The Secret Lives of Used Books (Middletown, by Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd)

This one is a bit of a mystery. That date, presumably, is either the owner’s birth date or the date of the inscription itself. Since the book is Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd’s dryly fascinating Middletown: A Study in American Culture (1929), I’m guessing that a person old enough to take an interest in the work wouldn’t still be including his or her birthday in any inscriptions — that such a habit, if ever it were one, would have gone the way of putting initials in one’s underwear.

So the date is more likely that of the inscription, which is where the plot thickens, because it certainly looks like the inscription was put down in ballpoint pen, not fountain pen, and the former didn’t hit the consumer market in the United States until the second half of the 1940s. However, the modern ballpoint was invented in 1938, by a couple of Hungarian brothers named Bíró, so such things existed.

Gathering unrest in Europe quickly thereafter put László Bíró, the chief inventor and patent holder, to flight. He fetched up in Argentina in 1943, where he met an Englishman who thought the ballpoint might have a military application — chiefly for aircrews, who wouldn’t therefore have to contend with messy nib pens. Indeed, during the war both the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces requisitioned ballpoint pens of Bíró’s design. So the implement, though not available in the United States on a broad consumer basis until 1945, was a specialty item that had been put into production before that. (Incidentally, Bíró, in order to purchase passage for his family to Argentina, had to sell his patent to Marcel Bich, of the Bic company. It’s all a fascinating story unto itself.)

But back to C. F. Dunham, who is likely the Charles Frederick Dunham whose 1940 draft registration card shows him having been born in Toledo, Ohio, in January 1917. According to the card, Dunham was working in the field of display advertising in Ohio in 1940. Such a profession jibes with that heavily stylized inscription (a somewhat youthful attempt at graphic pizzazz), and could explain his having come into possession of a specialty design tool before it was mass produced for the consumer market or even the Allied air forces.

It’s a theory, and hardly airtight. But note some of the similarities between the inscription and the penmanship on the registration card, particularly the trailing “fins” on the printed, uppercase Ds (for instance, in Dunham and Dean on the card and in Dunham and Toledo in the inscription). There’s also the curlicue bottom of the numeral 5 in the upper left corner of the card and the same curlicue at the right end of the scroll line in the inscription. Also, the S in U.S.A. on the card looks at least faintly like the middle initial F in the inscription.

But the card is a mishmash of styles. Some is in cursive; some in block letters, which are angular like those in the inscription but not quite in the same way. Also, one 5 has a curlicue and two others don’t. One of Dunham’s uppercase Fs is even backwards. So, he’s an unreliable witness in the investigation.



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Jon Zobenica

Jon Zobenica

A former senior editor at The Atlantic, now living in California.