The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights

Sept. 16 2015 1:20 PM

Fantastically Hypothetical Buildings on Paper, Drawn by Two Soviet Architects

Between 1978 and 1993, Soviet architects Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin created a series of beautifully complex drawings of buildings they never expected would be built. In a new edition of a book collecting their work, Brodsky & Utkin, the range of their "paper architecture" is on display. 

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Sept. 14 2015 12:45 PM

School Certificates of Merit For Good Little 19th-Century Boys and Girls

The digital archive of The Henry Ford has a group of sixty examples of rewards of merit given to nineteenth-century schoolchildren. Early certificates were sometimes hand-produced, while later in the century, they were more commonly pre-printed, featuring colorful chromolithographed images of flowers and animals, or small humorous scenes.

Sept. 11 2015 12:15 PM

Browse Hundreds of Documents Submitted by Enslaved People Petitioning for Freedom

A redesigned website now offers access to hundreds of freedom petitions brought by enslaved people in Washington, DC, in the first half of the nineteenth century. The site—O Say Can You See: Early Washington, DC Law and Family—showcases the diversity of strategies that black people living in DC used to gain freedom through the courts in the antebellum period. 

Sept. 4 2015 2:23 PM

An Unusually Beautiful 19th-Century Illustrated Photo Album 

This early photo album—made around 1862, according to the date found on one page—has been illustrated in a style similar to the illumination of a medieval manuscript, with curlicues and designs surrounding each image. The result is a series of gorgeous collages. 

Sept. 2 2015 9:06 AM

Forty-Three Years of Hand-Drawn Maps of the Surface of the Sun, in One Mesmerizing Video

Every day since 1956, people in mountaintop observatories have been making careful drawings of the sun. Formally called “solar synoptic maps,” the maps show a daily summary of the sun’s activity, including sunspots, solar flares, and other phenomena. The maps are available on the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website, if you’re willing to dig around a little.

Aug. 31 2015 12:55 PM

Sketches of Life in a Union POW Camp, by a Confederate Prisoner

These sketches were made by Confederate prisoner Jacob Omenhausser at Point Lookout, Maryland, in 1864. The New-York Historical Society has digitized the artwork, which was preserved in the personal papers of Brigadier General James Barnes, the Union commander in charge of the district that contained Point Lookout. 

Aug. 28 2015 10:43 AM

Dreamy Early-20th-Century Photochroms of Scenery in the Swiss Alps

Printed in 1905 by the Michigan-based Detroit Publishing Company, this group of photochroms showcased the scenery of the Swiss Alps for consumers who might or might not have ever visited Switzerland in person. 

Aug. 27 2015 11:26 AM

An 1863 Recruitment Letter Urging the Formation of Anti-Lincoln Sleeper Cells

This 1863 letter, printed in Philadelphia, is addressed to Northerners who had come to oppose the President, especially after the passage of the conscription act in March of that year. As Northern political resistance to Lincoln and the war grew, the anonymous author of the letter proposed that groups of ten men—"Decemvirates"—come together to prepare for armed resistance against the "enslavement" of the draft.

Aug. 24 2015 1:04 PM

A Comprehensive 1943 Infographic of American Booms and Busts 

In 1943, as American businesses tried to guess whether wartime relief from the Depression would translate into postwar prosperity, the Tension Envelope Corporation printed this chart for customers. The infographic folded into a pamphlet, and could be displayed on the wall when opened. (The online archive of the Federal Reserve, FRASER, has digitized a PDF of the pamphlet, which you can view here.

Aug. 21 2015 1:15 PM

An Artist’s Strangely Compelling 1960s Scrapbook of Comic Book Art 

The Smithsonian's Archives of American Art has digitized this scrapbook assembled by artist Ray Yoshida in (they believe) the late 1960s. Yoshida collected images from comics, the back-of-the-book ads that followed comic-book stories, and newspaper comic strips, grouping scraps together in loose typologies: hands; explosions; kisses; the sea.