Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights

Sept. 16 2014 12:15 PM

“Human Life Is Frightfully Cheap”: A 1900 Petition to Make Lynching a Federal Offense

This petition from a group of citizens of New Jersey to Congress, submitted in February of 1900, asked for lawmakers to redefine lynching as “a crime against the United States.” The group asked that the government create “a Central Detective Bureau at Washington with branch offices” in states prone to lynching, in order to investigate these crimes and provide material for successful prosecution.

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Sept. 15 2014 3:29 PM

19th-Century Infographic Shows American Mortality as a Cluster of Cute Little Charts

This set of charts shows causes of death in the United States, according to the 1870 census. The page appeared in the Statistical Atlas of the United States, a project spearheaded by Francis Amasa Walker, then the superintendent of the Census. Here, the atlas employs a data visualization technique described by Edward Tufte as “small multiples”—a series of little illustrations presenting bits of a data set.

Sept. 12 2014 12:30 PM

Map Shows All of the Ways You Could Get Around Alaska in 1909

This map of Alaska in 1909 shows all of the transportation and communication infrastructure in the territory at that early date: wagon roads, sled roads, pack trails, railroads, telegraph lines, and even some telephone lines. Wireless stations are noted; the 107-mile wireless radio connection across Norton Sound gets a special mention.

Sept. 12 2014 10:32 AM

The British Painters Who Were Eyewitnesses to World War II

During World War II, the British government’s Ministry of Information funded a War Artists Advisory Committee. During World War I, it had sponsored a smaller project, with a limited range of painters. This larger-scale midcentury program supported artists who traveled with the armed forces, as well as capturing the happenings on the homefront. Kenneth Clark, the art historian who would later become famous for his television series “Civilisation,” spearheaded the project.

Sept. 10 2014 3:28 PM

The Colorful Quilt Squares Chilean Women Used to Tell the Story of Life Under Pinochet 

After General Augusto Pinochet came to power in Chile on September 11, 1973, via a coup d’etat, his military government executed, “disappeared,” or tortured thousands of citizens. The current exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, “Disobedient Objects,” contains a few examples of arpilleras: narrative quilt squares sewn by Chilean women protesting the injustices of the regime.

Sept. 8 2014 8:30 AM

An 1849 Guide to the Philadelphia Brothel Scene

This Guide to the Stranger offered young men visiting Philadelphia guidance in their choice of brothel or “bed house” (where rooms could be rented by the hour, for assignation purposes). The entire text of the 1849 booklet is available here, via the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Sept. 5 2014 1:13 PM

A Late 19th-Century Day-by-Day Commemorative Map of the Mormon Journey West

This pictorial map, printed in 1899, commemorates the 1846-47 route of émigrés from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as they made their way from Illinois to Utah. The map’s particulars are drawn from the journals of LDS elder Orson Pratt, who was with Brigham Young and the smaller detachment of 147 pioneers who first arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in July of 1847.

Sept. 3 2014 11:44 AM

A Kiowa Photographer's Beautiful, Decades-Long Record of His Community and Family

Horace Poolaw, of the Kiowa tribe, took thousands of photos of his multitribal community around Anadarko, Oklahoma, between the 1920s and 1950s. A selection of his images appears in a new volume,For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw, which accompanies the National Museum of the American Indian’s exhibition of the same name. (A few more Poolaw photos can be seen on the NMAI’s website.) 

While many non-Indian photographers of the American West in the 19th and early 20th centuries made images of Native Americans with a variety of goals in mind (commercial exploitation; anthropological preservation; artistic production), Native photographers also stepped behind the camera to document their own communities. Among them, Poolaw left behind an exceptionally complete archive, which represents 20th-century Native life in Oklahoma as a fluid mix of traditional and modern cultures.

Sept. 2 2014 9:31 AM

School-Sanctioned Mid-18th-Century Hazing Rituals at Harvard

This list, from the 1856 book A Collection of College Words and Customs by B.H. Hall, reports the customs governing what we would now call “hazing” at Harvard University in 1741. Hall includes three similar versions of this list in his book under the entry “Freshman Servitude.” (I wrote about another list from Hall’s book—a mid-18th-c summary of fineable student offenses—earlier this year on the Vault.)

Aug. 29 2014 12:30 PM

The Testimony of a Laborer Forced Into Peonage in Early 20th-Century Alabama

In this 1903 affidavit, Pat Hill, a laborer from Roanoke, Alabama, described the chain of events that led to his virtual enslavement at the hands of local plantation owner John W. Pace. The plainly written description, sealed with Hill’s “X” signature, shows how local businessmen, law enforcement, and judiciary conspired to enmesh Hill. A series of happenings that began with Hill’s arrest for leaving one job ended with his 10-month imprisonment on the Pace plantation, where he was whipped and locked up at night.

Blacks in the South were often coerced into labor throughout the first half of the 20th century, in a system called “peonage.” Pat Hill was unlucky enough to experience both common modes of entry to the peonage system: First, he was held in a job to pay off an unfairly assessed debt to an employer; then, he was arrested, convicted by a corrupt judge, and forced to work as a convict.

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