The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights

April 11 2016 8:58 AM

Some Delightfully Scatological and Cruel Nursery Rhymes, From the Oldest Surviving Book of Them

The British Library holds this 1744 book of nursery rhymes, Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, which was sold in London and is the oldest surviving published collection in the genre. Some of the rhymes inTommy Thumb's are still familiar; others, like the wonderful "Piss a Bed," have dropped out of circulation. 

April 6 2016 2:26 PM

Poignant Petitions From 19th-Century Mothers Hoping to Surrender Illegitimate Children

The petitions below come from a recently concluded exhibition, "The Fallen Woman," at London's Foundling Museum. In the pair of 19th-century documents, two unmarried mothers, Damaris Phillips and Anne Giddings, ask the Foundling Hospital to take their illegitimate children into its care. Both petitions were rejected. 

April 5 2016 10:10 AM

A 19th-Century 3-D Bird’s-Eye Map of Mt. Fuji, With All the Bells and Whistles  

This woodblock print map of Japan's Mt. Fuji, which can be folded to represent the mountain's iconic conical shape, was produced by an unknown publisher sometime around 1848. Writing about the map in the new book Cartographic Japan: A History in Maps, Miyazaki Fumiko speculates that the item may have been printed and sold by oshi, traveling performers and acolytes from Yoshida, one starting point for pilgrimages up the mountain.

April 1 2016 11:07 AM

A ’70s Board Game Designed to Teach Players About Race, Housing, and Privilege

In May 2012, science-fiction writer and blogger John Scalzi published a post titled "Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is." "I've been thinking of a way to explain to straight white men how life works for them, without invoking the dreaded word 'privilege,' to which they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon," Scalzi wrote. His solution: an extended metaphor drawn from role-playing games.

March 28 2016 1:17 PM

100-Year-Old Frost Maps Show How Climate Change Has Shifted the Growing Season in the United States

Published in a 1936 Atlas of American Agriculture, put together by the United States Department of Agriculture, these 1916 maps of the average dates of first killing frosts in fall and last killing frosts in spring were initially intended to help farmers plan their planting schedules. Now, the maps offer a rough gauge showing how much these dates have shifted over a century. 

March 25 2016 12:17 PM

Tickets to Dissections and Lectures, Purchased by 18th- and 19th-Century Medical Students

For more than one hundred years after the founding of America’s first medical school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1765, faculty members personally peddled tickets to their classes in order to fill lecture halls. So if a prospective surgeon, like Samuel Gartley, whose name appears on this delightfully morbid ticket featuring dancing skeletons, wanted to study anatomy under W. S. Jacobs at U Penn, c. 1800, he would seek out Jacobs and buy a ticket to attend his “dissection class.”

March 23 2016 12:42 PM

A Vivid 1937 Map Imagining How Japan Might Attack the West Coast of the United States

Four years before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Los Angeles Examiner published this full-page map by artist Howard Burke, outlining a potential Japanese strategy for attacking the West Coast and "demolishing" its cities. The map is online as part of the Cornell University Library's Persuasive Cartography digital collection. 

March 21 2016 1:23 PM

A Quickly Made Uncle Tom’s Cabin Tie-In Card Game, From 1852

One of the many Uncle Tom's Cabin–themed bits of culture that made their way onto the market after the book's publication in March 1852, this card game, sold that same year in Providence, Rhode Island, shows how the audience that read Harriet Beecher Stowe's superpopular book adapted its fictional world for its own purposes. 

March 18 2016 2:16 PM

Remembering Hundreds of Years of Deadly Gun-Related Accidents in the United States

In a new book, Melancholy Accidents: Three Centuries of Stray Bullets and Bad Luck, Peter Manseau collects American newspaper notices of tragedies involving firearms from 1739 to 1916. The book's title comes from the terms newspapers often used to tag news of mishaps, listing these gun accidents alongside "drownings, horse tramplings, or steamship explosions," Manseau writes. 

March 16 2016 1:52 PM

A Plea on Behalf of Immigrants, Written (Most Likely) in Shakespeare’s Hand, Now Digitized

The British Library has recently digitized part of a multiauthored play, "The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore," written between about 1596 and 1604. Three pages of this draft of the play are apparently written by William Shakespeare, and they represent the only available sample of his handwriting in a play script.