14 September 2011

Guest Post: Gail Crowther's did you know...

The below is a guest post by Gail Crowther and discusse some of the wonders she found in the Plath Collection at Smith College during her visit to America in July and August...

Did You Know....

For those of you who have read "These Ghostly Archives 1, 2 & 3", you will know that Peter and I are very interested in the minutiae of papers, pictures, scraps of paper relating to Plath....

In a recent visit to the Plath archives at Smith College, I was fascinated to discover a cheque book covering the last months of Plath’s life, beginning 11 December 1962 with the final cheque dated 31 January 1963. Mostly this is a document that reveals a narrative of Plath’s London move – new furniture and household pieces, new clothes and cash (pre- ATMs!). One name which repeatedly appears (Plath writes five cheques) is to a store called Bowman's. A little research revealed that this store was based in Camden (in fact conveniently right next door to Plath's own bank, Lloyds which was at 140 Camden High Street) and was a high class furniture store offering modern pieces. Although it is no longer in existence, some of the original shop can still be seen at the Camden High Street address. Here, red brick archways flourish, with the department name tiled in a swirly mosaic above each window (see here, for example).

Classed as a department store, Bowman's sold curtains, furniture, carpets and bedding. Plath's cheque book reveals that on the 14 Dec 1962, she bought a bureau from this shop costing £7:3:6. On the same day, but a different cheque, she also purchased three carpets at the cost of £26:15:0. On the 20 Dec, she bought a rug for £16:16:0 and the following day on the 21 Dec, two more bureaus at the cost of £14:7:0. Her final purchase from Bowman’s was just a few weeks before her death on 18 Jan 1963 when her cheque book lists "curtaining cushions" for £4:1:0. I was curious to put these purchases into context. A modern currency converter reveals that Plath was spending money on quite fine items here. Using the retail price index converter from 1962 we can see that by today’s standards Plath was spending approximately £114 on a bureau, £426 on carpets, £268 on a rug, £228 on two more bureaus and £64 on curtains and cushions. These were not budget, disposable items but perhaps fitting pieces for Plath's stated long-view five year plan.

For me, seeing these cheques really places Plath in her historical and social context. Over the years, Bowman's shrank in size, until just before closure it took up only one small shop out of the entire block it used to occupy. But during Plath's time, the store was thriving offering modern, designed furniture aimed at those with smaller flats. Its catalogues were stylish and creative and used renowned artists to design their covers.

Catalogues from Bowman's can be viewed here and here.

And view an advert from December 1962 when Plath was making most of her purchases can be seen here.

Perhaps more than this, these cheques serve as a poignant reminder of how busy Plath was in the winter of 1962-63, decorating her new flat and making plans. Other cheque stubs show she was buying chairs, bar stools, tables, glasses, cabinets, beds and shelving. This level of busyness is also supported by her Letts 1962 calendar which shows the sheer scale of her move – painting floors and furniture on a daily basis as well as writing and broadcasting for the BBC, being a full time mother and forging a new life for herself. So, a simple document whose original purpose is to record financial comings and goings, provides for us, almost 50 years, later a privileged insight into Plath's day to day life, her sense of style, the furniture she chose....and where she chose to buy it from.....


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Fascinating. This makes her suicide even harder to understand, eh?

Certainly it was less about long-term emotional depression and more a biological/chemical/drug reaction swing (compounded by the flu and that awful winter), I think.

Anonymous said...

Really fascinating Gail, thanks for that! I'm pretty sure Plath's bank, Lloyds, is still at the same spot on Camden High Street (140) though looking completely different.

Do you or Peter have a pic of her 1962 Letts calendar btw? Are you generally allowed to take pics of these things in the Smith College collection? ~VC

Peter K Steinberg said...

~VC, I don't want to speak for Gail, but yes, Smith allows photographs but, like their photocopies they provide upon request, photographs are for individual private use. Generally they do allow you to photograph anything. If you come here, let me know I'll drive you out!

Other libraries have differing policies about what a research can photograph; I believe the Lilly is rather strict. You can photograph things Plath received, like letters and whatnot, but not something originated by Plath.


magiciansgirl said...

This is great info, Gail! Perhaps Bowman's was an Ikea of its day, with far less branches ;-) That SP was not scrimping on her furnishings (unlike the days when she and Ted were buying 2nd hand furniture in London and Devon)does say a lot about her future plans and attitude towards her new life without Ted. Like Julia, I have to wonder what it was, then, that sent her over the edge in February.

Hey Peter, I'll be in Boston on 9/25, but only for a 2 hour layover, alas - I'll salute you when flying over :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks everyone for your kind words, glad you enjoyed the post.

Julia & Kim, I agree with your comments about Plath's future plans, these certainly did not seem the purchases or actions of a suicidal woman.

VC - yes I do believe the bank is still there - alas, Bowman's is now a Burger King (ugh). As Peter said, you can take photos at Smith for personal use - her calendar is utterly astonishing, especially for Dec 1962, each day crammed.

Hopefully over the coming months I can write up some more of my finds and share them via this great blog,


Melanie Smith said...

Thank you for this, I love these little glimpses into her world at the time. I would love to know what these pieces looked like.

Rehan Qayoom said...

The bank's still there. I must pay a visit and ask to open an account with them!

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.