whalers would pull the carcass alongside the ship, cut off the head and pull it on deck, whereupon they would cut a hole in it and bail out the matter inside with a bucket. The harvested matter, raw spermaceti, was stored in casks to be processed back on land. A large whale could yield as much as 500 gallons. The spermaceti was boiled and strained of impurities to prevent it from going rancid. On land, the casks were allowed to chill during the winter, causing the spermaceti to congeal into a spongy and viscous mass. The congealed matter was then loaded into wool sacks and placed in a press to squeeze out the liquid. This liquid was bottled and sold as "winter-strained sperm oil". This was the most valuable product: an oil that remained liquid in freezing winter temperatures.

Later, during the warmer seasons, the leftover solid was allowed to partially melt, and the liquid was strained off to leave a fully solid wax. This wax, brown in color, was then bleached and sold as "spermaceti wax".[12][13] Spermaceti wax is white and translucent. It melts at about 50°C (122°F) and congeals at 45°C (113°F).[14]

Also: Time to read “Moby Dick.”

From The New York Times, July 14, 1974:
Candle Crunch
Sometimes the rules of economics just don’t apply. Take the current situation in spermaceti candles.

Mrs. Clifford Allen, the owner of The Candle Shop in Nantucket Island, Mass., believes she is the last manufacturer of this product, which is disappearing because of controversial but widespread bans on the taking of whales.

Yet she sells these scarce white candles, which she hand-dips in spermaceti—a waxy substance obtained from the head of the sperm whale—$1.50 for a 12-inch pair, the same as she charges for ordinary bayberry candles. “It’s a work of love, a hobby,” Mrs. Allen explained.

Her production of spermaceti candles—they last longer and burn brighter than other candles—goes to other shops in Massachusetts, but now Federal law prevents her from selling to shops or individuals outside the state.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits the importation of whale products and prohibits whaling in the United States. Before it was passed, Mrs. Allen’s business sold between 20,000 and 30,000 pairs of candles a year.

Mrs. Allen has had a supply of spermaceti for 20 years, and may run out as soon as this fall. “People are now buying them by the dozen,” she noted.

Nonetheless, the price remains fixed. According to Mrs. Allen, “I don’t intend to try to make a fortune just because there’s an embargo.”
Observation: The productiveness of some people knocks me flat. Hand-dipping on average 50,000 spermaceti candles a year; selling them; making other types of candles (those “ordinary bayberry candles”); running a shop; all as a hobby!

And a realization: In July of 1974 I was on Cape Cod within a ferry ride of The Candle Shop and possibly owning a pair of spermaceti candles, if only I could have fathomed my future, for surely I would love to have a pair of spermaceti candles right now, just as surely as I would hate to see a whale’s head chopped off, the light dipped out of it.

Monday, July 23, 2018

rain, wind, walls, wa-Hoo-hee

The Saturday morning forecast called for rain and wind from the northwest, and as I set up my booth at the farmers market there was rain and wind from the northwest. The tent was up, in its usual place. At first, as I was unloading my stuff, the bins of candles and the table and the little shelf I use on the table, the rain was light, but as I began to set up, getting out the tablecloth, positioning the little shelf on the tablecloth, getting out the first candles, I realized I should get a wall up on the booth’s northwest side. So I went to the storage room at the opposite end of the market, where the Commons building is and where the tents and walls are kept, and got a wall, a large, white, nylon sheet that attaches with Velcro straps to the tent’s braces. I put up the wall, continued getting out candles, then realized a wall on the northeast side of the booth would help so went to the storage room and got another wall, put it up. The rain fell harder. The wind picked up. I realized that without a wall on the southwest side of the booth my table and everything on it would get wet. Very wet. I had to think about this for a minute. The southwest side of the booth is the front of the booth. It is the face I present to the passing throngs of potential customers.

I went to the storage room and got a wall, put it up on the southwest side of the booth. These walls will zip together, form one neat wrap, and eventually I got them all zippered up and felt adequately sheltered. I turned my table to face the southeast opening, which worked well enough as my neighbor on that side is around a soft corner, not exactly perpendicular, but good enough, and people rounding that corner could see into my booth. People approaching from the other way could peer around and in as they passed. Not that there were that many people first thing in the morning in the drenching rain and wind. But there are always some. Inside the booth, the candles and I stayed dry, and if anyone joined us they were out of the rain and wind for a moment.

But it felt odd having walls. It felt even odder facing southeast rather than southwest. Vendors like me who are at the market every week set up in the same place, in the same way, every time. It’s routine, it’s continuity, and it’s a heck of a lot easier than everyone jostling for a space, having to figure out on the fly on a Saturday morning where they are going to be and the best way to set up wherever they land—there are all sorts of variables—and of course with a regular spot regular customers know where to find you. So we have our spots, determined long before the market season begins by the woman who manages the whole thing, and it works, and we develop our routines and our specific ways of arranging things and seldom does it vary throughout the season and for many across the years. Then suddenly one July morning you have three walls, face southeast rather than southwest, and are layered in two shirts and a sweater.

Mid-morning it stopped raining. It stopped blowing. I pulled back the southwest wall, bit by bit, biding my time. Would the dry hold? I got a weather report. It looked good. It looked dry. Cool, cloudy, but dry. I peeled back the southwest wall, eventually taking it down. I moved my table so it was on a diagonal (I always wanted to try that). Then the northwest wall came down, then the northeast, and I opened the back hatch of the car so Josie could watch the action. This is his routine, and he was glad to be back at it. He lays in the back of the car in his bed, his chin on the bolster, looking out, watching (from a raised vantage point as the parking lot is up a few feet), eventually drifting off into a snooze.

All morning, interesting people. A family from Texas; a young couple from Wisconsin on their honeymoon; the Illinois couple who stop to visit whenever it’s a Saturday and they’re in town—we have an odd connection. The husband and I were at junior high together and for several years in our middle-age we worked at the same place, all the while unknown to one another. And there was a person with multiple personality disorder. They told me the Cherokee word for “owl.” I wrote it down as “wa-Hoo-hee,” accent on the “Hoo,” this being the pronunciation and not spelling, and I enjoyed saying it so much I might have said it three or four too many times but maybe not as this person intentionally left two quarters on the table, For the next person, they said. And it became a thing for the rest of the day. A nice thing.

All in all, a good day. But an odd day. Left me feeling skewed. Open to change but vulnerable to change. A strange reverberation.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

dear dr. granville, there’s been a discovery

I just read about the latest discovery in the pyramids—a mummification workshop. Will the great mysteries of Egyptian mummification at last be revealed? Will there be any mention of beeswax? So far I’ve read only of “oils and substances” being found, but surely specific identifications will come, and suddenly my research into Dr. Augustus Bozzi Granville (father Italian, mother Cornish) feels a bit less abstruse. I’m glad I found and snatched up just this week that one copy of his autobiography found online (“First edition, 2 volumes complete, in half leather boards with marbled end papers and cut edge. Minor signs of repairs to the spine creases of Volume 1 and its end paper hinges reinforced with a strip of red tape. Boards clean and bright with some rubbing of the edges. Both books firm with contents in nice condition.”). The books are coming from England. The title alone brings joy.
Autobiography of A. B. Granville, M.D., F.R.S.,—Being 88 Years of the Life of a Physician Who Practiced His Profession in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, The West Indies, Russia, Germany, France, and England. Edited, with a Brief Account of the Last Years of His Life, by His Youngest Daughter, Paulina B. Granville.
To refresh, Dr. Granville (1783-1872) is the guy who scraped adipocere from a mummy, thinking it was beeswax, turned it into candles. Yes, that Dr. Granville and no, I’m not done with him yet because I am so glad to have his account of this event. I perused parts of his autobiography online. He writes of obtaining the mummy:
A young baronet, Sir Archibald Edmonstone, just returned in bad health from a long incursion into Egypt, applied to me for advice, and at the same time commenced a conversation on the subject of Alexandria, which we had both of us visited, branching off into an account of a visit he had paid to the kings’ tombs, where he had been able not only to penetrate into the mummy pits, but, a rare privilege, had purchased one of the best preserved specimens, judging from the exterior case, which was perfect both in material and painting. This he had brought home with him, and kept in his house in Wimpole Street, where I went to see it. …
Of the unwrapping and dissection:
The case was in Savile Row the next day. On that day week my dining-room was open at one o’clock to some scientific and other friends, to witness the examination of the mummy. During the week I had had the case carefully opened, which proved to be made of sycamore wood an inch thick, whitewashed or plastered in its interior, with long ranges of hieroglyphic inscriptions painted in black characters. The body, enveloped in all its cloth wrappers, being taken out and deposited on a long table, was searched all over for papyri or amulets or any ornament, but nothing was discovered except a few segments of very slender glass tubing, tinted pale blue, and looking like enamel, and a few grains of wheat that looked as fresh as any grain of wheat of the last harvest. …
Of the wax:
I claim in this laborious investigation to have demonstrated the fact of wax having been the ingredient which was successfully employed, not only to preserve the body from putrefaction, but also to keep the membranes as well as the ligaments in their supple condition, so that when the wax was discharged from them by the process of boiling in water, the soft parts came out with their natural structure, and in less than twenty-four hours underwent decomposition and putrefaction. To these facts antiquaries and such persons as are versed in the old Egyptian language, add the information that the Egyptian word corresponding to wax is “mum.” …
And, finally, the lighting of the candles made from the wax:
… some of the wax obtained being manufactured into small tapers, which were lighted and burned during the lecture. …
Dear Dr. Granville, Thank you. I turn to you for the last word (for now):
When I look back to the work I spontaneously took upon myself to perform unsolicited by anyone, and to the nature of the work itself, I fear that I must confess that the motives that induced me to undertake it were akin to that spirit of restless impatience which the good preceptors in my college early divulged to my parents, when they sent me home for my holidays with a very gratifying encomium of my intellectual progress somewhat damaged by an explicit lament over the listlessness of my temperament and my love of change. I was born to be a reformer! …

Sunday, July 8, 2018

josie’s world, my world: deer, porcupine, a soybean menu, and adipocere revisited

Josie’s been negotiating property rights with a deer.

And one evening Josie spotted a porcupine by the kitchen stoop. I was elsewhere, but he let me know I might want to look at this thing here and when I saw what it was, I picked up Josie, took him inside, got my camera, went back out.

And as I contemplated writing a book about wax, which of course brought to mind all the times I have contemplated writing a book about anything at all as well all the times I have not written a book about anything at all, I began revisiting my wax posts, taking it from the top, just to see if there was something there (there is always something there, the question is, what is it? what to do with it?), and if nothing else my interest in the topic grew deeper. Which is how I came to learn that in 1941 the Ford Motor Company created a car touted as being made from soybeans, a “soy car.” Apparently Henry Ford was a soybean fanatic and you, too, can see some fun pictures and read all about it at Henry Ford: Soybeans and Henry Ford and His Employees: Work with Soy. For some reason, I found this menu more interesting than the car.

Suffice to say that with this topic of wax I realized there was a bit more to delve into. Which is how I got back to adipocere, the wax our bodies create after we’re dead, and that story about Dr. Granville’s big mistake, mistaking adipocere (which apparently wasn’t something anyone knew about in Granville’s time, two hundred years ago) for beeswax and making candles from the stuff (the stuff he had scraped from the insides of a very old Egyptian mummy that he had unwrapped, dissected, studied, diagnosed, apparently in his own home) and subsequently lighting a lecture hall with said candles while he made a presentation on said mummy and his findings. I found the article he wrote on the mummy and as well the subsequent paper from 2009 that re-examined the mummy, leading to the summation that what Granville took to be beeswax was actually adipocere. I have not yet read the 2009 paper, but I did read Granville’s. I had to look up a few words to get a better grasp on what he was saying, but, all in all, I found it fascinating. Whether it’s more good stuff for a book or not, I don’t know. Whether I actually have the discipline or whatever it is one needs to write something longer than, say, a blog post, I don’t know. Whether the end result of any such effort would be any good, or of interest to anyone else, which, judging by my experience talking to folks at the farmers market and gauging at what point they lose interest in the broader topic of wax, well. Stop now. But, I don’t know. And of course there’s really only one way to find out.

According to Granville, the beeswax made its way into the mummy, the dead body, thus helping to preserve it, by virtue of embalmers soaking it in a bath of wax and bitumen.
To have penetrated thus far, and to have lodged between closely adhering membraneous folds, this mixture must either have been injected quite warm into the cavity of the abdomen, or the body itself must have been plunged into a vessel containing a liquefied mixture of wax and bitumen, and there kept for some hours or days, over a gentle fire.
He goes on about this probability, turns it into an almost undeniable fact, and sums up
that admirable method of embalming, devised and followed by the ancient Egyptians, which my inquiries have been directed to ascertain, and which may be summed up in a few words by saying: that it consisted in impregnating the body with bees wax.
Granville conducts his own experiments with the soak-em-in-beeswax-over-a-gentle-fire embalming method that lend a certain amount of proof, or, shall we say, well, maybe. But he was wrong. Or so they say now. But still, he made candles from the wax he found in a mummy, whatever it was—beeswax, human wax—and the candles burned and no one knew.

A drawing of the head of the mummy Granville unwrapped, dissected, and wrote about.
From the aforementioned article in Philosophical Transactions, Royal Society Publishing, January 1825.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

kool & the gang & all that jazz (sshhh ... ) the night pastor is about to appear

Kool & the Gang. A favorite. Are you thinking “Celebration”?

I like the song, sure, but that’s not it, not my favorite, my favorite is Kool & the Gang’s “Kool Jazz” album that I owned and loved until I no longer owned it, jiminy crickets who knows why, we gather and gather and then winnow away until oops, one day, wait a minute, where is that thing, that song, I loved it … and we go online searching for that thing, that song (that’s why the internet was invented), and all I remember about this one particular song on “Kool Jazz” that truly made the whole album worth it (even though the whole album = very good) is that it had something to do with night, no, wait a minute, it was “Dujii,” that’s it, “Dujii”!

One of my favorites.

Dave Brubeck on the way to the farmers market … Blue Rondo a la Turk jammin’ like walking down a street and all you’re doing is seeing face after face, each face passes by, young, old, middle-aged and pink and red and brown and black and ghostly white; no noise, just music, the groove, the beat, the riff, the storefronts, awnings, scraps of paper, a paper bag, sidewalk, bench, the side of a bus and kids jumping rope; like skimming along on train tracks, a lighted tunnel then over a bridge and woods and mountains flash by between wooden or rusty steel lines, beams and cross-beams, a glimpse of river, lakes, sun sparkling on water, going by, passing by, all in a groove, fish jumping, walking along, moving along, Blue Rondo a la Turk, Take Five.

I inherited from my dad “Sing Sing Sing” on vinyl as recorded famously live at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and I remember another Benny Goodman record and it’s on the hi-fi and I’m dancing in the living room pretending to play a clarinet which was all I could do when it came to playing the clarinet—pretend—and my dad is there and I still have that record, too. And at the farmers market almost every week now a jazz combo plays and I love these guys, just kids, talented, lucky kids playing “Take the A Train” and take everything else and it’s just music, kind and pure.

There’s a Ramsey Lewis Trio record I picked up somewhere, “The In Crowd,” recorded live at the Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C., 1965, and there’s a strange and wonderful record my mom had—had something to do with her P.E.O. affiliation, I think—called “The Night Pastor and Seven Friends Play Chicago Jazz.” I don’t remember ever hearing this record growing up. I discovered it as an adult when helping out during a move. No, Mom, I don’t want the china or those salt cellars old so-and-so gave you as a wedding present. But can I have this old record?

The Night Pastor was a real guy, an episcopal priest, The Reverend Robert H. Owen, and a minute or two into Track 1, Beale St. Blues, he says:
Hello. This is the Night Pastor. I’d like to visit with you for a moment, so please pardon me for cutting in on this fine music. First, a million thanks to the musicians who are recording this album and to Dave Remington who got them together. Secondly, thank you for your interest. The Night Pastor program aims at giving pastoral care and guidance to those who work or play at night, called by many “the people of the night.” They are the entertainers and the entertained, the lonely and the lost, those who serve and those who are served, the loving and the loved, the unloving and the unloved, the sleepless, and others who are active at night. Because of the late or strange hours, or for other reasons, many of them have been unable to get the guidance they might want or need. The Night Pastor program is one attempt at helping these people of the night to solve their problems. If you would like to know more about the program, please write to the Night Pastor, 30 East Oak Street, in Chicago. Again, thank you very much. Now let’s get back to the music.
But the music never stops as the pastor’s seven friends jam away quietly below his words turning his entire spiel into poetry. Side Two begins with Saints, as in when the saints go marching in, and this is the only other time the album is adorned with voice, the pastor’s voice, as he riffs along with the musicians starting with just the snare drum and cymbal and the pastor praising Him in all sorts of ways and then Praising Him in the sound of the trumpets (enter the trumpets!) … the lute and harpstrings and pipeswell-tuned cymbals … Well damn and jam. This is absolutely one of my favorite albums. It was recorded in 1965 in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, by Claremont Record Company.

(There is a second Night Pastor album, “Music to Lure Pigeons By.” You can listen to it on YouTube.)

I have a number of instrumental jazz albums and CDs randomly collected sans any real education or guidance, knowledge of what I was doing (though my mother would like to interject: “Leslie once took jazz piano lessons and she was very good. She could have been a jazz pianist.” And I will roll on the floor now, in agony.). Among these records and CDs are horns, pianos, marimba, bass, drums, vibraphone, mambo, Dixieland, ragtime, bossa nova, Tito Puente!, standards, classics, improv, the usual and the unusual, stuff I like. Stuff I haven’t yet given away. Stuff I think I will turn to for a while now, as long as it takes, as long as I need to, for pastoral care. Just line it up, let it play.