The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights

Feb. 22 2016 11:50 AM

A Colorful Late-19th-Century Map of Native American Languages

John Wesley Powell, explorer, geologist, and scientist, produced this map while he was the head of the Bureau of American Ethnology, as part of an 1890 Annual Report. According to Powell's description of the project, the map plotted "linguistic stocks of American Indians," as they were situated "at the time when the tribes composing them first became known to the European."

Feb. 19 2016 11:50 AM

The Hundreds of Life Stories Found in Coroner’s Reports From the 19th-Century South

CSI:Dixie, a beautifully conceived and profoundly mournful new digital history site, holds 1,582 digitized coroner's reports from six counties in 19th-century South Carolina. You can search by keyword or read lists that organize inquest files by the act that killed the person (homicide; suicide; infanticide; accident natural causes), clicking through to individual cases that fit that description. Three "Chronicles" tell deeper stories of individual inquests. Historian Stephen Berry, who created the site, offers extensive commentary and context throughout. 

Feb. 17 2016 3:08 PM

A Treasure Trove of Awkward Early-20th-Century Infographics

This group of infographics comes from the Scientific American Reference Book of 1913, compiled by Albert A. Hopkins and A. Russell Bond, which is available to read on the Internet Archive. They're a delightful snapshot of the concerns of readers of the magazine a hundred years ago, as well as an interesting tour through infographic design strategies au courant at the time. 

Feb. 15 2016 6:00 AM

George Washington, Lifelong Mapmaker

George Washington studied surveying, practiced it on familiar lands owned by his family, and was appointed as official surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia, by the young age of 17. The maps below, which date from different phases of Washington's lifelong involvement with surveying and cartography, are from the collection of the Library of Congress. "Throughout his life as a soldier, planter, businessman, land speculator, farmer, military officer, and president," writes the Library's Edward Redmond, "Washington relied on and benefitted from his knowledge of maps."

Feb. 10 2016 1:47 PM

A 19th-Century Relief Map That Let Students Explore the Roman Empire by Touch

The tactile map, an innovation of the 19th century, allowed both blind and sighted students to feel their way across a given geography. Writing for the digital archive 19th-Century Disability: Cultures and Contexts, where I first saw this item, Leah Thomas notes that this L.R. Klemm map was made decades after the first tactile maps were printed in Europe and the United States. While the waterproof map could be used to teach students without sight, Klemm believed that relief maps like this one could also fruitfully engage sighted students through the sense of touch. 

Feb. 8 2016 12:09 PM

Exercise Advice for Flappers, in Gorgeous 1920s Prints

In this beautiful little book titled La Culture Physique de la Femme Elegante, published in France in the 1920s, 12 plates offer exercises that a woman could do at home in order to stay fit. The book illustrates the kinds of fitness routines French women might have pursued in a decade when fashion demanded more form-fitting, less supportive dress. It's also gorgeously printed, with each frame allowing a peek into a colorfully decorated domestic scene. 

Feb. 3 2016 2:01 PM

How Documents Buried by Jewish Prisoners at Auschwitz Tell the Story of Genocide

The Scrolls of Auschwitz comprise a variety of documents written by members of the Sonderkommando or Special Squad, a group of predominantly Jewish prisoners who were forced to work in the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau. (Son of Saul, which has just been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, was inspired by the Scrolls.) These writings were buried in the grounds of the crematoria in 1944. Between 1945 and 1980, eight caches of documents by five known authors were discovered, mostly by chance; few who knew their whereabouts had survived. As our recently published book, Matters of Testimony: Interpreting the Scrolls of Auschwitz, shows, the documents buried at Auschwitz provide important new insights into the Sonderkommando and into Holocaust testimony in general. 

Feb. 2 2016 11:16 AM

A Cheerier Vision of the Depression Years, in Hyperbright Postcards of Recreation Spots

Although we now associate the "look" of the Depression with the stark black-and-white photographs of Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans, for people who lived then, the superbright linen postcard was a staple of the visual landscape. Between 1931 and 1950, many imitators followed Chicago's Curt Teich & Company, the inventor of the printing process that made the linen postcard possible, into the marketplace. American souvenir shops and drugstores filled with racks of the intensely colored cardstock rectangles, often sold for a penny apiece. 

Feb. 1 2016 10:20 AM

How One Company Designed the Bookshelves that Made America’s Biggest Libraries Possible

Before the early 20th century, public libraries typically used wooden bookcases with fixed shelves to house their volumes. In the 1910s, new public literacy initiatives like Andrew Carnegie’s library-building projects, as well as institutional expansions at the Library of Congress and many universities, drove the need for a different kind of library shelf. The new wave of libraries—bigger and more comprehensive than their predecessors—needed bookshelves that could accommodate their rapidly growing collections of books. The New York Public Library, for example, installed 75 miles of new bookshelves in 1910 in preparation of its grand opening the next year.  And the shelves from earlier decades simply weren’t going to cut it.

Jan. 27 2016 1:29 PM

How an 1830s Children’s Magazine Taught Hard Truths About Slavery

From 1836 to 1839, the American Anti-Slavery Society published The Slave's Friend, a juvenile periodical edited by abolitionist Lewis Tappan. Each issue, specially sized to fit small hands, was 16 pages in length and featured a mix of stories, news items, and poems meant to gently but firmly tell white children about the evils of slavery. The New York Public Library's digital collection offers a small collection of scans of the magazine's 1837 issues.

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