Discovering America in a Uruguayan Estancia

Recently we went on holiday to an estancia up north, near the town of Cerro Colorado, Florida. (The Uruguayan “Florida” is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable. The rest of this post is going to be about old books and Hereford cattle, so if you’re not interested, stop now.) The ranches around here, whether “working” (i.e. still a sheep, cattle & horse operation) or rehauled as a hotel to cater to the tourist trade, generally offer a tranquil respite in a bucolic setting, with horseriding,  sports facilities, four square meals a day and spotty Internet coverage. However, this particular estancia had an unusually illustrious history behind it. San Pedro de Timote started out under the Jesuits in the 18th century, and after being sold to an English immigrant in 1825, stayed in that family for more than 160 years through five generations. It was sold and converted into a hotel in 1997, but the estancia still has a family-owned feel to it, and many artifacts remain from its former life, including an impressive, dark-panelled library across from the main house. I spent many delightful hours there while my family was engaged in sunnier activities.

The collection reflects the fascinating lifestyle and pursuits of the landed gentry at the far end of the world. They were the descendants of English, German and Spanish immigrants who transplanted themselves across the ocean, but they still considered themselves Europeans, and sent their children abroad to study when the time came. There are books from throughout the 20th century in the major European languages: French medical books, old German photography magazines,  TIME (a young Edward Kennedy!), international tennis and boxing journals. Someone took up gardening, and collected reference books in English. All in all they were surprisingly connected to the larger world, in a place where it is even now difficult to get any reading material in any language other than Spanish. 

The bulk of the collection, and what made for some unexpectedly riveting reading, was made up of leather-bound volumes of periodicals relating to cattle husbandry and rural life. There were seventy years’ worth of the Herd Book of Hereford Cattle, as well as The American Hereford Journal, Farm & Country, The Pastoral Review, Meat & Wool, Hoofs & Horns, The Cattleman, Vie à la Campagne, El Campo, La Hacienda, El Chacra and various other almanacs. I spent most of the second day absorbed in the issues of The American Hereford Journal from 1939While later issues (post-1940’s) mainly list upcoming cattle auctions in a brisk, businesslike manner, the earlier journals have more romance to them and feature historical overviews of the industry and bits of wisdom from veteran cattlemen that even a lay reader finds interesting.

(The lighting wasn’t great inside the library. I apologize for the fuzzy pictures)

Have you seen a Hereford cow? I had not up until that point, and this happens to be a breed that looks very exotic to my eyes. Herefords look expensive and quite cuddly, with its head of plush cream-colored fur and a plump belly held up by short stumpy legs. I wanted to know why the owners of San Pedro were so crazy about them.

Western beef producers like Herefords. That fact is proved conclusively by the overwhelming predominance of cattle bearing the Whiteface trademark in western range areas. Herefords won their spurs early by going into a vast territory where beef was made the hard way – on short pastures and scant water supplies – and thrived on the hardships they found. So satisfactorily did they meet every requirement of the beef maker that their position as the “beef breed supreme” is to this very day unchallenged.

To me it has long been a wonder that Scotchmen didn’t adopt Herefords as their own breed, for Herefords are extremely economical converters of grass and forage into beef, and they can pick up a living where the picking is poor. The Scots, however, developed a breed in Scotland which shares with the Hereford a trait or an instinct of the highest practical value. That breed is the Ayrshire which can also maintain itself under hard climatic and feed conditions.

As breeds, Herefords and Ayrshires possess an almost miraculous power – a kind of unconquerable will – to live. Call it vitality, survival ability, hardiness, stamina, “rustling qualities,” resourcefulness, constitutional toughness, or what you will. The fact has been widely established and accepted that the Hereford breed is capable of “carrying on” and giving a creditable account of itself where living conditions are exceedingly hard and precarious.

And Herefords seem to inspire some pretty serious devotion. This from another fascinating article entitled “Why I Do What I Do With Herefords,” by Sam R. McKelvie, of Wood Lake, Neb.(I later found out that he had once served as governer of that state):

I have not built my herd. I am working at it and expect to be for the rest of my lifetime. The longer one works with purebred livestock, the more he realizes that the job is never finished. I hope the time never will come when we think that our herd is good enough.

It was in 1931 that we acquired By The Way Ranch in the heart of the Sandhills of Nebraska. That region is incomparable as a cattle country. The Sandhills are entirely different from the farming locality in which I was reared. Primarily and wholly, it is a cattle country. God intended the terrain there to be left green side up, and those who violated that rule saw their land wafted away on the wings of the wind. We produce no grain. This fact has a bearing upon the manner in which we must handle our breeding and range herds.

Wow. 

And indeed, after skimming thousands of pages on such issues as the relative merits of cottonseed meal vs. cold pressed cake and gazing into some soulful bovine eyes in three-fourths profile with names like Princess Domino and Belle Blanchard, I do think I’m falling for them, a little. And I never thought I could understand the appeal of a life on horseback, either, but then again, listen to this:

With the possible exception of the fur trade, no industry requires so few men for its successful operation over a large area as does ranching, and perhaps no other industry has employed so few men for the amount of capital invested. The lean, hard-bitten men who rode the great ranges of the West never numbered more than a few thousand though their great pastoral empire was larger than all of Western Europe.

(An interesting pictogram, from 1954)

I look forward to furthering my education on my next visit. Oh, I did look for pencil ads everywhere (the journals looked very promising at first), but it doesn’t seem like pencil manufacturers thought much of ranchers as a potential market. Maybe pencils and field notes were more for grain and produce farmers. I did see a typewriter ad but that was as far as I got regarding the stationery front.

Another fascinating subset of books that I found in the library was a prewar selection of travel guides, mostly in French, to Italy, Germany and the like. This included a series of illustrated books (“Le Monde En Couleurs”) intended to serve as a general introduction to certain countries. Of particular interest was the installment on the U.S., Les Etats-Unis d’Amérique (1946), which gives the vast country a state-by-state overview. Nowadays in this multicultural, politically correct age, any such article would read like a dry, factual Wikipedia entry heavy on the statistics, but a few pages into this book and you realize that people had a different attitude towards truth back then. The authors dispense few figures but simply know Kentuckians are like this and Vermonters are like that, and the anecdotes can be quite amusing.

Un vrai Vermonter répond «oui» ou «non» aux questions d’un étranger. Il ne supporte pas la vaine curiosité et ne se laisse jamais aller aux paroles inutiles. Ce n’est pas qu’il soit désagréable, loin de là, mais il n’a pas l’habitude de discourir sur des sujets qu’il ne connaît pas parfaitement et de première main. Le président Calvin Coolidge est le type parfait de ces paysans peu loquaces.

(A real Vermonter answers “yes” or “no” to the questions of a foreigner. He cannot stand vain curiosity, and never engages in useless talk. It’s not that he is being disagreeable, far from it, but simply that he is not in the habit of talking about subjects that he does not know perfectly and firsthand. President Calvin Coolidge is a perfect example of this kind of taciturn peasant.)

I regret the fact that I am not of the generation acquainted with President Coolidge. And while Emerson is quoted as saying that “Boston’s destiny is to lead the civilization of North America,” I get the distinct impression that Boston’s crown has passed on to New York since then… but what do I know. The below is from the chapter on “Le Massachusetts”:

Even today, there is not one young man or young woman who does not aspire to a “tour” of Europe in order to complete his or her education, and the New England accent rings out high, chanting the pages of the Baedecker, in front of all the sites and monuments that esteemed little book suggests for the tourists to admire. Even soldiers hailing from New England distinguish themselves from the rest of the American army in Europe with their eagerness to see and know all.

Hmmm, interestingly enough the only people I ever noticed as having this notorious NE accent in and around Boston were the cops and the subway conductors, the student population having long since become mixed and internationalized. 

And yes, America was king of production at that time. From the chapter “Le Pennsylvanie”:

Today, the ten million inhabitants living on its 45,000 square miles have helped Pennsylvania to take the lead in global production in numerous areas. The state, by itself, produces one-thirds of the nation’s coal, and half of all the steel that it consumes. Powerful Pittsburgh is the world’s biggest center of steel and glass. Hershey is the capital of chocolate, Lancaster the metropolis of linoleum. Allentown, Easton and Philipsburg take the lead in cement production. Three-quarters of all the slate used in the world come from the quarries of this state.

I had only ever heard of Wilkes-Barre, PA in connection with Eberhard Faber, but I was delighted to find it on the industrial map :)

Telephone Pencils In Action

It’s been a while! I’ve been a bit under the weather lately, due to a sudden onset of homesickness, and the relentlessly depressing news from home and abroad hasn’t helped. Although I’m a bit too lazy and optimistic by nature to become a full-blown depressive, these moods do come over me once in a while, usually some months after settling in a new place. All that moving takes a toll. Especially in the past couple of weeks, it feels as though all I’ve been doing is watching the news and wishing I was back home doing candle waves with everybody else. 

However, life goes on, and I rely more than ever on my pens, pencils and books for the “small but sure joys” of everyday life, as Haruki Murakami so aptly put it. I recently started watching the Netflix series “The Crown,” which pen-lovers will have a field day with as everybody from Churchill to the newspaperman writes with some kind of vintage fountain pen, but which is proving to be a harder nut to crack for pencil lovers. However, I did catch a telephone pencil in action in Episode 6.

This is where the switchboard operators put through a call from Princess Margaret in Rhodesia to Queen Elizabeth at Sandringham. Telephone pencils are often shown with rings attached to the end, but here we see another kind of ‘phone pencil in action that has some kind of ball tip “used to dial the telephone number, saving finger nails.”

If anyone else is watching the series, let’s all keep an eagle eye on those secretarial pools and desks for more pencils! 

Addendum 11/15: Gunther has sent me an amazing thread on the Classic Rotary Phones Forum that has pictures of more telephone pencils. The ball tips are referred to as “dialers” that conform to the Bell System. Wow! Thank you Gunther :)

Happy Halloween!

My son always brought back a pencil for each Halloween we spent in Canada. I have to say, it wasn’t the ideal place to celebrate the occasion since it was always freezing around trick-or-treat time (the children had to wear coats over their fancy dress), but Canadian parents go to exraordinary lengths to put up a good show, complete with audio and special effects. I salute them!

The birthday pencils were special too. The French certainly helps :)

Spring Cleaning

I went through my stationery hoard for some spring cleaning today, and decided to break out this cheerful Caran d’Ache rainbow pencil. Thank you M. La Plume!

I also decided to ink one of the pens I’d been saving for later. 

The Lamy Safari is a hugely popular pen, but I never had any plans to hunt down any since I discovered long ago that the triangular grip doesn’t suit me very well. But then I came across this discontinued version last year at a Montreal tobacconist’s. I find these cigar shops fascinating, because many of them also make a point of catering to the broader gentlemanly interests, such as Zippo lighters, shaving kits, chess boards, Swiss knives, and if you’re in luck, writing instruments too. Vasco’s selection of fountain pens was quite broad if idiosyncratic (Delta, Visconti, Ferrari, and Dupont, in addition to the more regular brands), and they had interesting old stock too. (I lucked into some past Caran d’Ache “Crayons de la Maison” editions there.) 

This yellow Safari was calling to me from the rotating stand next to the cashier, and as soon as I recovered from the initial shock, I decided to get it as my one and only symbolic Safari. This canary-yellow version with the black clip happens to have been the one often spotted in the hands of Korean celebrities way back when, and no doubt did its bit for the analogue boom.

I opted for the proprietary cartridge this time, but that only served to remind me why I hate using cartridges. The ink takes forever to reach the nib! I had to dip the nib in a little Staedtler blue to coax it out.

Somehow it feels a bit nostalgic, using this pen…

Stationery Shopping in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, city of 3 million people, the Paris of South America. We visited the city for three days last week. I don’t know if BA had its own Baron Haussmann at one point, but the wide, wide boulevards, stately mansions, and leafy parks did indeed remind one of the French capital. It was fun being in a big city again!

There were even pencils in front of the Casa Rosada (the pink-toned Presidential Palace).

This time I had the opportunity to visit some bookstores, stationers and pen shops. Bookshops in BA are alive and well, and both the big, established chains (El Ateneo, Cúspide) and the smaller independent stores seem to be thriving, at least compared to those in other countries. It was great to see the “neighborhood bookstore” still alive.

For my pen searches, I relied on this list I dug up online before the trip (¡Gracias!). The first one on the list, Casa Pintos, seems to have closed (there was a new building at that address on Avenida de Mayo), but I hit the jackpot at Librería Catalinas. It was a delightful store chock-full of deluxe art supplies (Caran d’Ache sets!) and both current and vintage pens. They carried Parker (including a shelfful of vintage 51’s), Pelikan, Faber-Castell, Lamy, Cross, Sheaffer, Caran d’Ache, some Visconti, and I forget what else. Granted, the stock isn’t huge compared to a pen shop in Europe or Asia, but I tend to have a high opinion of stationers who carry Pilot Parallel pens. If we were to live in BA for any length of time I would undoubtedly be making regular pilgrimages to this shop.

Judging from the display, it looked like Catalinas had been in business for a long time. The most intriguing item in this store was a box of vintage Staedtler jumbo pencils – the owner’s personal collection, and not for sale. They allowed me to take a picture though :)

I also spotted some vintage pencils in a couple of stalls at the awesome San Telmo antiques market. Several Johann Fabers and some Argentinian Van Dykes, mostly colored. I would have picked some up but due to a miscalculation we had no cash on us and couldn’t buy anything. If I ever get another chance to come here I will work through this neighborhood again – porteños don’t seem to throw anything away, and the most amazing stuff comes out of those stately old homes!

My stationery souvenirs from BA are mainly notebooks. Speaking of notebooks, there is one mystery about this city I cannot figure out – there are no Moleskines or Paperblanks or any other internationally known paper brand to be found anywhere. I’m not saying that Moleskine is so great that every nation on earth should import it, but rather that this brand and several others like it have so taken over the world that it is nearly impossible to escape it – and I wonder why this country in particular should be out of the loop. Every time I saw a Moleskine-like rotating display in a bookshop I made a beeline for it, but it always turned out to be a lookalike called BRÜGGE. (I think the line is manufactured in China, but I’m not 100% certain.) The notebooks I did get are both made in Argentina.

This is a notebook in my favorite format: spiral-bound, square grid, lots of pages. The paper feels above average, but I won’t be too disappointed if it bleeds or feathers. One advantage of being a pencil user is that you become much more tolerant of various kinds of paper.

The pencils are both unfamiliar variants of familiar brands. I actually got the Brazilian-made Eco in place of a one-peso change at a bookstore; Argentinians hate small change and will go to some lengths to avoid dealing in coins.

The second is a regular lined and banded notebook, but with cute illustrations inside, from a brand called Monoblock. I don’t know if I’ll actually be using this notebook for anything; this is just a souvenir to remember the city’s great cafés and pastries by :)

The last item of note is marketed as an iPad case, but I have something different in mind. The factors that make Argentina one of the best places in the world to have a steak in also enable it to produce a lot of leather, and BA is known for its multitude of leather-goods shops selling jackets, shoes, bags, wallets, etc. Now, I’ve always wanted a leather desk pad that cushions sheets of paper against a fountain pen nib, ever since I saw one back in Seoul (the brand was Italian). BA shops carry that too – aptly named carpetas para escritorio – but they were too large, and often too complicated (with lids, sleeves, gilt-edged corners etc.). I wanted a smaller pad that was more portable, like a leather clipboard without the clip. And this is just the right size, and at around US$43, quite a bargain I think. (I might still work myself up towards a proper carpeta in the future.) 

And, with all that leather in search of a purpose, I certainly hope the artisans across the river will be interested enough to make other stationery-related articles in the future – notebook covers, pencil sleeves, pencases, and heck, why not sharpener cases? :)

Hobonichi 2017

We came back from a trip to Buenos Aires last night to the sight of our doorman waving the lemon-yellow Hobonichi envelope at us. What a delight! Thank you sooooo much for shipping worldwide, Hobo :)

This was going to be a very short post, just to show you next year’s Weeks in linen isn’t half bad (thankfully not as bland as I thought – there’s a bit more texture to it), but I notice several changes in the Planner [spoiler alert]:

1. There’s a new 2-page spread at the front, just before the January pages start. And the planner has lost the last two weeks of December leading up to the new year, as well as the first week of January 2018; it starts right on January 1st and ends on December 31st. No half pages.

2. The monthly intro pages are ruled more loosely this time (the one on the left is for 2017).

3. And I see that they’ve done away with the national holiday markings in red. Good riddance – I appreciate the additional space.

I look forward to seeing everybody else’s! :)

To All the Notebooks I’ve Loved Before

The more I think about stationery, the more I feel that this is all about love. Irrational, hard-to-explain devotion, even when you know all the faults of your particular object of affection. For example, I’ve held on to a few extras of my very favorite notebooks over the years, even though I know they may not make the cut anymore, not now.

These notebooks are from Illums, a Scandinavian-themed interior-and-lifestyle brand in Japan. They are not stationers by any means; their shops feature furniture, kitchen and dinnerware items from brands like iittala, Bodum and Marimekko. They just happened to have a trolleyful of notebooks at one point, and I scooped up some and then went back for more. I was a Hi-Tec-C user at that point in my life, and the smooth white lined paper suited me perfectly (although I now feel, many years down the road, that the paper was just average). 

Looking at it now, I think what I liked best about the notebook was its thick cover. You could knock on it like a door. The average spiral-bound school notebook tends to feel somehow disposable, but this particular feature bestowed a sense of permanence on this A5-sized notebook, like you wouldn’t feel comfortable throwing this kind of thing away. I used several as travel journals, one for transcribing literary quotes, and the rest for studying Hebrew.

This was the apex of my “neat” period. It all went downhill from here… and I can no longer read my own notes. Still, the memories of my youthful effort live on ;)

My second “special” notebook was from Semikolon with very similar features – A5, spiral-bound, with sturdy covers in pleasing solid colors. The paper was wonderful, a smooth but not overly coated cream-colored paper ruled in nut brown. The laid pattern was visible when you held the paper up to the light, but did not interfere with fountain pen nibs. I used these notebooks to record my son’s babyhood. 

I had such good memories of using this notebook that I was overjoyed to find this brand in Montreal. However, it had undergone a complete change of character! Granted, I didn’t know this brand that well (I bought these notebooks in a store in Yokohama, where they were displayed on their own, and didn’t get to have a look at the full range of products Semikolon offered at that time), but it seemed as if they had adopted a dusty-pastel color scheme centered on storage systems while I wasn’t looking. I bought a couple of the current offerings for old times’ sake – a Creativo to use as a planner, and another hardcover notebook for my son – but fell out of love quickly. The paper wasn’t the wonderful one that I knew, and all their notebooks, even bound ones, featured perforated pages, which baffled me. I mean, who wants to tear the pages off a bound notebook in hardcover? Isn’t permanence the main point for these kind of notebooks? I do hope that the notebook I loved lives on in some form and that I will be reunited with it someday.

And now a couple of current favorites: the L!FE Schöpfer notebook, and the Maruman Mnemosyne, both in square rulings. (One more favorite is the Nanami Seven Seas Writer notebook, which I’ve written about in a separate post.) The Schöpfer notebook features velvety-smooth paper with an understated grid pattern; I love writing with fine Japanese nibs in them. These are usually employed as vocabulary notebooks. The quality of the paper in the Noble Note on the right is supposedly superior, but I can never break out the Noble! It’s too intimidating! Must have a go someday. The Maruman Mnemosyne’s rulings are a bit unconventional (the back of the page is blank), and the perforations mean that I tend to tear a lot of pages out, so it mainly serves as a sort of deluxe doodle pad. 

P. S. I’m writing this long post in part to distract myself from the storm raging outside. The weather is usually balmy and very nice around here, but when the wind starts up, it gusts at alarming speeds (>100km/h). It gets on your nerves… Some pencil therapy is in order :)