“How I wish I may do it as gallantly as you:” A letter written in pencil to Dorothea Lange by John Steinbeck

Just across the bay from San Francisco is Oakland, a city that often lives in the shadow of SF, but has so many cool attributes in its own right.

On Sunday, I went to one of Oakland’s gems, the Oakland Museum of California. In addition to some amazing permanent installations, we saw a temporary exhibit featuring the photography of Dorothea Lange, a prolific documentary photographer from the early- to mid-1900s.

She’s perhaps best known for her series on the displaced farm families as they migrated from Oklahoma to California in the 1930s, and on the forced internment of Japanese-Americans by the US government during World War II.

(And among a certainly online community, she’s also known for having a Blackwing Volumes edition tribute — the red-ferruled Volume 344.)

The photography was powerful, the narrative was fascinating and there were really great interactive elements of the exhibit, featuring creative photo cropping, grouping photos to tell a story, and other immersive lessons.

A display featuring a letter written to photographer Dorothea Lange by author John Steinbeck in 1965. Displayed in the Oakland Museum of California.

But the piece that really held my attention was a letter written to her by John Steinbeck just a few months before her death in 1965. He thanked her for the use of her photographs for a collection of articles he wrote in a pamphlet called Their Blood is Strong, about the Great Depression and American migrant workers.

(If you don’t know who John Steinbeck is, I can’t help you. But let’s say for the sake of this article that he’s a guy who wrote books and is perhaps the most famous modern pencil user. He also has a Blackwing Volumes tributed to him — the all-black Volume 24.)

When I got up close to the display, I noticed that the letter was written in pencil! Its a bit hard to tell from this photo, but the marking is extremely dark. If Steinbeck was writing with one of his favorite three (the Eberhard Faber Mongol, the Blaisdell Calculator 600, and the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602), I’d guess that it’d be the Blackwing.

(An Erasable group member put together a project called The Steinbeck World Tour, a collection of those three pencils that was mailed to participants, so they could experience them. I got to try them out in Spring 2016, and can speak from experiecne that the Blackwing is indeed the darkest and smoothest. Although the Blaisdell is pretty close.)

The Steinbeck Trio: three pencils lauded by Steinbeck.

The Steinbeck Trio: three pencils lauded by Steinbeck, accompanied by a baseball card and an Field Notes pocket notebook with an Erasable sticker.

I love this quote from Steinbeck’s letter to Lange:

We have lived in the greatest of all periods. If the question were asked, if you could choose out of all time, when would you elect to have lived, I would surely say — the present. Of course we don’t now how it comes out. No one ever does. The story ends only in fiction and I have made sure it never ends in my fiction.

A transcript of Steinbeck's letter to Lange.

Notice how great Steinbeck’s handwriting was. It’s hard to believe, since he wrote so much by hand, that his pencilmanship didn’t degrade over time. But I guess when you’re writing a letter to one of “the giants” like Dorothea Lange, you slow down and take your time so your writing is legible. Even if you’re John Steinbeck.

Thank you to the Oakland Museum of California for the exhibit, and for giving me the opportunity to see this artifact of an  interaction between these two giants.

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This article has forgotten more about the Trapper Keeper than I will ever know

There’s a fascinating article in Mental Floss published last week with an exhaustive history of the Trapper Keeper. Because I’ve written about Yikes! pencils before, and I used Trapper Keepers around the same time as Yikes, this is definitely relevant to my interests.

Trapper Keeper

I definitely learned things from this; facts that make me feel dumb that I didn’t know it before. Like: did you know that a “Trapper” is Mead’s name for their pocket folder with vertical pockets rather than the horizontal pockets in most folders? Therefore, a Trapper Keeper is the binder that lets you keep all of your papers together.

Duh. I knew that all of my Trapper Keepers had folders with vertical pockets, but I had no recollection of them being called “Trappers”. Doesn’t this seem like something I should know?

If I would have seen this commercial, I would have known that:

Turns out, this commercial is older than I am. Which brings me to my second facepalm moment:

Trapper Keepers are way older than I thought:

Launched in 1978 by the Mead Corporation (which was acquired by ACCO Brands in 2012), Trapper Keeper notebooks are brightly colored three-ring binders that hold folders called Trappers and close with a flap. From the start, they were an enormous success: For several years after their nationwide release, Mead sold over $100 million of the folders and notebooks a year. To date, some 75 million Trapper Keepers have flown off store shelves.

That’s at least a full ten years before they ever entered my consciousness (Well, and a full five years before I was born, in 1983). I don’t recall trapper keeps ever looking like this:

The Trapper Keeper Prototype: one with the logo and one without. Photo by E. Bryant Crutchfield and from the original article. The Trapper Keeper Prototype: one with the logo and one without. Photo by E. Bryant Crutchfield and from the original article.

I remember the ones that looks like they were designed by Commander Mark from Imagination Station: like this or this or, famously, this one featured prominently in “Napoleon Dynamite”:

It's pretty much my favorite Trapper Keeper.

I had this exact Trapper Keeper.

Oh, and I had this one too:Red dots IN SPAAAAACE

You don’t know how thrilled I am to have so many things in common with Napoleon Dynamite.

I had a very close relationship with my Trapper Keeper. It was with me six hours a day, five days a week, and kept m life organized. Eventually, I moved onto other binder organizers that were more collegiate-looking and less youthful. Gone were the lasers and psychedelic 90s spacescapes, replaced by navy blue fabric.

If you, like me, had a Trapper Keeper, you should definitely check out the full article. It’s fascinating, and brings back so many memories.

The History of the Trapper Keeper | MentalFloss.com