The Kanban of Old Japan

Hokusai's print of the Mitsui shop on Suruga Street in Edo (Tokyo). (Visipix.com)
First off, I'd like to wish each and every one of you out there a very happy, healthy, and properous 2013! May it be a good year for you all, and a good year for our world in general.

Now to today's blog entry:

During the Edo period in Japan (1603-1868), a new innovation started appearing on the fronts of the country's shops. That innovation was the shop sign, or kanban. These signs were very simple yet creative, but very different from the signs most common in today's Japan.

Kanban can be traced back to the markets of the Nara period (710-794), but it was during the Edo period that they became commonplace in front of businesses. During this time, the country was becoming increasingly urbanized, the literacy rate was growing at an astonishing rate, and the Edo economy and marketplace were booming. A wealthy merchant class - or chōnin (町人) who could establish and run their own shops had established themselves in Edo society during this time.

The chōnin were theoretically at the bottom of Edo society, but they still managed to become very successful and had a high degree of influence on Edo society. The samurai and daimyo- traditionally the nobility of ancient Japan - grew dependent on them for goods and over time, the roles began to reverse. The chōnin also set up some very large and sophisticated shops in which they did their business. In Japanese cities, streets full of shops appeared in merchant districts and these shops tended to look similar to one other.

To advertise these shops, the shop owners erected kanban in front of the stores that passer-bys would easily notice. These signs were to the store-owners what banners were to the samurai. They symbolized honesty, integrity, and pride in their business. Also, these shop signs were very eye-catching and made their store stand out from all the others next to it.

Manga by Hokusai depicting workers at an Edo-period store. Notice the shoe-shaped sign with the word "Cash", which was apparently an expression that meant "general store" at the time. (Visipix.com)

Edo-period kanban were typically made of wood or paper and hung from wooden or bamboo frames. There were also elaborate kanban made from metal, and traditional signage such as paper lanterns and cloth curtains known as noren that were marked with calligraphy. Some kanban were made in the outline of the product(s) sold at the shop and were very similar to Chinese store signs which also used the same outlines. These outlines were of products such as shoes, eyeglasses, combs, etc. and could be understood by anyone passing by.

The information inscribed on kanban varied, but typically featured the name of the shop, services offered, products sold, and qualities of the products. Kabuki theaters displayed signs with the names of the plays being performed at the time - a forerunner to today's movie theater marquee.

Later on in the Edo period, many shop owners started erecting temple-like structures, or yakata (屋形) over their kanban. These structures can be seen in Katsushika Hokusai's (1760-1849) ukiyo-e print at the top of this post and reflected how seriously the shop-owners took their business, especially as they prospered.

Print by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) depicting Mitsui Echigoya along Suruga St. (Visipix.com)
Kanban often featured some very interesting riddles and symbolism that could be easily understood by anyone living in Edo-period Japan. For example, on the sign in the Hokusai manga above, the word "cash" (maybe "cash store, or announcing that the store accepts cash payment"?) is used for "general store". An outline of a shoe suggests footwear was also sold at this store. Anyone who happened to pass this store would know exactly what kind of store it was and what they sold. A sign for a paint shop might have different-colored dabs of paint on the sign. A sake shop might have a wine flask or sake cask kanban hanging over its entrance. A pawn shop might have a sign with the character for gold (金) on it, or even some other auspicious symbol! And so on. Kanban also featured corporate logos such as the Mitsui logo, which was featured on many kanban in Edo's (modern-day Tokyo) prestigious Mitsui Echigoya merchant district. Some of these logos remain iconic in Japan to this very day.

During the Meiji era (1868-1912), Japan's marketplace started opening up to foreign visitors and merchants. During this time, kanban started taking on their modern character. More durable wooden signs started appearing in front of shops and were often bilingual, with the name of the store written in Romaji and the items in English and/or French.

In modern-day Japan, modern-day kanban such as the famous signs with flashy graphics or those found in the West are the norm. However, some of the kanban of old still hang over historic buildings and sites throughout the country!

Links:
http://www.aisf.or.jp/~jaanus/deta/k/kanban.htm (Webpage on kanban in ancient Japan. Includes info about how the signs were hung and is chock full of pictures of old kanban!)
http://ameblo.jp/darukyo/theme-10016741003.html (Japanese language blog entry from the Notizen blog about symbolism in Edo-period kanban.)
http://www.wiw.net/pages.php?CDpath=3_5_1358_1360_1726_1816
http://dostoevskiansmiles.blogspot.com/2008/10/on-nature-of-desideratum.html (Blog entry from A Night of Dostoevskian Smiles and Sadean Excess about the rise of the chōnin in Edo-period Japan.)
http://www.admt.jp/salon/collection/kanban.html (A webpage on the Advertising Museum Tokyo website [Japanese langauge only] about kanban in the Edo period. Features examples of kanban from the period.)

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The Bond Clothing Store Signs in Times Square

The Bond Clothing Store sign circa 1941. (Library of Congress)
Some of the biggest neon signs - if not the biggest signs - to ever dominate New York City's Times Square were the signs advertising the Bond Clothing Store. These massive signs were some of the most brilliant and colorful signs produced during the 20th century in New York City and they added a nice dash of animation to New York's nighttime skyline!

The Bond Clothing Store opened its doors in Cleveland, OH in 1914 and started out as a cheap men's suit retailer. It quickly became one of the country's biggest clothing retailers and by 1924, it had expanded into a national chain with 28 stores in cities across the US.

In 1940, after re-organizing as Bond Clothes, Inc and moving its headquarters to New York City's Fith Avenue three years earlier, a large Bond retail outlet opened in Times Square. This outlet was a highly-sophisticated, three-year old modern building that was the former site of the International Casino. It was two stories tall, but the massive sign more than doubled its size! This sign, which was erected around the same time the store opened, advertised Wrigley's Spearmint Gum and featured some fish that swam around and blew bubbles. Underneath in neon was the logo of Bond Clothes, which featured a clock in the middle of the 'O' in 'Bond', as well as the marquee for the Loew's Criterion theater, which was housed in the same building This sign stayed a part of Times Square throughout the World War II years and would be dismantled in 1948....only to be replaced by the biggest sign to ever grace Times Square!

A postcard of the new Bond Clothes sign at night. (Wikimedia Commons)
In 1948, the designer of the previous Bond Clothes sign, Douglas Leigh, had been on a roll for much of the decade designing some of Time Square's most spectacular and memorable signs, such as the famous Camel and Kool penguin cigarette signs and the steaming Eight O' Clock Coffee cup. That year he designed a whole new sign for the Bond Clothes outlet, and created one of his masterpieces in the process. This sign was 50 feet tall and 200 feet wide, spanned two streets, and featured a 50,000 gallon waterfall! Surrounding this waterfall were two classical-style figures of a man and woman who were nude during the day, but clothed in neon togas and dresses at night. Topping this sign was a clock which stated that at "every hour, 3,490 people buy at..." Bond. Below this extravagant sign were a news ticker, or "news zipper", and the bottom of the old Bond sign, including the famous "O" clock dial!

This sign was one of the most spectacular, if not the most spectacular sign to ever hang in Times Square, and at $350,000, most likely the most expensive! It advertised Bond Clothes from the time of its inception in 1948 until 1954, when Leigh had other plans in mind for it.

In October of 1954, Leigh proposed that Bond allow other companies to make use of the sign. Bond agreed and the sign was turned over to Pepsi Cola. He replaced the two human figures with Pepsi Cola bottles and the clock was transformed into a giant bottle cap with the Pepsi logo on it. For most of the 1950s, this new sign would remain a landmark in Times Square.

In 1975, the Bond Clothes Company started liquidating its assets and selling its now-dwindling company to foreign investors. The outlet in Times Square dubbed the "cathedral of clothing" in its heyday closed in 1977. By 1982, the last remnants of Bond Clothes were sold. Despite all this, what remained of the original Bond Clothes sign would stay prominent at this location well into the 1980s, during which time the old outlet building became a short-lived punk rock nightclub in 1981. Later on in the 1990s, this building would become the site of the Roundabout Theatre.

Today the old Bond Clothes building now houses an Italian restaurant named the Bond 45 and new electronic billboards cover much of the spot where the Bond Clothes sign once stood. However, Bond 45 sports a flashy neon sign which draws inspiration from the original Bond Clothes sign (complete with a clock dial-style O) that recalls a time when neon reigned supreme and the Bond Clothes outlet was New York's "cathedral of clothing"!      

For more about the Bond Clothes outlet/company and its signs, be sure to have a look at:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bond_Clothing_Stores (Wikipedia entry on Bond Clothing Stores.)
http://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/30/realestate/when-a-big-waterfall-was-a-sign-of-times-square.html (A 1997 article from the New York Times about the Bond Clothing Store signs.)

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Taiwan's Night Market Entrance Signs and Gates

The Raohe St. Night Market in Taipei.
Taiwan's night markets are places that bustle with activity at night. Thousands of shoppers crowd through these markets at night, browsing through the stalls and shops, or just dropping in to get a midnight snack. To indicate that the night markets are open and to mark their location, it's only natural that a sign or gate be present at the entrance. Many of these signs and gates are very colorful, and at least one is a national icon!

Here are some of Taiwan's most famous night market gates and signs:

1.) The Raohe Street Night Market Gate. The Raohe Street Night Market in Taipei is Taiwan's first night market and a famous tourist hotspot in the city. The dazzling gate built over the market's entrance is a tourist attraction in itself! The gate is a famous landmark in Taiwan that marks the nightly opening of the market. It is located over the main entrance and is built in the traditional Chinese paifang arch style. The gate also happens to be adjacent to the Ci You Temple, which is located next door to the market.

On this gate are two signs depicting owls. This owl happens to be the night owl, which is the mascot of the Raohe St. Night Market! The meaning is very obvious!

The Miaokou Night Market entrance sign.
2.) The Miaokou Night Market Entrance Sign. While it may be much more famous for its yellow lanterns that decorate the interior of the night market, the Miaokou Night Market in Keelung has a very unique sign hanging over its main entrance! Unlike other night markets elsewhere in Taiwan that have a traditional paifang entrance gate, this one has a neon gate image hanging over the image along with some traditional Chinese symbols such as "eye coins".

And beyond the gates, as we can see in the picture on the right, are the famous lanterns themselves, illuminating the night market and its many stalls!

The Ruifeng Night Market.
3.) The Ruifeng Night Market Sign. Kaohsiung's biggest night market is without a doubt the Ruifeng Night Market. This market is much like a carnival or fair rather than a traditional Asian night market and often stays open through the wee hours of the morning.

The sign that marks the entrance of this market (right) sets the tone of the market very well! It's a charming sign depicting, appropriately enough, the name of the market superimposed against stars in the night sky!



The Huaxi St. Night Market gate.
4.) The Huaxi Street Night Market Gate. In Taipei's Wanhua district is Taiwan's oldest tourist attraction: The Huaxi Street Night Market (Huaxi Street Tourist Night Market). Also known as "Snake Alley", the Huaxi night market is famous for its stalls that sell snake delicacies such as snake soup, snake blood drinks, and so on.

The entrance to this long passageway of stalls is marked by a giant paifang gate that is yet another Taipei tourist icon. This gate features the trademark inset sign identifying the night market!


5.) The Xingnan Night Market Sign. As far as entrance signs go, this one isn't quite as spectacular as the others I've mentioned in this post, but it is a traditional sign and has a brillant blend of eye-catching colors! This sign can be found at the Xingnan Night Market, which is located in Taipei's Zhonghe district.
The Xingnan Night Market.
If you know of any other entrance signs or gates not mentioned in this blog post, please share them with us and tell us more about their brilliance! Oh, and for more about Taiwan's night markets, be sure to check out:

-http://mykafkeasquelife.blogspot.com/2010/01/list-of-night-markets-in-taiwan.html (Blog entries from the blog My Kafkaesque Life about the night markets of Taiwan.)
-http://www.raohe.com.tw/e2-1.htm (English homepage of the Raohe St. Night Market.)

(Image Attributions: Raohe St. Night Market Gate: Fauzty. Miaokou night market: Bigmorr. Huaxi night market entrance: Deadkid dk. Ruifeng Night Market: 祥龍. Xingnan Night Market: 阿貴 All images used via Wikimedia Commons.)

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Merry Christmas!

Here's wishing each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! May all of your wishes for 2013 come true and may 2013 bring us many more new and interesting signs of all kinds!

--Josh

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The Signs of Santa Claus Village

For those of you who want to fly in and pay a visit to Santa Claus at his home, you can do that at Santa Claus Village, which is located near the city of Rovaniemi in Finland's Lapland region. The city is located right on the Arctic Circle, which officially crosses the runway of the local airport and runs straight through the entrance of Santa's village itself!

And without further adieu, here are a few signs and scenes from Santa Claus Village and around Rovaniemi: 

The Rovaniemi Airport distance pole.
Marking the spot where the Arctic Circle begins and pointing the way to Santa's village is the distance pole at the Rovaniemi Airport! This pole, like the famous one at the beginning of the American TV show M*A*S*H, lists the distances of 25 worldwide cities from Rovaniemi, including the North Pole and Santa Claus Village.

The Santa Office Building.
Here is a scene from Santa Claus Village. The pyramid roof with its lit-up Santa sign identifies the Santa Claus Office building where Santa conducts his business year in and year out. All except on Christmas Eve that is, when Santa sets off on his worldwide journey to deliver presents around the world!


Of course, Santa Claus Village wouldn't be Santa Claus Village without a shop nearby where all of his visitors can buy gifts to take home - or more appropriately, for Santa to deliver to the recipient on the night of Christmas Eve! And as the elf signs indicate, the elves have worked extra hard to have a nice selection of gifts available for all of Santa's shoppers!

A sign near Rovaniemi marking the spot where the Arctic Circle begins circa 1975.
Markers marking the spot where the Arctic Circle begins can be found all around the areas surrounding Rovaniemi. The city's first Arctic Circle marker for tourists was a stake set up by a Col. Oiva J. Willamo in 1930 that was, unfortunately, not exactly on the right spot. This stake was destroyed during World War II. Since then others have been established around the area and they are popular for a quick but highly-memorable picture stop!

If you ever get the chance to visit Santa's village or the city of Rovaniemi, you can see all of these sights and wonders and see how Santa does his magic up close! And of course, you can see all these colorful signs up close. The ones marking the spot where the Arctic Circle begins would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so don't forget your camera!

For more about Santa Claus Village (including some live camera feeds), check out its homepage at http://www.santaclausvillage.info!

(Image credits: Distance pole: Lauri Silvennoinen. Santa Claus Office: Ulla. Santa shop: Jeanie Mackinder. Arctic Circle sign: Presse03.  All images used via Wikimedia Commons.)

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Coffee House Signs in Early Boston

The historic Green Dragon Tavern. (Wikimedia Commons)
For almost as long as the USA has been around, there has been one beverage ingrained into its existence and that beverage is coffee. The center of American coffee house culture and the "capital of coffee drinkers" in New England back in the 17th-early 19th centuries was undoubtedly Boston, Massachusetts.

Coffee was most likely introduced to the US by Captain John Smith, who established the colony of Virginia. During his travels in Turkey, John Smith picked up a knowledge of the world-famous Turkish coffee and most likely transplanted it there with the Jamestown settlement. Coffee officially made its first appearance in the New England colonies sometime between 1660-1670 and not long afterwards, coffee houses patterned after the ones popular in Europe began appearing in virtually all of the British and French colonies in North America.

To advertise and identify these coffee houses, it's only logical that they hung a distinct sign over their entrance!

In Boston, coffee houses started popping up everywhere during the 17th and 18th centuries. Unlike the cozy and contemporary coffee houses we know in our own time that serve treats such as espressos and pastries, these coffee houses were officially known as "coffee taverns" or "coffee inns" and this is very much what they were...minus the liquor in most cases. During this time, Boston was the "cultural capital" of New England. Coffee houses opened up throughout Britain's American colonies during this time, but there were more coffee houses in Boston than anywhere else.   

The first coffee house in Boston or New England as a whole is relatively unknown, but presumed to be the London Coffee-House in Boston, MA. This coffee house was opened in 1689 by book dealer Benjamin Harris, who also sold books in his coffee house. Very little is known about this coffee house, but there is much information available about Boston's other coffee houses from the 17th and 18th centuries. At least one of these coffee houses would play a prominent role in the coming revolution in America....

The most famous Boston coffee house from the Revolutionary War period is the Green Dragon Tavern. This is the pub which became known as the "Headquarters of the Revolution". As we can see at the top of this post, it's also one of the earliest examples of an American coffee house sign! 

This tavern was established sometime around 1654 and is located in Boston's North End. It was the center of social life in Boston and used as a meeting place by everyone ranging from the average Bostonian to officials of the Crown. Prior to the 1776 revolution, the pub was used by a number of anti-British revolutionary groups. The Sons of Liberty planned the Boston Tea Party at this tavern. Paul Revere set off on his famous ride from this tavern after overhearing plans for the invasion of Lexington and Concorde by British forces. After the revolution, a committee of mechanics and artisans gathered at this tavern in 1788 and adopted a resolution urging the adoption of the U.S. Constitution before delegates from the state officially voted to adopt it soon afterwards. 

As we can see from the 1898 engraving at the top of this post and from a picture inside the "new" tavern (which replaced the old Green Dragon Tavern sometime after it was demolished in 1854), the original Green Dragon Tavern building had a medium-sized winged dragon sign hanging over the door. Even though the original sign no longer exists, it occupies a special place in American history and in American signage!

The Crown Coffee House in Boston. (Wikimedia Commons)
Another early and ground-breaking coffee house in Boston was the Crown Coffee House. This coffee house was opened in 1711 by future Massachusetts and New Jersey governor Jonathan Belcher. This was the first coffee house in the US permitted to be called "coffee house" by the British authorities. According to the illustration on the right, above its entrance hung, appropriately enough, a giant sign depicting a crown that made it identifiable to anyone within walking or riding distance. Sadly enough, this coffee house burned down in 1780 during a wharf fire.






Sign of The Coffee Pot circa 1809.  (Wikimedia Commons)

After the American Revolution, coffee houses continued to spring up in Boston and helped perpetuate the coffee culture in the city! Many of these coffee houses - such as The Coffee Pot's sign on the left - had some very distinct signs that contributed to the city's cultured atmosphere. However, at this time, coffee houses in other cities such as New York City and Philadelphia were becoming more and more prominent nationwide. Some, such as the Tontine Coffee House in New York City, would make their own places in American history. 

To this day, the coffee shop culture remains strong in Boston. Most of modern-day Boston's coffee shops as well as the old taverns, inns, and pubs throughout the city have signs of their own that beacon passers-by to come in, sit down, have a cup of coffee, and partake in a slice of American history and culture! These signs continue to help the city of Boston remain one of America's most idyllic and cultured cities. The signs of the coffee houses of old that beaconed the revolutionaries and founding fathers of America through their doors to help shape the destiny of America will forever occupy a place in the nation's history.

Links:
http://greendragonboston.com/ (Homepage of the Green Dragon Tavern.)

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Hong Kong's Pawn Shop Signs

The Tai Fat Pawn Shop sign.
If you live in or have ever visited Hong Kong, you may have caught an occasional glimpse of a store sign featuring an upside down bat holding a coin. You may have also noticed that these signs are colored in vibrant shades of neon red and green. These signs are used by Hong Kong's pawn shops and have been for well over two hundred years! The colors and symbolism of these signs have special meanings in both Hong Kong and Chinese society as a whole.

In ancient China, store signs started appearing during the Song Dynasty (960-1127). One type of sign commonly found in was that of a coin with an eye in the middle. This type of coin is called a "cash coin" or "eye coin" and was the coin used as currency in ancient China. Hanging above a store door, an "eye coin" sign represented good luck, happiness, and prosperity. Signs featuring coins can still be found across China today and pawn shops are just one type of business that uses a variety of this centuries-old sign.

In Hong Kong Cantonese, a bat holding a coin is known as fuk syu diu gam cin (蝠鼠吊金錢), or "bat [hanging with] a gold coin". Both the bat and the coin have special meanings in Chinese culture, and get their meanings from a unique form of word play.....

In Chinese culture, the upside-down bat symbolizes fortune and prosperity. The Cantonese words for 'bat' and 'good fortune' are both fuk (蝠 is the traditional character for 'bat', or fu in Mandarin. The traditional character for good fortune is 福.) and are pronounced with the same tone, but the inherent meaning is different. An upside-down bat is a particularly auspicious omen since the word for upside-down in Cantonese, dou (倒; dao in Mandarin) is the same for 'arrive' (到). So, thanks to this word play, the upside-down bat means that good fortune has arrived! In addition, the words for "bat descending from the sky" (蝠子天來, or fuk zi tin lai) sound exactly the same as "good fortune descends from heaven" (福子天來)!

The same word play also comes into play (no pun intended) for coins. The Cantonese word for coin is cin (錢, or qian in Mandarin). This also happens to be the same word for 'before' (前). In ancient China, coins had a hole in the center known as an eye. Many coin amulets carried by Chinese feature a bat around the eye of the coin. As you may have guessed, "bat on [the eye of] a coin" (蝠在眼錢, or fuk zoi ngaan cin)  is a pun for "happiness before your eyes"!

It's these puns and the connotations for good luck and fortune that made - and still make - the sign depicting a bat holding a coin so desirable for pawn shop owners.

Traditionally, Chinese store signs were - and still are - painted green. Green and red are traditional Chinese colors and in olden times, were used to paint the old wood signs. To this day, these colors are still prominent in the Hong Kong landscape at night. Pawn shops have used these colors in their signs for many centuries.

The old Chun Yuen Pawn Shop sign.


The oldest pawn shop sign in Hong Kong is undoubtedly the wooden Chun Yuen sign propped against a wall at the Chun Yuen Pawn Shop in the old village of Yuen Long in the New Territories. Chun Yuen is Hong Kong's oldest pawn shop which was in business during Qing rule in the early 19th century until just after the end of World War II. The building that housed this shop is still in existence and is officially one of Hong Kong's historical sites. This sign is a perfect example of a traditional Chinese store sign. 

Some other famous pawn shop signs in Hong Kong include the sign for the Tai Fat Pawn Shop, which can be seen at the top of this post. This shop is located in the Jordan area of HK's Yau Tsim Mong district. Also lighting up the night sky in Hong Kong are the dazzling red signs of the Wan Chai district's Tung Tak Pawn Shop, the traditional and modern-style signs of the Tak Wah Pawn Shop on Douglas St. in Central, and the massive red
sign advertising the Woo Cheong Pawn Shop, which is also located in Wan Chai.

Apart from the change from wood to neon lighting, the basic pawn shop sign in Hong Kong has gone relatively unchanged over the centuries and still adorns the front of many a shop to this very day!

If you know of any other HK pawn shop signs that are worthy of a mention or have any additional info about these signs, please tell us more about them!

Links:
http://primaltrek.com/impliedmeaning.html (Meanings of characters and charms in Chinese culture.)
http://primaltrek.com/blog/2011/09/11/store-signs-of-ancient-chinese-coins/ (Another page from Primal Trek about ancient Chinese coin signs.)
https://eportal.cityu.edu.hk/bbcswebdav/users/chunhso3/moment/p_shop.htm (Interesting website about the pawn shops of Hong Kong and Macau and their culture.)
http://studiogario.blogspot.com/2012_01_01_archive.html (Drawings of and a little history about Chun Yuen Pawn Shop from Hong Kong artist Gary Yeung.)
http://www.asianhistoryblog.info/2012/11/a-history-of-asias-neon-signs.html (Blog post about Asia's neon signs.)

(Image copyrights. Tai Fat sign: HenryLi. Chun Yuen sign: Chong Fat. All images used via Wikimedia Commons.)

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Welcome to the New Blog!

Hello and welcome to "The Signs and Billboards Blog!" This is a blog about signs (and billboards too!)  from all over the world.

If you've stumbled across this blog, maybe you are a fan and/or collector of old signs? Or have you ever driven down a remote American highway and caught a glimpse of some old billboard from the glory days of the 1940s-50s and been fascinated by it? In this blog I hope to write a little about some of these signs and billboards from the modern day and from the old days.

If you're interested, please kick back and read on! And please come back whenever you get the chance since I'll try to update this blog as often as I can!

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