Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Jan. 19 2017 2:45 PM

Spain’s Empty, 47-Story “M”

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

This strangely shaped 47-floor building is the highest residential building in Spain and one of the few high rise buildings in the world in the shape of an arch.

The high rise is located just inland from Poniente Beach in Benidorm, Alicante, the city with, reputedly, more high rise buildings per capita than any other city in in the world.

Advertisement

The two towers are about 61 feet apart, and the cone at the top starts at floor 38. There is a commonly held view that the M shape is a tribute to the city of Madrid following a 2004 terrorist attack, but this has never been confirmed by the architects Pérez-Guerras Arquitectos & Ingeniero.

Construction was completed in 2014, yet as of 2016 the building remains unoccupied, after the 2008 financial crisis saddled the developers with monetary problems.

The towering M can be seen from most places in Benidorm, south of the old town, and from the Autovia del Mediterrano (AP-7), which bypasses the city, or the N-332, which runs parallel to it. Another great place to see the building and appreciate its scale is from Benidorm Island, about a mile offshore.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Jan. 18 2017 12:30 PM

The California Town That Was Famous for Eggs and Arm Wrestling

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

Is Petaluma, California, the world’s most divided city?

On the one hand it is renowned as a hub of fragility and fluffiness, on the other it is revered for solidity and screams. The reason for this split personality is that Petaluma holds the distinction of being not only the egg capital of the world but also the arm wrestling capital of the world.

Advertisement

The city’s divided self can be traced back to the mid-19th century when California proved a mecca to those seeking gold, adventure or, in the case of Lyman Byce, good health. Byce was a part-time inventor who had fled the inhospitable wastes of his homeland Canada in search of warmer climes. He had already invented a spring lancet, an acoustic telephone, and a potato digger by the time he wound up in Petaluma in 1878. However it took the sweet California airs to inspire him with his greatest invention, the one that would transform his fortunes as well as those of untold billions of chickens.

Inventing the perfect chicken egg incubator was an innovation race in the late 19th century—think of how companies are racing to perfect the driverless car now. Hundreds of inventors were working on ways to make an efficient machine to grow and hatch eggs without the mother hen being present, thus freeing her to lay even more.

There was one problem, though. Incubators had a nasty habit of bursting into flames, destroying buildings and chickens alike.

This was not a new pursuit: the ancient Egyptians constructed large mud brick buildings in which to incubate their eggs. Heated by burning straw and camel manure, egg turners lived inside the malodorous structures, constantly assessing their delicate charges’ temperature by balancing the eggs on their eyelids. Later attempts used fermentation, hot water, and steam to provide a constant heat to the eggs. However the inability to regulate the temperature accurately doomed them all to the inventor’s scrap pile.

It was a thorny problem and such backyard tinkering wasn’t always taken kindly. In 1881 the Petaluma Argus-Courier was aghast at a Petaluma chicken raiser using the heat from a hot spring to power his incubator. “If he succeeds,” worried the paper, “the devil will monopolize the chicken business. There are many things in this world that had better be done in the old way and hatching chickens is one of them.”

image
A photo from 1925 showing a giant egg basket, celebratingPetaluma as the world’s egg basket.

Petaluma Historical Library & Museum

It took the tremendously mustachioed Byce to create a respectable incubator. His invention looked like a Victorian sideboard but was capable of maintaining a temperature of 103 degrees for a period of three weeks, so that the embryos inside the eggs could develop and hatch. Byce’s design won a medal for best incubator at the California State Fair, and the Petaluma Incubator Company was born.

By 1883, Byce had sold 200 incubators, mainly to small, family-owned farms in the Petaluma area. Ten years later over 15,000 units had been purchased. When the highly productive Single Comb White Leghorn chicken was introduced to Petaluma’s chicken farmers—capable of popping out 200 eggs a year—there was no looking back. A park was named after the breed, as well as a baseball team, and a statue of a chicken was erected in the town with the inscription: “The Kingdom of 10,000,000 White Leghorns—Petaluma.” Chickens were everywhere. A chicken pharmacy was even constructed downtown, a place to take your hens if they were feeling poultry.

By 1915 the town was producing an estimated 10 million eggs a year (at $.30 a dozen). With Petaluma being located next to a river and a railroad, the fragile eggs could be easily and safely shipped across the country. By 1918 the town was proclaimed “egg basket of the world” and a National Egg Day was held, with a parade led by the egg queen and attendant chicks. For nearly two decades there was more money on deposit in Petaluma banks, per capita, than any other town on Earth.

image.jpg
The Petaluma Egg Day Parade, Aug. 20, 1921.

Petaluma Historical Library & Museum

But a crack formed in the business. Improvements in caging and artificial lighting meant the clement California weather was no longer a necessity in raising hens, added to which advances in truck suspension meant eggs no longer needed to be carried by slow-moving railways or boat. Anyone, anywhere could start their own chicken farm. But out of the broken dreams of Petaluma’s shattered egg empire came a new birth. Whether it was due to the excessive amounts of protein in the local diet, or the frustrations at the city’s decline, the city was about to undergo a transformation into something less foul.

It began in 1955 with an overheard conversation in “Diamond” Mike Gilardi’s bar. Bill Soberanes was a local newspaper reporter struggling for stories in the depressed town when he heard a visitor boasting that he had never lost an arm-wrestling match—or wrist-wrestling as it was then known. With the inspiration of a journalist faced with a deadline, he immediately saw a way to inject a little excitement back into Petaluma. The boastful visitor was Jack Homel, a trainer for the Detroit Tigers baseball team, but Soberanes thought he knew just the guy to make him eat his words—Oliver Kulberg, a local rancher who was supposedly the strongest man in Sonoma County.

The match was set for Feb. 16, 1955, a crowd gathered to watch the two men heave and strain. The contest went on for three painful minutes when, with a final shudder, the table collapsed. A draw was declared, but from that day on an annual tradition was born.

Of course arm-wrestling was nothing new either. While the ancient Egyptians were incubating eggs in dung mounds, hieroglyphs show that they were also arm-wrestling with each other. Indeed the sport had been popular across the world for millennia since all that was needed of a competitor was one arm and a flat surface. What Petaluma did was transform this traditional sport into an organized competition.

By 1962 Petaluma’s annual bar event had ballooned into the World Wristwrestling Championship with the slogan, “Pure Strength and Raw Courage.” Fifty competitors with names like Earl “The Mighty Atom” Hagerman, and Duane “Tiny” Benedix wrestled it out in front of hundreds of cheering onlookers. The town was given an unexpected boost by Charles Schultz, the author of Peanuts, the most popular comic strip in the America at the time. Schultz lived near Petaluma and inserted the arm-wrestling competition into his strip. In the storyline Snoopy travels to the town to compete but is eventually disqualified for having no thumbs. Petaluma was soon proclaimed “wristwrestling capital of the world” and was a regular feature on ABC’s much-watched Wide World of Sports.

Behemoths such as Popeye-armed Jeff Dabe, and 385-pound Cleve “Arm Breaker” Dean, not to mention perennial champion John “The Perfect Storm” Brzenk, almost became household names. The success of Petaluma’s competition even saw Hollywood want to get in on the action with the creation of the classic 1980s movie Over the Top, starring Sylvester Stallone, although, ominously, its climactic match took place not in Petaluma but in Las Vegas.

For despite reaching its zenith in the 1980s, the sport of arm-wrestling was soon to abandon its spiritual home. The Annual World Wristwrestling Championship was held in Petaluma for the last time in 2002 before moving to Las Vegas. However a bronze statue still stands in downtown Petaluma, as the giant chicken statue did before it, depicting two men in a competitive grapple, grimacing, the veins on their arms bulging like giant caterpillars.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Jan. 17 2017 1:00 PM

What It’s Like to Be an Underwater Crime-Scene Investigator

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

For Mike Berry, a challenging workday might involve groping through the silt at the bottom of a lake in the pitch dark, hoping to stumble upon a gun while avoiding getting his hand chomped off by a snapping turtle.

Based in Virginia, Berry is an underwater criminal investigator. For the past 35 years, he has been diving to the bottom of lakes, rivers, and oceans in search of evidence that could send a murderer to prison or put a cold case to rest.

Advertisement

As with crime scenes on land, underwater investigations need to be conducted with the utmost consideration for protocol and evidence preservation. “The whole point of underwater criminal investigation is, just because the murder weapon was thrown off a bridge and went into the water, it still needs to be handled the same way, with the same rules, with the same requirements,” says Berry.

In addition to his job as the commander of Virginia State Police’s search-and-rescue team, Berry trains public safety officers on how to approach aquatic crime scenes with the level of meticulousness required to ensure the evidence found can be admissible in court. His organization, Underwater Criminal Investigators, prepares police and fire-department divers for all aspects of the job, from marking evidence to making courtroom testimonies.

Underwater criminal investigators are called upon for three main types of recovery operations: bodies, vehicles, and evidence. “Body recovery could be a person that drowned, it could be a murder, it could be a cold case where the person was murdered 10 years ago and tied up and thrown off a bridge,” says Berry.

In cold cases like these, “you’re not searching for a body anymore, you’re searching for bones and clothing and jewelry, and maybe cinder blocks and rope that they used to tie them up.”

The vehicles dredged up from waterways might be stolen, or part of an insurance fraud scheme. They may also have ended up in the water following an accident in which the driver loses control and spins off a road.

The “evidence” category is broad; guns and knives are common items on the search list, but divers also go looking for personal effects that relate to a crime, such as purses and suitcases.

The search process is methodical, physically demanding, and mentally taxing. It can also get pretty disgusting. “Most of the places we’re diving, unfortunately, are gross—they’re black, and the bottom is all mucky," says Berry. “The only way to find that gun is to get down into the muck.”

Scuba divers scour the bottom of a body of water by hand, moving back and forth in straight lines—like mowing a lawn. Working in pairs, they hold onto a rope while sifting through a foot of silt, mud, trash, and foliage. As soon as the lead diver completes a section, the backup diver re-searches that area. It’s a thorough approach, and one that requires a lot of patience and concentration. It can take days or weeks to find that crucial object that can provide the missing piece in a puzzling crime.

For a body or a car, side-scan sonar, which creates an image of the lakebed or ocean floor, is often used to find the target object before sending divers down to retrieve it.

Regardless of the methods employed, the search is high-stakes. “You have police departments that are depending on you,” says Berry. “The case many times hinges on these divers and their ability to not only scuba dive, but to search in these very harsh conditions and find it.”

The taxing conditions don’t just involve muck and pitch blackness. “The water that we dive in, a lot of it is contaminated,” Berry says, “so just ingesting some of that water could kill you.” Divers can step on broken glass or injure their hands on nails. And then there are the creatures of the deep, some of whom make their presence known at highly inconvenient moments. Depending on the location of the investigation, divers may have to contend with turtles, poisonous snakes, alligators, or inquisitive fish.

“The worst I’ve been bit was from a snapping turtle,” says Berry. “You know, you can’t see them, so as your hand is moving along the bottom, feeling, you hope you get the rear end of the turtle instead of the front end. I got the front end one day ... it went right through my hand, from one side to the other.” The pain, he says, was “like a lightning strike.”

Fish, while seemingly harmless, can also impede an investigation. “I’ve had fish take a chunk out of my lips before,” says Berry. A diver may also encounter what they think is a body, then discover it is a man-sized catfish. “You put your hand on something on the bottom and you’re thinking, ‘What’s this?’ ” says Berry. “And all of a sudden it swims.”

In the event that a diver does find a real human body, or part thereof, the usual approach is to place it in a body bag while underwater, then bring it to the surface. This helps preserve any physical or trace evidence on it, while preventing news media and family members of the deceased from seeing the body emerge from the water. In toxic or otherwise dangerous waters, investigators opt for what’s called the “grab-and-go” approach, forgoing the body bag until they reach the surface.

Though underwater criminal investigations can be hard, dangerous work, for Berry, nothing beats the thrill of finding that missing gun that can bring resolution to a case and justice to the bereaved.

“I’ve had a number of murderers that have told me, ‘You’ll never find it,’ ” he says. “And that just gets you excited, when they tell you that. It’s like, ‘Okay. We’ll see.’ ”

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Jan. 16 2017 2:30 PM

The Persistent Racism of America's Cemeteries

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

In 2016, the city of Waco, Texas issued an order to remove a fence in the city’s public burial ground, Greenwood Cemetery. But it wasn’t just a cosmetic change: Using a forklift and power tools, City of Waco Parks & Recreation staff cut apart the chain-link fence that had been used to divide the white section of the cemetery from the black section.

The cemetery had been racially segregated since it opened in the late 1800s. It was operated by two sets of caretakers, white and black, until the city took over the cemetery about 10 years ago.

Advertisement

Waco is not the only Texas community to struggle with the surprisingly robust ghost of Jim Crow: This spring, the cemetery association of Normanna, Texas, about an hour outside Corpus Christi, was sued by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund for barring a white woman from burying the ashes of her Hispanic husband there. Although the cemetery association later relented, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating. No Hispanic people are buried within the Normanna cemetery—there is one sole tombstone with a Spanish surname, located just outside the cemetery’s chain link fence.

Until the 1950s, about 90 percent of all public cemeteries in the U.S. employed a variety of racial restrictions. Until recently, to enter a cemetery was to experience, as a University of Pennsylvania geography professor put it, the “spatial segregation of the American dead.” Even when a religious cemetery was not entirely race restricted, different races were buried in separate parts of the cemetery, with whites usually getting the more attractive plots.

Some white Americans did fight against this policy. Abolitionists, such as Thaddeus Stevens, a radical Republican and chair of the House Ways and Means Committee during the Civil War, insisted on being buried in a non-segregated burial ground. Stevens chose to be buried in an interracial cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania after his death in 1868. The issue of interracial eternal repose was so important to him that he wrote it into his own epitaph. His tombstone read: “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude; but, finding other cemeteries limited as to race, by charter rules, I have chosen this that I may illustrate in my death, the principles which I advocated through a long life, equality of man before the Creator.”

3b11075r
Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.

Photo: Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-63460

From the 1920s through the 1950s, courts did not consider cemeteries to be “public accommodations,” so cemeteries did not qualify for special civil rights protections. But in May 1948, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer that state enforcement of racially restrictive covenants in land deeds violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. This had a major impact on the ability of blacks to buy houses in white neighborhoods, but it also affected the de-segregation of cemeteries. Whites-only restrictions on cemetery plots could no longer hold up in court. As a sign of the slowly-changing times, several interracial cemeteries appeared in the 1950s. Charles Diggs, Sr., a black undertaker and florist in Detroit, bought land to create an interracial cemetery just outside the city in 1953. Mount Holiness Cemetery in Butler, New Jersey, also promoted itself as an interracial cemetery in black newspapers like The New York Age in the 1950s.

But since blacks and whites continued to live and worship separately, such initiatives were few and far between.

Just a few weeks after SCOTUS ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which officially desegregated the military. Although it took years to desegregate battlefield units, the order went into immediate effect at Arlington National Cemetery. One of the first black veterans to be buried in a formerly white section of Arlington was Spottswood Poles, a star of Negro League baseball who enlisted with the infamous Harlem Hellfighters, an all-black unit that fought in the trenches of France during World War I. Poles earned five battle field star decorations, as well as the Purple Heart, for his military service. He was interred at Arlington with full military honors in 1962.

As the racial composition of communities changed over time, many black cemeteries became neglected and forgotten, and the resting places of countless unsung heroes of America’s black past quietly disappeared. In 2014, U.S. Senator Bob Casey called on the Veterans’ Administration to establish a public database listing where all black Civil War veterans were buried, because few such cemetery records exist. Since many black graves are unmarked, recording and cataloguing their locations requires ground-penetrating radar and high-precision GPS. Several months ago, over 800 unmarked graves were uncovered using this technology at a black cemetery in Atlanta, demonstrating the potential for similar discoveries in cemeteries and forgotten burial grounds across the country.

1913_spot_poles
Spottswood Poles in 1913. After serving in World War One, Poleswas buried in Arlington National Cemetery in 1962 with full military honors.

Photo: Library of Congress

Like the city councilors of Waco, many community groups and civic associations are currently engaged in the difficult, lengthy, and expensive tasks involved in unearthing black history. In the process, they are discovering that addressing the wrongs of the past is often more complicated than simply removing the physical reminders of Jim Crow that haunt our landscape. The traces of the past are sunk deep into the earth, but with the right tools, it’s possible to make them visible.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Jan. 13 2017 12:25 PM

In 1918, California Drafted Children Into a War on Squirrels

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

In April 1918, as American doughboys faced down the Germans in France, California’s schoolchildren were enlisted to open a new Western front. “We have enemies here at home more destructive, perhaps, than some of the enemies our boys are fighting in the trenches,” state horticulture commissioner George H. Hecke warned in an impassioned call-up for “School Soldiers.” He exhorted children to do their part for Uncle Sam by organizing “a company of soldiers in your class or in your school” and marching out to destroy their foe: “the squirrel army.”

This children’s crusade was part of Squirrel Week, a seven-day frenzy in which California tried to kill off its ground squirrels. The state’s farmers and ranchers had long struggled to decimate the critters (also known as Otospermophilus beecheyi), which were seen as pests and a source of pestilence, particularly the bubonic plague. The burrowing foragers—not to be confused with tree squirrels—devoured an estimated $30 million worth of crops annually, about $480 million in current dollars.

Advertisement

Squirrel Week was the state’s first attempt at mass eradication. The anti-rodent campaign was announced in March 1918 at a meeting of the state’s horticultural commissioners as they lunched on grain-fed gophers. (“Liberal portions of beef were served to those who did not like gopher meat,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle.)

image1
“Children, we must kill the squirrels to save food”: a call for school children to help destroy squirrels.

Internet Archive/Public Domain

California set aside $40,000 from its emergency wartime funds for the campaign, which included an anti-squirrel publicity blitz: The state printed up 34,000 posters and distributed 500,000 leaflets.

What made Squirrel Week unique was its reliance on kids to succeed where adults had failed. Hecke’s call to arms appeared in a pamphlet titled “Kill the Squirrels,” which sought to stir patriotic youngsters to sprinkle rodenticide outside squirrel burrows. In the pamphlet’s opening illustration, a young woman holding a pail of poison barley invites eager kids to get to work.

“Children, we must kill the squirrels to save food,” she smiles. “But use poisons carefully.” The pamphlet included a recipe for strychnine-laced grain as well as suggestions for other extermination methods, such as shooting, drowning, and poison gas.

Just in case civic duty wasn’t motivation enough, there were also rewards: $50 ($800 today) to each of the elementary and high schools whose pupils killed the most squirrels, and $30 and $20 to the runners-up.

California’s war on squirrels was framed as an extension of United States’ declaration of war on Germany a year earlier. Part of this was practical: Future President Herbert Hoover, then the United States Food Administrator, offered his “hearty approval” of the effort to save “vast quantities of food which might otherwise be used for support of our armies abroad.”

But it also made for great propaganda. In the corners of the “Kill the Squirrels” cartoon, two members of the squirrel army stood at attention, wearing Pickelhauben—the distinctive spiked helmets of the German army. Another Squirrel Week poster showed a Teutonic squirrel family wearing spiked helmets and Iron Crosses. The father squirrel sported an oddly upturned mustache—just like Kaiser Wilhelm’s.

An article about Squirrel Week in the Lompoc Journal took the martial theme and ran with it, hailing the “growing army” amassing “casualties” in “initial engagements” against the enemy. “All the killing devices of modern warfare will be used in the effort to annihilate the squirrel army, including gas,” it continued. “Don’t wait to be drafted.”

californiaground00cali_0192
More squirrel notices from California’s State Commission of Horticulture.

Internet Archive/Public Domain

The campaign also enlisted the help of Four-Minute Men—volunteers who delivered short speeches to rally public support for the war effort. Anti-squirrel talking points were issued so they might convince farmers and ranchers to go out and kill the “little ally of the [K]aiser”:

  • The BEST squirrel is the dead squirrel.
  • The Hotel California board bill for ground squirrels in 1917 […] was $30,000,000—yet unpaid.
  • The squirrel does not recognize daylight saving. He uses it all.
  • He preys on our crops in countless hordes. He fills the ranks of the killed in true military fashion.
  • Why hesitate? We can get ‘em. How? Poison ‘em, gas ‘em, drown em’, shoot ‘em, trap ‘em, submarine ‘em.
  • Are you not willing then to give your whole-hearted support to this state-wide movement to KILL THE SQUIRREL?

Children were asked to verify their kills by bringing in squirrel tails to their schools. Some impatient exterminators delivered their trophies directly to Commissioner Hecke even before Squirrel Week kicked off, causing a “pronounced odor” in his office. He requested that children not send him any more tails, and instructed his county commissioners to bury all tails after tallying them.

By the time Squirrel Week ended on May 4, children across the state had turned in 104,509 tails, though this was thought to represent a fraction of the total casualties. Even after the contest ended, the Commission of Horticulture reported that kids’ enthusiasm for killing squirrels continued for “an indefinite period.” During an anti-squirrel campaign in Lassen County later in the year, one girl brought in 3,780 tails; a boy brought in 3,770.

The state considered Squirrel Week a great success: Crop yields reportedly bounced back in areas cleared of ground squirrels. But total victory remained elusive. Nearly a century later, ground squirrels and are still considered prolific, expensive pests.

The militaristic edge of the squirrel war of 1918 hasn’t entirely faded: A contemporary University of California web page about the damage caused by ground squirrels features an image of a squirrel wearing a helmet and taking aim with a bazooka. All is not quiet on this Western front.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Jan. 12 2017 12:30 PM

The Federally Funded Laboratory Conducting Experiments on All Things Wooden

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

Who would you call if you had a wood-related question? The Forest Products Laboratory, of course. But, did you even know of its existence?

The Forest Products Laboratory was created in 1910 and was moved to its current building atop a knoll overlooking the University of WisconsinMadison in 1932. There, research is conducted on all things wood-related. The lab's xylarium, or research wood collection, is the largest in the world, with over 103,000 samples. Its herbarium contains one of the largest collections of wood-decay fungi in existence.

Advertisement

Perhaps unsurprisingly, FPL is the only federally funded wood utilization research laboratory in the United States, and as such it answers to the public as a government resource. Operating under the Forest Service, the laboratory dispenses timely advice on wood through its hotline—just call 608-231-9200.

When it's not answering the public’s burning questions, FPL is a repository of oddities. In its xylarium they have a piece of Leadwood, which is the heaviest and hardest wood in existence, weighing 85 pounds per cubic foot. Another sample, a piece of African Crossfire Mahogany, was the veneer used on the interior of Pontiac automobiles in 1973. It’s a beautiful specimen with brown waves rippling through its golden grain, like caramel cascading down a candied apple.

Within the walls of this curious laboratory, innovative research is conducted on a daily basis for society’s benefit. And resting in cabinets sit artifacts accrued over a century, waiting to tell a story about our past and the potential future of wood technology.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Jan. 11 2017 12:30 PM

Behind Michelangelo’s Hidden Wall Drawings

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

In 1530, to escape the wrath of the Pope, Michelangelo holed up in a tiny secret room under the Medici Chapel of the Basilica di San Lorenzo. The artist had been working on the lavish tomb when all hell broke loose in Florence, Italy, and he was forced into hiding. With nothing but time and a little charcoal on his hands, he covered the bare walls with some prisoner graffiti.

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni designed the Medici Chapel as an elaborate domed mausoleum for his patron family, but for three months he hid underneath it and filled the walls with drawings—of himself, of Christ, and even, some experts believe, sketched reproductions of images from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which he had completed in 1512.

Advertisement

Michelangelo owed his career to the Medici, one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Europe. In 1529 he joined ranks with other Florentines who had grown weary of their rule, hoping for a more democratic system of governance. Defying the formidable family, let alone the Pope (Clement VII, who was a Medici), was more than a little counterintuitive for the artist, whose livelihood depended on them. But defy he did, working to help fortify the city walls against Medici-friendly forces led by the Pope himself.

After 10 months of struggle the Pope and his family won, and the republican sympathizers were swiftly punished. This would have included Michelangelo, had he not retreated for those three months to his subterranean hideaway to wait it out.

In November of 1530, after the Pope let it be known that Michelangelo could go back to work—unpunished—to complete the Chapel, he reemerged. All was forgiven between the artist and his patrons, eager to finally have their finished tomb. Michelangelo never let on where he had been, and for almost 500 years his whereabouts remained a secret. During this time, some believed he had been staying with a friend or in a church bell tower.

The room and the drawings weren’t discovered until 1976, when they were stumbled upon by the director of the Museum of the Medici Chapel. Since then, given its fragility, the tiny, dark, and unvented space has been alternately opened and closed to the public. Imagine spending three months down there with nothing but doodling to keep you occupied.

As it turns out, it’s not healthy for the drawings to have too many tourists breathing on them, so the secret room is currently officially closed to the public. They do make occasional exceptions, so it's worth a try to ask around if you're there—you may get lucky.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Jan. 10 2017 2:00 PM

The Liberating Corsets of the Warner Brothers Corset Factory

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

It seems obvious now, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that doctors began to notice the injuries women received by wearing corsets made of steel and whalebone. Their lungs were crushed and their organs squeezed to the point of failure. At this factory, two doctors pioneered a corset that, along with burgeoning women’s liberation, allowed women to do more.

Though they were associated with delicate femininity, corsets were actually heavy-duty objects structured to literally force a woman's body into a given period's beauty standards. But toward the end of the 19th century, two things were happening to change the public feeling about corsets.

First, women were gaining more independence, and social mores about clothing were loosening. Ladies displayed their shoulders and ankles in public when taking part in activities like swimming and bicycling— not to mention during the long working hours of lower-class women—and needed to be able to move better. Second, in the wake of a prolific era in medicine, there was a trend in health cures. People had the sense that we, as a public, could become our best selves by improving our health through health tonics, health tinctures, health seltzers, health soaps, and of course, health underwear.

After unsuccessfully lecturing against the deleterious effects of tightly cinched corsets, Drs. Ira and Lucien Warner pioneered a “health corset.” It was made of flexible fabric, and instantly became the most popular model available on the market. They later introduced several practical inventions to women's undergarments, such as garter clips to connect one's hose to the corset. They stayed up with the times too; in 1915 they bought the patent for the first bra, invented by the 19-year-old Mary Phelps Jacob.

Jan. 6 2017 1:30 PM

100 Years Ago, American Women Competed in Venus de Milo Look-Alike Contests

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

In February 1916, two prestigious northeast American liberal arts colleges engaged in a spirited war of words, goaded by the media. The conflict, between Wellesley in Massachusetts and Swarthmore in Pennsylvania, did not pertain to academics, admissions, suffrage or sporting teams. They were fighting over which college’s female students most closely resembled the Venus de Milo.

At the time, American women were still getting used to breathing easily, having wrestled free from the tightly laced corsets and bulky bustles of the Victorian silhouette. But in the absence of these strictures they faced a new kind of aesthetically minded pressure: the need to make their measurements correspond to those of a Greco-Roman goddess. The soft curves of Venus—Aphrodite to the Ancient Greeks—were being exalted once again as the paragon of female beauty.

Accordingly, the nation embarked on a quest to find a living, breathing woman whose body was of exact Venusian proportions.

The Wellesley-Swarthmore tiff began on February 10, 1916, when Wellesley released the composite data of its students' measurements. They seemed close enough to Venus' proportions to invite goddess comparisons—the average young woman at Wellesley apparently had a waist circumference within half-an-inch of the hallowed Venus de Milo trunk circumference.

But on February 15, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Wellesley’s “composite Venus” was “outdone by Miss Margaret Willett, the beauty of Swarthmore college and leader in women’s athletics, according to measurements of Miss Willett made public today by her friends.” Willett’s supporters insisted that her figure trumped the collective beauty of Wellesley women since her measurements varied from those of the Venus de Milo by mere fractions of an inch. Her bust, in particular, was “practically the same.”

Jan. 5 2017 12:30 PM

Did a Silent Film About a Train Really Cause Audiences to Stampede?

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

If you’re at all interested in the history of cinema, you’ve probably heard some version of the story about the train film that sent an audience running. According to the tale, as the silent black-and-white image of a moving locomotive filled a movie screen in Paris, the people in the cinema thought it was going to drive right into them. They panicked and bolted for the back of the theater.

While this story is often taken as fact, it turns out that this theatrical panic is likely no more than a sturdy urban legend—and probably already was even when the film was still in the theater.

Advertisement

The myth of the runaway movie train surrounds a short 1896 film called L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, or Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. The 50-second-long silent film was created by Auguste and Louis Lumière, a pioneering set of brothers who were among the very first people to create moving pictures.

Many of the brothers' early works were barely classifiable as movies even at the time, mostly being short snippets of a scene. “This film is memorable among all the other 1,400 one-minute films (they were called ‘views’ at that time, like ‘living’ picture post cards—single-shot films without any editing), which are listed in the Lumière film catalogue,” says Martin Loiperdinger, a film scholar at the University of Trier, Germany. Loiperdinger is the author of maybe the pre-eminent piece of writing regarding the myth of La Ciotat, calling the film and its attendant popularity “Cinema’s Founding Myth.” In the piece he points out that there is no hard evidence that the famed audience stampede ever occurred.

The film itself is a scene on a train platform. Riders mill about the station, while a black steam train pulls in toward the camera, which has been set up close to the edge of the tracks. But even as it was presented as just snapshot of natural action at a train station, the scene was staged by the Lumière Brothers, with the extras being told not to look at the camera.

The movie is often credited as the first documentary film, but this is also untrue. “This film clearly shows a perfect mies-en-scène of a train entering the station, from the perspective of somebody waiting on the platform, standing close to the tracks—thus the locomotive enters the frame from right rear and runs to the left bottom corner of the frame and leaves the frame while the trains stops: a perfect diagonal composition,” says Loiperdinger. The film was beautiful in its simplicity and ability to bring viewers right up and into the action on-screen, even if the scene was a portrait of daily tedium.

It’s almost hard to imagine a black-and-white short creating much of a splash, but it seems like it was a hit. According to Loiperdinger, there are no accounts of how the audience reacted at the time, but journalists who wrote about their experiences at the showings of the Cinématographe Lumière, the program of short films in which La Ciotat first began appearing in 1896, seemed reasonably amazed. Even without color or sound, the film’s clear portrayal of three-dimensional movement was a sensation.

Since there are no surviving contemporary accounts of the audience reaction to those 1896 showings, there is no concrete proof that audiences ever went scurrying for the back of theater as the train pulled in on screen, and Loiperdinger thinks that such a reaction is unlikely.

“There is no evidence at all about any crowd panic in Paris or elsewhere during screenings of L’Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat—neither police reports nor newspaper reporting,” he says. The screen the film was shown on was small (around 7 feet wide), and the picture quality was not only lacking color, but it was full of grain. The image flickered noticeably, and of course, there was no sound. In other words, there was no way anyone was confusing the film for reality.

So if it never happened, where did the story of the panicked audience come from?

“The anecdote of train films and panicking audiences was already in the air before 1900,” says Loiperdinger. According to Loiperdinger, tales of panicked audiences began to surface mainly as a way for people to try to describe the emotional power inherent in the then-new medium of film. Writers reporting on Cinématographe Lumière would talk about the train nearly crashing into the audience but just as a rhetorical method of invoking the convincing 3-D effect of the moving picture.

There was also a component of class commentary in the story that spoke to film’s power and effect on the unwashed masses. The erudite, newspaper-reading, educated elites of the day took solace in the idea of rubes getting spooked by a moving image that they would never let affect them in such a way. This can be seen clearly in the 1901 silent film, The Countryman and the Cinematograph, which shows a bumpkin reacting outrageously to a series of short films. There is even a bit where he runs from the image of an oncoming train.

For the same reasons the urban legend of the train and the audience panic first arose around the release of L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, it continues to survive today. The story still makes for a great shorthand for the power of film, and the elitists still like to giggle at the effect popcorn movies have on the masses. “The anecdote about naïve early film audiences who confuse moving pictures with reality means balm for the souls of self-conscious media consumers in later decades up to today,” says Loiperdinger.

The story of the audience panic and the train film might be bogus, but with advances in 3-D making movies come alive like never before, maybe it won’t be long before people finally bring this myth to life.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

READ MORE STORIES