Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

June 28 2016 12:30 PM

The Cumberland Pencil Museum

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“Fraser-Smith. Charles Fraser-Smith.”

OK, he wasn’t James Bond. But Charles Fraser-Smith was thought to be the inspiration for the gadget guru “Q” in the Ian Fleming series, serving as an agent for Britain’s military intelligence arm during World War II. Fraser-Smith came up with lots of inventions and gadgets for soldiers and flyers during the War, including a pencil with a secret compartment to hide a map and a compass. Fraser-Smith thought that such a pencil could be used by British prisoners of war, to aid them in an escape. When he needed a company to help produce his James Bond–escape-artist pencils, he paid a visit to the Cumberland Pencil Co. in Keswick, Cumbria.

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Pencil manufacturing in and around Keswick goes back nearly 200 years, but the discovery of graphite goes back much further, to around the 16th century. Graphite was used for all kinds of things besides being stuffed into sticks of wood, including munitions manufacturing. Graphite mining became a major industry in Cumbria, and several factories began to pop up in the 19th century to take advantage of the supply. What was to become the Cumberland Pencil Co. goes back to 1832, fabricating writing implements under the name of Banks, Son & Co. The company changed hands a few times over the years, becoming Hogarth & Hayes in 1875, and finally the Cumberland Pencil Co. in 1916. The factory turned out graphite pencils, colored pencils, and artist’s charcoal for another 90 years, finally closing in 2007 and relocating 20 miles west to the town of Workington, where they still make fine pencils and other art supplies under the brand Derwent.

The little museum alongside the Cumberland factory will tell you the whole story, and they have the world’s largest colored pencil too boot. It’s 26 feet long, weighing just under half a ton. Just think what Charles Fraser-Smith could hide in that thing.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor laurensverkade.

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June 27 2016 12:30 PM

The Most Alluring Women of 17th-Century England

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On a wood-paneled wall in the Communications Gallery of London's Hampton Court Palace hang 10 portraits in a line. All are of women, and all the women look remarkably similar: frizzy-haired, goggle-eyed, double-chinned, and swathed in great gathered folds of silk. These are the Windsor Beauties—the 17th-century equivalent of the Maxim Hot 100.

The Windsor Beauties were chosen to be immortalized because they were the most alluring and powerful women at the court of Charles II, who became king of England, Ireland, and Scotland in 1660. Being selected for a Windsor Beauty portrait meant becoming a celebrity pinup; copies of the portraits and engraved prints of the women circulated among admirers. Baptist May, Keeper of the Privy Purse and “court pimp,” in the words of Samuel Pepys, kept a stash of eight portraits in his private lodgings. Half of the women among those eight were royal mistresses.

And really, at that time, who wasn't carrying on with Charles II. The king's reign, which came after more than a decade of Puritan-fueled political upheaval, was so characterized by hedonism and licentiousness that he earned the name “the Merry Monarch.”

Attractive women were a necessary part of the king’s party ethos, and he wasn’t about to let a little thing called marriage get in the way of pursuing them ardently. Charles II kept multiple mistresses and fathered at least a dozen children, none of whom were born to his wife, Catherine of Braganza.

June 24 2016 12:30 PM

The Museum of Western Film History

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Two hundred miles and a 3½-hour drive outside of Los Angeles sits the town of Lone Pine, California. Nestled in the Alabama Hills of the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range, Lone Pine has served for almost a century as a destination for Hollywood filmmakers seeking sites for exotic location shooting.

Starting in 1919 with the Western film serial Lightning Bryce, Lone Pine and its environs have appeared as the backdrop for genre classics starring Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and John Wayne as well as less successful revisionist Western fare like Kevin Costner’s The Postman and 2013’s box office bomb The Lone Ranger. The landscape has also doubled as the Himalayas in films like 1939’s Gunga Din, Spain in 2000's Gladiator, and even outer space in science-fiction movies like Rocketship X-M from 1950 and Star Trek V from 1989.

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The Beverly and Jim Rogers Lone Pine Film History Museum celebrates the Hollywood history of the region. Within the museum, the history of film at Lone Pine becomes a stand-in for a broader history of Hollywood and the Hollywood Western. It traces the evolution of the genre through big stars like John Wayne and singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. It recounts the movement of the genre from Tom Mix silent films and big-screen epics like Rio Bravo to B-Westerns like Gene Autry’s The Train to San Antone and more recent efforts like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

It also narrates the genre in terms of the development of technology from the coming of talkies in the 1920s to the coming of television as a domestic medium in the 1950s. These stories are told simultaneously through authentic screen-used artifacts, movie posters, and children’s toys, among other objects.

As much as the museum outlines the history of a Hollywood genre and a history of media technology, it also maps broad currents of American history. The Western genre is a history of manifest destiny and the settlement of the region by white pioneers, but these films have also served as allegories of current events, and the museum bears this out too.

This is especially evident in films of the 1950s that began to deal with developments in American culture like postwar alienation, Cold War paranoia, and, in the case of Bad Day at Black Rock, the Japanese internment that occurred during World War II. However, the museum also makes historical contexts evident when it looks at the genre’s representation of Asian and Arabic people through Edward Said’s concept of orientalism. This idea shows how Westerners construct nonwhite people through racist depictions of savagery and primitivism.

At the Lone Pine Museum, visitors are encouraged to both tour the galleries and venture out into the hills and onto the locations themselves. This is, as the museum’s slogan argues, “where the real West becomes the reel West.” Indeed, the site intentionally juxtaposes fictional narratives with real spaces, highlighting the ways in which places are simultaneously fixed and mutable as they represent both 100 years of American history and futuristic science fiction.

The museum thus teaches us how to see both time and space in new ways—ways that blend the past, the present, and the future through tangible objects and material geographies.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor Mabel Rosenheck.

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June 23 2016 12:30 PM

Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri

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Most people probably don’t associate Missouri, let alone Kansas City, with Spanish architecture. But one of the city’s most iconic landmarks looks to mimic just that.

Built by local real estate developer J.C. Nichols, Country Club Plaza opened during the height of the Roaring ’20s with a distinct theme: Seville, Spain.

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Named for the surrounding Country Club neighborhood, most know it simply as The Plaza, and the buildings have remained almost unchanged since opening in 1923. In addition to the architecture, there are more than 30 statues, murals, and tile mosaics that add to the Spanish flavor, and the blocks are anchored by several major architectural reproductions like the Cathedral of Seville and even San Francisco’s Path of Gold Streetlights.

The Plaza was the first shopping center in the world designed specifically to accommodate the auto-centric shopper. By including a number of semiconcealed parking garages, several gas stations and, eventually, even drive-thru banking, motorists could be shoppers, and vice versa. Everything you needed was one short drive away. There was a grocery, a drug store, even a bowling alley. And the developers made sure to include both midlevel retailers like Sears and Woolworth along with more high-end shops.

Country Club Plaza was an immediate hit.

In 1930, almost by accident, the Plaza hit on what’s become one of Kansas City’s longest standing traditions. The “Season of Lights” begins on Thanksgiving Night with a two-hour televised lighting ceremony, and every night through mid-January the entire 55 acres shine bright, drawing tourists from all over the world. As impressive as the light show is, in the 1950s and ’60s it was even more elaborate, with the massive street-level store windows displaying an enormous collection of Christmas-themed animatronics.

Curiously, with everything J.C. Nichols thought of, unlike most plazas in Spain, this one has no central plaza.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor jusTodd.

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June 22 2016 12:30 PM

Brooklyn’s Studebaker Building

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In the early 1900s, Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, stretching between Empire Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue, was known as “Automobile Row," so named for its clustering of showrooms, dealerships, garages and other businesses catering to American car owners.

The Studebaker building, a striking early-20th-century auto showroom, harkens back to the golden age of the American automobile industry. Built in 1920 by Tooker and Marsh, the building served as a two-story Studebaker showroom for almost 20 years.

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The Atlantic Terra-Cotta Company supplied the iconic white terra-cotta that decorates the entire edifice, which still maintains a visible neo-Gothic aesthetic. The building once stood with a giant electric sign advertising the Studebaker name and still bears the Studebaker emblem above its highest windows.

With rapid expansion of the Studebaker Corporation—from its humble origins as a wagon supplier in South Bend, Indiana, in the 1850s, to a manufacturer of gasoline-powered touring cars in the early decades of the 20th century—came a need to elegantly display the Studebaker product to the American public. In 1920, the corporation opened its showroom on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood.

It is reported that Studebaker stopped showing cars here in 1939, and in 1941 architect Irving Cohen oversaw a major cosmetic upgrade to the building, removing the plate-glass windows from the streetfront and making alterations to the first and second floors and the mezzanine. A few years later, what had once been a prominent auto showroom had become a collection of a dress shop, furniture showroom, and offices.

Bought by a developer in 1999, the old Studebaker showroom stands today as a residential building of 27 apartments and has been granted landmark status.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura fellow and contributor daviddoochin.

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June 21 2016 12:30 PM

The Hidden Messages of Colonial Handwriting

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Imagine a world in which the font you use is chosen for you, based entirely on your demographic affiliations. All doctors write in Garamond, while designers are mandated Futura Bold. Middle-aged men get Arial; women, Helvetica. Goofy aunts must use Comic Sans.

Seem strange? A few centuries ago, that was just how things worked. In colonial America, "the very style in which one formed letters was determined by one's place in society," writes historian Tamara Thornton in Handwriting in America: A Cultural History. Thanks to the rigorous teachings of professionals called "penmen," merchants wrote strong, loopy logbooks, women's words were intricate and shaded, and upper-class men did whatever they felt like. So different were the results, says Thornton, that "a fully literate stranger could evaluate the social significance of a letter … simply by noting what hand it had been written in."

June 20 2016 12:30 PM

The Underwater Ballroom

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Beneath an artificial lake in Surrey, England, is an underwater ballroom created by a Victorian swindler.

British financier Whitaker Wright was not a man to do things in half measures. He lived big, he stole big, and when the time came, he exited the planet in a grand theatrical style.

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During the 1880s, Wright made a fortune by promoting silver-mining companies in America. None of the companies made money for the investors, though he himself did quite well. You might recognize a certain similarity with members of the modern finance industry.

Wright returned to England, promoting foreign mining companies on the London market. Now a rich man, he worked to insert himself into Victorian English society, which meant buying a very fast, very fancy yacht and building an extravagant manor. Wright ended up with a 32-room neo-Tudor mansion, equipped with a theater, observatory, velodrome, private hospital, and stables accommodating more than 50 horses. He also had three artificial lakes dug. All 9,000 acres of his estate were exquisitely landscaped.

Perhaps the most notable and unique addition to his estate was what has come to be called the "Underwater Ballroom." Built in one of the artificial lakes on the property, it was a hidden subterranean smoking room beneath a roof aquarium. Inside it one could look out and watch fish swim by as yellow light filtered in through the windows.

Above ground, the only clue to the ballroom's existence was the statue of Neptune emerging from the lake as if presiding over his realm. When the ballroom was occupied, smoke from the financiers' cigars reportedly piped out through Neptune's mouth. It was spectacular—and like everything else on Whitaker Wright's Lea Park estate, it was doomed.

With his network of corporations and a palatial estate complete with secret chambers, everything seemed to be going swimmingly for Whitaker Wright. But unbeknownst to his investors, the millionaire magnate was slowly drowning.

In 1900, Wright floated a large, unwieldy bond issue for London's Baker Street and Waterloo Railway. It was an expensive endeavor quite out of his usual comfort zone, and everything immediately went south. To keep investors from seeing him struggle, he began to issue himself a series of loans and shuttle them between his companies. Unable to keep things afloat, he fled, leaving his floundering investors in a panic.

Now considered a scourge and a scoundrel, Wright was retrieved and forced to stand trial. Needless to say, it didn't go well. Convicted of fraud, he was sentenced to seven years in prison by the Royal Courts of Justice in 1904.

In a court anteroom, Whitaker Wright took his own life by swallowing a cyanide pill immediately after sentencing and was found dead on the floor with a revolver in his pocket—assumed to serve as a backup in case the cyanide failed to finish the job.

After his death, Wright’s estate was auctioned off and sold to one Lord Pirrie, known today mostly for his role in the building of the Titanic. What use was made of the underwater smoking room is unknown.

In 1952, the mansion was completely destroyed in a fire. While new houses have been built, the landscaped park and the now ancient-looking ballroom still remain as the last remnants of Whitaker Wright's grand life.

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June 17 2016 12:30 PM

The Only Diamond Mine in the World Where You Can Keep What You Find

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There are many versions of the tale, of how a man named John Wesley Huddleston became the first person to find diamonds in the soil of this jewel-rich crater near Murfreesboro, Arkansas, dubbing him the “Diamond King.”

The most well-known iteration of the story starts in 1906: Huddleston, an illiterate, middle-aged farmer, was working the soil of his turnip field on his 243-acre farm when he uncovered two strange, shiny yellow and clear stones. Not knowing what they were, Huddleston tested them on his grinding wheel, which he was told could shape anything but diamonds. As he worked the stones against the wheel, he saw that they left impressions in the wheel, and sent them off to be appraised by a jeweler in Little Rock.

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Today, the site of his discovery, Crater of Diamonds State Park, is the only diamond mine in the world that's open to the public, and you can keep what you find.

The park is the remnant of a series of dramatic geologic shifts and vicious volcanic activity dating back 3 billion years ago. High temperatures and pressures between 60 and 100 miles below the Earth’s crust crystallize carbon into diamonds. Then an explosion of gas and fragments during the formation of the volcanic vent known as the Prairie Creek diatreme brought these rocks and minerals up from deep in the earth.

The 83-acre funneled crater was left behind where the airborne material settled, preserving precious diamond stones in the soil. There the jewels remained for centuries, until Huddleston, lucky “Diamond John,” found the first stones.

Huddleston became nationally famous for his discovery. The two diamonds he found were appraised by the jeweler, who determined that the diamonds weighed 2⅝ carats and 1⅜ carats. Originally purchasing the land for $1,000 and a mule, Huddleston made a nice profit when he sold his farm for $36,000 to Little Rock investors who turned the area into a commercial diamond mining site. The news of the diamond mine brought many fortune seekers to Murfreesboro—reports and newspapers indicated that hotels in the area had to turn visitors away because they were overbooked.

Since Huddleston, hundreds of diamonds have been found in the crater. In 1999, officials reported the count at 471 of the precious stones. Many historical diamond discoveries have also come from the site: the 1.09-carat Strawn-Wagner diamond that received the highest, Triple Zero grade (a stone that has perfect symmetry, polish, and proportions), the 4.25-carat Kahn Canary diamond worn by Hillary Clinton during her husband’s presidential inaugural gala, and the 40.23-carat white Uncle Sam Diamond, the largest diamond ever found in the United States.

The land has been handed over to many different owners, until it was purchased by the state for $750,000 in 1972 and turned into the 911-acre Crater of Diamonds State Park. About 37 of those acres are open to the public to dig for diamonds.

On average, two diamonds are found per day at the park. It’s common to see children digging for diamonds and visitors sifting through the soil. But there are a number of diamonds that go unaccounted for. Among the kids and tourists, there is a group of regular, local diamond hunters that don’t report their findings. They can be spotted digging deep holes and donning neoprene gloves and boots.

As for Huddleston, unfortunately, his luck quickly ran dry. He spent most all of his money on bad investments and he died very poor around 1936. Today, the farmer's discovery is honored by the state park, which marked off the site where he found the crater's very first diamond.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor jennifer4.

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June 16 2016 12:30 PM

The Tiny Doors of Atlanta

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Atlanta’s Beltline Trail is a 2-mile Eastside trail that's home to large-scale graffiti murals and some amazing wide-open views of the city. It’s also home to Tiny Doors Nos. 6 and 2, and like all the Tiny Doors, they are small enough to be easily overlooked.

Not all doors need to be opened to lead you somewhere interesting. Installed in unexpected places around Atlanta are nine (so far) whimsical vignettes featuring 6-inch miniature doors. And the story behind each door is yours to imagine.

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The #TinyDoorsATL project was started by Atlanta artist Karen Anderson with the stated goal of inspiring curiosity and exploration in people who happen across the little doors, which are affixed near various landmarks that make Atlanta unique.

Hidden in plain sight around the city, the doors are meant to draw your curiosity down to ground level and be seen by those who take the time to look. Sometimes the best ideas come along in one-twelth scale.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor Toriz.

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June 15 2016 12:30 PM

John Muir’s Alarm Clock Desk

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When he was a college student at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1860s, John Muir, the grandfather of American environmentalism, apparently had some trouble getting out of bed. Gifted with mechanical aptitude, however, Muir figured out a creative and entirely caffeine-free way to get going in the morning.

This amazing invention was a hybrid alarm clock and study desk that quite literally chucked Muir out of bed each morning. The contraption consisted of a clockwork desk attached directly to a collapsing bed. Built out of wood, it gently but firmly slid the sleeping Muir to the floor, while also lighting a lamp.

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Once launched, the clock then graciously allotted Muir a few minutes to get dressed before it quickly began ejecting and retracting his books based on a preset time schedule the inventor had assigned to each topic: Latin, Greek, mathematics, botany, chemistry, and geology. As Muir wrote in his 1913 autobiography, after the time allotted for a subject was over, "the machinery closed the book and allowed it to drop back into its stall, then moved the rack forward and threw up the next in order."

As a teenager growing up at Fountain Lake Farm (today a National Historic Landmark and nature preserve in Marquette County, Wisconsin), Muir—who had emigrated from Scotland with his parents as a teenager—acquired technical and farming skills and the ability to work with wood. He managed to construct an impressive set of barometers, thermometers, clocks, and other ingenious, labor-saving devices, including an automatic horse-feeder. He raised university tuition money by entering some of his curious inventions, such as a clock in the shape of Father Time’s scythe, into a competition at the Wisconsin State Fair. While at school, his dormitory became a campus attraction, as he turned his room into a gallery of clever machines.

Muir's time in Wisconsin ended, however, in 1864 when he went to work at a Canadian sawmill and rake factory. He returned to the United States in 1866. Though he had an interest in exploring nature from a young age, Muir opted for a practical profession as the foreman of a carriage factory in Indianapolis in 1867. But an accident at the factory punctured his cornea, sending his left eye into “sympathetic blindness.” And while, fortunately, much of his vision returned soon after, Muir abandoned the industrial lifestyle, bidding “adieu to mechanical inventions” and determining “to devote the rest of [his] life to the study of the inventions of God.” Behind much of his motivation to go to California lay his fearful encounter with near blindness.

In a twisted way, then, Muir's aptitude for mechanics led to his sowing the seeds of the American conservation movement, and, in turn, the survival of places like the Yosemite Valley as national parks. Not long after Muir arrived in the Sierra Nevada, he began campaigning to save such places from developers and helping to keep much of the West's sacred beauty from disappearing forever.

Muir's alarm clock has been part of the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus for decades. It is often on display in a glass case on the first floor, where an excellent exhibit tells the story of the environmentalist's early days in the Badger State.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor Stephen J Taylor.

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