The Shrug

It goes without saying that the written word isn’t as expressive as the spoken. So you’ve gotta give credit to the people who came up with the idea of keyboard expressions — the smiley, sad, and winky faces that helped us ‘splain ourselves a bit better.

Now that we have a plethora of emojis, though, the keyboard gestures have largely been kicked to the curb. Which is a shame, ’cause I enjoyed the humor and creativity of keyboard expressions.

This morning, however, I was pleasantly surprised to see a new one (for me) in a New York Times article about the color purple.

Still, how a color so rare in nature went viral on the planet is a mystery in itself. Was it in spite of, or because of, its rarity? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

Whoa, that shrug’s like the mother of all expressions! Leave it to the Old Gray Lady to make the keyboard great again.

It got me to wondering how this “shrug” was constructed. And in trying to duplicate it, I tumbled into the mysterious world of ASCII and Unicode characters, those hidden gems that a typewriter never dreamt of.

The “hands” of the shrug were done with the ASCII “macron” character, produced by holding down the ‘ALT’ key and typing 0175 on the numeric keypad on the right side of the keyboard.

The “arms” — the forward and backward slants — were standard keyboard characters, as were the underscore “shoulders.” Ditto the sides of the “head” formed by opening and closing parentheses.

But the facial expression was a mystery. And that’s where I got lost in the Unicode world and didn’t come out until hours later.

There’s a world of Unicode characters even more massive than emojis. Many of them can be discovered by using the Character Map found within Windows Accessories. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, or as they say in late night TV ads, “but wait, there’s more!” To take a deep dive into the Unicode world, check out the website

Despite going through more character sets than I have fingers and toes, I still couldn’t find the elusive smile captured by the Times writer. The best I could do was a goofy face using the Arabic letter Teh, or Unicode 062A. So my version of the shrug looked like this ¯\_(ت)_/¯ . The expression may look more like me, but it doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the original. So I cheated and Googled it and finally found the “face.” It’s the Japanese katakana Tsu character, Unicode 30C4, .

Anyway, I did learn a couple of things about Unicode along the way. First, there are a hundred bazillion characters and pictographs available. While finding the face was one thing, getting it on paper was another. And that’s that other thing I learned— inserting Unicode characters involves a little keyboard gymnastics.

In Windows-based programs, I found I needed to type the code (in this case 062A) and then press the ‘ALT’ and ‘X’ keys simultaneously. The 062A alphanumeric characters show on the page as you type them, then they are magically replaced with the Unicode character ت when you hit the ALT and X keys together. It’s pretty cool.

But worth it, you ask? I think so.

Say you want to embellish your holiday greeting emails with a Christmas tree or a Santa Claus. In the subject line try out the 1F384 or 1F385 Unicodes to get pictograms of the tree 🎄 or Santa 🎅 to make your message stand out. If you want something a little snazzier than a round • bullet list (ALT+0149), try using a black right arrow ▶ list (Unicode 2023). If you have printer’s ink running in your veins and want to use ligature letters, try Unicode FB01 to replace the fi rst letters with  rst. If you’re a music buff, add some notes to your ♫ Tra La La ♫ with Unicode 266B.

You get the picture, right ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ?

A Skeleton in the Family Closet

…came to America. Married girl from South. They visited Hamilton, Ontario, during Civil War but lost contact with Canadian relatives afterward.”

This snippet written on a hand-drawn family tree aroused my attention. Who was this unnamed McCrie kin? When did he arrive in America and where did he settle?

A note on the McCrie Family Tree from Margaret (nee McCrie) Mead

I set out to put some flesh on this skeleton. Then I discovered a surprising twist to his story — he enlisted in a Confederate infantry regiment at the start of the American Civil War.

The Civil War has stirred considerable interest in recent months. Confederate statues and flags have fallen out of favor as symbols of Southern pride, now being viewed by many as symbols of white supremacy and slavery. Finding a Rebel in the family? That seemed like a real outlier for my family … a family that has its roots in the north.

As background, this “Reb” Hugh Ronald was the first-born son of Andrew Ronald and Katherine McCrie — Kathy being the sister of my great-great grandfather William McCrie. Hugh was born in 1832 in Old Cumnock, Scotland, at a farmstead where his father apprenticed as a millwright.

Entry in the Old Cumnock parish register of 1832

When Hugh was three his family moved to Glasgow where his father practiced his trade by the River Clyde. When the family subsequently moved to Ireland in around 1840, Hugh was left in the care of his grandparents back in Old Cumnock, appearing with them in the 1841 census. Some time later his family returned to the Glasgow area, and in 1851, Hugh, age 18, showed up in the census with them working as a flesher (butcher).

In 1858 Hugh emigrated to America. It’s unknown where he first settled in his adopted country. There is only one Hugh Ronald I could find in the American 1860 census, and that was a 25-year-old Scotsman living with a Canadian-born wife and working as a clerk in Buffalo, New York. I can’t find anything to corroborate that this is our Hugh, but the country of origin, age, and occupation fit his profile. If it was him, however, it begs the question of what became of the wife and how to explain the next chapter in his life.

Hugh next appears in Warrenton, North Carolina, where as a salesman he enlisted for a 12-month hitch in Company F, North Carolina 12th Infantry Regiment, on April 18, 1861. North Carolina was moving in the direction of secession in early 1861, but the Confederate attack on Fort Sumpter on April 12th seems to have inspired the state to take over three U.S. forts and an arsenal. A month later the state adopted an ordinance of secession, becoming the tenth Southern state to do so.

In a time of conflict young men’s souls seem to swell with patriotic fervor and martial stirrings. Hugh—in his late twenties—may have been caught up in the frenzy. At least that’s a natural assumption when seeing that he enlisted the week after Fort Sumpter fell. The evidence is more nuanced, however.

Company rolls show that he mustered into service as a Private on May 17th, but within a week was “absent on furlough from sickness.” Subsequent muster rolls show he never returned and at the end of the year was “discharged for sickness” effective New Year’s Day 1862. Hugh may have put some of his persuasive salesman skills to work here.

Hugh remained in the South for at least a couple of years, marrying the Carolinian native Catharine Baker in Warrenton, North Carolina — in the Piedmont region just south of Virginia — in May of 1862, when they were both 29. They had a daughter there, Kate McCrie Ronald, in October of 1863. However by the time they had their next child, Andrew, in 1866, they had moved north and were living in New York state. Considering the note on the family tree that “they visited Hamilton, Ontario, during [the] Civil War,” it’s likely they left North Carolina before the war’s conclusion in 1865.

Marriage Certificate for Hugh Ronald(s) and Catharine Baker issued in Warren County, N.C., 1862

Hugh and his family, which grew to four children (although one, John, died early) lived primarily in Jersey City, New Jersey, with a two year stint across the Hudson river in East Harlem, on Manhattan. He reported his work variously as a clerk and a salesman of dry goods.

There are a couple of intriguing items in the federal censuses. In the 1880 census — when he and his family were living in New York City — his wife Catharine is noted as having “Nervous Debility.” This fell under the column “Is the person sick or temporarily disabled, so as to be unable to attend to ordinary business or duties?”

In the same census, their daughter Kate McRay [sic] Ronald, at age 16, is checked off under the column headed “maimed, crippled, bedridden, or otherwise disabled.” Kate subsequently never married, was never employed, and died at age 40.

Catharine’s younger sister was living with them, as she had in the previous census. She was probably helping to tend to the children and run the household, as the earlier census listed her as a domestic servant rather than a family member.

The 1890 census had a schedule showing “Surviving Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines, and Widows, Etc.” Although Hugh is listed, none of the columns were filled out. The federal government was only interested in Union soldiers, many of whom were eligible for pensions. The individual Southern states were responsible for their own veterans. Hugh was probably ineligible for that too. In fact, given his week’s actual time in service (probably spent in-processing), I’m surprised he self-identified as a veteran.

Hugh lived to see two children get married — at least one was a home wedding — and to enjoy two grandchildren, including his namesake Hugh. He’d been married 38 years when he passed away in 1901 at the age of 69 in Jersey City, near the piers. He left behind his widow and his daughter Kate at home. His son Andrew (with wife Nellie) and daughter Minnie (with husband Alfred Houliston) were raising children in their own homes in the city.

A son of Scotland, and a long-time resident of Jersey City, Hugh’s unlikely and short-lived spell as a soldier in the Confederate army seems an anomaly. It’s open to speculation as to the nature, or legitimacy, of the “sickness” that generated a soldier’s wages without its hardships. Equally mysterious is his presence in North Carolina during the Civil War. There are just some chapters of family histories that remain mysteries.

Hugh is one of those skeletons in the family closet — unnamed, slightly scandalous, and bare boned. Despite our best efforts to put some flesh on his remains, we’ll probably never get a full picture. But at least now we know of another McCrie family branch that immigrated to America … and hope that some day we can reestablish the contact that was lost during the Civil War.

An Ace Up Her Sleeve

In my pre- and early teen years I spent my summers with my grandparents at their cottage on Halfmoon Lake in Michigan.

Bessie with a granddaughter in 1959

Most evenings my friends and I played canasta with my grandmother Bessie. She was in her element— animated, competitive, joking, story-telling, and smiling. Those evenings spent playing cards at the table in the knotty pine-paneled dining room are probably the clearest images I have of her, and they are wonderful warm memories.

I’ve covered Bessie in a few previous posts on this blog. This time, I’m introducing the pen I’ve named for her, and it’s a jolly good match.

The pen is the Parker Duofold Centennial “Big Red.” It’s name and color harken back to pens the company made in the 1920s, the premier pen in their lineup at the time. And it’s still the flagship pen of the modern incarnation of the Parker Pen Company.

The Parker Duofold Centennial “Big Red”

The nib of the pen is engraved with an ace of spades. There couldn’t be a better homage to Bessie than a pen that when capped literally has an ace up its sleeve. Bessie would have loved the symbolism. She occasionally joked that one of us was holding one up ours when a card game was going against her. Conversely we’d tease her when she gleefully laid down a run of high-scoring aces.

The vivid color of the pen reminds me of Bessie’s outgoing personality. She loved to be around people and she enjoyed being the center of attention. Most of my pens are staid, but this one is eye-catching. Bessie would have approved.

Interestingly, the pen company seems to trace the arc of Bessie’s life migration, albeit in reverse. Bessie was born in England, of a family she was convinced was of French extraction. In her mid teens she relocated to Canada. Five years later she moved to America to marry my grandfather, and spent her adult life there.

By contrast, the Parker Pen Company was born in America (in 1888, three years before Bessie), established one of their plants in Canada, and moved their company headquarters and manufacturing operations in the late 20th century to England. In 2011 the company again moved its headquarters and pen production, this time to France. This reverse arc can be seen as complementing or even closing the circle of Bessie’s own journey through life.

So now that I have Bessie in hand, how does she stack up with other pens in my collection? Well, given that the Parker Duofold falls into about the same price range as the Pelikan M800 series pens, and that its length and girth are similar to the M800, and that they both have 18 caret gold nibs, I’ll limit my comparison to those two pens.

Bessie fits well in the hand as does the Pelikan M800, which many people consider to be an ideal size. She has a longer grip section which gives her a bit of an advantage over Pelikan’s surprisingly short section, though both are comfortable for writing.

Bessie is an eye-catching color and gets points for splash. She’s engraved with old-style Parker Duofold branding on the barrel that echoes predecessors from the 1920s, giving her a retro, classy look. Between her color and her styling she has both sass and class, much like her namesake. The Pelikan is more classically styled by comparison, but is the epitome of refinement and design. Looks wise, I call it a toss-up.

Bessie has a cartridge/converter ink supply system. This is where she looses points to the Pelikan, which uses a piston-fill ink system. The converter holds less ink, is noticeably lighter in weight than a piston filler, and doesn’t have the same robust construction as the Pelikan. Some people might like a lighter pen, but I like the heft of the Pelikan and the balance the extra weight provides. I also find the Pelikan to be easier to fill.

Pens are not normally rated on sound, but I can’t help but notice the difference in both pitch and volume when capping and uncapping the pens. Weird, huh? Bessie sounds metallic and tinny when waking her up or putting her to bed; the Pelikan is extremely quiet, and what little noise it makes is low pitched when threading or unthreading the cap. Bessie’s high-pitched voice may lead to the impression she is less solid and uses lower quality materials than her avian brother, though I have no way of knowing if that’s true.

The 18-karat gold nib, made in-house by Parker, is a smooth writer and worked well right out of the box, something that not all of my pens have done. (Two of my three Pelikan pens required some polishing and tuning to achieve a good writing experience.) The Parker’s broad nib lays down a wet, smooth line with absolutely no pressure required. It rarely skips or hard starts, making it a solid writer. Pelikan pens also make their own nibs in house, and they too are reliable writers. On the whole, the nibs are very similar, both in size and performance. The Pelikan’s broad nib makes a somewhat finer line and provides a bit more feedback than the Parker, making the writing sharper and cleaner. Whether the smoother, wet line of the Parker or the sharper, drier line of the Pelikan is preferable is a matter of personal taste. I like them both.

Bessie’s nib has a unique profile: the feed on the back of the nib doesn’t have fins like other pens in my collection. This gives Bessie a slimmer, flatter nib profile, something that the human Bessie would have envied. (Does this nib make me look fat? No? Whew!) The lack of fins doesn’t affect ink delivery to the paper—it’s a juicy writer. Her profile is another way Bessie stands out from the crowd.

The pen is expensive, commensurate with it’s flagship status, but can be obtained from overseas sources at about two-thirds of the U.S. asking price. I bought mine at Appelboom  (in the Netherlands) on Fountain Pen Day and received a 17% discount. During the rest of the year one can use the “friend” discount code to get a more modest 10% off. Another benefit of buying overseas is that the nib selection is wider, coming in Extra Fine, Fine, Medium, and Broad points whereas American retailers offer only Fine and Medium nibs. I got the broad nib to make my Bessie unique from her American cousins and to give my writing some flair. After all, I wanted to keep the pen’s personality in line with my grandmother’s.

The pen is a nice addition to my collection, something to pick up when I’m looking for a little color in my hand or pocket, or if I just want to think about Bessie and break out in a smile. It’s my “ace up the sleeve.”

(As an aside, I recently came across an email in which my cousin recollected Bessie “telling her that in the orphanage in London [where Bessie spent six years] they ate oatmeal for breakfast, got a cube of brown sugar to put on top, and that she would wrap the sugar in her hanky for a treat later in the day.” I like that story. A child can find comfort and happiness in the simplest of things, even in the face of adversity. I need to embrace the child in me more often.)

PDFill: A Useful PDF File Editor

I’ve found an editor that makes working with PDF (portable document format) files a snap. The free, downloadable program is PDFill.

The screen shot below shows the many functions this editor can perform. I particularly like its ability to add, delete, and rearrange pages in a PDF file, and to convert JPG images into a PDF or vice versa. I also like its ability to add source information or other notes into PDF file properties/descriptors.

I download a lot of image files from sites such as Many of them, such as related pages in a book, census, or directory, need to be combined into a single file.  PDFill makes that task fast and easy.

A couple of tips that work for me are:

• If there are a lot of images to combine, store them in a separate subdirectory (folder) on the computer since PDFill has an option of importing all images in a folder.

• Click the “Use Image Size to Decide Page Size with DPI:” button to create pages that automatically resize for different sized images or for documents that include both portrait and landscape modes.

The program (for Windows operating system only) can be downloaded at the PDFill web site.  I’ve had no issues with adware or spyware.

Twinkie Therapy

Is the snark and snarl of Twitter getting to you? Does the daily reporting of misogyny and misbehavior have you down? If so, it may be time to indulge in a little Twinkie therapy.

Yep, that’s right, skip the news stories and turn to the comics pages. This week they seem to be featuring Twinkies—that gooey cream-filled snack—to bile it down a notch and put a smile on our faces. When we’re laughing, particularly at ourselves, it’s hard to be angry at someone else.

In cases of extreme distress, when all you can think of is lashing out at feckless politicians or your fellow man, unwrap a Twinkie and stuff it in your mouth. The calming sweetness might just release some endorphins, and let’s face it, you can’t really yell at someone if you have a fistful of Twinkie in your mouth.

So in these troubled times, remember what your mother said: “if you don’t have something nice to say about someone, don’t say anything.” Or as Calvin put it: “we’d probably be dead now if it wasn’t for Twinkies.”

Twinkie, anyone?

History of a House

Jean McCrie ca. 1939

My mother, Jean Campbell (nee McCrie) Schutze, lived her whole life in one house. The only exception was when she and my father, who worked for the Department of the Army, lived in Washington, D.C., during World War II.

She was born, raised, married, and died in the house at 3087 14th Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. Her mother gave birth to her at home (on the kitchen table according to family legend) in 1917, and she was married in the living room of the house in 1941. Although she died in a hospital in 1970, she had lapsed into a diabetic coma in her bedroom from which she never woke.

I, too, was raised in this house on 14th Street — it was apparently demoted from an avenue by the time I came along in 1949 — and lived there until I was in my mid twenties.

The house, long ago demolished, is still very real in my mind. I can walk through each room, point out where the family members sat at the table, see my mother and grandmother canning vegetables in the kitchen, smell the flowers growing in the back yard. It’s where I spent my formative years with many of the people I’ve loved most in life.

Betty Schutze in front of house on 14th Street, 1950

I’ve often thought it would be interesting to research this home that’s so full of memories. So with Detroit street directories and federal censuses in hand, I began to trace the house back into the past, all the way to 1890 when it first appeared in city directories.

The building was similar to its multi-story, multi-family neighbors: a two-story structure with a complete set of living quarters on each floor and separate entrances for the downstairs and upstairs families. In some years there was only one family living in the house, in other years there were two, and sometimes boarders besides.

The first occupant was Richard Shekell, owner of Shekell & Son, a flour and feed store at the corner of Grand River and Cass Avenues. His sons Clyde, Lee, and Percy lived with their widowed father. Richard died by 1893 and the sons moved out.

Rev. Andrew Wolff
Mrs. Wolff

In 1893 the Reverend Andrew Wolff, from Franklin, Indiana, was installed as pastor of the Calvary Presbyterian Church at Michigan and Maybury Avenues.1 In his two year tenure he ruminated on sermons in the home on 14th Ave while his wife Satiah took care of the more temporal concerns. He left at the end of 1894 to assume a pastorate in South Dakota. “As an orator he had few equals in the pulpit, and he was a thinker and a pleasing preacher, capable of expressing in beautiful form some original gems of thought.”2

In 1895 a widow, Elizabeth Hayes, moved in for two years. Her boarder was a young physician, Hugh McEachren, who stayed on to become the primary occupant. He married Jeannette Gilbert in 1897 and the 1900 census shows the couple employed a female servant. McEachren ran his medical practice in his home, and I remember my mother telling me that a doctor used to live in the house, and his office was the room that years later would be my mom and dad’s bedroom. McEachren died in 1906 at age 36 of tuberculosis and his widow moved out. But a boarder, Dr. Nelson MacArthur, became the house’s primary occupant through 1908, probably continuing the medical practice from the home.

The fact that my mother knew about the doctor, and even knew where his office was in the house, leads me to believe he was likely my grandfather James W. McCrie’s boyhood physician.

In 1909 a blacksmith by the name of James Mortson moved into the house. The automobile was in its infancy at the time, and an ad from the Detroit Free Press of 1910 showed that there was still a horse and mule market on 14th Avenue. The 1910 census showed Mortson living with his wife Ida and their son; in the other flat Stanley Perry, a young automobile clerk, lived with his teenage wife Agnes. The house on 14th Avenue in 1910 encapsulated the transition of Detroit from horse and buggy to automobile, with its occupants working different sides of the technological divide.

An advertisement from The Detroit Free Press, 7 August 1910

I remember a large wooden barn, complete with hayloft, in the back yard of our house on 14th Street. By the time I lived there, of course, the barn was used as a car garage, but for many years it would have been a horse and carriage barn for the home’s earlier occupants.

Morton, who became a salesman at the Columbia Buggy Company on Woodward Avenue, was the last occupant of the house before my grandfather, James Wellington McCrie, took over in 1914 with his wife Sarah. A year later they began their family.

Without benefit of land records, the issue of ownership of the house is speculative, but I noticed that the 1900 and 1910 censuses showed the occupants were renters rather than owners. That arrangement changed when James W. McCrie moved in, and the 1920 and subsequent censuses showed that he owned the house, lived in the downstairs flat, and rented out the upstairs flat.

It’s my suspicion that the house was owned from its beginning by James’s father James M. McCrie, who used it for rental income. In family history notes James W.’s daughter Margaret writes “James and Anna [James W. McCrie’s parents] kept roomers in their large home on 14th Street and rented out other properties they owned on 14th and 15th Streets.” It seems reasonable to conclude that James W. was the first occupant to actually own the home because it had been in family hands all along. It would also explain why he would live so close to his mother and sister just one block away. The house may even have been an inheritance upon the passing of his father in the same year James W. married Sarah.

The first upstairs tenant under James W.’s ownership was a dentist, Gordon Hackett, in 1914. The dentist was followed by the widow Fannie Lynn, who in turn was followed by Arthur Post, a motor company clerk, and his wife, two daughters, and sister-in-law. He was followed by another widow, Isabella Burt, and her son, a clerk.

An urban neighborhood — view of opposite side of 14th Ave from James W. McCrie’s house

The home on 14th Avenue was between Michigan and Grand River Avenues, not too far from the Detroit River. I could occasionally hear the large freighters’ boat horns, so it’s not surprising that between 1923 and 1925 a boat captain, Jerry Rose, was the tenant. He was followed by Carl Sanchez, an auto worker, and afterward by Jack MacDonald, a painter and decorator, and his wife, daughters, son-in-law, and a roomer. MacDonald’s son-in-law worked as a lithographic laborer and may have known my grandfather from work, since my grandfather was an accountant at a lithographic company.

Extract from the 1930 census showing James as an owner at 3087 14th Street, and Jack McDonald as a renter at 3089 14th Street, the upper flat.

In the 1940 census the upstairs flat was vacant, not surprisingly, as James and Sarah’s eldest child William was married later that year and the upstairs flat was to become his home. James died in 1940; his widow Sarah remained in the downstairs flat with her youngest daughter Jean. The next year, in 1941, Jean married Leonard Schutze and Len joined his wife and mother-in-law in the downstairs home.

This family arrangement was the final one for the house. William, living upstairs, became a computer analyst for IBM, Sperry Rand, and Burroughs, a field that was cutting edge in the 1950s and 1960s. Leonard, living downstairs, worked as an hydraulic engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers, Great Lakes Division. Bill had two children and Len had three.

By the early 1960s the neighborhood was in economic decline while Sarah McCrie was in physical decline. She died in 1963 at age 87. In 1967 the area was engulfed in the Detroit riot; in the ensuing years anyone who could afford it moved out and the neighborhood went to ruin.

William left the house after the 1967 riots; Leonard left in the early 1970s after his wife died and the home became a frequent target for break ins by neighborhood thieves.

William eventually sold the vacant house to a speculator but its days as a home were over. Shortly thereafter the house burned down.

For blocks around there are very few structures remaining. Looking at the area, it is difficult to imagine it was once a thriving neighborhood filled with houses, apartments, schools, grocery, drug, and dime stores, banks, churches, and a gas station.

Houses, even more than people, take their secrets to the grave. But a house that gave shelter and comfort and maybe even some inspiration to generations of Detroiters deserves some kind of obituary.

Lest it be forgotten, this is my humble tribute to the place I still call home.

The Wellington

I probably owe my fascination with fountain pens to James Wellington McCrie.

My grandfather was an accountant and he kept a stash of dipping pens and spare nibs in his desk drawer. I grew up in his house and frequently rummaged around in his desk. He didn’t mind; he’d passed away nine years before I was born.

Owen School, built 1879, ca. 1890

I went to the same elementary school as he did. When I attended it was the oldest school in Detroit. The desks still had ink wells. My older sister remembers using them, but by the time I began cursive writing the ballpoint had replaced the dipping pen in the classroom.

Nevertheless, exposure in my youth to the ink wells and to my grandfather’s cache of pens stirred thoughts of using a fountain pen when I was in college and I bought a cheap one with ink cartridges. I didn’t use it long—it leaked like a sieve and made a mess of both my paper and hands.

Years later I got a leather holder with a nice pen and pencil as a gift from co-workers. There was a different feeling to extracting those writing instruments from their pouch than with grabbing a Bic pen from the drawer. Maybe it was similar to the way one feels when putting on a suit and knotting a tie rather than pulling on jeans when going out to dinner: a feeling of anticipation, deliberation, mindfulness, sophistication.

Later still I attended a seminar where one of my classmates had a Montblanc ballpoint pen. It was the first time I felt pen envy; I was determined to have one of my own. I bought a Montblanc knockoff (i.e., fake) pen from a street vendor in New York. Unfortunately it just wasn’t the same—like wearing a tee shirt with a bow tie print to a formal affair—and I didn’t use it long, nor did I ever take it out of the apartment.

I reconnected with fountain pens when my wife and I visited her cousin in Los Angeles a couple of decades back and we were introduced to a friend of hers. Her friend worked as a district sales manager for Montblanc and she enthused about her personal fountain pens. She hooked me up with a deal on a Meisterstück fountain pen, and writing has never been the same. It’s tactile and pleasurable: deliberate, mindful, sophisticated.

Which brings me back to James Wellington McCrie. I’m naming one of my favorite fountain pens for the man who started me on this writing journey.

Pelikan M805

The pen I have in mind is a Pelikan Souverän M805 Stresemann. The pen’s striped gray barrel was designed after the suits worn by the Weimar Republic’s foreign minister Gustav Stresemann (1879-1929), a contemporary of my grandfather’s.

The design gives it a “buttoned down” look that would have been appreciated by my accountant grandfather. Pictures I have of him show he was a conservative dresser — yes, he wore a real bow tie — and this pen would look great in an accounting office, or any office for that matter. Its black and gray tones are matched with palladium plated clip and rings, and a rhodium plated 18-carat nib. The pen exudes understated sophistication.

The German-manufactured pen is a piston filler that holds a good amount of ink. When I reflect on my college years’ experience with a leaking cartridge pen, this would be its opposite — it fills easily and cleanly and writes without mishap or misstep. It’s fine-tipped nib would work nicely for an accountant filling in columns of numbers, but I eventually swapped it out for a broad nib more suited to writing lines of flowing text and signatures. That’s one of the strengths of the Pelikan brand, you can interchange the nibs among similar models.

Unfortunately, the pen is not as cheap as the knockoff Montblanc I snagged in New York. However, using the frugality inherited from my Scottish grandfather, I bought it from an on-line retailer in England — Cult Pens — which offers Pelikans at considerable discount over American pricing, especially when the exchange rate is favorable.

Peter Twydle, author of Fountain Pens: A Collector’s Guide, writes, “The one question people ask me more often than any other is, ‘What is the best fountain pen in the world?’ My answer is always Pelikan and, more specifically, the Pelikan M800 and its variants.” I can’t disagree with him. This pen writes beautifully. It fits comfortably in the hand. And with its beak-shaped clip, distinct pelican logo on the finial, and beautifully engraved nib, it is extremely handsome.

So just who was this James Wellington McCrie I’ve named my pen after? That’s a good question because I never met him, and his wife and daughter didn’t talk about him. His portrait was on the fireplace mantel, but he might as well have been a ghost. So here’s what I’ve found, and I have to say I’ve grown to like him.

James in 1878 in Grand Rapids

He was born in June of 1878 in Grand Haven, Michigan, to James and Anna (Anthony) McCrie. He was apparently named for his father but given a distinct middle name — a name that doesn’t have precedence on either his father’s or mother’s side.

When James was two years old his father was working as a foreman at the railroad’s grain elevator in Grand Haven along the Grand River. Leading a rather comfortable life, the family lived within a short walk to the river or a twenty-minute walk to Lake Michigan. His father apparently was well regarded, for two years later, in 1882, the family moved to the city of Detroit where his company had just completed a grain elevator in the rail yards on the Detroit River and his father was given the job of weighmaster. James was four years old.

Detroit Business University, 1894

Four years later the family moved to a house on 14th Avenue, where James attended the nearby John Owen Elementary School. His public education continued through the eighth grade; after that he attended the Detroit Business University for between six and twelve months to complete the business curriculum, taking courses in business writing (including penmanship of course), business arithmetic, bookkeeping, commercial law, business correspondence, and business paper (invoices, contracts, leases, mortgages, deeds, etc.).

James McCrie’s signature on a 1918 draft register shows a sample of his penmanship

The education stood by him well as he worked his way up from clerk, assistant bookkeeper, bookkeeper, paymaster, accountant and cost accountant over the course of his career in various businesses around Detroit.

He began at age 17, working as a clerk at Michigan Carbon Works, a stone’s throw from the Detroit River where today Cobo Hall is located. At age 21, in 1899, he was working as an assistant bookkeeper at Wm. H. Elliott, a store selling clothes and dry goods on the corner of Woodward Avenue and Grand River. The handsome 6-story red brick Elliott building still stands on the northwest corner of the intersection.

Four years later he was working as a bookkeeper at Crown Hat Manufacturing Company. He worked there for six years, and I believe it was while he was there, in about 1905, he met his future wife, Sarah Livingston, who was working as a stenographer at a millinery (hat) wholesaler a few blocks away in downtown Detroit. The couple put off marriage for seven years while Sarah was living with her elderly mother and young orphaned cousins. She wanted to delay starting her own family until the cousins were grown.

From an advertisement of 1909

In 1909, at age 31, James was a bookkeeper at Everitt-Metzger-Flanders. The company, more commonly known at E-M-F, was the fourth largest automobile manufacturer at the time, with Henry Ford’s company being the largest. Ford’s small factory, now a museum, was on the neighboring block on Piquette Avenue.

James would have shouldered his way to work in the heart of the fledgling auto industry amidst a stream of factory laborers on the streets, with machinists, engineers, inventors, and automobile tycoons bustling about. From his office he’d hear the thrump of machinery, the grunts of men, the cranking of engines, and the whistles of trains arriving with parts and departing with new cars. It was a time of energy, competition, and excitement in Detroit, centered in the neighborhood where he worked.

In 1910 Studebaker took over E-M-F and expanded the plant into Henry Ford’s factory when Ford moved his operations to Highland Park. (Interestingly, Studebaker ran its cars through Henry Ford’s old office at the front of the building on their way to the rail head.) James McCrie became an accountant with Studebaker that year. When the head of the company started up the Maxwell Car Company three years later, in 1913, James moved with him and became the paymaster at Maxwell.

Click on certificate to see enlarged image and guest book

It was a time of excitement in James’s personal life as well. He married Sarah Livingston in 1912 when he was 34 and she was 36 and in a couple of years they moved into a house on 14th Avenue a block from his mother’s.

They started their family quickly, with son William born in 1914; daughters Margaret and Jean followed in 1915 and 1917 respectively.

James W. McCrie with son William and mother Anna, wife Sarah, and sister Jennie (seated), 1914

With his new family established, James changed jobs again in 1918, becoming a bookkeeper and accountant for a pair of attorneys on the 14th floor of the Ford Building in downtown Detroit, a skyscraper of its day and a building that still stands. He was only there shortly though; the next year, at age 41, he started working for a lithographic company, Calvert Lithographing, on Grand River Avenue. He became a cost accountant for the prosperous and long-established firm; the job was solid, supporting the family through the Great Depression of the 1930s.

James Wellington McCrie (without jacket) in his side yard next to cousin Florence and friends ca. 1928

From photographs of James we know he was bald at an early age, overweight, a bit stiff, and almost always wore a tie. He seems to have had a sense of humor, but one he kept in check. Accountants are generally known to be conservative, conscientious, rules-based, and unimaginative in their work, and James looks like he fit the bill, right down to his socks.

James McCrie the father and gardener ca. 1917

Pictures show he worked a flower and vegetable garden in his back yard, and he had a chicken coop as well. He rented out the upper story of his two-story home, a common practice of that day and area. His bank book showed he religiously put money into savings, even during the years of the Depression, so he must have known how to manage his own as well as company funds.

Though he looked self-possessed in all of his photographs, my sister tells the story that he became so exasperated with his headstrong daughter (my mother), he once took her by the heels and hung her down the clothes chute when she misbehaved. He apparently wasn’t as unflappable as photographs suggest. (Clothes chutes were much bigger in those days. I used to sit in it and play astronaut during the early space exploration years.)

By his early 50s James’s love of ice cream and his sedentary job may have contributed to his developing chronic myocarditis and nephritis, which felled him at the age of 62. Bed-ridden in his last months, he died at home on the day his son was married in October of 1940.

James Wellington McCrie’s mantel portrait

I wish I’d had the chance to know him.

I also wish I’d had the foresight to keep at least one of his pens.

Instead, I have to settle for naming one of my favorite pens for him, thinking of him when I pick up the conservatively dressed Pelikan Stresemann. I call it ‘The Wellington’ in his honor. I think it’s an apt name.

Labor Monuments

Transcending” labor legacy landmark                   Photo from Brian Callahan’s flikr post.

It seems fitting that Transcending — a labor legacy landmark on Detroit’s riverfront — sits on the spot of one of my ancestor’s former work sites.
And the UAW-Ford National Programs Center building sits on another. Both are monuments to labor.

It’s a fortuitous coincidence that these monuments occupy the sites of my grandmother’s initial foray into the labor market of a growing industrial city.  In my mind, the aptly named Transcending commemorates her, and generally speaking our family’s, move from the farm to the city, the transition from the agrarian to the industrial age.

Sarah Livingstone posing in one of the millinery’s hats in 1901

Sarah Campbell Livingstone [later McCrie] came to Detroit with her mother and siblings in 1897, the year after her father died on the family farm near Alviston, Ontario. She was 21 years old.

Sarah went to business school for six months and began working as a stenographer for the H. T. Bush Produce Company on Woodbridge Street in downtown Detroit. The company was on the first floor of a two-story building whose upstairs occupant was the American Eagle Tobacco Company. She earned $6.00 a week.

Four years later she doubled her earnings when she went to work as a stenographer for Mitchell, Harris & Company, a wholesale millinery two blocks away on Jefferson Avenue near Griswold Street. She worked there for about 10 years.

Advertising flyer for Mitchell, Harris & Co. dating to 1901

That area of Detroit was long ago re-purposed and is now the location of Hart Plaza, filled with monuments, fountains, footpaths, and memorials on the riverfront.

Using the 1897 Detroit street directory and Sanborn fire insurance map, as well as an 1885 map of the area, one can pinpoint the locations of her former work sites with the help of Google Earth:

• H. T. Bush Produce Company was located where the present day UAW-Ford National Programs Center (formerly the Veterans Memorial) building sits.

• Mitchell, Harris & Company was located where the Transitioning labor legacy landmark now stands.

An 1885 Detroit map overlaid on present day Hart Plaza and Renaissance Center.
Sarah Livingstone worked in the buildings outlined in red.

The next time I visit Detroit I’d like to make a trip to Hart Plaza and stand where she stood over a hundred years ago. Closing my eyes, I’ll think of her among an army of produce, fish, dry goods, tobacco, lumber, clothing, machinery, and millinery workers bustling among the offices, warehouses and shops of bygone Detroit. A farm girl turned urban woman, laboring to make a living for herself and family, and soon, in 1912, to marry James W. McCrie and make a family of her own.

Transitioning is a monument designed for reflection on the importance of labor. When I next visit, it will also be a place to reflect on the transience of time and on the importance of family.


If the Big Bang theory is correct, the universe began 14 billion years ago.

If fundamentalists are correct, the universe was created seven thousand years ago.

If I’m correct, the universe always existed.

The question of origins arose as I was reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. I think the title is a euphemism for “people who want the Reader’s Digest version of astrophysics because they’re too lazy or dumb to plow through a scientific tome.” That pretty much describes me.

The book is small, about paperback sized, and has only 218 pages. But still, I was lost by the end of the first paragraph, the one introducing the Big Bang theory:

“In the beginning, nearly fourteen billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy of the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period that ends this sentence.”

Huh? All the matter and energy of the universe crammed into the volume of a pin point? (It almost makes me want to ask how many angels could dance on the head of it.) But if such a micro dot really existed, where did all this matter and energy come from (there was no universe, after all, to forge it from), how was it constructed (given its inherent instability), why did it suddenly materialize, and just how the heck did everything fit inside it?

However, if scientists have posed a theory that raises as many questions as it answers, their religious brethren seem to be in the same boat (or ark, as it may be). For if gods created the universe, where did they come from? Did they always exist, as logic would suggest, indicating there really is no ultimate origin? Where do they live, outside of the universe, given they couldn’t very well have existed inside a universe they hadn’t yet created?

From a less cosmic and more human perspective, why did gods create mankind on a tiny speck in a universe billions of light years across? If mankind is the pinnacle of creation, why create such an enormous universe to obscure and endanger our presence? (Remember we’re probably talking about gods existing outside this universe, and if they’re looking in on us, they’d have to have uncommon visual skills to see us at such incredible distance and behind all the monstrous galaxies and dark matter that surround us.) And why put us on an orb destined for inevitable extinction from flying cosmic debris?

To my mind, the faithful and the scientists are looking at the universe through opposite ends of a telescope, the former seeing our world blown up to a significance well beyond its size, and the latter seeing the universe shrunk infinitesimally small in order to explain its origin. Me, I’m wondering if maybe we should set the telescope aside for a minute.

The intractability of the origin question leads me to wonder if maybe we’re anthropomorphizing the issue. People are born, we all have origins, so maybe we’re trying to see the universe in the same way. But what if the universe always existed? What if the universe’s expansion, as detected by scientific instruments, is simply part of a recurring cycle of repeated expansion and contraction over endless cycles of billions of years?

To me that makes as much sense as time and space having a beginning. If you can believe that gods existed forever (as it seems they must), you can just as easily believe that the universe existed forever. The recurring formation and destruction of stars and other objects through collisions of cosmic matter under the influences of nuclear, electro-magnetic, gravitational, and dark energy forces in the universe might argue against true beginnings and ends, just the perpetual metamorphosis of matter and energy.

Tyson’s book is a nice synopsis of current astrophysical science, I recommend a reading of it. It explains, among other things, the reasoning behind the Big Bang theory in layman’s terms. It’s perhaps my shortcoming that I couldn’t logically grasp the universe in a microdot. But if nothing else, it also served the purpose of getting me to thinking about my own concept of origin: namely, what if there were none?

P.S.: Tyson is also a fountain pen fan. An interview with him on his collection is on YouTube.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines proximity as “nearness in space, time, or relationship.” That’s a great definition for an important tool of genealogy.

Proximity is useful in figuring out family history in the absence of direct evidence such as lineage notes or official records. Relationships are typically established between people who are proximate in space and time. Generations ago one’s social environment would have been largely limited to a day’s travel on horseback or foot. So if a genealogist is trying to deduce or confirm relationships, i.e. build family trees, it’s helpful to establish that the people lived in the same area at the time in question.

Censuses dating as far back as the 1840s were useful in placing people in an area at a given time. City or area directories were also helpful, especially for years between censuses. And land records were good in identifying locations of farm families.

These kinds of documents helped discover relationships among our ancestors:

They showed the rocky relationship between Leonard and Pearl Schutze in the early 1900s in the L.A. area. The couple lived separately as much as they lived together over the years. (Pearl eventually had an affair outside their marriage and committed suicide when it fell apart.)

They helped build Jane Hannah’s branch of the family tree, showing that a pair of Hannah brothers, undoubtedly her siblings, purchased a farm next door to her future husband’s family. Following the paper trail of one of those brothers showed when the family immigrated to America and from which city in Ireland.

Proximity can also be determined by vital records, such as birth, death, and marriage registrations which document place.

When I was searching for the birth family of John Campbell in Scotland there was a plethora of possibilities for a man with such a common name. His gravestone determined his birth year (time). His marriage (relationship) to Isabella McLean led to the probability that his birth family lived near Isabella’s (space). Sure enough, there was a Campbell family living on the Gallochoilly farmstead adjacent to Isabella’s that gave birth to a John Campbell in the matching year. Though proximity wasn’t definitive proof, it — combined with examining all other John Campbells of the shire in that timeframe — was solid evidence that this family was by far the most likely candidate for the family tree.

The North Knapdale parish register shows the parents, farmstead, and birth date for John Campbell

Just as documents provided evidence of time and space, maps were useful in verifying spacial proximity. In the John Campbell example, it was only through old ordnance maps of Scotland that we could establish the locations of farmsteads and their proximity to each other. The same goes for 19th century township or county atlases in the United States and Canada which showed farms by family name. They documented the clustering of families in the same vicinity and showed how many marriages were spawned by the collocation of the bride and groom’s families in the area.

The concept of proximity was a terrific tool, but it admittedly may apply less to modern times than it did in the past. Generations ago families lived and worked on farms and there were limited opportunities (i.e. small local populations) to establish relationships. In the modern era people live in densely populated urban communities and work away from home so there are far more social opportunities. Add to that the increased mobility of modern transportation, mega churches drawing wide-ranging congregations, e-learning replacing fixed location schools, and the prevalence of electronic interactions, such as dating sites, and spacial proximity expands exponentially, making it potentially less useful.

In my own case, I met my wife on a blind date arranged by mutual friends. We didn’t live close by, we didn’t attend the same schools, we didn’t work in the same location, and our birth families lived a couple of hundred miles apart. A future genealogist would have a hard time trying to reconstruct our family trees using proximity as a tool. But of course in the modern era, there’s no lack of official documentation, so proximity isn’t as vital. As an aside, though, the proximity concept still applied, as it was through mutual friends (relationship) that we met, and at the time she lived with her grandmother (relationship), which placed us in adjoining counties of geographical (space) proximity.

There’s an iconic moment in the movie The Graduate when a family friend, Mr. McGuire, gives career advice to the newly minted college graduate Benjamin:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

I guess you could say that I’ve found one word that has helped me a lot in family research. Are you listening? Yes? Proximity.