Category Archives: nostalgic
The birth of patent leather
Reviewing the history of this special material.
by Stuart Morgan
One of the earliest references to ‘patent leather’ with its high-gloss finish is in a British periodical called The Bee, or Literary Weekly Intelligencer. In an article published in 1793 entitled ‘Hand’s patent leather’, a Mr Hand in the city of Birmingham is described as having obtained a legal patent for a process said to be ‘for preparing flexible leather having a glaze and polish that renders it impervious to water, and need only be wiped with a sponge to restore it to its original lustre’. The fact that the process was recognised by the patent office was what reportedly gave the material its name.
The news of patent leather’s creation caught the attention of inventors around the country. Six years later, Edmund Prior of London received a legal patent for a method of painting and colouring all kinds of leather with dyes and boiled oil, and finishing it with an oil varnish. In 1805, another legal patent was awarded to London-based inventor Charles Mollersten for ‘the application of a chemical composition in the preparation of hides, skins and leather to give a beautiful gloss’. Mollersten’s leather finishing technique apparently used linseed oil, whale oil, horse grease and lamp black. Demand for this shiny, black, water-resistant surface of patent (or ‘japanned’) leather quickly grew in England – and then further afield.
Patent leather was introduced to the USA by Seth Boyden of New Jersey in 1818. He had obtained a piece of patent leather made in Germany and ‘reverse engineered’ this specimen to determine a way to produce his own product. Boyden set out to improve the process and, like Mollersten before him, chose layers of a linseed oil-based lacquer coating to add the glossy finish. Commercial manufacture of his material began in the USA in 1819, but he did not lodge a legal patent to claim any new invention.
Yet another legal patent was awarded in 1854. This listed the varnish ingredients as including oil, amber, Prussian blue (Fe7(CN)18 and described as the first modern synthetic pigment), litharge (a natural mineral form of lead (II) oxide), white lead, ochre, whiting (powdered and washed white chalk), asphalt and copal (resin from the copal tree). During these early days of patent leather production, many tanners kept the finer details of their coatings a closely guarded secret, so even the substances listed in patent applications may well have been falsified in order to confuse their business competitors. For many decades, linseed oil and Prussian blue dye seem to have been the basis of most patent leather finishes. Using fine, black leather, the tanner applied as many as 15 coats of varnish, allowing the substrate to dry each time in the sun or in gentle heat from an oven. The aim was to achieve a finish that was smooth, hard, and also somewhat elastic, to avoid the leather cracking when in use.
Patent leather is often used for men’s dress shoes
A 1906 European method of manufacture involved a foundation coat of lamp black mixed with linseed oil being laid on the flesh side of the leather. Successive coats of this mixture were built up, the leather substrate being allowed to dry and the surface rubbed down with pumice stone between coats. After this process, the leather was once again blackened with a lamp black/turpentine mixture, and hung up to dry. The substrates were then laid in a pile for at least a month, after which they were tacked onto a frame and brushed with another coat of varnish. They were then baked in a moderate heat for three days and exposed to the sun for ten hours to complete the process.
The arrival of synthetic coatings
The development of plastics from the mid-19th century onwards raised the opportunity of patent leathers being made more cheaply. Polyurethane was invented in the 1930s by Professor Otto Bayer and this substance, sometimes blended with other resins, further simplified the process and cut production costs, allowing for the mass production of patent leather. Today, the majority of patent leathers are manufactured with polyurethane coatings.
American children’s shoes with patent leather toes from c.1860
Most patent leather today is based on cattle hide. One example of a blend used is that of polyurethane and acrylic – the former to give a hard, glossy and durable finish, with the latter included to produce a flexible final product. When blending patent coatings, leather chemists combine the base substances to create the optimum quality to suit the required finish. As a result, the actual finish produced may vary between tanneries – perhaps even from batch to batch. Patent leather is sometimes confused with poromeric materials, which may have a similar glossy appearance but are actually synthetics used as leather substitutes.
The sale of patent leather shoes grew during the 1950s and 1960s, when the material was particularly used on formal shoes for young girls. Glossy black (and, on occasions, white) patent leather shoes were often worn for special occasions.
Women’s fashion shoes have long been available in patent leather
While black is still a very popular colour for items made from patent leather, it is by no means the only one in which such products are available. Even half a century ago in the ‘swinging sixties’ – one of the periods when patent leather shoes were particularly in fashion – they were also on sale in blue, green, ‘hot pink’, orange, red, white and yellow.
If patent leather gets dirty, it can be cleaned with a damp cloth and, if necessary, mild soap. Specially designed cleaners can be used to remove minor scratches and scuff marks in the coating. Patent leather eventually loses its glossy finish, but will still be smoother than most other types of leather, and looks almost rubbery in nature.
Spray application of the polyurethane or resin blend was once a common finishing technique. However, spraying is an inefficient method of laying down the relatively thick coatings required to achieve the depth of gloss on patent leathers. Curtain coating is by far the more efficient process and gives the best smoothness and depth of gloss on the patent surface. However, modern roller coating techniques are also claimed to produce similar gloss levels. Both solvent-based and water-based PU resins can be used in all processes.
In the curtain coating process, a tank is loaded with the liquid polyurethane or blend, and the leather substrates pass beneath the tank on a conveyor belt. A ‘waterfall’ of the liquid overflowing from the tank hits the substrates as they travel along, coated them with the finish. In the next step of the process, the substrates pass through a heated tunnel to dry. The first coat of finish is formulated to ensure that it completely penetrates the leather. After drying, the substrates travel through the machine once again, where they receive a coat of pigmented finish. Then, having once again been dried, the substrates pass through for a final clear top coat that dries hard, glossy and water-resistant.
A simplified diagram of ‘the curtain’ coating process used in patent leather production
Low-cost patent leathers produced by transfer coating pre-formed PU coatings onto leather splits are popular for school shoes. High-cost curtain-coated patent leathers must be produced using grain leathers to achieve the smooth, mirror-like finish.
Toward the end of the 20th century, dress became more casual, and patent leather shoes lost much of their ‘essential’ appeal. Nevertheless, the inclusion of formal patent leather shoes in a footwear producer’s portfolio is often based on prevailing fashion, which regularly cycles around every few years. Many women’s court shoes (pumps) feature this finish, and men’s and women’s patent leather formal dress shoes and dance shoes have long been popular. As an example of a modern twist on classic styling, a number of shoemakers have released patent leather sneakers in recent years. In addition – as in past decades – girls’ black patent leather school shoes are always in demand, so the use of this mirror-like upper material appears to have a positive future.
French Cinema’s Spring Awakening, Fifty Years Later For the anniversary of the often mythologized May, 1968, movement, two theatres revisit the enduring cultural legacy that arose from political ferment in Paris. By Richard Brody
The anonymously and collectively made documentary “U.U.U.” (a French acronym for “factory-university union”), from 1968, looks closely at the events of that May, starting with protests by students, a fiery speech by one of their leaders, and the overwhelming violence of the police response. (It plays May 28 in the Metrograph series.) But the main focus of “U.U.U.” is on the labor strikes that virtually paralyzed French industry and that, unlike the student protests, threatened the Gaullist regime. The film shows radical activists demanding regime change in France; instead, at the end of the month, unions accepted the government’s offer of raises and reforms and returned to work—and French politics largely got back to business as usual.
What activists did next is the story of a 1982 personal documentary by Romain Goupil, “Half a Life” (“Mourir à Trente Ans,” literally, “To Die at Age Thirty”), which may be the greatest film about the era. (It screens May 29 at French Institute Alliance Française.) It’s a dual portrait of Goupil and his closest friend, Michel Recanati, and a personal view of French leftism of the time. The son of a movie technician, Goupil had been making films since childhood, and “Half a Life” includes clips from some of them—sardonically playful comedies from the mid-sixties and subsequent documentaries of protests. He and Recanati organized a group of left-wing revolutionary high-school students who, in 1968, pushed the university-centered student movement into ever more daring actions; Recanati, a gifted orator, was the group’s leader.
Goupil and Recanati considered the events of May a “dress rehearsal” for a worker-led revolution and continued to plan direct political actions (such as vandalizing foreign embassies), but, in 1969, Goupil, fed up with full-time political organizing, got a job in the movie business (and planned to make a film about the revolt). In 1973, after leading an attack on a neo-Nazi meeting, Recanati went into exile, returned to France, and was imprisoned for several months. Then, in 1978, after enduring a series of personal crises, he committed suicide. “Half a Life” reflects the glories and the failures of the era’s political passions—the exalted but impersonal dream of revolution and the redemptive devotion to artistic creation. In the film, Goupil (who is still making movies) says that, because of his intense activism in 1968, he ignored the era’s cultural aspect—which quickly displaced politics as the era’s most enduring legacy. ♦
Banana splits are a spin off of Sundays and date back to 1904. There are so many variations, but this recipe is one of my favorites. I enjoy them served up on a hot summer day. Give this a try today, and let us know what you think.
Time: 10 minutes
Slice the banana lengthwise and remove the peel.
Place it in a banana split plate so the round edges touch the outside of the bowl.
Scoop the chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream in between the bananas.
Spread the strawberry jam over the strawberry ice cream.
Drizzle the chocolate fudge over the chocolate ice cream.
Put the whipping cream over top of the three flavors of ice creams.
Sprinkle the dish with marshmallows and peanuts.
Drizzle the chocolate fudge over the banana split. Top each of the ice cream heaps with cherries.
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It seems that everyone has heard that truck drivers know all the best places to eat along the highway. [John Vachon, Farm Security Administration photo]
It also seems that no one believes it and never has. I suspect that the rumor was created by magazine writers so that they could debunk it. For instance, a writer in 1951 described the belief as “one of the most insidious myths in the folklore of American travel.” Anyone who is gullible enough to follow a truck to a restaurant or diner, he wrote, can expect to end up with “an acute case of gastritis and an awesome respect for the incredible powers of survival exhibited by the U.S. truck driver.”
Few truck drivers have claimed to know the best places to eat. For drivers of 18-wheelers, eating, like everything on the job, has to fit into a punishing schedule if he/she wants to make money. About the only places a driver can stop are those with diesel fuel, big parking lots, and handy locations. Everything else is secondary, including food, which leads to heavy use of antacids and sentiments such as “I wouldn’t feed some truck stop food to a dog.”
Another aspect of restaurant-ing in trucker world is a breakdown of meal categories. Meals become interchangeable and can take place at any hour in a revolving day and night work schedule. Is 3 a.m. breakfast, lunch, or dinner time?
Reputedly truckstop patrons might encounter fluffy biscuits and fresh vegetables now and then, but I have the sense they were/are the exception. Overall, accounts point to dismal food choices. One of the worst examples was given in a 1962 story that described deep-fried chicken with a coating of cracker crumbs: “You strike a chicken leg and the crust falls away in a curved sheet to disclose a sight best forgotten.”
Although drivers would have been wise to follow the advice to “Never order anything fried at a truckstop,” many plunged ahead with chicken-fried steak smothered in cream gravy. Along with bacon and eggs and hash browns, chicken-fried steak held a high place on truckstop menus. Does it still?
Occasionally truckstop restaurants bought locally and did their own baking, though you can bet that most of the time drivers ate the same fare they hauled in their refrigerated trucks: frozen food. Nonetheless, some stops were known for their specialties. A 1969 guidebook recognized the 350 best truckstop restaurants, among them The Platter Restaurant in the Bosselman Truck Plaza near North Platte, Nebraska, that featured a parchment menu with catfish and “pastel fruit plates”; a New Mexico stop offering Mexican food; and a New Jersey truck plaza with a Ranch Hand Special of three eggs, three pancakes, and two ham steaks, all for $1.75 in 1970.
Earlier, in the 1930s and 1940s when long-haul trucking became established, truckers traveled on state roads and stopped at now-nostalgic though often mediocre “mom and pop” cafes. But with construction of interstate highways and vastly more trucks on the road by the 1960s, their limited hours and small parking lots could not handle demand. Roadside restaurants grew into full-service truck plazas, complete with motels, stores, laundromats, and 24-hour restaurants.
But whether eating took place in a small stand-alone café or a 200-seat restaurant in a 14-acre plaza, three constants held true. Waitresses had to be friendly and food had to be inexpensive and plentiful. The third? Coffee had to be strong. In truck driver slang, a restaurant was a “coffee pot” and coffee was “diesel fuel.”
Truckstop eateries have made up a significant part of the country’s restaurant industry. In 1977 Restaurant Hospitality magazine listed the Ohio 70-37 truckstop in Hebron OH as one of the biggest grossing independent restaurants in the U.S, despite its low check average of just $1.14 and the fact that all its revenue derived from food sales. (Needless to say, cocktails and 80,000 lb trucks are a bad combination.) According to Ron Ziegler, former Nixon press secretary and then-president of the National Association of Truckstop Operators, in 1986 truckstops were surpassed only by fast food chains as “the largest feeders of the United States.”
James “Jimmy” Jones (June 2, 1937 – August 2, 2012) was an American singer-songwriter who moved to New York City while a teenager. According to Allmusic journalist Steve Huey, “best known for his 1960 R&B smash, ‘
Handy Man,’ Jones sang in a smooth yet soulful falsetto modeled on the likes of Clyde McPhatter and Sam Cooke.”
Jones was born in Birmingham, Alabama. His first job in the entertainment industry was as a tap dancer. He joined a doo-wop group named the Berliners in 1954. They later changed their name to Sparks of Rhythm. In 1955 Jones co-wrote “Handy Man”, which was recorded by the Sparks of Rhythm in 1956 (after Jones left the group). After recording with other groups, Jones went solo and, in 1959, teamed up with Otis Blackwell who reworked “Handy Man” which Jones recorded on the subsidiary MGM record label, Cub. When the flute player did not show up for the session, Blackwell famously whistled on the recording. “Handy Man”, released in 1959, gave Jones his first US and UK hit single. “Handy Man” went to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960, and peaked at No. 3 in the UK Singles Chart. “Handy Man”, which introduced a rock falsetto singing style to the British audience, later scored hits for Del Shannon and James Taylor. A few months later in 1960, Jones’ recording of “Good Timin'” climbed to No. 1 in the UK and No. 3 in the US Both “Handy Man” and “Good Timin'” were million sellers, earning Jones two gold discs.
Although Jones had only the two million-selling Top 40 hits, he nevertheless kept active in the music industry as both a songwriter and recording artist and made personal appearances as he saw fit. Jones’ subsequent career was low key, although it included three more UK chart entries in the following twelve months. Jones remained with Cub until 1962, and then recorded for the next decade for a variety of labels, including Bell, Parkway, Roulette, and Vee-Jay.
Del Shannon cited Jones and Bill Kenny as influences on his falsetto style. Later singers who used falsetto included Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons, Lou Christie, Robert John, Jimmy Somerville, and Barry Gibb. Gibb cited Shannon, in turn, as an influence for his disco vocalizations with the Bee Gees. Jones released Grandma’s Rock & Roll Party in the 1990s on CD, perhaps, in part due to his popularity in the UK Northern soul circles. It included new versions of “Handy Man” and “Good Timin'”. Castle/Sanctuary released a double album called Good Timin’: The Anthology in 2002.
Blue Moon is the debut studio album by the doo-wop group The Marcels. It was released in 1961 on Colpix Records and included 12 songs. The album was available in mono, catalogue number CP-416. Blue Moon was produced and arranged by Stu Phillips and was recorded in New York at RCA Studios. Blue Moon features a cover version of the Judy Garland hit “Over The Rainbow”. Four decades after the group’s debut album was released, The Marcels were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame