Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

May 31 2016 12:30 PM

The First Woman to Put Her Face on Packaging Got Trolled Like Crazy

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As every single person on the Internet knows, women who dare to enter the public eye are regularly pilloried. Message boards are rife with misogyny. Trolls lurk under every tweet. "Don't read the comments" has become a necessary mantra.

But as 19th century apothecary Lydia E. Pinkham might attest, none of this is particularly modern. In the late 1800s, Pinkham's face became among the most recognizable in the world—and this brought consequences. Until she came along, the only woman whose image showed up regularly in public was Queen Victoria.

When Pinkham first put herself on a bottle of her bestselling Vegetable Concoction, men sent her hate mail, harping on her haircut and her "cast-iron smile." Journalists mixed her up with other famous women. College choirs made fun of her in song. All because she dared to put her portrait on a label.

Before becoming a well-known medicine maven, Pinkham had led a relatively quiet life. She was a schoolteacher, mother, and dedicated abolitionist in her hometown of Lynn, Massachusetts. She got into preparing medicines at the age of 56, through knack and necessity: The economy was tanking, her family needed money, and she happened to have a great recipe for a much-needed drug.

Nineteenth-century pharmacies were full of patent medicines—mixtures that, though dodgy by modern standards, helped citizens through illnesses and complaints, often by slyly dosing them with cocaine or opium. Pinkham had spent years concocting a menstrual cramp-soothing mixture that all the neighborhood women swore by. In 1875, hoping local appeal would translate, she brewed up the first commercial batch of her "Vegetable Compound"—some roots, some seeds, and a generous amount of alcohol, all stirred together on the stove.

May 27 2016 12:30 PM

Curaçao’s Sand-Floored Synagogue

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Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue—often referred to as the Snoa, another term for synagogue—is the oldest surviving synagogue and Jewish congregation in the Americas. This is more than enough to make it a place of historical significance, but it has another element that makes it unusual. The floor is entirely covered in sand.

Founded in Curaçao in 1651, the congregation’s original name translates to the Hope of Israel. The Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue itself began construction in 1729, was completed in 1732, and has been in continuous use ever since.

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The synagogue is tucked into a quiet street in the Punda neighborhood of Willemstad, the historic capital city of Curaçao. Though it has an inconspicuous exterior, once you step inside, you’ll find rows of pews, towering chandeliers, and a shining mahogany bemah. As you walk around, your feet sink softly into the floor of sand.

Spanish and Portuguese Jews from the Netherlands and Brazil were early settlers in the Caribbean islands, taking on influential roles in the local communities, and the Jewish community in Curaçao was notable among those in the New World. (Nearby, the Hendrickplein Jewish Temple, built in 1865, is also well worth a visit.) 

The reasons for the Jewish migration to the islands and the reason for the sand floor may be connected—an attempt to avoid persecution. As Jews made their new home in the Caribbean, fears of persecution lingered. The sand floor is said to have been there to muffle the sound of steps as a reminder of the secret Jewish services performed in the recent past. While that is one interpretation, the true origin of the sand-floored synagogue is largely mysterious. Nonetheless, the tradition has carried on in other far-flung Jewish communities. Sand-floor synagogues can be found in four other locations, in Jamaica, in Suriname, in Saint Thomas, and in the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam. 

The building is in very good condition, and guests can attend the regular services. You can also check out their Jewish Cultural Historical Museum, which contains information on the island’s Jewish community and history as well as artifacts such as old scrolls and spice boxes.

The city of Willemstad, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, looks at first glance like an Amsterdam lookalike, though it has a population of only around 150,000. Curaçao, an island in the Caribbean just off the coast of South America, only gained autonomy from the Netherlands on Oct. 10, 2010, which was the first time since the arrival of the Spanish in 1499 that the islanders regained political control.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura fellow and contributor Tao Tao Holmes.

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May 26 2016 12:30 PM

A Local Prank Turned Town Icon

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Located in the Dauphin Narrows stretch of the Susquehanna River stands a mini Statue of Liberty that is a 25-foot-tall replica of the original. Technically it is a replica of a replica. The current statue is the second little Lady Liberty to hold her torch high above the old railway piling in the middle of the river.  

The first was 18 feet tall and made of plywood and venetian blinds. It was erected in 1986 as a patriotic prank to commemorate the centennial of the original Statue of Liberty. No one knew who made it or how it got there, and no one would come forward to take the credit/blame.

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This first replica was blown off her pedestal and destroyed in 1992, a surprisingly long run considering its construction materials. However, in the six years since she had first appeared, the people of Dauphin Township had grown rather fond of her. Money was raised to erect a heavier, sturdier 25-foot version of the statue, this time constructed from metal. This one was put in place in 1997 by a helicopter and lashed to the piling. It still stands today. 

It wasn't until years later in 2011 that local lawyer, Gene Stlip, finally owned up to not only orchestrating the making of the statue but also taking the daring trip into the dangerous river water to climb the piling and help erect the statue. Little did he know his prank would become a permanent monument for the people of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Being a lawyer, Stlip also pointed out that the statute of limitations for prosecuting the crime of illegal statue placement has long since passed. 

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor Jane Weinhardt Goldberg.

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May 25 2016 12:30 PM

The Pickle Barrel House

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At the end of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in northern Michigan, Grand Marais is a quiet town nestled in a cradle of arboreal forests. Not far from these beautiful lakeshore vistas an odd piece of architecture stands out: a small barrel-shaped cottage.

The history of the Pickle Barrel House is nearly as unusual as its appearance. It started out as a summer getaway for cartoonist William Donahey and his wife, Mary. Donahey was the creator of a cast of 2-inch-tall cartoon characters known as The Teenie Weenies that debuted in the Chicago Tribune in 1914. The Teenie Weenies were featured on food labels for Reid-Murdock & Co.'s Monarch Foods line. Among the larger-than-life structures in their teenie weenie world was their pickle barrel house. In 1926 Reid-Murdock had a 16-foot-tall version of the barrel built as a gift for the Donaheys, and it stood on the shore of Grand Sable Lake until 1936. After 10 years the Donaheys had tired of the stream of looky-loos trying to catch a glimpse of their little house, so they sold it to new owners who moved it two miles over to Grand Marais. There it served out the next few decades as an ice cream stand, an information kiosk, and a gift shop.

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By 2003 the barrel was abandoned and in disrepair, so the Grand Marais Historical Society took it over. Volunteers worked on the needed repairs, and two years (and $125,000 in restoration costs) later it began a new life as a museum dedicated to Donahey and his work. Today the Pickle Barrel House Museum showcases artifacts of Donahey and The Teenie Weenies, as well as a décor reminiscent of its old life as a cartoonist’s retreat.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor ACReynard.

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May 24 2016 12:30 PM

The Rise of Pirate Libraries

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All around the world, shadow libraries keep growing, filled with banned materials. But no actual papers trade hands: Everything is digital, and the internet-accessible content is not banned for shocking content so much as that modern crime, copyright infringement.

But for the people who run the world’s pirate libraries, their goals are no less ambitious for their work’s illicit nature.

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“It’s the creation of a universal library of the best stuff,” says Joe Karaganis, who studies media piracy at Columbia University’s policy think tank, American Assembly. “That will not include the latest Danielle Steel novel.”

It does, however, include hundreds of thousands of books and millions of journal articles that otherwise are found only through expensive academic journals. Scanned or downloaded from journal sites, they are available through pirate libraries for free.

The creators of these repositories are a small group who try to keep a low profile, since distributing copyrighted material in this way is illegal. Many of them are academics. The largest pirate libraries have come from Russia’s cultural orbit, but the documents they collect are used by people around the world, in countries both wealthy and poor. Pirate libraries have become so popular that in 2015, Elsevier, one of the largest academic publishers in America, went to court to try to shut down two of the most popular, Sci-Hub and Library Genesis.

These libraries, Elsevier alleged, cost the company millions of dollars in lost profits. But the people who run and support pirate libraries argue that they’re filling a market gap, providing access to information to researchers around the world who wouldn’t have the resources to obtain these materials any other way.

The lawsuits, wrote one group of pirate library supporters, “come as a big blow” to researchers whose only source of scholarly material is in these sites. “The social media, mailing lists and IRC channels have been filled with their distress messages, desperately seeking articles and publications,” the brief states.

In other words, they believe there are researchers who are never going to be able to pay the steep price of academic articles; either they use pirate libraries, which give them efficient access to information, or they don’t get to read those books and journals at all.

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The old model of library.

Photo (cropped):Dr. Marcus Gossler/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Today’s pirate libraries have their roots in the work of Russian academics to digitize texts in the 1990s. Scholars in that part of the world had long had a thriving practice of passing literature and scientific information underground, in opposition to government censorship—part of the samizdat culture, in which banned documents were copied and passed hand to hand through illicit channels. Those first digital collections were passed freely around, but when their creators started running into problems with copyright, their collections “retreated from the public view,” writes Balázs Bodó, a piracy researcher based at the University of Amsterdam. “The text collections were far too valuable to simply delete,” he writes, and instead migrated to “closed, membership-only FTP servers.”

More recently, though, those collections have moved online, where they are available to anyone who knows where to look. One of the earliest pirate libraries on the web, lib.ru, was created by one of those Russian academics. In the past decade or so, there have been a succession of libraries—Gigapedia, Kolkhoz, Librusec, and most recently Libgen and Sci-Hub, that have grown to gigantic size, only to be broken up or shut down. Libraries that started as repositories primarily of Russian-language text grew to include a corpus of English-language works, which fueled their growth.

“There’s been a shift from Russian-language system to one that’s systematically mining the libraries of Western universities and publishers,” says Karaganis.

There’s always been osmosis within the academic community of copyrighted materials from people with access to scholars without. “Much of the life of a research academic in Kazakhstan or Iran or Malaysia involves this informal diffusion of materials across the gated walls of the top universities,” he says. What changed more recently is the speed and technology through which that happens.

Alexandra Elbakyan, the neuroscientist from Kazakhstan who created Sci-Hub, for instance, was able to rig up a system that basically jumped the fence of journal paywalls. When someone requested an article, her system first checked the LibGen database. But if the article wasn’t there, the system used donated passwords to log into journal websites, download the article, and deliver it both to the user who requested it and the main database. It’s a much more efficient system than the informal #icanhazPDF economy in which researchers would request certain documents on social media and hope a kind soul would provide.

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Libraries full of books fixed a different information scarcity problem.

Photo:BrunoDelzant/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Who’s benefiting from this? The workings of pirate libraries are necessarily opaque, but Bodó’s research into one in particular shows that users come from both countries with high gross domestic products and developing countries where students and scholars likely have poor access to academic materials. Bodó found that the most downloads came from Russia, Indonesia, and the United States, in the case of this library, with the most per capita coming from Central and Eastern European countries. The average document had been downloaded three times.

His research also showed that access could be driving the market for these libraries: Two-thirds of the downloads were for books that didn’t have a Kindle version, and in developing countries, people were more likely to be downloading titles that just weren’t available in print.

Publishers are facing great difficulty controlling the growth of the world’s pirate libraries, as they can be set up as open source entities that let anyone provide access to their base catalogue, along with whatever else they want to share at their particular site. But the pirate librarians also lack conventional library controls. Organizers can prevent books from entering the collection, but they can’t necessarily requisition or order particular articles or books, the way that a librarian would. The result is vast but eclectic collections of work, mostly very serious but sometimes not. Libgen, Karaganis notes, in addition to its high-brow academic collection, also has an enormous store of pirated comic books.

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May 23 2016 12:30 PM

The Merry Cemetery of Romania

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In the small Romanian town of Săpânţa, when you die, you can expect a colorful goodbye.

At the town's Merry Cemetery, colorfully illustrated crosses depict soldiers being beheaded and a resident being hit by a truck. And the epigraphs aren't sugarcoated. "Underneath this heavy cross lies my poor mother in law," reads one. "Try not to wake her up. For if she comes back home, she’ll bite my head off."

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The quirky graveyard is the creation of Stan Ioan Pătraş, who was born in Săpânţa in 1908, and, by 14, had already begun carving crosses for the local cemetery. By 1935, Patrash was carving clever or ironic poems—done in a rough local dialect—about the deceased, as well as painting the crosses with images depicting the ways in which the individuals died.

Pătraş soon developed a careful symbolism in his work. Green represented life, yellow was fertility, red was passion, and black was death. The colors were always set against a deep blue, known as Săpânţa blue, which Pătraş believed represented hope and freedom.

Pătraş single-handedly carved, wrote poems for, and painted well over 800 of these folk art masterpieces over a period of 40 years. He died in 1977, having carved his own cross and left his house and work to his most talented apprentice, Dumitru Pop. Pop has since spent the last three decades continuing the work, carving the cemetery's crosses, and turning the house into the Merry Cemetery's workshop-museum.

Despite the darkly comedic, or merely dark, tones of the crosses, Pop says no one has ever complained about the work.

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May 20 2016 12:30 PM

This Glacier Is Still Growing

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If you only visit one glacier in your life, Perito Moreno would be a good one to pick. It towers above the turquoise glacial water of Patagonia's Los Glaciares National Park, beaming a blinding white and exuding cold blue hues. Unlike most of Earth’s other glaciers, Perito Moreno is still growing.

The Perito Moreno Glacier, named for a 19th-century explorer, is currently 19 miles long and rises an average height of 240 feet above the water. Altogether, the glacier covers about 121 square miles. It is part of an ice field located in both Argentina and Chile that is the third-largest reserve of fresh water in the world. Part of an area known as Argentina’s Austral Andes, it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.

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There are viewing platforms a safe distance from the glacier, overlooking Lake Argentino, the glacier’s terminus. You can get pretty close—to the point that you can basically feeling the glacier breathing cold air on your face.

If you wait for a while, you’ll likely witness huge chunks of the ice mass fracture off and crash into the water, creating a massive, reverberating roar. There are walking paths that allow you to check out the glacier from a few different vantage points, as well as a boat that takes you on a 45-minute trip around the base. There are also trekking tours that take you out to walk on parts of the glacier itself, surrounded by the beautiful Patagonian scenery of forests and mountains.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura fellow and contributor Tao Tao Holmes.

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May 19 2016 12:30 PM

The Grave of Carl Friedrich Gauss

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Carl Friedrich Gauss wasn’t born in Göttingen, Germany, but he spent most of his remarkable career there, so it's no wonder that he’s buried there, alongside several other math and science luminaries.

Gauss is often cited as the greatest thinker of the 19th century, and by some as the most singularly talented mathematician since the days of Euclid. He was born in 1777 in Brunswick, Lower Saxony, and as a child prodigy from a working class background, his remarkable mental gifts didn’t go unnoticed. He was first sent to university in Brunswick at the ripe old age of 15 but came to study in Göttingen three years later, in 1795. As his abilities grew, so did his reputation—and despite pleas from larger and more prestigious centers of learning, he stayed in his adopted hometown until his death in 1855.

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It’s hard to fully comprehend how important Gauss has been to mathematics and the sciences. His contributions include groundbreaking proofs and discoveries in algebra and geometry, numbers theory and statistics, physics and astronomy—and of course, contributing his name to the unit of measure used for magnetism. Anyone who has ever had to have their computer monitor, hard drive, or piece of video or audio tape “degaussed” has inadvertently paid tribute the man.

His grave is located in the Albini Cemetery, in a quiet park at the edge of the city, not far from the university he called home for 60 years. His grave is often accompanied by flowers laid down in respect of his achievements, and he rests in good company—surrounded by a small cluster of stones of several other well-known men of math and science. But Gauss has the largest headstone—a testament to his place as one of the greatest minds since antiquity.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura user CoolCrab.

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May 18 2016 12:30 PM

A Map of Italy Made Entirely of Trees

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Nestled on the side of a hill in Umbria, Italy is an unusual sight: a gigantic map of Italy, made entirely out of pine trees.

Trees line the hills and mountains of Umbria in patches, so if one were to come upon this patch of trees in particular, one might accidentally pass it off as one of the many. But Bosco Italia is no ordinary cluster of pine trees: It was planted there to form the shape of a map of Italy. This is not the only example of this in the world. In Northern Minnesota the "Minnesota Forest" has been shaped by a rogue forester over decades to look like its home state.

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A short distance below the town of Castelluccio in the Monti Sibillini National Park of Umbria lies the magnificent Piano Grande Di Castelluccio, which translates to "Great Plain of Castelluccio." In season, the fields of the plain are filled with stunning flowers, but there is one attraction that remains year-round: the Bosco Italia.

The pine tree seedlings were planted in 1961 to form the shape of Italy when the trees were fully grown. 

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor ahvenas.

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May 17 2016 12:30 PM

Victorians Wanted to Contact Aliens Using Giant Mirrors

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In 1899, while Nicola Tesla was working in his lab in Colorado Springs, he started registering strange electric disturbances on one of his sensors.

"The changes I noted were taking place periodically and with such a clear suggestion of number and order that they were not traceable to any cause known to me,” he later wrote.

They were not the sorts of signals that came from the sun, the earth, the Aurora Borealis, or atmospheric disturbances. He couldn't shake the experience or stop ruminating on what he might have encountered.

“A purpose was behind these electric signals,” he wrote several years later. “The feeling is constantly growing on me that I had been the first to hear the greeting of one planet to another.”

Tesla believed he had intercepted an interplanetary communication, and for the rest of his life, he would work on creating a system that would allow Earth to answer back. He wasn’t alone. As the French scholar Florence Raulin Cerceau has documented, for the previous century or so, a small group of serious, Victorian-era scientists had been working on proposals for extraterrestrial communication.

Mostly, they involved giant mirrors.

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