JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 1009
Lost commonness is never so sweet as when it is unexpectedly recovered--and today it has happened for the second time in three days via tremendously obscure sources working in the same almost entirely unused medium. Several days ago I wrote about the lost work of a German diarist who recorded tiny advertisement images for posterity on glass slides. "Onkel Karl's Berlin" is an assembly of tiny advertisement images published mostly during the days of Weimar Republic; the artwork for these images are now almost entirely lost to time.
Another entry is made here today in the infrequently dynamic glass diary category--"The New York City of Karl von Onkel". Aside from the advanced astonishment of another similar collection is the almost miraculous similarity of the names of the collector/observer, neither of whom were related, and who were also separated by an ocean and 50 years in time. These two diarists also shared a great closeness in their appreciation for the ephemeral bits of their attractive present, with Mr. von Onkel's dedication directed towards miniature business cards from NYC in the late 1870's, most of which were almost entirely unknown before the unveiling of this collection.
The highly attractive but perhaps dubious other soaring aspect of originality in this later collection was the method used to record written information.
Mr. von Onkel constructed an alphabet composed entirely of cannon and cannon parts.
What is more remarkable is that he evidently outfitted an 1872 Remington typewriter with these miniature cannon bits, replacing the English alphabet keys with his own creations. No one has yet deciphered the entire 118-page manuscript (entitled in script "The Other Anthon"), as there seems to have been a further bit of cyphering added to the cannon mix--the elements of the cannon-part alphabet would (evidently) change every third line or so, making the decoding part of it toweringly difficult.
For example, the letter "e" which appeared in the first line of page one was represented by a spoke/half spoke/screw/burned spoke--four elements for one letter! But this would change by line three, where the letter "e" became fuse/spoke/broken half-spoke/powder/harness--a delightful but maddening mess. Thus "he saw a dog" might be rendered in 45 cannon part bits, all of which would change every few lines. Without the encoding device and without the means of determining when and where the symbols were changed in representing the alphabet, it is impossible perhaps to ever know the contents of the manuscript. There is also the further added difficulty of "missing" cannon parts--these are "blanks" that weren't so, their nothingness standing for something depending on their placement in the page.
On the other hand, it seems as though all Mr., von Onkel was recording was the information already printed on the business card--plus a veritable haiku of his personal observation. (This could be determined from the few English language entries in the journal. His narrative for "Stemp's Used Nail Emporium" was "not on corner; walked past; where breakfast used to be", while "Phlob's Gun Enameling" was limited to simply "Walked past". Perhaps there is no need to know anything beyond this.
There are over 3,000 slides in the van Onkel collection, covering everything from braided baby hair ropes to margarine slippers to corset burners--items all relegated to a history that is almost beyond memory.
Carter Crotchgroin, a registered library card holder and patron of the Port Authority Department of Lost Things and renowned glass-transfer image collector, remarked that the Onkel collection ":is a savagely didactic ensemble, a color opera in shatterable black and white".
"True and not so true", says Dr. Grownhand Heap, Director of the New York Center for the Advanced Invisible. As an Invisibility Expert, Dr. Heap has discovered the collection's beauties and its "unfortunabilities". "It was not known until we investigated the background of the slides" said Dr. Heap, "that all of the background glassware was appropriated somehow from the state correctional facility at Ossining. More accurately, they came from the archives which held the Medical Welfare Support Society, which was a group of "medical" doctors intent on improving the position of society in general by experimenting on the prisoners. (The Socity existed apart from Sing Sing proper, their samples collected by the prison barbers. Of particular interest is the sub-colelction of the blood and hair of every prisoner executed at Sing Sing, most of these being the work of one man, the longest-serving barber-of-the-condemned, Scott "Simple" Malfesance.) The Society was disbanded in 1872 for its questionable practices, and it was thought that their medical collection was either removed to the archives in Albany or destroyed. The slides contained blood and hair samples of every prisoner who was part of the Sing Sing system for the 1830-1873 period. To find this sort of ancient biological archive is nothing short of phenomenal".
The contention now is to how to deal with the von Onkel collection--as art, or as a medical goldmine.
In addition to his glass diary, Mr. Onkel was also a lateral brick collector, and was founder of the Louisville (Kentucky) Society of Line Collectors (a subsidiary of The Horizontal Society of Wilmington, North Carolina AND the Right Angle Society of Grove Park, Indiana). A 20th century photo of the Louisville group celebrating their 25th anniversary in honor of their founder is shown below.:
Additional images from the von Onkel collection can be seen below: