Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights

Dec. 24 2014 11:35 AM

A Senator’s Open Christmas Letter to the Racially Divided City of Boston, 1974

Published in the Boston Herald-American on Dec. 25, 1974 and in the Boston Globe on Dec. 26, this open Christmas letter from Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke asked a city divided over school busing to remember its tolerant heritage, and to reach deep to recover an empathetic spirit of cooperation. The letter came after months of bitter strife over school integration in the city.

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Dec. 23 2014 10:57 AM

Hopeful Hand-Embroidered Christmas Cards, Sent Home From the Front During WWI 

A recent post on the photo blog The Passion of Former Days alerted me to the Australian War Memorial’s large digital collection of embroidered Christmas postcards, sent home from Europe during World War I. The items, which feature cheerful and patriotic messages worked out in silk floss, reminded me of the soldier-stitched sweetheart pincushions I featured on this blog last year.

Dec. 22 2014 12:00 PM

Blind Kids’ Experiences at the Early–20th-Century Museum of Natural History, in Photos

In this group of photographs taken between 1914 and 1927, students who were blind or had diminished eyesight partook of special instruction at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. In 1929, the museum’s Department of Public Education reported that teachers of public school classes for such pupils had their pick of 10 museum “talks” in “natural history, geography, history, civics, and health.” Students could touch and hold the props used in the lectures, and examine them closely. Photographs like these advertised the museum’s good works in official publications, like Natural History, which were sent to its donors.

Dec. 19 2014 12:30 PM

A Vision of the Utter Chaos That Was Early–19th-Century Firefighting

In 19th-century humorist David Claypoole Johnston’s cartoon “The Experiment,” a Boston crowd watches a building burn, as inept firefighters struggle to get water onto the blaze. Matthew Pearl’s story in the Atavist“Company 8,” describes the “experiment” the cartoon critiques: Boston’s 1837 move to professionalize firefighting, standardizing an endeavor that had been inefficient at best, and deadly at worst. As Johnston’s art shows, not everyone believed that this innovation would work.

Dec. 19 2014 9:29 AM

The Most Beautiful and Intelligent Historical Coffee-Table Books of 2014

I'd like to sing the praises of large-format, image-heavy historical books that are creative in approach and gorgeous to peruse. I suppose you could call them coffee-table books—they are handsome enough to be used for display—but the ones I like the most also contain great text, and you may find yourself reading them in earnest. I’m rounding up some of my favorites from this year, so that anyone who’s still looking for a holiday gift for a history fan might find inspiration. 

Dec. 19 2014 9:15 AM

The Goofy, Anti-Nazi Parody Video That Enraged Goebbels

The “Lambeth Walk” was a popular dance craze in the U.S. and the U.K. in the late 1930s. The song, from the musical Me and My Girl, referred to a street in a Cockney district in London. Dancers strode back and forth, punctuating their “walk” with high kicks and broad gestures. (You can see a rendition from a 1984 production of the musical here. Advance to the 2-minute mark to see the whole cast dancing the Walk.)

Dec. 18 2014 12:10 PM

A Detailed, Majestic Diagram of Two British Ships of War, From an 18th-Century Encyclopedia

This illustration, used to demonstrate the rigging and interior setup of first- and third-rate British ships of war, appeared in Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopedia, published in 1728. The book was one of the first English-language encyclopedias, and inspired Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert's more famous project, published in France in the middle of the century.

Dec. 15 2014 10:36 AM

Late-1940s Chicago CSI, in Photos

A new book of classic crime photos from the Chicago TribuneGangsters & Grifters, contains a few interesting shots of late-1940s forensic science. In this era, photographers covering crime, Tribune writer Rick Kogan points out in the book’s forward, “got up close,” allowing for the photographs’ “compelling intimacy.” (Many of the book’s other photos—those of dead and dying criminals, for example—are positively grisly.)

Dec. 12 2014 1:44 PM

Spin a 3-D Representation of a Beautiful 17th-Century Celestial Globe 

The 1603 Sphaera stellifera globe by Willem Janszoon Blaeu showcases cutting-edge 17th-century astronomy in three dimensions. Designed by printmaker Jan Saenredam, it is also stunningly beautiful. It features highly accurate observations of the Northern Hemisphere, and pictures the newly discovered constellations of the Southern sky, offering them as heavenly proof of the success of the Dutch colonial enterprise.

Dec. 11 2014 12:47 PM

An Inventory of Robert E. Lee’s Personal Property, Left in His Mansion and Seized by the Government

Union soldiers occupied Arlington House, Robert E. Lee’s home in Virginia, soon after the beginning of the Civil War. This inventory was taken in 1863, for “U.S. v. all the Rights, Titles, of Robert E. Lee,” a suit brought against Lee for nonpayment of property taxes. The list shows the extent of furnishings left in the large house, even after Lee’s wife Mary Anna Randolph Custis had moved many of the more valuable items for safekeeping.

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