Jan 262017

It’s not yet Valentine’s Day, but in every gift store, flower shop or Hallmark aisle you’ll see reminders. On Etsy, where handmade items are king, you’ll find heart motifs being featured everywhere (and in this post, too). Valentine’s Day is an international holiday when couples celebrate romance with candy, flowers, cards, candlelit dinners and other exchanges of affection. From Australia to Taiwan, in Around the World you can read about how Valentine’s Day is celebrated.

Butterflies and Heart Soaps, sold by thecharmingfrog, https://www.etsy.com/listing/71351221/butterflies-and-heart-soaps-butterfly

I was surprised to learn, however, that the origins of this annual holiday can be found in a pagan practice in ancient Rome. According to National Public Radio writer Arnie Seipel in The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day, Valentine’s Day may have begun when “men hit on women by, well, hitting them.” Seipel explains that during the feast of Lupercalia, a goat and a dog were sacrificed, and their hides were used to whip women. For some strange reason, women were said to have believed this whipping would increase their fertility. The rite was followed up with a lottery in which men were paired up for the night with women—and sometimes longer, if the match was a good one.

Lupercalia Print, 5×7, sold by CaitlinMcCarthyArt, https://www.etsy.com/listing/191474289/lupercalia-print-5×7

Flash forward to the 3rd century, when the Emperor Claudius II executed two men named Valentine—one a priest and the other a bishop—resulting in their martyrdom which was subsequently commemorated by the Catholic Church on St. Valentine’s Day. When Pope Gelasius II combined St. Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia in the late 5th century with a festival intended, ironically, to get rid of pagan rituals, the event became a drunken, theatrical celebration of “fertility and love,” says Seipel. About the same time, the Normans celebrated Galatin’s Day, which sounds a great deal like Valentine and means “lover of women.” You can begin to see how Valentine’s Day evolved into the celebration of love that it is today. Thankfully today’s holiday is a shadow of its original self.

White Ceramic Heart Bowl, 3 inches, sold by JDWolfePottery, https://www.etsy.com/listing/97433389/white-ceramic-heart-bowl-3-inches

It wasn’t until the 13th century, according to History.com’s History of Valentine’s Day, that Valentine’s Day became associated with love and romance, also the same time in mid-February when birds were believed to mate. According to Borgna Brunner, in Valentine’s Day History, a UCLA medieval scholar named Henry Ansgar Kelly claims Geoffrey Chaucer is behind the mating birds story. In 1381, he wrote a poem that celebrated the engagement between Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia. He linked the engagement, in his poem, with a feast day named “The Parliament of Fowls,” or the mating season for birds.

For this was on St. Valentine’s Day,
When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.

Felt Love Birds, sold by TextilePlatypus, https://www.etsy.com/listing/253795817/felt-love-birds-pure-wool-made-in-canada

By the 17th century, couples in Great Britain began exchanging letters or handmade cards that featured lace, ribbons, cupids and hearts. The tradition spread to the U.S., where purchased Valentine’s Day cards appeared in the 1850s when Esther Howland began mass-producing them. The commercial side of Valentine’s Day kept growing until now, when 62% of couples celebrate it with candy, flowers and other items. Between candy, jewelry, and flowers—more than 220 million roses, in fact—Americans spend more than $20 billion on Valentine’s Day every year.

Dried Flower Heart Wreath, sold by roseflower48, https://www.etsy.com/listing/266459789/dried-flower-heart-wreath-spring-wreath

Although sellers and shoppers alike realize there is much commercial profit to be gained on Valentine’s Day, somehow that doesn’t seem to detract from the desire to celebrate the holiday. Year-round, hearts have become symbols of love, affection, unity, strength and even sympathy. But on Valentine’s Day, hearts represent a special celebration of love.

Leather Wedding Guest Book, sold by creating, https://www.etsy.com/listing/103277651/large-leather-wedding-guest-book-tree-of

© 2016 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Jul 122015

A fashionista I am not, and never have been. In fact, you might even say I’ve been out of step when it comes to fashion. But I wouldn’t say I’m a fashion rebel, either.

My parents, who emigrated separately from Europe to the U.S. in 1954, grew up in war-torn Germany. Food, clothing and money were scarce, so thriftiness was part of the fabric of their lives. They believed in buying well-made clothing you did not have to replace often. As I grew taller, hems were let out until there wasn’t any fabric left and skirts inched halfway up my thighs. Both of my younger brothers wore Lederhosen (leather shorts with suspenders) during their grade school years because they wore like iron. As for their school slacks, as they outgrew them I sliced off the legs at the knees, turning them into summer shorts, and hemmed them. Those were some of my earliest sewing lessons.

My younger brother, Mark, and I were probably four and three years old, respectively, in this photo. In this photo I'm wearing a sun dress and he is wearing Lederhosen, styles we continued to wear through the years.

My younger brother, Mark, and I were probably three and fours years old, respectively, in this photo from the late 1950s. In this photo I’m wearing a sun dress and he is wearing Lederhosen, styles we continued to wear often through the years.

Ooh, look at the plane Daddy flies!

My dad sometimes rented a Cessna to fly recreationally. I’m wearing a dress, while Mark wears his Lederhosen, as we stand in front of the plane my dad flew that day in the 1950s.

Back in the 1960s, girls were not allowed to wear slacks to school, so dresses and skirts were normal, everyday wear. Most of my friends wore dresses in the early 1960s, about the time I was in kindergarten. In the birthday photo below, I am wearing a smocked-bodice dress with back ties, a style that was pretty common at the time, as well as a pair of Keds® tennis shoes. Amazingly, Keds® are still around.

I’m the one holding up a pair of bloomers I received for my birthday, which even in those days was unfashionable. I tucked them away in a drawer, and never wore them.

When I started second grade, my family relocated to southern California from Wisconsin for about four-and-a-half years before returning to the Midwest. While my friends wore mini-skirts, T-shirts and white go-go boots or “tennies,” I wore skirt-suits, white bobby socks, and Mary Ann-style buckle-strap shoes with chunky flat black heels, or white patent leather saddle shoes. There was a powder-blue, jewel-neck jacket in a knit fabric that coordinated with a blue-and-white pleated skirt. The outer pleats were blue; the inner pleats were white, and the pleats flared as you walked, making you look a little bit like a barber pole—except that the stripes were vertical. Exactly like it was another skirt-suit in pink and white. There was a red skirt-suit whose jacket and sleeves were edged in black piping, and a red velveteen jumper with a coordinating white Peter Pan-collar blouse. Every four days, I repeated the series. I’m sure I looked like a little girl straight out of Alice in Wonderland.

I was nine years old, and my baby brother, Rick, had just celebrated his first birthday when this photo was taken. I'm wearing a sailor-style knit top with a pleated skirt, along with a pair of white sneakers. It's Christmas, a little too cool--even in California--for my other brother to wear his Lederhosen. But they got a workout every summer!

I was nine years old, and my baby brother, Rick, had just celebrated his first birthday when this photo was taken. I’m wearing a sailor-collar knit top with a pleated skirt, along with a pair of white sneakers. Take a look at those doubled-up braids–Princess Leia, here I come! It’s Christmas 1964, a little too cool–even in California–for my other brother to wear his Lederhosen. But his leather shorts got a workout every summer!

By the time middle school arrived in the late 1960s/early 1970s, dress codes loosened up in the Milwaukee area, where we lived. Girls were allowed to wear culottes (split-skirts), later called gauchos. This gave way to jeans and carpenter-style pants—white denim slacks with loops in them to hold imaginary tradesman tools, paired up with wooden-heeled clogs or Dr. Scholl’s sandals. For the most part, however, I continued to wear skirts, dresses, and nylon hosiery held up by garters midway up my thighs. I blessed the day that pantyhose came out. I didn’t own a pair of slacks until the high school lifesaving class I took required you to use a pair of slacks as a flotation device by tying the openings shut and blowing air into them while you were in the swimming pool. I’ll bet that’s not a technique taught anymore!

During December of my senior year in high school, I began working at Gimbels Department Store as a “flyer,” which means that when you show up for work, you work wherever you’re needed—usually in a different department each time. For the first time, I earned enough money to be able to afford, occasionally, to buy clothing that matched my own tastes. And finally, daringly, I bought some slacks that I sometimes wore to school.

This is my high school newspaper staff, of which I was one of the editors. On the bottom stair are four students--three girls and one guy. I'm the second student from the left, wearing a pair of wool slacks to which I was allergic.

This is my high school newspaper staff, of which I was one of the editors. On the bottom stair are four students–three girls and one guy. I’m the second student from the left, wearing a pair of wool slacks to which I was allergic. I don’t know what I was thinking! The year is 1974.

When college began, I wore slacks a little more frequently—especially during cold Wisconsin winters—but it was still the basic litany of skirts and dresses—old habits die hard—and they caught the eye of my then boyfriend, now husband, 41 years ago. Quite frankly, I stood out as being different, even in early adulthood.

This photo is likely from 1980 or 1981--very early in our marriage. I don't know if we're dressed up to go to dinner or to church, but I know I wore this dress to work as well.

This photo is likely from 1980 or 1981–very early in our marriage. I don’t know if we’re dressed up to go to dinner or to church, but I know I wore this dress to work as well.

In the mid-1980s, I was still wearing dresses both at work and at home. Although eyeglass frames aren’t quite this large right now, they’re beginning to return to this shape.


There was a period in my early adult life when I sewed many of my clothes not only because I enjoyed sewing but because it was cheaper to make them than buy them. I made the dress in the engagement photo below, as well as my own wedding gown, for example.

John traded a Navy ROTC scholarship in college for four years of service as a Naval Weapons Officer. During college, his ROTC unit held Naval balls, where everyone dressed up. I made my own gowns. This peach crepe gown was based on a Vogue pattern.

John traded a Navy ROTC scholarship in college for four years of service as a Naval Weapons Officer. During college, his ROTC unit held Naval balls, where everyone dressed up. I made my own gowns. This circa 1977 peach crepe gown was based on a Vogue pattern. We got engaged on the date of the ball.

We married in 1979, when I wore a gown and veil I sewed. This pattern was supposed to include a train, but I couldn't get it to fit right, and John suggested I just leave it off. Perfect solution, since I'm don't enjoy fussy clothes!

I wore a gown and veil I sewed when we got married in 1979. This McCall’s pattern was supposed to include a train, but I couldn’t get it to fit right, and John suggested I just leave it off. Perfect solution, since I’m don’t enjoy fussy clothes!

Sewing my own clothes started a habit of accumulating patterns that—if I had kept all of them—would provide a fashion history from the 1970s to the early 2000s. The earliest of these patterns have disappeared over the years, however, so all that’s left in my collection are patterns from the late 1990s and early 2000s. Because my size and shape have changed—thanks to time, motherhood and menopause—I no longer can use these patterns, most of which have never been opened. But retro styles are apparently popular these days, so I have recently begun listing them in my third Etsy shop, 2nd Chance Treasures. Even if you don’t sew, you might enjoy seeing vintage styles from 20 to 25 years ago. Here’s a selection I discovered from 1991 to 1995.

Circa 1991

Butterick 5693. Misses’ Mock Wrap Front Jumper & Top. Circa 1991.

Circa 1992

Butterick 6407 by J. G. Hook. Misses’/Misses’ Petite Vest, Shirt & Shorts. Circa 1992.

Circa 1993

Butterick 6689 by Leslie Faye. Misses’/Misses’ Petite Vest & Dress. Circa 1993.

Circa 1994

New Look (Simplicity) 6248. Misses’ Princess Line Dress, Ankle Length, with Flared Skirt & Short Sleeves. Circa 1994.

Circa 1995

Butterick 3975. Misses’ Dress & Jumpsuit. Circa 1995.

What always strikes me is that many styles come back full circle. You welcome some of them, and others amuse you because you wouldn’t wear them if you were paid to do so! Mini-skirts, midi-skirts, and maxi-skirts—and the peasant-style blouses that are popular today—are come-again fashions that were all worn on and off during the 1960s and 1970s . . . and tie-dye fashions have their origins in the same period.

How have the styles you worn changed over the years? Which ones do you miss, and which ones will you never wear again?

By the way, these days I usually wear slacks, and comfort rules the day.

© 2015 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Jun 292014

I have a love affair with pens. Despite the fact that I use a keyboard more than I write longhand, the look and feel of my writing implements are important to me. How smoothly the tip glides over paper, the size of the pen tip, the grip of the pen and its weight, and the appearance of the ink are important factors to the pleasure I experience when I write. And you don’t always have to spend a lot of money to find a pen that’s just right for you, that makes you want to open up your journal and scribble away.

From left to right, from most to least, are my favorite ballpoint pens: Schneider Slider Rave XB, Cross Century II Classic Black, Cotapaxi Clifton with Stylus, and an early version of a Paper Mate that uses a PhD refill.

From left to right, from most to least, are my favorite ballpoint pens: Schneider Slider Rave XB, Cross Century II Classic Black, Cotapaxi Clifton with Stylus, and an early version of a slim Paper Mate pen that uses a PhD refill.

Pens are often associated with recognition. My husband has a collection of Cross pens he received as awards for various career achievements. President Obama follows the tradition of many other U.S. presidents when he signs bills; he has used as many as 22 pens to sign a document, with each pen being gifted to someone who played a role in the legislation. National Public Radio (NPR) interviewed Jim Kratsas, Deputy Director of the Gerald R. Ford Museum, about the practice in A History of the Presidential Signing Pen. Kratsas reports that signing documents with multiple pens has been going on since President Truman.

“Well, it was my understanding,” he says, “that Harry Truman was the first one to have a box of pens, kind of like giveaways. And it was actually started by somebody who sent President Truman a box of pens that said, ‘I swiped this from Harry Truman’s desk.’ But the tradition has been, ever since then, that each president that comes into office, they get multiple boxes of these pens.”

In a world where keyboards and touch screens proliferate, you might think that pens are becoming relics of the past. Certainly there are signs everywhere that people seldom take pens to paper to jot down notes, write letters or take meeting minutes. I’m guilty myself, as I type reminders in my iPhone’s Notes and Reminders apps. The few letters I write are signed with a pen, but composed on a laptop. And during the 12 years I was a Board member of Students for a Creative Iowa, I observed that fellow Board members gradually moved away from note-taking on lined legal pads to typing on a laptop or electronic tablet. In today’s schools, Common Core Standards dominate the curriculum, emphasizing keyboard proficiency over cursive writing skills. Many school districts, according to Cory Turner of National Public Radio (NPR)’s “All Things Considered,” have already dropped cursive handwriting from the curriculum.

“The new Common Core State Standards now being implemented in most states never mention the word ‘cursive,'” writes Turner in Does The Fight For A Cursive Comeback Miss The Point?

While many people maintain the loss of handwriting really doesn’t matter, others point to the importance of handwriting for cultural and heritage reasons, citing the necessity of being able to read older relatives’ letters, notes, and journals. I do think there is some validity to this argument. When my father grew up in World War II Germany, he learned to read and write the handwriting of his parents, Sütterlinschrift, where spindly letters and sharp slashes bear little resemblance to the Palmer method I learned as a child. You can see a sample of this handwriting in my mother’s family Bible. She, too, grew up in Germany.


Another argument in favor of the importance of handwriting is one that points to how the brain develops as a result of learning how to form your letters.

“The more variety of things you do in the fine motor domain, the more variety of hand movements you make, will improve your dexterity,” says Professor Amy Bastian, a motor neuroscientist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who was interviewed by Turner.

She points out, however, that it really doesn’t matter whether children are taught handwriting or printing.

Maria Konnikova in her New York Times post, What’s lost as handwriting fades, describes psychologists’ and neuroscientists’ belief that there is still much research that needs to be completed about how handwriting affects the brain. Among those she interviewed was Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris.

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” says Dehaene. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.”

Two years ago in 2012, writes Konnikova, psychologist Karin James at Indiana University conducted an experiment in which children who had not yet learned how to read were given a letter or a shape and asked to reproduce it in one of three ways: by tracing it on paper with a dotted line, by drawing it on a blank sheet of paper, or typing it on a computer. Then the children were placed in a brain scanner and given the letter or shape again. Researchers discovered that when the children drew letters freehand, activity increased in three areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read and write. The same was not true when the letter or shape was traced, or when it was typed on a computer. James says that we can prepare very young children for reading by having them freehand-draw the letters, and then these children eventually learn to read faster and better than those who trace letters, type letters or observe others drawing letters.

According to another study, Early development of language by hand: composing, reading, listening, and speaking connections; three letter-writing modes; and fast mapping in spelling, conducted by psychologist Virginia Berninger from the University of Washington and described by Konnikova, second through fifth graders demonstrated that there is distinct and different brain activity for printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard, with different outcomes. When children were asked to generate ideas for a written composition, those with better handwriting showed greater brain activity in areas associated with working memory, and increased activity in the areas associated with reading and writing.

Berninger suggests that for various disabilities related to reading and writing, there are differences in the way that the brain processes cursive writing versus printing. In dysgraphia, for example, a condition where the ability to write is impaired (particularly after a brain injury), a person’s ability to write cursively is sometimes retained, and printing is not—or exactly the opposite. In alexia, or impaired reading ability, the same is true.

Konnikova spoke with psychologists Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California, who report that students learn better in both lab settings and in the real world when they take handwritten notes versus typewritten ones. My husband, who spends all day in front of a laptop for his job, admits that for him this is true.

“I go through a lot of memo pads,” he says. “I remember things better that way.”

If you are interested in learning more about Konnikova’s interviews with researchers and psychologists about cursive writing, you can download the podcast, Your brain on cursive, from iTunes, or you can play the podcast from the NPR page HERE.

The summer after second grade, when my brother and I learned cursive handwriting, my mother required that we copy a published poem of our choice every day after lunch before we could go outside and play. This practice certainly cemented our newly-learned skill, but I suspect it also encouraged us to appreciate the written word. Years later, when our family relocated from southern California to Wisconsin, I wrote lengthy longhand letters to a friend, and she wrote back. Who knows if the emotional bond that grew—that still exists today, more than four decades later—wasn’t reinforced by the connections between the curved letters we formed? I do know that I treasure handwritten notes over typed ones. My mother, who was not confident about her ability to write in English, seldom wrote anything down, so when I discovered a few of her recipes one day years after she had passed away, I felt as if I had hit the jackpot.


When NPR’s Cory Turner contacted Steve Graham, who studies children’s writing and teaches education at Arizona State University, Graham pointed out that he believes the argument about whether or not to teach handwriting, or whether to teach handwriting versus printing, is silly and doesn’t need to be legislated. He claims that the argument misses the real point, that not enough writing—handwritten, printed or keyboard—is taking place in the classroom.

“We don’t see much writing going on at all across the school day,” Graham says. Instead, they are “filling in blanks on worksheets. One-sentence responses to questions, maybe in a short response summarizing information.”

While I agree with Graham about the importance of truly composing anything in the classroom, I can’t help thinking that students are missing something critical if they don’t learn cursive handwriting. For me, above all, handwriting is associated with memories, not just my own, but those that came before me. Reason enough!


© 2014 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.