Macy’s – A Cold Coming We Had of It

For Lucinda

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 12.04.39 AMFeel like you’ve spent too much time shopping lately?  Need something to help you through the torrid crowds at Lord and Taylor or Macy’s?  Here’s some food for thought if you should find yourself awash in a sea of over-zealous Macy’s shoppers.

In 1858, after two failed attempts at dry goods stores in Massachusetts,  Captain Rowland Hussey Macy opened a store in New York City on 6th Avenue.  Not at the current and iconic location on Herald Square, but between 13th and 14th streets. According to a New York Times article on the store’s 75th anniversary, Macy’s store was the first store in New York, and possibly America, where dry goods and home furnishings were sold under one roof.   Macy let space in his basement to L.Straus & Son for a display of crockery, china, and glassware.  (Plus, checkout the totally emotive almost full sentence italics of the NYT article describing this partnership at the end of the second paragraph as well as for an amazing vision of life in the city at the time.)

Previous to his career in retail, Macy had been a Nantucket whaling skipper.   He was known for his beard, and waiting on customers in shirtsleeves, while puffing on a cigar. It is from this past life as a sailor that the store’s  iconic red star logo came into being.  Macy had the sailor’s good luck charm, a nautical star, among the tattoos he had on the back of his hands.

Whaling was a thriving industry in the 1900s, with whale oil lighting most lamps and whale bones, providing among other things, the starch for a woman’s corset.  The smallest of ships – schooners – were out to sea for an average of 6 months, with the longest tour on record being 11 years.  Sailors explored the world in a way landlocked gentleman could not.  Their crews were often multiracial – Yankees, Gay Head and other Indians as well as African Americans. [1] Interestingly, occasionally even families sailed with the crews.  Western sailors started getting tattoos around the time Captain Cook sailed to the South Pacific.  There is no documented record of when sailors started to be superstitious, it might pre-date writing.   But a natural combination was born, permanent talismans to guard against elements that could not be truly foretold or controlled (the uncontrollable mystery).

Macy’s red nautical star had the same meaning as a rose of a compass – an image to guide the sailor home.  This refers to the North Star, as it traditionally guided navigation.

Some other nautical tattoo meanings:

  • Swallows – tattooed on the chest, neck or hands, one swallow meant 5,000 nautical miles sailed, two meant 10,000 (no small accomplishment.)  These birds are known to return to home after long migrations every year.
  • Hold Fast – hold written on one hand, and fast on the other, is meant to give a sailor good grip of the rigging, and figuratively keep them on board, as it may be derived from Hold Vast/Fast which in Nordic languages means hold tight.
  • Dragons – a voyage to China and back.
  • Roosters and Pigs – talismans to guard against drowning.  Pigs and roosters, animals which avoided water, were put in crates that floated.  Sailors got tattoos of these animals on their feet to protect against drowning (as interestingly, most sailors did not know how to swim in the 19th century[2]).
  • Anchor – crossing the Atlantic Ocean, American sailors added an eagle to the anchor.  It’s actually a  fouled anchor – an anchor with rope around it.
  • Full Rigged Ship – the sailor has sailed around Cape Horn.
  • Shellback Turtle – crossed the equator.
  • Dolphin  – a talisman to protect a sailor from shark attack, should they fall overboard
  • Harpoon – fishing industry
  • Crossed Cannons – naval  military service.

There’s a connection between the star, as a navigational beacon and gift giving that dates back to the story of Magi.   It doesn’t ease the pain of shopping, or the elbow jab from an eager gifter, but at least makes it somewhat more bearable.

For more on sailor tattoos, check out the Atlantic’s piece with Bowsprite on sailor tattoos.

Cue Jimmy Durante (A Gift Guide)

Make (Bono) Happy, Just Make (Bono) Happy.

It is gift giving time. When people are faced with the oh so pleasant thought of buying a ton of stuff that may sit widely unused.  Like those sweaters that are knits only Bill Cosby could love. Why not try something different this year, and make sure your spending goes a little further, and has a greater return.  Ideally, it is an endless return –  the coolness of making someone smile, or feel like you know who they are combined the return of knowing any gift you give has larger impact combined with the impact of the gift.  Consider:

  • According to UNICEF and the WHO, 783 BILLION people in the world have no ready access to safe drinking water.
  • 85.4 percent of the world’s population lives in developing or underdeveloped economies.
  • Residents of more than 80 countries in the world live in conditions of either conflict or disaster, according to the UNDP.
  • John McPhee is not dead – save long form journalism. Continue reading “Cue Jimmy Durante (A Gift Guide)”

Trademark, Meh

Forever 21 in the Maadi mall.

Apparently, in light of country’s strapped economic situation, Egypt ended up with counterfeit gear and wear for their Olympic athletes. The head of the Egyptian Olympic Committee, General  Mahmoud Ahmed Ali, and his colleagues felt the cost of kitting out all 112 athletes plus the coaches, trainers and doctors accompanying the athletes in authentic gear to be too high, and went with a Chinese distributor to procure knockoff goods.  And not even high quality, backroom in a shop on Canal St knockoffs either – the gear bags have both Nike and Adidas logos on them. (AP/Yahoo) Continue reading “Trademark, Meh”

Browsa Goes Global.

This winter, I got to take a break from writing about the steamier more wonkish side of life – things like social enterprise, creative capitalism and economic development – to work on some in-depth hard hitting journalism about eyebrow waxing.  That’s right, waxing. Check the Spree Beauty book for the full story. Not only that, but I served as a model for before, during and after pictures.  Think you’ve had a bad hair day, try having your picture taken with purple wax on your face.  Almost nothing says “I feel pretty” less.

Glamour, here I come. Continue reading “Browsa Goes Global.”

Antiques and World Wide Weddings

So the deed is done – Kate Middleton is now officially Catherine Mountbatten-Windsor aka Mrs. William Arthur Philip Louis, Duchess of Cambridge, Countess of Strathearn and Baroness of Carrickfergus (one of the oldest cities in NI.)   The British Community Association Clubhouse in Maadi was all decked out for the event, with miniature Union Jack flags and napkins, hearts, flowers and UK expats all dressed up to watch the event on large screen TVs placed around the lawn.  The Beeb gave most of the airtime to the nuptials, but kept its ticker running, alerting the crowd with updates on Syria (formerly ruled by French mandate as part of the Sykes Picot agreement) Libya (formerly known as Italian North Africa), Bahrain (a former UK protectorate) and Morocco (a former protectorate of France, through a treaty between Germany, Spain and France.)  Ok, stepping off that soap box, sorry, it just keeps sneaking in.

Egypt  itself was officially declared a republic in 1953, following the 1952 Revolution, which freed the country from its status a protectorate of the British Crown.  But remnants of Egypt’s time spent in the Commonwealth can be found throughout Cairo, intermixed with the modernist style of the revolution’s resultant socialist republic.  Near the Townhouse Gallery, a sign advertising a theatre and odeon hangs over a space now used for car repairs. In the warrens of the Khan el Khalili, relics of this former life – British porcelain (no Walking Ware or Susie Cooper so far, but the search continues), antique cameras (all the Brownies you could want) and antique radios  – are for sale, jumbled along with spices, brightly colored textiles, jewelry, carpets and reproductions of ancient Egyptian artifacts.

In Maadi, you can find exquisite English antiques mixed in with those in a more traditional Egyptian style.  Walk Road 15 and you will find two stores, almost immediately next to each other, which both specialize in design and antiques.  The first, Yaman Gallery, specializes in mashrabiah (balconies) and doors – recycling the incredibly intricate arabesque doors for use in new homes or repurposed as tables – as well as reformation of masterpieces of special furniture.  Its space is one big showroom, the outside wall of an apartment building and several storage spaces underneath the building.  The proprietor, Mohamed Bakr, peels up an unassuming metal door, and inside each carrel is a mash-up of classic English furniture – mahogany, maple and marble abound – with the belle époque almost arts and crafts style favored by Egyptians (as described by my untrained eye.)  Layers of dust and the smell of old books cover everything,  making it all seem like priceless antiques from another era.

The book case holds titles like 5 Victorian Poets mixed in with Arabic books.
An Egyptian Samovar and colorful boots rest on a classic English hutch

Down the street, Theodor’s presents antiques and collectibles through a crisp blue traditional UK/USA boutique storefront. There is a strong effort to merchandise the pottery, porcelain and antique clothing among the antique and beautiful furniture that supports its London esque prices.  Sadly, the shop seems to have been closed since March (or there is just a coincidental holiday overlap) and the Western proprietor has not updated communications on it since February, according to Facebook.