Reddit's /r/askhistorians "Best of 2015" thread is something you'll learn from, maybe. Probably the most rigidly moderated subreddit regarding historical topics, /r/askhistorians has some of the smartest answers you'll find to some of the most unusual questions they answered in 2015. Check the thread for questions answered in earlier years.
Sci-Fi Author (and Metafilter's own) Charlie Stross has an interesting thought experiment: Could you get to a technological society without the use of writing? And if so, what would that look like?
New book shows Marie Antoinette used invisible ink, secret stamps in love letters to Swedish count Touched on somewhat less sensationally in this article: From letters to apps, the secret code language of lovers [more inside]
Mike Duncan of the Revolutions podcast reworked the Star Wars prequel trilogy by way of the American and French revolutions on Twitter today. Episode One: The Glorious Cause, Episode Two: The Coruscant Revolution, and Episode Three: The Clone Wars have been storified for your historical Star Wars mashup needs.
St Paul's Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, lies at the centre of London. At 365 feet high, it was the tallest building in London from 1710 until 1962, and dominated the London skyline. Since the 1960s London has seen multiple high-rise developments, which could crowd out the cathedral. However, views of St Paul's from multiple places in and around the City are preserved by law. This protects St Paul's both from having tall buildings built in front of it, and also behind it in ways that would spoil the silhouette on the horizon. The 'Cheesegrater' for instance, slopes back to protect one such view. Some explanations and demonstrations from Tom Scott, Londonist, and The Guardian. [more inside]
Hungarian inventions that have shaped the modern world: Laszlo Biro's ballpoint pen, the telephone exchange and holography, and the Magyar microcar, "how Hungary circumvented Stalin and also had a bit of fun." This is just one of a number of weirdly awesome microcars of Hungary from the 1940s and '50s.
The night that the Berlin Wall collapsed was certainly one of the most dramatic moments in the cascading events of 1989, events that brought the era of Communist rule in Eastern Europe to a close. What follows is an examination of the intersecting developments that led to the collapse of the Communist regimes in 1989. [more inside]
Atlanta: Darker Than Blue presented by Black Vrchives, November 2015. A curated journey through Atlanta's history. [more inside]
The history of the relationship between social science and foreign relations offers important insights into the changing politics and ethics of expertise in American public policy.
Following the Christian Reconquest and unification of Spain, concluded with the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, the victorious Catholic sovereigns decreed on March 31, 1492 that all Jews convert to Christianity or leave Spain by the last day of July. Whether they stayed or left, many Jewish families continued to practice their faith in secret. Such crypto-Jews passed their traditions down the generations and around the world, some ending up in the Southwest. 500 years later, New Mexico's "hidden Jews" were found among strong Hispanic Catholic communities. Though some were skeptical about the origins of certain family practices, additional research and a pattern of breast cancer lead to genetic testing and confirmation of prior beliefs. [more inside]
The site of the Tristán de Luna colony has reportedly been found in Pensacola: "'There were 1500 people there ... for about a two-year period' ... The colony lasted from 1559-61 and included 550 Spanish soldiers, about 200 Aztecs and an unknown number of African slaves ... The Luna colony is arguably the first European settlement and unquestionably the oldest multi-year European settlement" in the present-day United States. Just two years ago, the site of a 1567 fort built by the Juan Pardo expedition in western North Carolina [NYT] was confirmed as well. [more inside]
Around Christmas weird vestigial foods reappear. Fruitcake, eggnog, and weirdest and in America all but forgotten: mincemeat pie. The modern take is a sort of sugary glop made by grinding dried fruit, leaving even the homemade stuff mostly miserable and pointless. But it wasn't always like that way as the late (previously) Cliff Doerksen noted. [more inside]
Breeding Improved Honey Bees was originally printed in 1951, in The American Bee Journal. It is an informative and often dryly amusing introduction to the history and arts of bee breeding. "The honey bee has a definite place in our modern world. Its products of honey and wax are useful to man, although perhaps not essential to all men." Those histories and arts are, as you might expect, covered in bees.
Hitler really did have only one testicle, German researcher claims. [The Guardian]
The song sung in schoolyards by generations of British children mocking Adolf Hitler for only having “one ball” might be accurate after all. A German historian has unearthed the Nazi leader’s long-lost medical records, which seem to confirm the urban legend that he only had one testicle. The records, taken during a medical exam following Hitler’s arrest over the failed Beer hall putsch in 1923, show that he suffered from “right-side cryptorchidism”, or an undescended right testicle. Notes written by Dr Josef Steiner Brin, the medical officer at Landsberg prison, state “Adolf Hitler, artist, recently writer” was otherwise “healthy and strong”.
Children have been sending letters to Santa for well over a century now, and for much of that time those letters don't look very different from today's. Children want toys, and they want to convince Santa that they ought to get them. But where did that tradition come from, and how did it develop into its modern form? How did we come to believe that Santa lives at the North Pole and that the postal service can carry letters to Santa? What kinds of things have changed in the things children ask for over time? The Smithsonian's trying to deliver some answers for the holidays. (Previously: 1, 2).
Last week, the BBC radio programme Woman’s Hour ran an item on the American documentary film "Do I Sound Gay?" The film explores what’s popularly known as ‘the gay voice’, a way of speaking that identifies a man as gay (though not all gay men have it, and some men who do sound gay are actually straight). The Woman’s Hour feature ranged more widely over the subject of gay language, including a lengthy discussion of Polari (previously: 1, 2). But it was all about the boys–-until, towards the end of the item, the presenter broached the inevitable question: do lesbians also have a language of their own? Nothing comparable to Polari--but we do have some historical evidence of in-group lesbian slang.
The paintings commissioned by Akbar and Jahangir were a blend of Western iconography with Indian and Islamic elements. [more inside]
If one year during the Toronto International Film Festival you’re engaging a Hollywood producer in conversation and have only a few seconds to pitch your action script before the bouncers drag you out from under the door of her bathroom stall, just fire off a three-word description of the two unlikely antagonists. Hollywood loves oddball enemies even more than unlikely buddy cops: cowboys versus aliens, mercenaries versus dinosaurs, Predators versus future governors of American states. Yet, inexplicably, no movie has been made of Toronto’s contribution to the genre: clowns versus firefighters.
Before "no-fault" divorce laws were enacted in the U.S., married persons seeking divorce had to prove grounds for divorce under extremely narrow circumstances. In the late 19th century, divorce laws were more permissive in some parts of the country than others, leading to a form of "divorce tourism". [more inside]
Animation of the warrior plate of the Gundestrup Cauldron, the largest surviving example of European Iron Age silver work.
Neil Kaplan is fascinated by the stories told by old passports, especially those relating to the Holocaust, and the resonance they have for today's immigrants and refugees. "It seems strange to admit that in 2015, the right to exist in certain physical spaces on Earth—spaces bound by imaginary lines drawn on maps by our governments—can be prevented by a pocket-sized paper travel document."
Judaism's core texts grew out of millennia-long conversations and arguments across generations, with interconnected dialogues, source citing and (re)interpretation. Now, it's all going digital: Sefaria is creating a massive public domain, interactive "living library of Jewish texts and their interconnections, in Hebrew and translations." Their goal is to build a reference resource and community that "gives a better learning experience than anything that comes before it," from ancient to modern texts and "all the volumes of commentary in between." Read texts, browse submitted public source sheets on dozens of topics or visualize associations between texts.
The US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) was established in 1961 and has grown into one of the US government’s largest intelligence organizations. It employs 17,000 people, including thousands stationed overseas, and its 2013 fiscal year budget request was for $3.15 billion. Yet, the DIA is also one of the more secretive agencies in the U.S. intelligence community, regularly denying access to basic information about its structure, functions and activities. On November 20, the National Security Archive posted a new sourcebook of over 50 declassified documents that help to illuminate the DIA’s five-decades-long history. [more inside]
“The distance between the station and the train was accurately measured ... I was not nervous as it approached and I leaped without hesitation,” she recalled. She landed safely, but the rocking motion of the train rolled her straight toward the end of the car. Just before being pitched off, “I caught hold of an air vent and hung on.” Then, with a sense of the dramatic, silent film actress Helen Gibson let her body “dangle over the edge to increase the effect on the screen.” [more inside]
In 1739, an English washer-woman named Mary Collier published a long poem called "The Woman's Labour" about the difficulties faced by working women. Her poem was a response to The Thresher's Labour by Stephen Duck, which mocked the poetic conceit that agricultural workers spend a pleasant time in nature, and took a few pot shots at women along the way: "Ah! were their Hands so active as their Tongues/ How nimbly then would move the Rakes and Prongs?" Collier refutes Duck's criticisms and describes women's added labour: [more inside]
Modernist gingerbread houses | More | Ginger Bauhaus | Architectural 3-D ginger cookie | The history of using gingerbread at Christmas with recipes.
The four-bedroom/nine-bath house at 631 Parra Grande Lane in Montecito has been sold. Built on ten acres in 1906, El Fureidis--originally called Gillespie Estate or Gillespie Palace--is one of five homes designed by American architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. If you're not familiar with El Fureidis and its long and dignified history, here's a tour, and a video of an infamous owner's wedding.
Ever long to get away from it all? The Hermitary is a web directory for all things hermit-related. Look up local hermits or hermits from lore, literature and history, or discover present-day hermits on the web. [more inside]
Whether you know the basic story or not, you may enjoy Mark Steel's lecture on Beethoven's life for its entertaining (and decidedly informal) presentation.
Voices of the Food Chain Farmers are the iconic symbols of the food system, but food production, processing, and distribution make up nearly 15% of the American workforce. Today, StoryCorps and the Food Chain Worker Alliance are sharing videos of conversations from workers in different industrial sectors of the food system, showing how food labor crosses boundaries of culture, language, and experience. [more inside]
The Secret History of the Mongols is the oldest surviving Mongolian-language literary work, and is regarded as the single most significant native Mongolian account of Genghis Khan. Linguistically, it provides the richest source of pre-classical Mongolian and Middle Mongolian, and while you can read it in various translations, it can be quite a slog. That's why Mongolian rappers Gee of/with Click Click Boom team up with Jonon to present a musical version of Mongolian History, in Mongolian. Luckily, there are English subtitles to this video, but there's still a gap between knowing the words and knowing what they mean. With that, you can find a collections of links as annotations below. [more inside]
Steve Meretzky has released a treasure trove of (minimally redacted) Infocom working documents. Written from 1981 to 1987, these internal documents were instrumental to Jason Scott when producing his documentary GET LAMP and have now been released on the Internet Archive. They include business memos, playtester notes, design documents, mockups by their packaging designer, and a tantalizing look into the elements of games that got cut or never fully developed. Stanford University has the originals.
Le Petit Théâtre Dior: An exhibit of miniature Dior creations was mounted in China earlier this year. [more inside]
Sixteenth century European Catholics with sufficiently heavy purses could upgrade their rosary beads with Prayer Nuts, virtuoso boxwood carvings of astonishing detail. You can get lost in these things, and probably the more so back in the day when, some believe, they were infused with scent, mixing the visual with the olfactory. They've been known to hit the market, latterly in the low six figures. [more inside]
“You have lost your mind,” telegraphed Adolph Zukor, founder of Paramount Pictures. “Stop filming and return to Los Angeles at once.” DeMille refused. “I cannot and will not make pictures with a yardstick,” he wired back to the studio. “What do they want me to do?” he was rumored to have said, according to Higashi. “Stop now and release it as The Five Commandments?” Excavating the "City of the Pharoah," the biggest set ever built for a Hollywood film in the 1920s. [more inside]
Ever since the the Villa dei Papiri and its cache of at least 800 papyrus scrolls was discovered in Herculaneum in 1752, this potential treasure trove of information and insight into the classical world has fascinated scholars with what it could possibly contain. The difficulty has been in how to read them without destroying them. As John Seabrook describes for The New Yorker: "One scroll was peeled apart into many fragments; the other dried up and then, like a disaster in slow motion, split apart into more than three hundred pieces." Now, thanks to new imaging techniques, the contents of the scrolls could—slowly—be revealed.
According to ancient texts, Athenians and Spartans clashed at the isle of Kane in 406 BC, one of the last battles of the Great Peloponnesian War. Some 100 ships were sent to the bottom of the Aegean Sea as a result of the prolonged, hard-fought naval battle. Archaeologists have long debated the location of Kane, but none of the islands in the Aegean seemed to fit the descriptions. At long last, thanks to artifacts and core samples, the location of Kane has been identified, as has the reason it took so long to find it: It isn't an island anymore.
The Stade de France–A History in Fragments
Or did he, and the other players, make the same decision that many are now saying we should: that in the face of horror the only thing to do is to keep playing, moving, living? Watching it now – knowing all that we do about what happened Friday night in Paris – we can perhaps count it as one of the most surreal things to ever take place in this storied stadium, a place built nearly two decades ago specifically to house history.
"The Memphis Grizzlies will be honoring the old Memphis Sounds for their Hardwood Classic games this NBA season by wearing the Sounds’ red-and-white jerseys. Given that the Sounds were around in the early 1970s and were of the ABA, the jerseys are pretty slick and sweet. ...To understand the Sounds you need to understand the music. And to understand the music you need to understand race and cotton." - Curtis Harris on Stax Records and the context of the Memphis Sounds.
The 'Empire' Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto Trans media theorist Sandy Stone's 1987 essay on transsexual women and radical feminism, written in response to TERF works of the time, was a foundational text for transgender studies, located within a particular cultural moment but calling for a new discourse of transsexual and transgender womanhood beyond the gender binary. [more inside]
" Chinese emperors of the Tang Dynasty liked their ice cream a special way: Fermented buffalo or goat milk was heated, then thickened with flour and seasoned with camphor, which made it flake like snow. For good measure fragments of reptile brain were added, along with an eyeball or two." - "It Ought To Be Called Vice Cream" - Austerity Kitchen on the social and technological history of Ice Cream.
Extra History: The Seminal Tragedy (2, 3, 4), wherein Extra Credits' history subseries (previously) takes us into the series of coincidences, missed saves, miscommunications and bad decisions that led the world improbably into The Great War. (Bonus: Corrections, Retractions, and Lies!)
When Britain entered the war in Europe in 1914, it wasn't a sufficiently existential threat for Parliament to authorize a draft, so enlistment in the armed services was still voluntary. To "encourage" enlistment, Vice-Admiral Charles Penrose-Fitzgerald organized a group of women known as the Order of the White Feather. Their task -- to hand a white feather to any military-aged man they saw out of uniform. [more inside]
Shortly after the dust of the Civil War had settled, plantation owners in the Deep South tried to replace the labor of black ex-slaves with Chinese immigrants--most of whom left rather than put up with bad working conditions. Some, however, stayed in the Mississippi Delta through the end of Jim Crow, often carving out a role for themselves in the South's harsh racial climate as grocers serving primarily black communities. In fact, a historic Supreme Court case extending the reach of segregation to all non-white people took place when a Chinese family sued a local white school board. Now these grocers are dying out as their children leave the South, but groups like Southern Foodways are collecting their stories so that their contribution to Southern history can be remembered.