As you may recall, back in late March I wrote about this 1954 catalog of grocery signage. Around that same time I met Angela Riechers, a designer and art director who was getting her MFA in design criticism at the School of Visual Arts here in NYC (I’m friends with a bunch of the instructors involved with that program), who was hoping I could help her out with an assignment that seemed very much in keeping with that old catalog.
I wasn’t able to offer Angela anything useful, but I became intrigued by her project anyway. She was researching the history of the Takacheck (pronounced “take a check”), which is that gizmo that dispenses the little numbered tickets for businesses that operate on the “Now serving…” system. But Angela wasn’t just pursuing this out of some nostalgic sense of retro geekiness — she has a personal connection to the Takacheck’s history. Here, I’ll let her explain:
Our assignment was to research a design object of our choosing without using digital search engines. E-mail and library databases were allowed, but no other use of the internet was permitted. (In fact, the name of the class was No Google.) The emphasis was on interviewing primary sources and locating original documents, with the final product to be a 10-minute presentation together with a 2500-word book or poster.
I realized this was a great opportunity to learn more about my great-grandfather Reuben Harry Helsel. He never finished high school but was a gifted inventor. From 1917 through the early ’60s, he invented the Takacheck, along with the machine that dispenses movie tickets from slots in the counter and the Daily Double machine used at racetracks, but I knew little else about him (we never met).
My mother had a small trove of family mementos: letters, photos, postcards. Here I discovered that Helsel’s first job as a teenager was at a movie theater, which must have sparked his lifelong interest in ticketing devices.
From there, research was slow going. For about two months, the working title of my book was ‘Your Search Returned Zero Results.’ The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database would have been have been a great resource, except for one problem: For anything patented prior to 1977, you can’t search by inventor’s name or keyword; you need the patent numbers to retrieve the files. When I asked a librarian how to find the numbers, she said, “Just look on Google Patents!” I groaned and put my head down on the desk.
Fortunately, my brother-in-law is an attorney specializing in intellectual rights. He looked up the patent numbers for me and I was able to download them at the library and print them out. The results of that search now fill two 3-inch binders. It turns out Helsel held 45 patents for every conceivable situation requiring a ticket: transit of all types, from streetcars to airplanes; movie theaters; circuses; cafeteria-style restaurants; racetracks. His career basically traced the arc of the machine age through the postwar period, documenting the growth of leisure time and increased ease of travel, and the machines needed to speed the process along.
I really wanted to print out my paper as a continuous-roll strip of tickets, but a custom job like that takes weeks to set up and would have been too costly. So I designed an accordion-folded book in the same aspect ratio as a small perfed ticket.
Angela’s book is amazing, as is the story it tells. If you want to read it, you can see the full sequence of pages here. You can also download a PDF of here — or at least some of you can. That link is only good for a limited number of downloads, and I’m pretty sure we’ll max it out today. So if you click on it and it doesn’t work, let me know and I’ll set up a fresh link for it.
What does any of this have to do with Uni Watch? More than you might think:
• First and foremost, the very notion of a cardstock ticket is under siege these days, as e-tickets and paper printouts become more the rule than the exception. I appreciate the convenience, but man, modern “tickets” are so completely unsatisfying as material objects. I saved all my ticket stubs as a kid; what are today’s kids saving? Stuff like this? I doubt it. A shame.
• Angela’s research frustrations sound very familiar, because my recent Candela Structures project, which involved all kinds of research endeavors that didn’t work out, was a sobering reminder of how spoiled I am on having access to groundbreaking research done by others. It’s fair to say that Uni Watch never would have been possible if not for the pioneering work of Marc Okkonen, for example. As we’ve seen many times here on this site, it’s a lot easier to solve a mystery when it’s covered by a handy database that someone else has slaved to create. One thing the Candela project taught me is that I need to become a better researcher, especially when it comes to things like library archives and other primary sources, which is exactly the skill Angela’s assignment was designed to build. Maybe I should have been in that class.
• Cool design is, y’know, cool! Even if it’s not uni-related.
Major thanks to Angela for sharing her project, and its backstory. Great stuff.
And speaking of the Candela project…: We’ve expanded our web site with lots of new info. We haven’t yet added all the content from the exhibit itself, but we’ll do that after the exhibit closes at the end of June.
DIY Follow-Up: Ryan Connelly’s DIY project from yesterday prompted reader Jeff Spry to recall a Steelers-themed project of his own:
In 2006 I renovated my basement to build an entertainment room with full bath and kitchen. I went with a Steelers theme, using the “team colors” paint from Glidden. I decided to paint one wall half white and half gold, with the [Northwestern] stripes from the sleeves dividing the wall.
It was much more difficult than I imagined. I don’t have AutoCad, so I had to use math and Microsoft Publisher to re-create the stripes from a jersey I had. The process was rough: painting the bottom gold and the top white while painting one set of taped stripes white, then retaping to paint the outer black lines, and then a final tape job to paint the last two black lines. It was backbreaking to get the tape straight but I think it came out OK.
The finishing touches are lots of old posters from my childhood and multiple old Sports Illustrateds, including all the Super Bowl issues running along the stripe. I also included a bookshelf with some old Steelers paraphernalia, including a vintage helmet and a duffel bag from elementary school.
Uni Watch News Ticker: I was dealing with a family commitment and wasn’t near a computer for most of yesterday, so today’s Ticker is a little thin — my apologies. … Reprinted from yesterday’s comments: Beginning of this page explains how CC Sabathia baggy-ifies his trousers. … Here’s next year’s NBA all-star logo set. … Here’s Papa Bear as you probably haven’t seen him before, as MVP of the 1919 Rose Bowl (with thanks to Andrew Tanker, who also provided this shot of Mare Island coach William Dietz). … The more I look at these, the more ridiculous they seem. … This guy has created alternative designs for a bunch of Japanese baseball teams (with thanks to Jeremy Brahm). … Also from Jeremy: Check out this manhole cover design from Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Japan. … Remember Pucky the Whale? How about a Pucky-shaped chicken finger? Details here. … Two old seats from Shea Stadium + Newsday columnist Ken Davidoff = a very good deed. … Lots of untucked basketball jersey action in this 1981 high school video of Wayman Tisdale. Bizarre two-tone design, too (big thanks to Mike Harris). … Cabinet, where Liz Clayton and I performed as the Forewords back in January, has an interesting-sounding soccer film on the calendar.