The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights

Jan. 6 2016 3:12 PM

18th-Century Souvenirs From Epic Festivals Held on the Frozen River Thames 

Between 1309 and 1814, with Europe in the grip of the cool period sometimes known as the Little Ice Age, the river Thames froze over 23 times. In five of these instances, the river's ice was thick enough to support structures, and citizens of London took advantage of the circumstances to throw days-long "frost fairs." As part of the festivities, printers set up shop on the ice, and sold engraved and letterpressed sheets of paper like those below. Harvard's Houghton Library recently acquired six such keepsakes. 

Jan. 4 2016 2:51 PM

Stunning Modernist Covers of 1930s Fortune Magazine Will Give You a Bad Case of Print Nostalgia

Fortune, which launched in 1929 as the brainchild of Henry Luce, had a lux appearance and premium price. (In 1935, the magazine's prominently-noted subscription rate of ten dollars a year would have translated to around $172 in 2014 dollars.) As part of the project's mandate to emphasize visual presentation, the magazine commissioned artists to create covers that would lend it what we might now call a strong brand identity. 

Dec. 30 2015 8:40 AM

1920s Instructional Diagrams Teach Ice Skating With Style 

In 1921, Bror Meyer, a Swedish figure skater who won a bronze medal in the World Championships in 1906, published a manual called Skating With Bror Meyer. Meyer illustrated his book with numbered diagrams, hoping that readers would follow the sequence of actions skaters performed while executing particular maneuvers. 

Dec. 28 2015 1:05 PM

The X-Ray Images That Showed Midcentury Scientists How Radiation Affects an Ecosystem

In June 1947, biologists from the University of Washington collected a wrasse from the waters around Bikini Atoll, squished it against a photographic plate, and took an x-ray. The resulting image shocked them. Almost an entire year had passed since the United States had detonated “Able” and “Baker,” two fission bombs, at the atoll. The scientists involved in the Bikini Scientific Resurvey were certain that the expansive Pacific Ocean would have quickly diluted and dispersed any radioactive products from the 1946 detonations.

Dec. 21 2015 2:49 PM

Five More Digital History Projects We Loved in 2015

On Friday, I shared five digital history projects that dazzled me this past year. Here are five more. (The whole list is in no particular order. They're all amazing.) Happy browsing! 

Dec. 18 2015 2:02 PM

Five Digital History Projects That Dazzled Us in 2015

Here are five digital history sites that absorbed my attention in 2015. I'll be sharing five more on Monday, for your holiday bookmarking and browsing needs. 

Dec. 16 2015 11:36 AM

“The Problem of Living in New York”: A Middle-Class Complaint From 1882

"Year after year New York seems to justify the painful, dispiriting averment that it is a city of paupers and millionaires," wrote Junius Henri Browne in this 1882 cri de coeur, "The Problem of Living in New York," which appeared in Harper's Monthly Magazine. Browne, a journalist who won fame as a Civil War correspondent for the New York Tribune, had published a book-long love letter to the city (The Great Metropolis: A Mirror of New York) in 1869. Just thirteen years later, the bloom, for Browne, was off the rose. 

Dec. 14 2015 1:19 PM

Poe’s Only Bestseller as a Living Author Was This Schoolbook About Seashells

In 1839, Edgar Allan Poe accepted a somewhat sketchy writing job: remixing and condensing an existing book, Thomas Wyatt's Manual of Conchology, into a cheaper version that would be useful to students. Wyatt's Manual was beautiful and expensive, selling at the high price of e$8; Poe's was simple and could be bought for $1.50.

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).