Posted by Ellen

The musical instrument in the 1928 photo above is a contrabass tuba, considerably larger and lower-pitched than a regular tuba. It is designed to be strapped onto a musician in a marching band and played in its strapped-on position, without need for lifting or rearranging.

The extremely rare instrument in the photo below from Greenwich, England, is a sub-contrabass tuba, which emits sounds an octave lower than those produced by the contrabass tuba. It is probably not intended for use in a marching band.

Posted by Ellen

Fulton Center, a new transit hub connecting four subway lines in lower Manhattan, opened to the public last week.

Posted by Ellen

All 1,903 pictures snapped for Philly Photo Day last month can now be viewed online. We've selected a few to post here from time to time, just to remind y'all that things were really jumping that day in the City of Brotherly Love.

Posted by Ellen

"Deep in the Guangxi Province of China," by Trey Ratcliff.

Posted by Ellen

The gnarled little trees called wallum banksia thrive in the sandy heathlands along Australia's east coast, from Queensland down into northern New South Wales around Sydney. Tall spikes of yellow-green flowers linger for months on the branches, drying out and turning brown and then gray; the knobby fruits–seed follicles–may hang on the plant indefinitely, at least until a brush fire sweeps across the countryside, which is something that happens there about every seven to twelve years.

Wallum banksia are not harmed by fire, nor by salt spray or nutrient-starved sandy soil or extended drought. The species has evolved to thrive in extremely harsh conditions, in a habitat which, like the species itself, is known as wallum.

Fire may burn up the leaves and branches, but it also pops open the seed follicles, allowing new little wallum banksia to sprout up all around the old ones. Also, the roots often push up new growth after a fire, helping the species reclaim the territory from other opportunistic seeds that might be trying to spread thereabouts.

The specimen pictured here is not in Australia at all, but in the Australian garden area of Wellington Botanic Gardens in New Zealand. The climate in almost all of New Zealand is cooler and far moister than in most parts of Australia, and wallum banksia does not grow naturally in New Zealand. In fact, it is said that the healthiest, largest, fastest-growing specimens are in dry, sunny, fire-prone locations with poor soil comprised mostly of sand.

Posted by Ellen

The dome and minarets of Istanbul's Ottoman-era Ortakoy Mosque flank the bridge towers at the European end of Turkey's Bosphorus Bridge; to the right is the superstructure of a ship passing through the strait.

Posted by Ellen

Night of the Loy Kratong festival in Thailand.

Posted by Ellen

Picking up the pieces last summer in the plaza at downtown Seattle's Westlake Mall.

Posted by Ellen

On this date in 1962, as the ad below announces, this store in Rockville, Maryland, first opened its doors. It was called a Super Giant; it was the world's first Super Giant, and it was my Super Giant. 

It was a supermarket, of course, and also a department store, selling raincoats and tennis rackets and desk lamps and windshield wiper blades as well as produce and candy and cigarettes. In other words, it was a WalMart before its time, and people came from all over, even from across the river in Virginia, to check it out.

Like any ordinary non-super supermarket in our regional Giant chain, it had those plaid plastic inflatable elephants up near the ceiling. All the fish on ice in the seafood section still had their heads on them and all their bones inside them, and while you waited for the guy to fillet them, you could watch the lobsters swimming in their tank.

In the produce section, somebody would weigh your produce and bag it in a paper bag and write the price on the bag with a grease pencil. At the register, the cashier would key in every single price–no scanning back then–and calculate your change. There were no credit or debit cards and no ATMs; people paid cash or wrote checks. With a local address, you could write a check for $25 over the purchase price.

Just inside the door was a row of gumball machines and usually a mechanical pony you could ride if you could talk your mother into giving you a nickel, which was not likely.

Just outside the door was the corral where you left your grocery cart–we called it a basket–while you found your car in the parking lot and drove back around to pick up what you'd purchased. A store employee loaded your car for you; he identified which groceries were yours by looking at a number on a plastic card you'd been given, which matched the number on your basket. Printed on those plastic cards, in addition to the number, were the words "No Tipping." Every time I looked at one of those numbered cards, I daydreamed a little about tipping over grocery carts.

But the best thing about Giant food shopping, better even than the Frosted Flakes and the Hostess cupcakes, was what came out of the little brown boxes near the end of each checkout lane. In the picture above, a man is writing a check on top of the box in Lane 7.

Those boxes were stamp dispensers. After your order was rung up, yellow Top Value Stamps would automatically start spitting out of the dispenser. If you'd bought a lot of groceries–the average family of four spent $12 a week on food–then you'd get a lot of stamps.

When you got back home, your mother might let you lick the stamps and stick them onto the pages of the stamp books. There were stamp catalogues showing what you could get for your filled-up stamp books: a picnic set with plastic plates and nubbly plastic glasses, a poker caddy full of wooden chips, a striped beach umbrella.

Try talking your mother into buying stuff like that. You'd be wasting your breath. But with enough yellow Top Value Stamps, all that and more could be yours–for free.

I still have a folding card table that my cousin Toby bought with cigarette stamps, found inside the cellophane wrapper on every single pack of cigarettes. And I knew families growing up that saved green stamps. But we were a Top Value Stamps family, loyal, in the marketing sense of the word, to the Giant Foods chain of stores.

We bought groceries from the Giant store closest to our house. The Super Giant was a few miles away, so we went there mostly for non-food shopping. But that was okay; you could get stamps for socks and underwear, too; you didn't have to be buying food.

With all those stamps, all that loyalty, and the great marketing innovation of WalMart-like one-stop shopping with a "spacious 3,000 car parking area"–well, where have all the Super Giants gone?

They came and went in a flash, arriving in 1962 and closing down within a few years, certainly before 1970, despite drawing huge crowds. The picture above was taken in 1964.

Today at this location on Rockville Pike, there's a regular old non-super Giant grocery store occupying a small part of the building. The rest of the shopping center features an Old Navy, a Sports Authority, and suchlike. 

And Top Value Stamps have been replaced by airline miles, credit card points, store cards that give you discounts on gasoline.

Someday, even WalMart will bite the dust. Will that be a good thing? We can't know, I suppose, till we see what takes its place.