When Langston Hughes met (the future) Nina Simone

“[Langston Hughes and Nina Simone] first met when Simone was still Eunice Waymon from Tryon, North Carolina: an aspiring classical pianist, ‘president of the 11th-grade class and an officer with the school’s NAACP chapter,’ explains Andrew J. Fletcher, a board member of the Nina Simone Project in Asheville.

“This was 1949, and Hughes had come to Asheville to address Allen High School, the private school for African-American girls Simone attended through a scholarship that her music teacher and early champion collected from her hometown. The poet ‘could not have known,’ Maria Popova writes at Brain Pickings, ‘that [Simone] would soon revolutionize the music canon under her stage name.’ But nearly 10 years later, he recognized her talent immediately.

“On the release of Simone’s first album, Little Girl Blue, [in 1958] Hughes was ‘so stunned that he lauded it with lyrical ardor’ in his column for the Chicago Defender:

“She is different. So was Billie Holiday, St. Francis, and John Donne. So is Mort Sahl. She is a club member, a coloured girl, an Afro-American, a homey from Down Home. She has hit the Big Town, the big towns, the LP discs and the TV shows — and she is still from down home. She did it mostly all by herself. Her name is Nina Simone.”

— From “Nina Simone Writes an Admiring Letter to Langston Hughes: ‘Brother, You’ve Got a Fan Now!’ (1966)” at openculture.com (Aug. 24, 2020)

New in the collection: tonsillectomy solicitation

Card and letter about tonsillectomy

“Public health officials around a century ago decided that tonsillectomy/adenoidectomy surgery was a fine measure to improve the welfare of American children. The reasoning was that tonsils were a gateway to infection….

“The tonsil push in North Carolina started in earnest in 1917 when George Cooper was appointed director of the State Board of Health’s Bureau of Medical Inspection.

“The Sylva Herald [as turned up by local researcher Nancy Sherrill Wilson] included accounts of 84 children having their tonsils removed in 1944, 50 more in 1945 and a 1947 article recounting that ‘Children who attended the clinics were operated on in the morning and remained overnight, sleeping in the gymnasium of the school on cots, under the care of a night nurse.’

“Debates over the effectiveness of tonsillectomies, reason for conducting them and other approaches saw the practice decline going into the 1950s after peaking at around 1.5 million procedures a year [nationally]. Today tonsillectomies are often used to treat sleep apnea….”

— From “A public health strategy and a forgotten public panic” by Jim Buchanan in the Sylva Herald and Ruralite (Oct. 20, 2021)

Remarkable, isn’t it, that such a once-widespread procedure has virtually disappeared? One Red Springs physician estimated he had performed 17,000 tonsillectomies over his 35-year career.

This letter and card from the State Board of Health were sent to parents in Stokes County in the 1920s.

Tent city proposed for Asheville tourists

“A housing shortage was a top concern for Asheville at the start of 1920 — imagine that! But unlike today, the emphasis was on how the scarcity  would damage the city’s reputation as a summer resort.

“ ‘People will not return season after season if there is no assurance of a place to sleep,’ The Asheville Citizen warned. ‘Let word gradually go out that in summer Asheville is uncomfortably crowded, and Asheville will be condemned through her own negligence to the position of a third-rate resort.’

“Heeding the warning, the paper continued, the Board of Trade adopted plans to send ‘the estimated cost of Kiosk shacks … to boarding houses and others who might be interested in building these small tent-like structures near places where board can be secured. In addition, it was suggested that a tent city be formed with larger tents for dining rooms, recreation and rest centers [which] could have electric lights, water and the usual conveniences.’

“On June 18, 1920, The Asheville Citizen again reported on the dire need for housing tourists, but at this point talk of tents and kiosk shacks appear to have dropped from the conversation.”

— From “City faces housing shortage for summer tourists, 1920” by Thomas Calder at Mountain Xpress (Oct. 24, 2021) 




New in the collection: campaign thimble

Thimble with words Sew Right for North Carolina Governor Charles W. JohnsonAdvertising thimbles are almost always twentieth-century American in origin. Generally, they were made of plastic or aluminum and mass produced and inexpensive. Used to support products that appealed to homemakers, these promotional thimbles were stamped or embossed with a business name or logo. What better way to get your business in front of your target audience than have her wear it on her fingertip?

— From “Timeless Tools: Thimbles” by Dawn Cook Ronningen at PieceWork (Aug. 17, 2020)

“Sew right for North Carolina” wasn’t enough to put Charles M. Johnson over the top in his 1948 gubernatorial primary against Kerr Scott,  but Dan K. Moore gave it another shot in 1964 — and he won.

It’s a long way to Barstow, even without the sign

“Route 66 connected the Midwest and California, but I-40 is truly cross-country….

“A few miles outside Wilmington, North Carolina, the eastern terminus of 40, as well as the hometown of Michael Jordan and port of Civil War blockade runners, a sign stands on I-40 that reads: Barstow, Calif.  2,554. Nowhere else is the power of our highway system to cast the continent in its net more dramatically stated. We forget how astonishing it is that one can get on a strip of asphalt and drive without stoplight or intersection for a distance greater than the diameter of the moon (a mere 2,160 miles).”

— From “Highway” by Phil Patton in American Heritage (October 2002)

The famous Barstow sign, erected in 1990, met with repeated thefts until the N.C. Department of Transportation decided not to burn yet another $600 in replacement costs. Decorators of dorm rooms and man caves wept.

New in the collection: Dr. Grabow pipe filters

Red box with image of pipe and the words Dr. Grabow Filters
When Dr. Grabow Pre-Smoked Pipes relocated from Chicago to Sparta in 1944, it became Alleghany County’s first manufacturer. Its starting payroll of 65  would grow 10-fold before eventually shrinking to barely a dozen as once-loyal smokers either died off or lost interest in keeping their briar bowls lit.

The most recent of Grabow’s several owners abandoned “presmoking” as pointless, although the name on the old water tower hasn’t been updated.

Pipe filters are a necessary side product at the Sparta plant — a single machine operator cranks out 155,000 a day — although this box of filters is labeled Greensboro because the company kept its sales office there until 1982.

Bickett took lead against Spanish flu

“Gov. Thomas Bickett quickly realized the enormity of [the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918]. On Oct. 3 he released a 600-word statement to the press that noted the disease was transmitted through ‘spit swapping,’ which included ‘coughing or sneezing into the air instead of a handkerchief…  soiling the hands with spit … and using common drinking dippers.’

“Bickett seemed to be ahead of his own health department and the federal government, according to Laura Austin in her 2018 UNC Charlotte doctoral thesis, ‘Afraid to Breathe.’:

“ ‘Despite the fact that the day before, Oct. 2, The News and Observer reported that neither state nor national health authorities considered quarantine measures practicable, the governor was encouraging people to stay at home in hopes of decreasing the circulation of the disease.’

“Bickett then tried another tactic, reissuing the information through the North Carolina Council of Defense, created to support the [homefront]  effort during World War I — and administered within each county.

“That message got through, Austin noted.”

— From “Historic Outbreak: Spanish Flu on NC Coast” by Kip Tabb in Coastal Review (April 29, 2020)





New in the collection: bicycle licenses

Metal shaped like badges with the names of Rocky Mount and Raleigh and numbers.

I’ve been stymied in unearthing the history behind these two bicycle licenses.

What mention of bike licenses I did find was in Charlotte: In 1954 the city enacted an ordinance requiring a 25-cent metal registration tag. “The move is designed to cope with widespread bicycle theft,” the Observer explained. By 1964 the metal tag seems to have given way to reflector tape, and after that the Observer archives yield not a single mention of the license ordinance. By the 21st century letters to the editor were calling for licensing not to thwart thieves but to crack down on cyclists seen as disrespectful of drivers.

How relevant is any of this to Raleigh and Rocky Mount? Maybe not at all — suggestions welcome!

‘Tacky’: A study in upward mobility?

“The tasteless meaning of ‘tacky’ originated in the American South, where the word originally referred to a scrawny or broken-down horse….

“Within a few decades, ‘tacky’ had extended to humans, serving as a self-deprecating label for poor white Southerners who were identified with their equine counterparts. As a North Carolinian wrote in an 1836 letter documented in Norman E. Eliason’s book ‘Tarheel Talk,’ ‘I tell them I don’t know any better for I’m a mountain tackey sartin [certainly].’

“The word then made the move from noun to adjective.  A writer from Charleston, S.C., explained in 1890 that ‘tacky’ applied to ‘persons of low ideas and vulgar manners, whether rich or poor’ who exhibit ‘an absence of style.’ Clothing, he said, was considered tacky if it was ‘cheap and yet pretentious.’

“But that gaudy style wasn’t always a source of shame. Also in 1890, a Kentucky correspondent for the journal Dialect Notes reported that ‘recently we have had “tacky parties,” where the guests dress in the commonest and most unfashionable costumes.’  Such parties (often featuring awards for tackiest costumes) persisted throughout the South, particularly in Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.”

— From “The Gauche Origins of the Word ‘Tacky’ “ by Ben Zimmer in the Wall Street Journal (July 18, 2014)

New in the collection: Randolph Scott cigarette card

Card with black and white image of Randolph Scott smoking a cigarette.

Randolph Scott left Charlotte in 1917 to serve in World War I. Returning home, he went to Georgia Tech with dreams of being an All-America football player until he suffered a back injury. He then transferred to the University of North Carolina, where he studied textile engineering and manufacturing for two semesters before returning to Charlotte to work for  his father’s accountancy firm.

“In 1927 Scott traveled to Hollywood with a letter of introduction from his father to Howard Hughes. He was able to meet Hughes and score a screen test with Cecil B. DeMille….”

— From “Classics in the Carolinas: Randolph Scott.”

This German card, one of hundreds in a movie star series inserted in packs of Lloyd cigarettes,  is circa 1936.

“If to collect cigarette cards is a sign of eccentricity,”  Edward Wharton-Tigar commented after bequeathing his collection to the British Museum, “how then will posterity judge one who amassed the biggest collection in the world? Frankly, I care not.”