The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights

Dec. 11 2015 11:29 AM

A 19th-Century Memory Palace Containing All of Ancient History 

This "Chronographer of Ancient History," published by American educator Emma Willard in 1851, is one in a series of prints Willard designed to teach students about the shape of historical time. Her "Temples of Time" were (she wrote) a way to tap into the power of visual comprehension, so that the historical information conveyed would "by frequent inspection, be formed within, and forever remain, wrought into the living texture of the mind." 

Dec. 9 2015 11:34 AM

How 19th-Century Parisians Under Siege Improvised a System of Airmail by Balloon

The Siege of Paris, one of the more dramatic events of the Franco-Prussian War, began on September 19th, 1870, and ended on January 28th, 1871. As days turned into months, food supply became a matter of great concern. Even the city zoo’s charismatic pair of elephants—Castor and Pollux—ended up on the dining room table (though this feast was more a matter of wealthy elites showing off their exotic tastes than a sign of the city's starvation). 

Dec. 7 2015 1:00 PM

Watch American Yearbook Photos Evolve Over 108 Years 

In research documented in a forthcoming paper, University of California, Berkeley Ph.D student Shiry Ginosar and her team demonstrate how computers could be used to aid historians who want to carry out analysis of large amounts of visual data, using more than a century of yearbook photos of American high school seniors as their test case. In this video, made by Slate producer Aymann Ismail, you can see how their dataset's composite images of graduating 18-year-olds change over time. 

Dec. 4 2015 12:41 PM

Spooky, Beautiful 1930s Photos of London Streets at Night

With his collaborator John Morrison, Harold Burdekin photographed the streets of the city of London in the dark for his book London Night, published in 1934. In a time before stricter air pollution controls, the pair chose foggy nights to make their images, giving the light in the photos a sense of weighty presence. 

Dec. 2 2015 11:30 AM

This 1914 Children’s Map Depicts World War I as a Massive Dogfight

When the First World War started in 1914, most commentators thought that the war would be of short duration, and this was reflected in the relatively light-hearted caricature maps issued in the first months of the war. By the second year, when the true scale of the conflict became apparent, such propaganda maps took on an altogether darker tone.

Nov. 30 2015 2:59 PM

A Map of Intellectual Talent in the Early-20th-Century United States

In the November, 1904 issue of the general-interest publication The Century Magazine, writer Gustave Michaud published an article titled "The Brain of the Nation." Using the 1901 edition of Who's Who in America, Michaud mapped birthplaces of the men included in the directory, and came up with these graphic representations of "The Distribution of Men of Talent." 

Nov. 25 2015 12:20 PM

An Adorable Apple Pie ABC for Hungry 19th-Century Children

Kate Greenaway, a British artist who specialized in extremely cute babies and young people, was a popular illustrator of children's books and magazine articles in the late nineteenth century. "By 1885," writes Richard Cavendish, "her books were being ruthlessly imitated and pirated, while Greenaway dolls, children's fashions, pottery and wallpapers were selling in quantity in Britain and abroad." This book, printed in 1886, was published at the height of her fame. 

Nov. 23 2015 12:49 PM

A D.C. Watercolorist’s Beautiful Record of the Changing City in the ‘60s and ‘70s 

Lily Spandorf, an Austrian artist who emigrated to the United States in 1959, lived in Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle and worked as a contributing artist for the Washington Star newspaper from 1960 to 1981. Some of Spandorf's art, including the images below, is on view at the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum, in a new exhibition that opened on Saturday.

Nov. 20 2015 12:02 PM

The CIA’s WWII Guide to Creating Organizational Dysfunction Perfectly Describes Your Toxic Workplace

The Office of Strategic Services (the CIA's WWII-era precursor) created this document in 1944, for use by operatives in Europe who were trying to recruit civilians living in occupied countries to commit sabotage. The document is available in full via the CIA's website.

Nov. 18 2015 11:39 AM

Photos of Belgium’s Ravaged Landscapes, in the Immediate Aftermath of World War I

To put together a new book of images of World War I, The First World War: Unseen Glass Plate Photographs of the Western Front,  Carl De Keyzer restored original plates made by photographers whose work, in their own time, was printed without fanfare and viewed at a much smaller size. De Keyzer's book offers photographs of soldiers, civilians, and landscapes in a large format that represents the war with startling clarity.