Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Chinese Silkweaving, Multiple Scripts

During a visit to the Freer Gallery of Art last year, I came across this 13th-century scroll painting that depicts the art of Chinese silkweaving. The scroll links together 24 sheets of paper unfurling from left to right, and its visual content is fascinating (the scenes represent all the stages of silk production). Its verbal content is interesting as well. Each scene is accompanied by a poem that is written out in a formal style of calligraphy called "seal script." Next to each character of text in the poem there's a tiny gloss "translating" the character into standard script. There are also various inscriptions in "running script" throughout the scroll, in addition to the seals of multiple owners that have accrued over time.

To see more images of the scroll and download detailed documentation about its contents, see this website.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

DC's Letter-Named Streets (I and Absent J)

DC's system for naming its streets is distinctive. Streets running east-west take letter names (A, B, C, etc.) and streets running north-south are numbered (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so on). In addition, diagonal avenues are named after US states (for a guide to navigating DC streets, see here). Above, two ways of rendering I (Eye) Street in Foggy Bottom. I've seen many people write addresses referring to "Eye Street" rather than "I Street" - I suppose order to avoid any confusion with the numeral 1 (one).

Why is there no "J Street" in DC, you ask? I've heard people say it's because the I/J distinction was difficult to discern (or non-existent) in 18th-century typography. Others claim that DC lacks a "J Street" because Pierre L'Enfant (the Frenchman who planned the city) disliked Chief Justice John Jay - but this is apparently an urban legend.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Vintage Globe (Air and Space Museum)

View of the North Atlantic in an antique globe, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, September 2010. This artifact is part of the "America by Air" exhibition. Juan Trippe, president of Pan Am Airlines, was accustomed to using this globe to calculate flight distances (using string!) and often posed with it in publicity photos (see here for more).

It's interesting to see how much borders and place-names have changed over time. Here, the Hawaiian Islands are called the "Sandwich Islands" (Cook named the islands in honor of the John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich -- who, contrary to popular belief, did not actually invent sandwiches).

Take a look at North America! Canada is called "British North America." And Alaska is "Russian America." And much of what's now the Western part of the US lacks any borders or writing.