Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights

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 on The Atavist Magazine, “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.

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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.

Dec. 9 2014 10:52 AM

An Early Arctic Explorer's Dramatic Drawings of the Frozen North

Arctic explorer Sir John Ross drew these images while captaining the first 19th-century British search for the Northwest Passage. The drawings were engraved in London, and published in 1819, the year after the Ross expedition, as part of the book A Voyage of Discovery, made under the orders of the Admiralty, in His Majesty’s ships Isabella and Alexander, for the purpose of exploring Baffin’s Bay, and inquiring into the probability of a north-west passage. 

Dec. 8 2014 1:26 PM

FDR’s First Draft of His “Day of Infamy” Speech, With His Notes

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt drafted his Dec. 8, 1941 speech to Congress without the aid of his speechwriters, dictating to secretary Grace Tully. This draft shows the quick annotations and edits that the President made on a first pass; an article in the National Archives’ magazine Prologue contains pages from updated drafts two and three, as well as the final version.

Dec. 5 2014 12:02 PM

Nifty Methods for Smuggling Contraband, From a Manual for WWII-Era British Spies 

The Descriptive Catalogue of Special Devices and Supplies, used by British spies sent to the Continent to track Nazi movements and aid resistance fighters during World War II, has been recently reprinted by the Imperial War Museum. These pages from the back of the two-volume catalogue, which was published in 1944 and 1945, show a few of the ways that the Special Operations Executive (the name for the secret British agency charged with training and deploying these agents) managed to sneak arms and ammunition to its operatives.

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