The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights

Jan. 15 2018 8:00 AM

Four Ways We've Distorted The History of the Civil Rights Movement

This MLK Day weekend, I've been finishing up Jeanne Theoharis' new book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. Theoharis has written other mythbusting histories of civil rights, including the 2013 biography The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. A More Beautiful and Terrible History is a synthesis of arguments Theoharis and other historians have made about the truncated and bloodless way the movement gets depicted in politics, culture, and public life.

Nov. 22 2017 2:57 PM

Margaret Mead's Left-Field Idea For Solving The Sexual Harassment Problem

In April of 1978, 77-year-old anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote an intriguing piece for the women's magazine Redbook: “A Proposal: We Need Taboos On Sex At Work.” The piece came after a few years of feminist activism on the issue of sexual harassment. By 1978, activists had succeeded in increasing the visibility of the problem, which had been the subject of articles in the Wall Street Journal, Harper's, The New York Times, and Ms., as well as television and radio coverage.

Oct. 31 2017 3:29 PM

How Photos of Child Ghosts Comforted Grieving 19th-Century Parents

Among the creepiest of creepy 19th-century cultural artifacts, postmortem photographs of children have all the awkwardness of staged moments of family togetherness combined with the horror of a gathering of the unburied dead. Some are so off-putting, it’s easy to forget the practical purpose they served. Before the 1838 invention of the daguerreotype, only those with the means to hire a portrait painter would be able to preserve the features of a lost loved one. With the rise of the comparatively inexpensive art of photography, many more grieving parents were able to hold on to images of lost children after they had been lowered into the grave.

Sept. 14 2017 10:23 AM

Guess Whether These Headlines Came From Breitbart or 1920s KKK Newspapers

Like many of his colleagues, historian Peter Shulman has cautioned against the excessive use of Nazi comparisons in assessing our present-day political scene, arguing that those in search of historical antecedents should study our very own homegrown history of white supremacy instead. Recently, he was browsing around in a new database of Ku Klux Klan newspapers from the 1920s when he noticed how eerily similar the headlines in some of the regional and national Klan publications the database catalogs were to those that have run on Breitbart of late.

Aug. 18 2017 11:20 AM

One Record of General Pershing’s Quite Cordial Relationship With Filipino Muslims

On Thursday, @realdonaldtrump once again tweeted about a historical fable he’s recounted before: the story of how General John Pershing dealt with Muslim rebels in the Philippines in the early 20th century. Yet as this document shows, the general’s approach was a far cry from the merciless style Trump has implored his followers to “study.”

Aug. 4 2017 8:00 AM

A Cheerful American Cookbook Memorializing the 1948 Berlin Blockade

In the summer of 1948, nearly 1,000 American women, wives of military and civilian occupation personnel, found themselves in the middle of what would become the first major crisis of the new Cold War: the Berlin Blockade. By the end of June, the Soviets had cut off road and rail access to the city, severely rationed its electricity and water, and hoped to drive Western forces from the war-damaged German capital. The Allies responded with an ambitious plan: an airlift. Approximately every 30 seconds, around the clock, for 15 months, a plane would land or take off, supplying the beleaguered city with more than 2 million tons of goods.

July 21 2017 3:56 PM

How Depression-Era Women Made Dresses Out of Chicken Feed

By the middle of the 19th century, it became more cost-effective for companies that shipped commodities like flour and animal feed in wooden barrels to package their goods in fabric instead. Between then and the middle of the 20th century, flour, sugar, seed, and other commodities you'd now find in the bulk food aisle arrived in American households in fabric sacks.

Women made garments out of the leftover sacks, and companies noticed. By 1925, at least one company, Gingham Girl flour, packaged its goods in dress-quality fabric and used its sacks as a selling point. By the Depression years, printed sacks were widely reused, and the practice continued through fabric-starved years of World War II and into the early 1960s.

"Flour sacked in new printed fabrics. Chart above indicates various uses of the sacking. Throughout the rural areas and in migrant camps garments made of this sacking are seen. Migrant camp near Sebastian, Texas." Photo by Russell Lee for the Farm Security Administration, February 1939.

Library of Congress

By the 1930s, businesses saw fabric sacks as crucially important for the promotion of their products. Kendra Brandes writes that trade organizations sponsored feed-sack fashion shows, and manufacturers hired designers to make sure the prints they chose would be appealing to women. The Textile Bag Manufacturers Association published a booklet, Sewing with Cotton Bags, in 1933, advising consumers how to get company logos out of sacks. (At that time, you had to soak the logo's ink in lard or kerosene overnight. By the late 1930s, companies began to use soluble inks that made the process much easier.)

Feedsack dress made by Dorothy Overall, of Caldwell, Kansas. The dress won second prize in the mid-South section of the Cotton Bag Sewing Contest, sponsored by the National Cotton Council and the Textile Bag Manufacturers Association, in 1959.

Smithsonian National Museum of American History


In writing her history of feed sack fashion, Brandes talked to older people who remembered feed store managers saving particular sacks for farm wives who were looking to match patterns. But at least one feed salesman, quoted in 1948, found the shift in purchasing power from the farmer to his wife to be discomfiting. “Years ago they used to ask for all sorts of feeds,” this salesman grumbled. “Now they come over and ask me if I have an egg mash in a flowered percale. It ain't natural.”

"Jorena Pettway making flower decorations for her hoome. She has made practically all her own furniture and her own bedspreads and chair covers from flour sacks, etc. Gee's Bend, Alabama." Photo by Marion Post Walcott, working for the Farm Security Administration, May 1939.

Library of Congress

Although we now look back at the feed-sack era as a charming time of frugality and thrift (and we have the Etsy listings of vintage fabric to prove it), during the Depression, there was some shame involved with dressing your family in feed sacks. Widely repeated jokes about feed-sack underwear (a Pillsbury Flour Company manager, quoted in Time magazine in 1946: “They used to say that when the wind blew across the South you could see our trade name on all the girls' underpants”) tapped into a degree of discomfort with the admission that you were dressed in recycled fabric.

Brandes reported: “For many women in rural America, use of these sacks for clothing was a mark of poverty. Soaking off logos, dying fabrics, and using embellishments of ribbon, rickrack, embroidery, and decorative buttons helped make the feed sack dress or shirt less distinguishable from 'store bought' garments.”

"Wife of FSA client holding dresses which she made from flour sacks. Sabine Farms, Marshall, Texas." Photo by Russell Lee, working for the Farm Security Administration, May 1939.

Library of Congress

To see some of these patterns in bright color, check out this post. (I didn't reuse these images because I couldn't identify provenance for most of them, but they sure are great.)

July 5 2017 8:00 AM

A Deep Digital Archive of Social Transformation in 1970s Berkeley

A group of students at the University of California, Berkeley, has created a fascinating digital archive of that city's history in the 1970s. Berkeley was, the site's introduction explains, “the rare city in the United States where the transformations of the 1960s continued to gain momentum in the 1970s.” The project collects and digitizes some of the paper traces of that momentum.

This is an archive of experimentation, offering handbooks, fliers, guidelines, journals, manifestos, and proposals. Here are a few of my favorites.

Above is the cover of a journal kept by Jodi Mae Mitchell, who left West Virginia for Berkeley in the early 1970s. The archive collects multiple pieces of her writing, tracking her experiences in Berkeley and then on a commune in Northern California.

June 9 2017 4:21 PM

Dramatic Courtroom Drawings From Decades of American Trials

The Library of Congress has a great new online exhibit of courtroom art drawn during trials held between 1964 and today. The drawings, from the Library's Courtroom Illustration Collection, are full of emotion, with artists capturing the reactions of defendants, judges, lawyers, jurors, and onlookers.

In the image above, by Pat Lopez, a sheriff and prosecutor display the chain used in the murder of Matthew Shepard, while one of the defendants, Russell Arthur Henderson, watches. Lopez's use of lavender shading and negative space gives the image an eerie sense of twilight importance.

May 17 2017 10:41 AM

Dark Satirical Maps from a Depression-Era Anti-Fascist Magazine

Ken magazine was the 1937 brainchild of David Smart and Arnold Gingrich, the publisher and editor of the then–four-year-old Esquire. Ken was published only from April 1938 through August 1939 and is most notable for having put several of Ernest Hemingway's dispatches from the Spanish Civil War into print. These three maps from Ken's pages show Americans both feared and mocked worldwide fascism in the years right before World War II.