Isinglass

“Fried egg sandwich and a turnip,” Millie said, with a clack of her new boughten teeth, something she did unconsciously these days, to settle them in her mouth.

“That’s good, it’ll fix me up for the walk home.” Bill heard the turnip clunk inside the lunch pail as she handed it to him. He would not eat this lunch until he got off work at two. 

She turned away to stoke the woodstove and start mixing cornmeal mush for the kids, who were due to get up an hour from now. 

Bill buttoned his wool greatcoat, pulled his fedora down around his ears, and stepped out into the five a.m. March drizzle. 

He walked east in darkness on the damp shoulder of the Peoria Road—U.S. Route 150, as it was now designated—almost sprinting, almost at a lope. A man of spare physique had to hustle to walk the nine miles to Dahinda in three hours. Bill usually made it in two and a half. Good to be early to work; some of those god-damned young jay-larks at the pumping station could take punctuality lessons from him. Not that he was old. He wouldn’t reach fifty for two more years.

Still, it was hard to be walking three hours each way, six days a week, for a six-hour job. Get six hours’ pay, but it takes you twelve hours to do it. The pipeline company had cut his hours a year ago, to make room on the payroll for a few more men. Well, everybody had families to feed, and most of the big employers were reducing the standard workday. The imbecile in the White House, Herbert Hoover, encouraged them all to do it. Not that this Roosevelt would be an improvement.

Damn it, he missed the Pierce-Arrow—a 1929 touring car, made shortly after Studebaker bought the company. Bill had bought it new for just under three thousand. A bit of a luxury, but it was a fine machine and well within the range of what he could afford. Then the stock market crashed, the company cut back hours, and something had to go. He couldn’t sell back Millie’s teeth—and anyhow, they wouldn’t fetch one-tenth the price of a Pierce-Arrow. He had sold the car at a sacrifice, but better fifteen hundred than nothing. Every one of those dollars would be needed to keep feeding five young mouths—plus his own and Millie’s, of course. Even with the large vegetable garden he kept.

Pierce-Arrow touring car. F. D. Richards, Creative Commons.

So far the company had only cut hours, not the hourly wage rate. But that was coming, no doubt. Things would get a lot worse before they got better. They couldn’t move back to Dahinda after moving all the way to Knoxville for Edward’s high school. And the other four were coming along right behind him. Best to stay put. So trudge three hours each way, whatever the weather. Sometimes he could hitch a ride from a passing freight truck.

Still, he missed that touring car. It had the optional side curtains with little isinglass windows in them. Just the thing to roll down and keep warm and dry in weather like this. He clutched the handle of the little steel lunch bucket. Nine hours from now, he’d need the nourishment before the hike home.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Grandpa’s Pierce-Arrow with Isinglass Curtains

My grandfather, William P. Sommers, terrified me. By the time I knew him, he was a bombastic, profane, old man—a bantam rooster, probably not over five-foot-two in his size six shoes. But I was naturally timid; he really meant no harm. He simply believed he knew best and everybody else was a damned fool. And what were children, if not to be yelled at?

Dad told me that Grandpa had once owned a Pierce-Arrow, one of the finest cars of its time, but had to give it up during the Great Depression and then was forced to walk to and from work. Nine miles was only a short drive, even on the roads of that day. But to walk it twice each day, rain, shine, or blizzard, must have been brutal. Maybe that’s part of what made him a tough old buzzard.

Dad said the Pierce-Arrow had “isinglass curtains you could roll right down in case of a change in the weather.” He was, consciously or unconsciously, quoting Curly, from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical  Oklahoma!, who sings exactly those words in a song about “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” 

But what are isinglass curtains, whether used on a horse-drawn surrey or on a fine motor car? The quest for the answer is perplexing.

In the first place, “isinglass” means at least two different things. 

DIGRESSION ALERT: When I was a boy, there was a popular quiz show on the radio called Twenty Questions. Panelists guessed a secret object by asking no more than twenty yes-or-no questions. The quizmaster started each round by saying whether the object to be guessed was “animal, vegetable, or mineral.” (Come to think of it, old radio programs might be an excellent subject for a future blog entry!) END OF DIGRESSION ALERT. WE RETURN YOU TO YOUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED BLOG POST: 

Isinglass would need to be classified as both animal and mineral. From Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition: “isinglass . . . 1 a form of gelatin prepared from the internal membranes of fish bladders: it is used as a clarifying agent and adhesive 2 mica, esp. in the form of thin, transparent sheets of muscovite”. So now you know.

Fish bladders?

What is this fish-bladder stuff? Other sources say it is a substance obtained from the dried swim-bladders of sturgeon and is used mainly for the clarification or “fining” of beer and wine. (Exception, however: The isinglass used for making kosher beer or wine must be from a different fish, because sturgeon is treif, or non-kosher.) This kind of isinglass is also used for darkly-hinted-at “specialized gluing purposes.” 

Sturgeon. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Russian mica

The mica form of isinglass is a “phyllosilicate mineral of aluminium and potassium” that occurs as thin, transparent sheets. That form of mica is known as “muscovite” because large quantities of it are mined in Russia. 

I can’t imagine either material being made into carriage-sized curtains that can be “rolled down.” The mineral mica would not be flexible enough; the animal mica would not be durable enough. And neither could be made in large enough sheets. Curly, in Oklahoma!, probably spoke imprecisely to achieve a lyric that would fit metrically into the song. That’s probably the answer, for we know that horse-drawn carriages and early automobiles did have fabric curtains inset with small windows or peepholes of isinglass. But, which kind of isinglass: animal, or mineral? 

Coachbuilt.com (which appears to be published by “Adirondack Motorbooks & Collectibles LLC dba Auto Antiques” of Palmyra, New York) reconciles both sides of the question quite nicely: “ISINGLASS—typically a window made from thin sheets made of a material other than glass. Early isinglass was made from a transparent sheet of gelatin, processed from the inner lining of a Sturgeon’s bladder. As it was flexible, it was perfect for the storm curtains and window on early touring cars. The term is now commonly used as any non-glass sheet material which passes light, such as mica, oiled paper, celluloid or plastic. Early isinglass of all varieties yellowed and scratched easily.” 

This explanation is logical and harmonious; but is it true? Were fish-gelatin sheets really used for windows? It’s hard to swallow—except perhaps as a fining agent in beer or wine, which could be easy to swallow. At least it would be flexible, so it would roll up nicely in a curtain. Mica, on the other hand, has only a slight flex—less than that of the wobble board Australian singers use on songs like “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.” Such windows would have to be tiny to roll inside a fabric curtain without undue lumpiness. The most sensible thing about Coachbuilt.com’s explanation comes at the end, for no doubt all different kinds of things have been casually called “isinglass”—just as in the days of my youth any kind of transparent candy or food wrapper was called “cellophane.” 

Wikipedia states: “Thin transparent sheets of mica were used for peepholes in boilers, lanterns, stoves, and kerosene heaters because they were less likely to shatter than glass when exposed to extreme temperature gradients. Such peepholes were also used in ‘isinglass curtains’ in horse-drawn  carriages and early 20th-century cars.” This seems to contradict Coachbuilt.com’s theory, but we might be wise to take this Wikipedia factoid with a grain of salt—or perhaps quartz or feldspar. 

My other grandfather—Alvin E. LaFollette, also of Knoxville, Illinois—had a kerosene space heater that stood in his living room in winter and kept it warm. It had a round window in front, about six inches in diameter, through which you could see, somewhat indistinctly, the leaping orange and blue flames. I think this actually was mica. But note: In stove/boiler/heater applications, the isinglass did not have to roll or bend. Mica, for its heat-resistant properties, was perfect in the application.

In short, when old Bill Sommers longed for the comfort of his isinglass curtains, and when his son Lloyd passed the story on to me, the exact composition of the particular transparent windows was hardly relevant. It was just “isinglass.” Whatever that may have meant to them.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

4 thoughts on “Isinglass

  1. Good fictional story, and interesting notes on “isinglass.” My father was just a boy during the Depression, and it affected both him and his sister–but in different ways. It made him thrifty, because you never knew when hard times would hit again. It made her the complete opposite, because you might as well enjoy the good times while they last.

    • Interesting, Bob, how different folks, even within a family, react differently to the same events.

  2. Love this! My grandfather also walked miles to the steel mills in Chicago during the depression to feed his five children. And my father and his brother would walk along the railway tracks to pick up errant pieces of coal and if they got a bucketful they would sell it for a dime and choose between a dozen day old doughnuts or two cans of soup for the family.

    • I love this reminiscence of yours, Karen. I’ll bet every family in America has Depression stories like this, just two or three generations back . . . and these stories are important. They are part of what has made us who we are today. I don’t think there’s a simple 1:1 relationship between history and the present, but I do think our past has important things to say to us, if we’ll take the time and effort to listen.

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