The New York Society Library maintains an elegant online database of its circulation records from 1789 to 1805, a period that includes its stint as the first library of the United States Congress. To help you get a handle on the data trove (assembled from 100,000 records tracking every book that every patron checked out), the Library offers visualization tools and two curated lists of interesting readers: 57 representative women and 40 Founding Fathers.
Mark Twain reveals his surefire method for memorizing the reigns of the English monarchs. [more inside]
How do you make a secure record of a debt or exchange if you can't read or write? Cut a number of notches across a stick to symbolize the assets involved, then split the wood lengthwise: you now have two tamper-proof receipts, one for each party to the transaction. The split tally method formed the basis for much of European bookkeeping between medieval times and the modern era. [more inside]
In late December of 1895, the writer Stephen Crane—nervous, shabby, and all of twenty-three—attended the first annual dinner of the Society of the Philistines as its guest of honor. He little dreamed he was walking into one of history's first celebrity roasts.
The signature image in Little Boy, a colossal miscalculation in audience uplift, is of the title character stretching out his arms, scrunching up his face, and groaning with intense concentration. Small for his age, hence the nickname, 7-year-old Pepper Flint Busbee (Jakob Salvati) performs this ritual several times throughout the film, always when attempting to move an object with the sheer power of his belief. More often than not, it actually works: Onstage, during a magic show, he appears to slide a glass bottle across a table, Jedi-style. Later, in a far grander display of his apparent gifts, he wows a crowd of skeptics by seemingly creating an earthquake while trying to nudge a mountain. What Pepper really wants, though, is to bring his father back from the war. And so he stands on a dock and points his hands in the direction of the Pacific Ocean, defying the setting sun, focusing all his desire on one point in the distance, until…Little Boy: The Film That Goes There [more inside]
In Chicago's early years, city politics were a dull non-partisan affair. That changed in 1855, when a coalition of temperance advocates and anti-Catholic Know Nothings took advantage of low voter turnout to seize city hall.
Once elected, Mayor Levi Boone and the new council majority hiked liquor license fees while also shortening license terms from one year to three months. Expecting resistance, Mayor Boone “reformed” the city's police force: tripling its size, refusing to hire immigrants, requiring police to wear uniforms for the first time, and directing them to enforce an old, previously ignored ordinance requiring the Sunday closing of taverns and saloons. These were intentionally provocative acts aimed at Germans and Irish accustomed to spending their leisure hours in drinking establishments. [...] Prosecutions clogged the city courts and attorneys scheduled a test case for April 21. This, in effect, scheduled the riot.Today is the 160th anniversary of the Lager Beer Riot, Chicago's first civil disturbance. [more inside]
A handy single-page explanation of horse-drawn carriage varieties, with pithy descriptions and occasional photographs of the barouche, the brougham, the cabriolet, the calash, the char-a-banc, the char-de-cote, the curricle, the dog-cart, the gig, the governess cart, the jaunting car, the landau, the Ralli car, the sociable, the sulky, the waggonette, and others. [more inside]
For much of the tenth century, the Qarmatians enjoyed supreme power in northeastern Arabia, exacting tribute even from the caliphs in Baghdad and Cairo. They were an esoteric Isma'ili Shi'ite sect from the oases of the desert fringe and the islands of the Persian Gulf, where they built themselves an egalitarian utopia—"probably the only communist society to control a large territory, and to endure for more than a generation, before the twentieth century." Utopia, however, depended on the agricultural labor of thirty thousand Ethiopian slaves and the proceeds from constant raiding and pillaging. In 930, the Qarmatians stormed Mecca, killed thousands of pilgrims at the foot of the Kaaba, and removed the Black Stone to Bahrayn. A year later, they identified the Mahdi, their prophesied redeemer, in the form of a young Persian prisoner. They believed that once he assumed control of the Qarmatian state, he would lead them to even greater triumphs... [more inside]
Bronze Age maps. Maps of Ancient Greece and Rome, India and China. Maps of the Viking era, the Crusades, and the High Middle Ages. Maps of Asia after the Mongol conquest, of Mexico before the Spanish conquest—dozens upon dozens of intricate historical maps.
In the May 1975 issue of Oui magazine, Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell reviewed four dozen American beers, plus eleven imports.
The University of Glasgow's French Emblems project hosts thousands of 16th century woodcuts and etchings. The archive boasts an unusually thorough metadata scheme, allowing you to browse cryptic images of beards, birds in cages, pointed fingers, triumphal conquerors, and fabulous animals, among many other categories. [more inside]
Best Ever Albums aggregates 17,000 "greatest album" charts to establish a statistical consensus on popular music rankings. [more inside]
"The cosmorama consisted of rather small landscape scenes displayed conventionally in a gallery, but viewed in relief, through an arrangement of magnifying mirrors. The pleorama was a form of moving panorama shown in Breslau in 1831, in which viewers sat in a boat that rocked as though tossed by waves, while moving canvases on each side recreated the changing views of the Bay of Naples, which was thus traversed in the space of an hour...The myriorama, or "many thousand views" was, by contrast, a more personal visual device, consisting of numerous cards depicting fragments or segments of landscapes that could be arranged in infinitely different combinations." [more inside]
Tobias Frere-Jones (creator of the Gotham typeface) explores the history of font names. [more inside]
"It is somewhat of a mystery why the English-speaking world has had to wait until 1981 for the first translation of the Deutsche Sagen (German Legends) by the Brothers Grimm. After all, the Legends, which first appeared in 1816 and 1818, were translated into French, Danish, and even Rumanian in the nineteenth century, and have always been considered a vital source book for folklorists and critics alike. Perhaps we have always assumed that the German Legends had been translated since many of them are known through romances, novels, adaptations, selective translations, films, comic books, and references in critical studies. The two most famous examples are Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser and Robert Browning's 'The Children of Hameln.'"-Jack Zipes, in an approving review of Donald Ward's translation of the Legends. Ward's work has since fallen out of print, but you can read select legends at the eclectic Golden Scales folktale collection.
"Midway through the Confessions, St. Augustine recalls how he used to marvel at the way Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, read his manuscripts: 'His eyes traveled across the pages and his heart searched out the meaning, but his voice and tongue stayed still.' Scholars have sparred for decades over whether Augustine's offhand observation reveals something momentous: namely, that silent reading—that seemingly mundane act you're engaged in right now—was, in the Dark Ages, a genuine novelty...Could the earliest readers literally not shut up?"
"Burkhard challenged Miller to a 'Cheese Duel': Burkhard and Miller would sit at a table, and if Burkhard could cut a piece of Limburger cheese and Miller not wretch, Miller would be forbidden from complaining about Wisconsin and her cheese ever again." [more inside]
447 years ago this morning, the Provost's house at Kirk o' Field, Edinburgh, was annihilated in an explosion. Lord Darnley, king consort to Mary, Queen of Scots, had been staying in the house to recuperate from a bout of pox; his body was found in a nearby orchard, unburnt but asphyxiated. Rafael Sabatini recounts the possible course of events in his Historical Nights' Entertainment, a two volume anthology of murders, court intrigues, and scandals. [more inside]
Along with its famous World Heritage Site rolls, UNESCO maintains lists of more intangible cultural treasures. In 2013 alone, they recognized the vertical calligraphy of Mongolia, the communal name pools of western Uganda, the 8000-year-old viticulture traditions of Georgia, the skeletal melodies of Vietnam, the forty-fold feast of the Holy Forty Martyrs, the making of kimchi, the use of the abacus, the annual rebinding of the Q’eswachaka bridge, the carol epics of Romania, and the shrimp-fishing horsemen of Belgium. These are only a few of the hundreds inscribed. [more inside]
"The Cubs occasionally had human mascots, but, aside from managers' children, their tenures were short-lived. (An exception was the Fat Boy, Paul Dominick, who was given credit for a 21-game winning streak in 1935 and then left for Hollywood.) Instead, they seemed to prefer animals—who, it should be noted, did not demand salaries. The 1908 world champions had Bud, a Boston bull terrier puppy with an adorable curved tail, and a grotesque-looking fake polar bear. The 1913 team had a homicidal gamecock, named Tampa after their spring training home. (Tampa's mascotting career seems to have ended when he murdered another rooster.) In 1915, they had another dog, a terrier named Toy. But mostly they had live cubs."
"The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me, but tall soldiers—they are my weakness." Thus confessed Frederick William, second king of Prussia, whose passion compelled the creation of an elite regiment of six-foot-plus grenadiers. Recruitment, diplomatic gifts, and the occasional abduction of a spindly peasant or acromegalic tradesman supplied thousands of "giants" for the ranks; experiments with breeding programs and stretching machines were somewhat less successful. Frederick II, Frederick William's son and successor, dispersed the regiment when he succeeded to power in 1740. The Potsdam Giants had never actually seen combat, the main part of their duty having been to drill and parade before their enraptured king. [more inside]
Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s is very nearly literal in its title—its author, Harper's editor Frederick Lewis Allen, published it in 1931. Writing before popular memory of the decade had solidified, Allen chronicles the Scopes Trial and the Harding scandals, radio and the Red Scare; but he ignores jazz for the mahjong craze and devotes an entire chapter to the real estate boom in Florida. [more inside]
"One of the greatest stories, true or fictional, in all literature is Gibbon’s account of the life and martyrdom of Boethius under the Ostrogoth Theodoric. Senator, poet, philosopher, man of reason, he was the last of his kind in all these categories. The story is an incomparable masterpiece of prose. From the opening sentence, "The Senator Boethius is the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged for their countryman," Gibbon builds a mighty organ toccata. He always seems to see ahead to every echo and resonance and inversion of rhythm, through the idyllic description of The Consolation of Philosophy to the terrible climax — the philosopher garroted and clubbed to death in the last gloomy hours of Theodoric, followed by the swift cadence, and the coda of the martyrdom of his fellow Senator Symmachus — four crowded pages of the most solemn music. Each man speaks in his own style. Gibbon speaks with such sublimity because, sitting in his quiet study, he was totally involved in the defense of reason against the triumph of barbarism and superstition and the ruin of all bright things." [more inside]
Here are a glossary and alphabet for the Lingua Ignota, the secret language created by Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century abbess, seer, doctor, and composer.
To imagine the scale, picture this: almost every city in Western Europe and North America destroyed. Not reduced, not scaled down. People-don't-live-here-anymore-just-ruins destroyed.Between about 1200 and 1150 BC, civilization in the northeastern quadrant of the Mediterranean collapsed. Mycenae and the other Iliad-era Greek city-kingdoms; the Hittite Empire; the Levantine possessions of New Kingdom Egypt—cultures which had flourished for five hundred years fell and dispersed within a single lifetime, their palaces razed, their every city toppled, burned, and abandoned. [more inside]
Great artists rise early, stay up late, float themselves in coffee, flirt with amphetamines, drink carefully, eat if necessary, take morning walks followed by afternoon naps, procrastinate, amuse themselves, avoid their friends, hold down jobs, indulge their oddities, and work — work like draft horses. [more inside]
The Pickwick Papers, one of the most honored first novels of all time, was conceived as a showcase for the comic etchings of the celebrated illustrator Robert Seymour. His publishers tapped a 24 year old journalist named Charles Dickens (their third choice) to provide the humorous "commentary" linking the pictures, which were to depict the hunting mishaps of a club of cockney sportsmen. Dickens, who knew nothing about hunting, ignored the prospectus and wrote his own way forward. As it became clear that Seymour was ill-equipped to depict the darker turns of Dickens' imagination, illustrator and writer fell into a conflict which ended in horror. [more inside]
"But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world. We want to know something about him. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock and as sweet as the fragrance of roses. The angels appeared to his mother and predicted that the son whom she would conceive would become the greatest the stars had ever seen. He was so great that he even forgave the crimes of his greatest enemies and shook brotherly hands with those who had plotted against his life. His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived..." [more inside]
"It was John Polidori's misfortune to be comic without having a sense of humor, to wish to be a great writer but to be a terrible one, to be unusually bright but surrounded for one summer by people who were titanically brighter, and to have just enough of an awareness of all of this to make him perpetually uneasy. Also, he couldn't jump."
In the new game Avant-Garde, you play an up-and-coming artist in 19th century Paris, a contemporary of Manet and Bouguereau. Carve and sell allegorical statue groups! Get snubbed by Napoleon III! Subsidize Gustave Courbet's drinking! Compose and promulgate your own aesthetic manifesto!
"In the records of the more or less illustrious dead, there are many who are remembered for only one thing - but there can be few whose sole claim to posthumous fame is the extravagantly bizarre naming of their children..."
"Cheever wasn't the only one who found inspiration at the Writers' Project [NYT]. Others included Conrad Aiken, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Arna Bontemps, Malcolm Cowley, Edward Dahlberg, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Kenneth Patchen, Philip Rahv, Kenneth Rexroth, Harold Rosenberg, Studs Terkel, Margaret Walker, Richard Wright and Frank Yerby. These federal employees produced what would become the renowned American Guide Series, comprising volumes for each of the 48 states that then existed, as well as Alaska."
The Academy of Saint Gabriel's Medieval Names Archive: for all your period-accurate onomastic needs.
In 1602, a cobbler strolling outside of Bologna discovered a colorless stone with the curious ability to "accumulate light when exposed to the sun and to emit it in the darkness." His lapis solaris was to be the chemical sensation of the century. [more inside]
Locke, Johnson, Kierkegaard, Freud, and dozens of other historical figures on the subject of obsessive-compulsive disorder. [more inside]
This Man was Hired to Depress Art This is the opinion of Will Blake my Proofs of this Opinion are given in the following Notes [more inside]
Scott Newman's Jazz Age Chicago is a guide to every major movie theater, department store, sporting arena, amusement park, grand hotel and dance hall that operated in the Windy City during the 1920s.
Robert Erskine Childers was the creator of the modern spy novel, a loyal son of Empire, a fierce exponent of Irish Home Rule, an excellent sailor, a gunrunner, an Anti-Treaty partisan. He died by firing squad in 1922.
When John Van Antwerp MacMurray was dispatched to Asia in 1925 as the American Envoy to the Republic of China, he brought a Kodak motion picture camera with him.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West's 1941 account of the people, history, and politics of the doomed Kingdom of Yugoslavia, is available online in its flawed, majestic entirety.
Charles Cawley's Medieval Lands is an encyclopedia of every major European noble family (and most minor ones) from AD 500 to 1500. Even as a work in progress, its scale is staggering.
Presidents as Poets, a virtual exhibit from the Library of Congress, examines the lyrical efforts of eight American presidents, including Barack Obama's "Pop," Abraham Lincoln's "The Bear Hunt," and John Quincy Adams' Dermot MacMorrogh or the Conquest of Ireland: An Historical Tale of the Twelfth Century in Four Cantos. [more inside]
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