The Condenser

Monday, November 28, 2011

On The Construction of a "Trumpet Rat"

Posted by Dave
It's not exactly a Human Centipede, but it's certainly reminiscent - and perhaps just as unlikely. From Francis T. Buckland's Curiosities of Natural History (1856), quoting a case presented in an unnamed French newspaper:

"The trumpet rat, he tells me, is not a supernatural thing, it is an invention due to the leisure moments of the Zouaves. This is how they make them: you take two rats; you tie their paws firmly on a board, the nose of one close to the end of the tail of the other; with a pen-knife or a lancet you make an incision into the nose of the rat which is hindermost, and you graft the tail of the first onto the nose; you tie firmly the muzzle to the tail, and you leave the two rats in this position for forty-eight hours.
At the end of the time the union has taken place, and the two parts are grown together; then you cut off the tail of the rat which is in front to the required length, and let him go, but still keep the other tied to the board but with his head loose, and you give him something to eat. At the end of a month or more the wound is perfectly healed, and the eyes of the most curious scrutators would not see a hint of the grafting."

It's worth noting that the above excerpt doesn't even scratch the surface of this deliriously rambling, almost relentlessly bizarre book - expect to see a lot more from Mr. Buckland's masterpiece in the coming months.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Toulouse-Lautrec's Absinthe Recipes

Posted by Meg
We're half-way through The Observatory's "Decadent Paris Weekend" and it got off to a great start with last night's Grand Guignol lecture with Mel Gordon. Tonight's lecture is Absinthe and Other Liquors of Fin de Siecle Paris. To get you a little in the mood - and maybe a little tipsy - I thought I'd share a couple of Toulouse-Lautrec's absinthe cocktails I found reading Explosive Acts by David Sweetman. Lautrec loved absinthe so much that he kept some in his hollowed-out cane, so he was bound to get a little creative with its preparation.

-tremblement de terre (the earthquake) - absinthe with cognac

-absinthe minuit
(midnight absinthe) - absinthe with white wine

-absinthe de vidangeur
(scavenger absinthe) - absinthe with red wine

Image source


Monday, October 31, 2011

Who is Redbook's Demographic Here?

Posted by Meg
Also, check out the NRA logo on the left.



Saturday, October 29, 2011

Scottish Halloween Traditions

Posted by Dave
If you've spent any time reading up on European and British folk traditions, you're probably familiar with the myriad ways in which you're supposed to be able to catch a glimpse of your future spouse. Finding out who you were going to marry - whether it was seeing their face in a mirror, or over your shoulder, or reading their name in the tea leaves - was such a massive preoccupation of pre-modern westerners, in fact, that we Condensers typically gloss right over them. Crack open any book of folk-practices, and you'll likely have a hard time finding any spell or conjuring trick that doesn't end with your fiance-to-be popping up behind you.

It is, however, interesting to see some Halloween-specific ones, so we're bending our no-spouse-conjuring rule today to give you some interesting Scottish variations - plus some fun bonfire and childbirth items. Taken from Curiosities of Superstition, and Sketches of Some Unrevealed Religions by William Henry Davenport Adams (1882).

...The Halloween customs which still survive may be traced back to a hoar antiquity. For instance, various kinds of divination are practised, and chiefly with apples and nuts. Apples are a relic of the old Celtic fairy lore. They are thrown into a tub of water, and you endeavour to catch one in your mouth as they bob round and round in provoking fashion. When you have caught one, you peel it carefully, and pass the long strip of peel thrice, sunwise, round your head; after which you throw it over your shoulder, and it falls to the ground in the shape of the initial letter of your true love's name.

As for the nuts, they would naturally suggest themselves to the dwellers in mighty woods, such as covered the land of old. Brand says it is a custom in Iceland, when the maiden would know if her lover be faithful, to put three nuts upon the bar of the grate, naming them after her lover and herself. If a nut crack or jump, the lover will prove faithless; if it begin to blaze or burn, it's a sign of the fervour of his affection. If the nuts named after the girl and her swain burn together, they will be married.

In Strathspey, a lass will steal away from the kitchen fire, make her way to the kiln where the corn is dried, throw a ball of thread into it, and wind it up slowly, while uttering certain words. The form of her future lover will take hold of the end of the thread, and reveal itself to her. The most arduous part of this charm is, that no speaking is allowed either on the outward journey or the return.

Children born on Halloween were formerly supposed to be gifted with certain mysterious endowments, such as the power of perceiving and conversing with the "dwellers on the threshold," the inhabitants of the World Invisible.

Once upon a time, all over Scotland a bonfire was lighted on every farm; and often the bonfire was surrounded by a circular trench, symbolical of the sun. Every year these bonfires decrease in number; but within the recollection of living men no fewer than thirty could be seen on the high hilltops between Dunkeld and Abergeldy. And a strange weird sight it was, worthy of the pencil of a Rembrandt,—the dusky figures of the lads and lasses dancing wildly around them, to the hoarse music of their own voices! Miss Cumming writes that in the neighbourhood of Crieff, the balefires, as the people call them, still blaze as brightly as ever; and from personal observation we can assert that they are still lighted in many parts of Argyllshire.

Image found at this site


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages

Posted by Dave
Sometimes, seeing the annual parade of Halloween revelers decked out in Transformers, Dora The Explorer or Sexy Frog costumes makes us feel like the spirit of the season is getting a little diluted. It's all just so darn commercial. If you're looking for something with a little more soul - that old-time religion, so to speak - then look no further than Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, a wonderful Swedish silent film from 1922.
The picture examines witchcraft from a surprisingly modern perspective; its hypothesis is that the behavior that lead to people being killed as witches was, in fact, the result of psychological disorders and not supernatural interference. Sounds like that would make it kind of a downer, huh? Hardly! It becomes quickly apparent that the filmmakers were having a lot of fun portraying scenes of occult perversity, and their thesis only occasionally intrudes on the merriment. The special effects are truly remarkable, the art is gorgeous and several of the scenes are still rather disturbing. Watch it with the lights out, and try substituting your own music -- we found the soundtrack of the Criterion edition, though period-accurate, to be relentlessly jaunty.

Oh, and best of all? It's currently streaming for free over at


Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Devil As Lousy Cook

Posted by Dave
While you're off bobbing for apples and gorging on candy this Halloween, spare a thought for the poor witches. From an account by Alphonso de Castro (1547):

There are tables placed and drawn up, and they sit and start to eat of the food which the demon has provided, or which they have themselves brought. But all who have sat down to such tables confess that the feasts are all foul either in appearance or in smell, so that they would easily nauseate the most hungry stomach. ...They say that there is plenty of everything except bread and salt.

Ok, so the food is disgusting - but that would make sense, I guess, if your party is catered by Satan himself. But what's this about "or which they have themselves brought"? Nice to know witches are so self-deprecating. Oh, this? It's nothing. Really. It's gross; don't even eat it.

From an account by Sister Madeleine de Demandolx (1611):

The drink which they have is malmsey, to provoke the flesh to luxurious wantonness... the meat they ordinarily eat is the flesh of young children, which they cook and make ready in the synagogue, sometimes bringing them thither alive by stealing them from the houses where they have opportunity to come. They have no use of knives at table for fear lest they should be laid across... they have also no salt, which figureth out wisdom and understanding; neither know they the use of olives or oil which represent mercy.

And there you have it - a boozy, meat-heavy, stingy-with-the-bread meal with lots of kids running around. If it weren't for the lack of salt, you'd think you were at Chili's.

Both accounts taken from the indispensable Encyclopedia of Demonology and Witchcraft (1959) by Rossell Hope Robbins.


Halloween Approaches

Posted by Dave
With Halloween nearing, we thought it might be a good time to do a little posting blitz. Get ready for some rapid-fire posts on ghosts, ghouls, witchcraft and Halloween traditions leading up to the big day - something like what we did last year, sans corny name (Condenser Maga-ween? Really, what were we thinking?) Hope you enjoy!

And to kick it off, here's a clipping from Sharpe's London Magazine (1846) regarding Irish Halloween traditions:

" Every house ... abounds in the best viands they can afford; apples and nuts are devoured in abundance; the nutshells are burnt, and from the ashes many strange things are foretold : cabbages are torn up by the roots; hemp-seed is sown by the maidens, and they believe that if they look back they will see the apparition of the man intended for their future spouse : they hang a smock before the fire on the close of the feast, and sit up all night concealed in a corner of the room, convinced that his apparition will come down the chimney and turn the smock: they throw a ball of yarn out of the window, and wind it on a reel within, convinced that if they repeat the Pater Noster backwards, and look at the ball of yarn without, they will then also see his sith or apparition. These, and many other superstitious ceremonies, the remains of Druidism, are observed on this holiday."

Image via this site, which also offers a bunch more great vintage card graphics.


Friday, January 28, 2011

A Guide to New York's Seamier Side

Posted by Dave
Between hearing that our favorite NYC dive, Mars Bar, is soon to close, and watching Wal-Mart's relentless push for a Gotham location, you might forgive us for feeling that our dear city is getting a little bland. To see just how far we've come, check out this New York Times article on a brittle old 1870 brothel directory in the possession of the New York Historical Society. Best of all, they include scans of the entire volume and even a map of the mentioned locations. Who knows - you might discover that your own address is hiding a sordid history!


Friday, January 7, 2011

The Next Wave of Collecting: Books as Decor?

Posted by Dave

If you're a frequent reader of antiquarian book blogs, and also enjoy being consumed with righteous outrage, you should probably head right over to the New York Times and read this article on the rise of the books-as-decor industry. There you'll find harrowing tales of casual book lovers, the kind with plenty of money but no time to build their own collections, purchasing dozens - hundreds! - of volumes, some of them rather old and valuable, with little thought to serious book stewardship.

Rows of volumes sawed in half to fit a shelf! Entire collections thrown together solely for the color of their bindings! And let's not forget Restoration Hardware, selling stacks of old books bound together with twine as decorative objets.

As passionate book enthusiasts, we should be furious, right? After all, we're already battling the Kindle and Nook, devices that dare to leave the printed word floating in cyberspace, displayed on a cold screen and surrounded by buttons. Why, we appreciate the feel of a proper book in our hands - the pages fringed in yellow, the rich illustrations, the leather bindings, the appearance of a stately row of books on a shelf...

Which begs the question: In the age of Google Books, are we really all that different from those collectors in the Times? Pretty much any book is available somewhere online, most of them - particularly the old ones - for free. We might be buying our books individually, with an eye toward subject as well as binding, but in the end the goal for many of us is a great-looking library. You can't really frame the conflict in terms of readers vs. non-readers, either; there are plenty of proper book collectors who rarely sit down and open a tome at the beginning, and this very blog wouldn't exist without a lot of skimming and perusal, not to mention some heavy Google Books usage.

So what this is really about, if it's about anything at all, is preservation. It's easy to imagine a wealthy fashionista, bored with the enormous library of antique books she only recently purchased through a decorator, tossing them out when they no longer match the wallpaper. If those are only a bunch of Danielle Steele novels, newly bound in matching covers, it's no great loss - but anything rarer is a hard thought to bear. Fortunately, it's a pretty unlikely scenario, and the forces of the market tend to keep the most valuable tomes out of the hands of bulk buyers. So let's try to keep the positive aspects of this trend in perspective - people are excited about owning attractive books, finding interesting new ways to show them off, and maybe - just maybe - cracking one open occasionally.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Gift Recommendation from the Condenser

Posted by Dave
Still hunting for a few last-minute holiday gifts? It's ok; we don't judge. In fact, we're here to help! Books make great gifts - they're attractive, personal, useful... and if you give someone enough of them, it will make moving such a chore that they're guaranteed never to leave.
One of our favorites this year is Pictorial Webster's, a collection of images from various 19th c. Webster's dictionaries, compiled by Johnny Carrera. We love the subject juxtapositions and detailed engraving, and even the binding itself is quite handsome.
And whichever books you choose to give this year, remember to support your local bookseller!

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