Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights

Oct. 1 2014 10:49 AM

James Meredith, Determined to Enroll at Ole Miss, Declares His Purpose in a 1961 Letter

In this 1961 letter to the Justice Department, James Meredith introduced himself, reported his intention to enroll at the University of Mississippi, and asked for federal help in achieving this goal. In his prose, the 29-year-old black Air Force veteran, husband, and father, who already had several years of college credits under his belt, displays a calm resolve. Meredith saw his attempt at enrollment as a conscious action of civil rights protest, and was ready for a fight.

Video Advertisement

Sept. 30 2014 11:51 AM

Thomas Jefferson’s 1769 Newspaper Ad Seeking a Fugitive Slave 

Seven years before writing that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson ran this ad in the Virginia Gazette, offering a reward for his runaway slave, Sandy. He describes Sandy as “artful and knavish” and “greatly addicted to drink”. At the time, Jefferson possessed upwards of 50 slaves, inherited from his father, although he would come to own hundreds over the course of his lifetime. Jefferson eventually reclaimed Sandy, who he sold for 100 pounds several years later—a common fate of slaves deemed “troublesome”.

Sept. 29 2014 11:34 AM

Go Ahead, Try to Decode This 19th-Century Rebus Atlas of New England 

These pages from Anna Heermans’ 1875 project, A Hieroglyphic Geography of the United States, tell little stories about the New England states and New York, in picture form. Published by E.P. Dutton & Co., a company that then specialized in juvenile texts, the pictorial atlas was intended for children’s use—an attempt to bring life to geographical information through imagery.

Sept. 25 2014 4:22 PM

The Mysterious Geometry of Swordsmanship, Gorgeously Illustrated 

Girard Thibault’s Académie de l’Espée (1628) puts the art of wielding the sword on mathematical foundations. For Thibault, a Dutch fencing master from the early seventeenth century, geometrical rules determined each and every aspect of fencing. For example, the length of your rapier's blade should never exceed the distance between your feet and the navel, and your movements in a fight should always be along the lines of a circle whose diameter is equal to your height.

Sept. 24 2014 9:19 AM

Super-Fancy Pop-Up Greeting Cards, Sent for Rosh Hashanah in Early 20th-Century New York

These Rosh Hashanah and New Year greeting cards were printed around the turn of the century in Germany and sold in New York. Elaborately decorated and three-dimensional, the cards, sold by the Hebrew Publishing Company, could be stood up for display in the receiver’s home. Inside, the cards hold greetings in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish.

Sept. 23 2014 10:24 AM

How Bad Are Your Drinking Habits? An 18th-Century Temperance Thermometer Has the Verdict.

This “moral and physical thermometer” was published in English physician and abolitionist John Coakley Lettsom’s Hints Designed to Promote Beneficence, Temperance, and Medical Science, in 1797. A guide to correct use of alcohol, the “thermometer” followed the early temperance movement’s lead in endorsing moderate use of beer, wine, and cider, while predicting the direst of consequences for drinkers who indulged in anything stronger.

Sept. 22 2014 9:04 AM

When Frank Sinatra Thanked George Bush for Trying to Outlaw Flag Burning

After the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that burning the American flag is protected by the First Amendment, President George H.W. Bush launched a campaign to overturn the decision through a constitutional amendment. The president received an immense amount of mail in response to his crusade, much of it supporting his push to outlaw flag burning. Among the supporters was one Frank Sinatra, who became a Republican in 1970 and had endorsed Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign.

Sept. 19 2014 12:08 PM

The CIA Used to Have a Commute-by-Canoe Club. One Member’s Memories.

“We have become connoisseurs of sunrises,” writes CIA employee Robert Sinclair in this 1984 reflection on his 14 years of commuting by canoe across the Potomac. Sinclair describes biking three miles from Bethesda to the river, meeting a small group of colleagues to pick up canoes at a clubhouse on the Maryland side, paddling across to the Virginia side, tying their canoes to trees, hiking a short way through the woods up to the George Washington Memorial Parkway, crossing the parkway on foot (!), and arriving at the CIA offices. The trip, he writes, took about an hour. (Here’s a map of the area.)

Sept. 18 2014 9:57 AM

“The Sun Never Sets Upon the British Empire,” Explained in GIF by an Old Children’s Toy

With today’s referendum on Scottish independence, the former British empire stands to shrink even further. Mitch Fraas, curator at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Special Collections, recently sent me this image and GIF of a moveable toy distributed by the Children’s Encyclopedia in Britain in the early twentieth century. The toy, which doubles as an ad for the encyclopedia, takes the old saying “The sun never sets on the British empire” and represents it physically, through the medium of a spinning wheel.

Sept. 17 2014 1:04 PM

The War Department's WWII Advice Booklet for Soldiers Headed to Syria

In 1942 the American war machine was in high gear, and soldiers were shipping out across the globe—often to places they knew nothing about. This booklet (one of many War Department guides covering countries from England to New Guinea) offered servicemen a crash course in the Levant’s language, geography, and culture.