Microphones Changed Music in the 1920s

In 1925, the condenser microphone began to be widely used in music studios. These convert sound waves into electrical signals. Before that, recordings were made by machines without electricity.

Acoustical Recording Machines

We’ll see a video showing people singing into very long horns. Their voices (or instruments) had to vibrate an attached diaphragm that was usually glass. Doesn’t that sound hard? Professional singers needed a big voice and the ability to sustain the volume. The glass moved a stylus, which cut a groove into rotating hard wax.

Acoustical recording machines couldn’t record singers with lower or higher voices. A baritone was too low, so men tended to be tenors. In this acoustical recording of Eddie Cantor, note how he projects his voice.

Here is a video: How the Microphone Changed the Way We Sing.


These two recordings show why Bessie Smith was called the Empress of the Blues. The condenser microphone came into wide use in 1925, so I have chosen recordings of her from 1923 and 1929. There’s a big difference in the sound.

Bessie Smith sings Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home (1923)

Bessie Smith sings I’ve Got What It Takes (1929)

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Finding Art Nouveau in Paris

Energetic design. Asymmetrical, yet balanced. This whole apartment building, Castel Béranger, is Art Nouveau. It was architect Hector Guimard’s first important work, and it was noticed.

Geolina163 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
Geolina 163 / CC BY-SA

Soon afterwards, he was awarded a commission to design entrances to the new Metro. There had been a design competition, but Guimard had not officially entered it.

Photograph by Pamela Tartaglio

The structure is iron, exposed, and made decorative. These are characteristics of Art Nouveau architecture. The iron is painted green and in forms that suggest plants, flowers, and Crustacean-like designs (below). These entrances made Guimard famous, but at first Parisians weren’t sure that they liked them. The cast iron could be made elsewhere, so this was practical.

Photograph by Pamela Tartaglio

One of Guimard’s entrances is in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Huge plant-like stalks have flowers or buds which are actually amber glass lamps.

Paris in the 1890s

People sensed a stagnation in the western world. They called their time fin de siè·cle, meaning “end of the century.” They looked forward to the 1900s and wanted change. Paris was to host a world’s fair, and the Metro was built in anticipation of this 1900 Paris Exposition.

An Art Nouveau Church

I love surprises when I travel, and I spotted this around the corner from the charming Metro entrance I photographed (Abbesses, in Montmartre, Paris).

The door was open, so I went inside.

It’s a more restrained Art Nouveau. There’s no asymmetry as in the gate by Guimard. The style is subdued because it is a sacred space and maybe because it’s a departure from the other churches in Paris, which are older and traditional in style. This is considered the first modern church in Paris.

The curving balustrades sparkle.

Photo by Pamela Tartaglio

The Church of Saint John (St. Jean) was built over several years that spanned 1900. It took so long because construction was halted due to concerns over structural safety. The building passed tests, and the world’s first church made of reinforced concrete was completed in 1904. The architect was Anatole de Baudot.

Imagine. Those Metro entrances were being built at the same time as this.

My next post will appear on July 1. I hope you enjoyed Paris.

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Sheltering at Home

It’s National Public Gardens Week, and the only garden I have seen is at my house. (I feel lucky to have that.)

I miss the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. This was once the home of Henry and Arabella Huntington.

The “Temple of Love,” above, is surrounded by “Passionate Kisses” roses.

The Huntington has a newer Chinese Garden.

But We’re at Home

Adults can print and color pages from America’s Garden Coloring Book. The Huntington is featured, and there are origami projects.

The Huntington is also an art museum, famous for Blue Boy. Due to the pandemic, this is the kind of art I am seeing now, at home.

I love how this art is stylized. There are no gradations of color in the birds, and the angle of their wings is precise. You may have noticed that the puzzle has only 300 pieces. I ordered puzzles when I began to confine myself to my home, and I got easy ones. Slim pickings online, by the way.

I was also not above buying cheerful puzzles which I will one day share with the children in my family. Really, I will. I need happy, easy activities now.

Goofy Movies

I have seen recent silly movies too many times to watch them again. Dumb and Dumber. Happy Gilmore.

For comedies I haven’t seen a dozen times, I watched some from the 1960s. After the Fox stars Peter Sellers, and my brothers and I must have watched this every time it came on TV. I never found a video or DVD of it, and I was afraid it had faded into obscurity. I found it on Amazon Prime.

The famous playwright Neil Simon wrote the screenplay, and the music is by Oscar-winner Burt Bacharach. Here’s the original trailer, from 1966:

Can you recommend a favorite goofy movie?

I’ll get serious this week, and next weekend, we’ll see a bit of Paris from 1900, the Fin de Siecle. Stay safe.

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Winter Flowers with a Dark Past

All winter long, in the shade of towering, ancient oaks, camellias bloom red, pink, and white in California’s Descanso Gardens. This enchanting garden has a painful origin, one tied to World War II. It is also a story of a beam of light in the darkness, an act of friendship amidst the anguish of many people.

This KCET video tells the story in less than twelve minutes, starting at the nine-minute mark, but you may want to watch the entire episode. Descanso Gardens is located in the city of La Canada (can-YA-da) Flintridge, only thirteen miles from downtown Los Angeles.

This video should start at about 9:00 minutes. Watch to 20:24. The last minute tells of the construction of Japanese Garden at Descanso Gardens, completing the story of what is now the largest camellia collection in North America.

E. Manchester Boddy saw a business opportunity, Brown says, but also had “deep compassion” for his friends and paid a fair price for the camellias.

The camellias I’ve seen in California are pink, white or red or a combination, such as red and white stripes. I hunt for “sports.” These are single plants with two different colors of blooms. For example, a camellia shrub with red blooms might have a section with white ones. Those branches have a natural mutation, so its blooms are different.

The trailer for the episode shows the gardens at Descanso.

Camellias at Descanso bloom from early autumn to spring, with the most dazzling floral display in winter, from January through February. Other gardens at Descanso make it beautiful year-round.

I visited France and wrote about a spectacular garden, shown here.

My Trip to Communist East Berlin

I passed through the Berlin Wall. Even though I was an American tourist, my trip through the Iron Curtain and into the DDR changed me. In 1983, there was no grafitti on the Communist side of the wall. Nobody could go near it.

Two rows of anti-vehicle barriers on the East German side. “Bundesrepublik” is the name of free Germany. Photo by Pamela Tartaglio

It was assumed that the East German guards in the border towers, like the white one above, had machine guns to kill their fellow citizens. The vast majority of East Germans could not leave the DDR until they reached retirement age. They could see, beyond the Berlin Wall, the buildings of free Germany. They could also see this inspiring banner of Polish workers successfully challenging their own Communist government.

Above the free side of Checkpoint Charlie, in 1983. Photo by Pamela Tartaglio

Crossing the Communist Border

I boarded a tour bus in West Berlin for a trip to the East. It stopped at Checkpoint Charlie. We crossed through and had a tour of East Berlin. At the end of this post, I include links to sights.

It’s leaving a Communist country that’s serious business.

Everyone had to get off the bus and stand single file on a long line painted on the pavement.

The stern young border guards appeared, wearing the military uniforms of a Communist country. I had nothing to fear, but thirty years later, I get a chill down my spine again.

A border guard examined my passport photo. He looked up and studied my face for at least five seconds. When he was sure I was not an East German seeking freedom, he handed me back my passport.

A guard produced a hand truck like the one below, but with a mirror on the bottom.

The guard moved the hand truck under the edge of the bus and looked at the mirror on the base. He was looking for an East German resident clinging to the undercarriage. He moved the hand truck in and out, all around the edges of the bus. Later, I crossed the border on a train in the countryside, and the same thing happened. After checking our photos, the guards looked under the long train seat for a person.

The Next Day, A Solo Trip

The following day, Communist Berlin pulled me like a magnet, and I went alone. I found poverty.

I went in a produce store where half a dozen people shopped. Everyone had little potatoes in their basket. Just the potatoes, except one woman had a dirt clod with a bright orange dot. It appeared to be a carrot, or bunch of carrots, in a dirt clod.

An attractive sign high on the wall said, “Apfels,” but I could not find apples or any other fruit.

I walked in a nice area and saw images of Marx and Lenin. I ate in a pleasant restaurant and pitied my waitress her lack of freedom.

Bust of Lenin

I came to a rundown neighborhood and saw the rubble of a brick building.

I believe it was damage from the war, forty years before. Next to this, someone had spray-painted a cry for help.

They had written it in English. As if we could help them, I thought.

More Dysfunction

I mailed postcards from East Berlin to the U.S., and they took five weeks to arrive. My friends back home said, “Well, the censors had to read the postcards.” Yes, but five weeks to read three sentences?

Where the Tour Bus Went

A Military Cemetery With Propaganda

East Berlin, and East Germany (DDR), were the Soviet Union’s slice of the pie when the victorious Allies divided up Germany. My tour bus stopped at the Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park, where more than 7,000 Soviet soldiers are buried. They lost their lives in World War II. Our tour guide told us an inflated number, 25,000 soldiers, 5,000 in each of the five great rectangles of lawn.

Museum Island

I heard these museums were spared from Allied bombing. An island in a river is easy to see from the air. We were taken to a museum with the famous Egyptian bust of Nefertiti.

At the Pergamon Museum, I was amazed to enter an enormous room containing part of a Greek temple. It’s the Pergamon Altar, and visitors walk up the ancient stairs. The many marble figures appear to be life-sized or larger. In another room, I walked down a walled street taken from ancient Babylon. Those walls are covered with beautiful blue tile.

The museum’s website has videos and a photos of collection highlights.

When People Began to Use Last Names

Our last names tell about our ancestors hundreds of years ago.

Long ago, when there were fewer people, all anyone needed was one name. Eventually, that became confusing. Different men had the same name.

“John? Which John do you mean? John the miller, or John the young man?”

People spoke this way for centuries before these “tags” became the names John Miller and John Youngman.

In the year 1000 AD, the British Isles had only about 2 million people.
This includes the UK and Ireland.

As an American, I tried to imagine this and looked for a comparable US state. I found that New Mexico is the same area, and it now has the same population as the British Isles did in 1000 A.D.

In 1066, William the Conqueror led the Norman invasion of England. Europeans started to go to England, and the population grew. People began to use last names. (In France, this taking of last names happened earlier, about 1000 AD.)

Ruins around an archway at Corfe Castle, Dorset, England. Tall ruin against a brilliant blue sky.
Ruins of Corfe Castle, Dorset, England

In the four hundred years or so after the Norman Conquest of 1066, people in the British Isles began to adopt last names. Their family members and relatives would have the same, or similar names. Some countries and regions resisted longer.

Often it was the knights and gentry who were the first to take last names. Knights, of course, are addressed as “sir.” Last names are also called surnames, which came from “sir”name.

The ruins of Corfe Castle, Dorset, England. Castle is on a green hill with blue sky.
The ruins of Corfe Castle

Our names tell about our ancestors in the Middle Ages, writes William Dodgson Bowman in The Story of Surnames and Geneology.

  • Jack London’s ancestors were from…you know.
  • Playwright Noel Coward’s ancestors were cow herders.

There were four main categories of names, Bowman writes, giving these examples:

  • Where they lived. Street, Hill, or the name of their town
  • Who their father was: John’s son became Johnson
  • Nicknames like Wolf, Oldman, Goodman, Brown, Strong
  • Their occupation or position
The tall keep of Trim Castle, Ireland, is largely intact. Flags fly from the towers. Blue sky.
Trim Castle, County Meath, Ireland

Occupational last names are fun! I have been noticing them for many years. My dad told me about them after he explained why our last name was Wilson (son of Wil). It took me a while, but here is what I came up with on my own. I have known people with most of these last names:

  • Baker
  • Miller
  • Smith (blacksmith, silversmith, etc.)
  • Sexton (church custodian, even today)
  • Hostler, Ostler (takes care of horses)
  • Sawyer (saws wood)
  • Mason
  • Cooper (makes barrels)
  • Clark (clerk)
  • Knight

Bowman has more, including:

  • Shepherd
  • Cook
  • Chandler (makes candles)
  • Fletcher (makes arrows, a more common occupation in the Middle Ages!)

Would you like to tell us about your name, or that of a family member?

Style and Lifestyles in Midcentury Palm Springs

“Welcome, Modernists!” read the banners in Palm Springs, California. I hadn’t thought of myself as being modern, but this is Midcentury Modern, with a focus on the 1950s and 1960s. It might be as cool now as it was back then. I went to the fall preview of Modernism Week, an annual February event billed as the ultimate celebration of Midcentury architecture, design and culture.

Frank Sinatra’s Home

My first stop was Twin Palms. Designed by E. Stewart Williams, this house will forever be known as Sinatra’s house, although he lived here only ten years.

He and his first wife, Nancy, moved into their brand new home and threw a New Year’s Eve bash to usher in 1948.

Yes, his bedroom was open for the tour! This is the view from the bed.

A preservationist who spoke to our tour said the pool, which is in the front yard, was not built to look like a piano, although its shape reminds people of one. The walkway’s pergola often casts shadows which look like piano keys.

Sinatra left his wife for actress Ava Gardner. In 1951, they married, but the marriage was stormy. The master bathroom sink is still cracked from the time Sinatra reportedly threw a bottle of champagne during one of their fights. They divorced in 1957, but became lifelong friends.

There is a lot of sandstone inside and out. A microphone was found embedded in it. The preservationist said Sinatra did that because he wanted to hear what people said about him after he left.

Fireplaces in the Sinatra home. On the left, the sandstone one in his bedroom.

Sinatra could record from the property. An antenna extends up from the stone feature in the middle of the photo below. It sent his home recordings to his studio.

Sinatra’s Palm Springs home is called Twin Palms.

His living room had sound and recording equipment built in.

Some Modernists drive classic cars, like this Ford Thunderbird.

We saw many houses in a few days, but one stood out. We forgot the official name–the Morse residence–and called it, “The James Bond House.”

The James Bond House (But Not Really)

In 1961, Mr. and Mrs. Morse commissioned architect Hal Levitt to remodel their tract home. They liked to entertain and wanted to bring a pool into their living room.

A framed photo in the home showed one of their parties in the 1960s, with Mrs. Morse dancing to a band.

When the party’s over, partitions are pulled out of the walls, and the living room is separated from the outdoor pool.

A Modernist sculpture at the right.

Modernism Week

The party continues. Even if you can’t go, see photos with sunshine and style at Modernism Week.

This was my first taste of Midcentury Modern, and now I really appreciate it.

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The Heavenly Scientific Art of Astronomer E. L. Trouvelot

Even before photography, astronomy yielded beautiful images. At the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, I popped into the library to see the universe. The exhibition is titled Radiant Beauty:  E.L. Trouvelot’s Astronomical Drawings. They were published in 1881 and 1882.

The title is from Trouvelot’s own words:  “No human skill can reproduce upon paper the majestic beauty and radiance of the celestial objects.”


“Mare Humorum,” above, shows the surface of the moon, both in sunlight and the darkness of the lunar night.

Trouvelot was a self-taught astronomer. He immigrated from France to Massachusetts as a young man and established a silk-producing farm. He made astronomical drawings, often in pastel, with the aid of telescopes at Harvard and the U.S. Naval Observatory, the latter the world’s largest telescope at twenty-six inches.


He travelled to see total eclipses of the sun, one in Wyoming Territory (shown above, with solar storms), and another in the South Pacific.


There is a lunar eclipse this week! This is one drawn by Trouvelot.


I love his drawing of Jupiter, above. Two white moons on the left cast shadows, one on the Great Red Spot.

These are from a published set of fifteen lithographs of his drawings. The Huntington displayed their complete set. There’s a reason it is very rare, and that’s only one thing covered in the following four-minute video, also available on YouTube:

Click here to see all fifteen lithographs in the set.

That’s the New York Public Library website. Click on each image to enlarge.

The lunar eclipse is July 27-28, 2018. Tell us about it, if you like.

I travelled halfway across the country to see the Great American Eclipse of 2017. It was amazing! I wrote a description of what I saw and heard on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PastAndPresentWithPamela/




Tiffany’s Hand-Blown Glass

There’s something special about an object made by a team of artists instead of a machine. The irregularities make it unique.

Louis Comfort Tiffany’s glassworkers made what he called Favrile (hand-made, hand-blown) glass vases for people who lived around 1900, an age of industry and machines. The people of this time also wanted the art of the dawning twentieth century to be new and different than the art of the past.

Tiffany's Favrile Glass Vases at the Huntington 003
This is shaped like a flower, a Jack In The Pulpit.


Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the famous jeweler, was a young painter and interior decorator whose commissions included the White House.  Later, he was able to focus on his passion: glass. He experimented and learned from others, making glass with dimension. Metal gave glass an iridescent luster.

Tiffany designed gardens and drew inspiration from nature.

Tiffany's Favrile Glass Vases at the Huntington 005


Tiffany's Favrile Glass Vases at the Huntington 002
Vases with peacocks have threads of sparkling glass. Peacocks symbolized immortality.


His company had made leaded glass windows that looked like paintings. The expensive windows decorated mansions of the very rich. He marketed these vases to a much wider audience.

Tiffany studied ancient glass in his travels to the Old World, and also at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, very close to his home. He loved the pockmarks and other deterioration that took place over centuries in the soil. He and his team created new vases with pockmarks and an ancient look he called Cypriote.

Tiffany's Favrile Glass Vases at the Huntington 001

The one with the fish may be my favorite. This vase is empty.

Tiffany's Favrile Glass Vases at the Huntington 006

You can see more vases at this link: Tiffany Favrile Glass: Masterworks from the Collection of Stanley and Dolores Sirott . The exhibit will be at the Huntington in San Marino, California, until February 26, 2018.