Monday, September 10, 2012

Objects Do Tell Stories

It’s no secret that in addition to my work at, I’ve also written general history books such as The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party. I teach different forms of writing, as well. To keep in practice I attend writing workshops, and I had the pleasure of doing so last month in western Massachusetts.

In those green hills, a little object came into my possession temporarily: an ivory-colored case, about the size of an average index finger. It opened to reveal a green velveteen lining and a fold-out ruler from the Ashton Valve Company. Probably it was a promotional item, a leave-behind, something salesmen gave to prospects. Since it was made of a Bakelite-ish plastic, I'd estimate its date as early 1950s. (Alas, I didn't take a photo of it.)

Founded in 1871, Ashton made safety valves for locomotives, steamships, and fire engines. No surprise that it’s no longer in business. That’s implied here by the Cambridge (Mass.) Historical Society.

So much corporate history in one small object! The company name is in a lovely font, similar to Palmer Method handwriting. (There really was a Mr. Palmer, but that’s a story for another blog post). It’s a fantastic typeface with subtle dropped shadows. Unfolding the ruler shows that Ashton was based in Boston (actually Cambridge, or at least that's where its plant was). The other branch addresses are crammed onto the third part of the ruler: New York, USA 110 Liberty St.; Chicago USA, 160 W. Lake St.; and London, England, 1&2 Rangoon St. If I were to write a mystery, I’d use 1&2 Rangoon St. as a key location. Oh, and Vienna, Austria, at V 1/1 Kostlergrasse NR 1. So Ashton was global, and thus the rule is in inches and metric.

The other side sets out what companies today would call the mission statement. All caps again: OUR RULE: NOT HOW CHEAP BUT HOW GOOD. 

In tiny, tiny type – 4 pt type at most, what we used to call mouse type – is the name of the ruler maker: The Whitehead & Hoag Company, Newark, NJ. At the turn of the 20th century that firm was one of the world’s largest makers of advertising novelties. It went out of business in 1955.

Ashton saved the description of what it did for the end: “Superior Quality Valves and Gages.”  Businesses were modest in those days.

I loved this little gizmo and gave it back to its owner with reluctance. It’s well-designed. It’s classy. It operates as smoothly as the day it was fabricated in Newark. Just a little piece of business history, obliquely still alive. Objects do tell stories.