JF Ptak Science Books Post 928 (from 2010, Expanded!)
"One must go into oneself armed to the teeth"--M. Teste, Paul Valery
Sometimes odd images just need to be surfaced for the pure sake of it. Such is the case with this glorious photo by Greg Villet1 of Delphine Binger in LIFE magazine for 24 May, 1954 . Ms. Binger ("a Manhattan spinster") actually collected the wishbones with a business utility in mind, fashioning them into objets d'os. (LIFE unfairly classified Ms. Binger in this way. In other accounts I have read of her Ms. Binger is described as a funny, fun-loving person, and Pete Hamil/Meyer Berger describe her as "generous", "bubbling" and "caring" in their 1954 Meyer Berger's New York.)
She purchased the wishbones for nothing, added a few bits of half-penny decorations, perfume, a pin, and SO! a piece of jewelry is born. She evidently was able to sell her creations for $2.10 apiece, which in 1954 translates into 25 2009 dollars; so I guess if she sold some here and there she would be able to supplement her income. Of course there's the issue of overkill on the bones: she seems to have probably two (or more) orders of magnitude more than she "needs", so there may have been something else going on there.
But then again, at the point where you collect 500k of anything you will have become expert enough to have any mostly-invisible nuance convey a large field of interest to your keen appreciation--the bigger something gets, the smaller it gets, in parts.
An old friend of mine--we'll call him Mr. Tulipfields, a brilliant mathematician/physicist/compsci guy with a deep appreciation for music--started buying classical cds when cds were a relatively new phenomenon. Rare recorded material was being placed back into "print" at such a rate that he couldn't really afford the appropriate sound system to actually listen to all of his new purchases. He hurried into buying many of the cds because he thought that they would drop out-of-print again, and that he needed to act quickly. I thought that the cds would stay available basically forever—as it turned out he was right (as usual) and I was wrong (ditto). And so Mr. T amassed an enormous collection of music—in the dozens of thousands—many of which are now impossible to find.
In some ways my friend didn’t need the cd player—he already knew the music, could play it in his head. Somehow he was keeping all of this music on course in forming this fabulous collection And once he had explained his reasoning behind the whole effort, it all made perfect sense, and you’d wonder why he didn’t have 100,000 more choice cds.
On the other hand I’m not sure why Ms. Binger2 needed her extra 497,500 bones—you'd expect there to be not very much difference from bone-to-bone, but there very well may be. A centimeter here and there may make all the world of difference and interest to the practiced eye, particularly if the bones are from many species of animals. Once a collection of almost anything gets to be that big, someone somewhere is going to be interested in preserving it.
But how does one get to 500,000 wishbones? Simply put: bone by bone.
And that's what Ms. Binger did.
- See also this note in Popular Science from the Popular Mechanix site ("Wishbones Made Her Dreams Come True").
1. I don't know much about Greg Villet. He took a lot of preparations for this photo, stringing 5,000 wishbones on black string on a black backdrop--that is considerable dedication to the idea of an image. I also know that he did some very significant documentary photography with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery strikes of 1955/6, which tells you maybe all you need to know about the man.
2. I can't help but wonder what happened to all of those bones on Ms. Binger's passing? (She died in 1961, and I can't find anything about the disposition of the collection. It sounds like the vast majority of the bones were kept with relatives and not in her two-bedroom apartment at 145 W. 96th St in NYC. And by the way according to Zillow a two-bedroom unit now rents at this address for $8700/month. My guess is that Ms. Binger paid maybe 100/month in 1951.