I don’t think that anyone ever believed that science would become controversial, at least not in the sense that it is today. Today, there are factions that want to diminish the science of Charles Darwin by equating it with the myth of Creationism. Similarly, the work of climatologists whose work is largely based on predictive models is open to debate and ridicule until or unless their results prove true. Modern vaccinations are deemed the cause of illnesses that bear no relation to them. This Luddite like approach to science is quintessentially Utopian. The world is not.

A Dutchman wanted to start a sawmill in East London in 1663 and was prevented from doing so, for fear that the mill would put people out of work. The Romans had sawmills, as did the Germans over a century earlier. Even the Americans had sawmills as early as 1623-4. (This information comes from “Story of the Saw”, pp. 23-24, by P.d’A. Jones and N.E. Simon, published by Newman Neame in 1961.) The refusal to adopt and to adapt to modern tools meant that the building trades of all sorts had to import sawn timber. Clearly, any economist will tell you that this was pure folly.

Progress through science and industy is not only hard to understand, it is baffling to comprehend how far reaching it is. The American space race made America a technological leader, pure and simple. The benefits continue to redound to this day. The polio vaccine, polio was still quite rampant in the 1950’s, was nearly eradicated in ten years. The list of accomplishments that scientific enquiry has wrought is virtually endless. We seem to want to turn our backs on all that has been accomplished, keep the status quo. You really wouldn’t think the status quo could be dangerous. You would be wrong.


I am trying hard not to talk or even think about politics. I feel that if things screw up worse than they are then that is the way they should be. After all, there were two world wars and a depression in the years before I was born and people survived them. It just seems so arbitrary that the Tea Party, which is sorely conflicted within itself, should inflict pain on so many others because of a health care law. Wouldn’t it be better to figure out how to fix Social Security or Medicare so that it is funded far into the future? That could really save money, not just be a grandstanding ploy.

Anomalies are the stuff of life, of course. How can someone truly understand the plight of others? It just isn’t possible. I know that I romanticize the 18th century. How can you not call the Age of Enlightenment anything other than the most important century in the history of mankind? The sheer number of people looking to find answers about life, the physical and natural worlds is awe inspiring. Where did that curiosity come from? And the craft that existed then was non-pareil. There is a purity to it in my mind.

This view omits a great deal. The simple lack of sanitation probably killed more people than wars of that era. And plagues were a recurring theme that could not be understood and needed to run their course before mankind could move forward. That we are now in the throes of a globalized world should be a good thing, but cultural differences are so fundamental that, as a race, we sabotage ourselves endlessly. Those differences clearly exist within American society as well. Vive la difference is, I think, the only answer. Even when it hurts.


I am reading a book on mahogany by Jennifer L. Anderson aptly titled, “Mahogany, the Costs of Luxury in Early America”, when I came across the assertion that it was polished with oil and brick dust. As shibboleths go, this is not a major faux pas, because it is partially true. Oil certainly deepens the richness of the wood. But it isn’t the complete truth. Shellac was the finish of choice and I can say that with a fair amount of certitude.

The oil and brick dust method of polishing was mentioned by Sheraton in his design book. Because of this, it is taken as gospel that all finishes were so created. But the problem with this assertion is that the clients in the 18th century loved highly polished surfaces, a fact that the author of the book points out. Keeping an oiled surface at a high gloss requires a quotidian routine and not every household could afford to do that.

Shellac is an interesting substance. It is easy to polish with, dries to the touch almost immediately, and if you are skilled, it is very easy to create a high sheen that will last and which is easy to fix should the surface get damaged in any way. The term “French polishing” was used to describe the way shellac was applied and the English furniture historians in the 20th century condemned it as the surface coating on English furniture, holding fast to Sheraton’s assertion. Why this is so is still unclear to me.

That is all well and good, but shellac is a substance that makes the most economic sense. Oil does enrich mahogany very well, but to create a surface with a lasting sheen that could more or less be ignored by the householder, required either an oil varnish or shellac. Since oil varnish has a drying time of at least a day, most furniture shops would prefer a finish that dried quickly, gave an excellent polish and could be sent on its way in fairly short order.

Furthermore, oil and brick dust do not work on surfaces other than mahogany. What did you do with satinwood? The blonde of satinwood would look terrible with brick dust in it. Even less tenable is that oil that penetrates through the woods of veneer will ultimately cause the glue between the core and the veneer to lose its grip. No, oil and brick dust is a myth that has an ounce of truth, but not much more.


It is difficult to write about your own dreams. Interpretations may be revelatory or embarrassing and they are seldom obvious. As it happens, I have been dreaming quite vividly in the last two weeks. I have, in my subconscious, been to Boston, San Francisco, Singapore and these are only a few of the places I remember. The cast of characters has been vast. Second cousins, people from college, the antiques world and lots of people I don’t know like an African American tenor opera singer who was singing, but whose voice wasn’t clear to me.

The vast amount of visual information of our era allows us to have a huge repertoire of things and places we could see in our dreams. What might they have dreamed prior to photography? The late 17th and early 18thcentury was the beginning of regular trade with the East and it is believable to think that images on furniture, screens and other imported wares widened the scope of imaginations, not only in the decoration of European objects, but also in the sub-conscious of people who saw these images. Did Jonathan Swift see such objects and might they have helped him in writing “Gulliver’s Travels”?

When I first went to London in the fall of 1971, I needed a place to live and had an appointment to view an apartment “share” in the Notting Hill Gate area. I had an “A to Z” to help find the address, but I got hopelessly lost. As it happened, there was a young man walking down the street who I thought might know the area. He had a huge smile on his face and, as it happened, he was an American studying opera in London going to his teacher’s flat for instruction. If that was him in my dreams, he has aged reasonably well. Wish I could have heard his voice.