Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights

Sept. 19 2014 12:08 PM

The CIA Used to Have a Commute-by-Canoe Club. One Member’s Memories.

“We have become connoisseurs of sunrises,” writes CIA employee Robert Sinclair in this 1984 reflection on his 14 years of commuting by canoe across the Potomac. Sinclair describes biking three miles from Bethesda to the river, meeting a small group of colleagues to pick up canoes at a clubhouse on the Maryland side, paddling across to the Virginia side, tying their canoes to trees, hiking a short way through the woods up to the George Washington Memorial Parkway, crossing the parkway on foot (!), and arriving at the CIA offices. The trip, he writes, took about an hour. (Here’s a map of the area.)

Video Advertisement

Sept. 18 2014 9:57 AM

“The Sun Never Sets Upon the British Empire,” Explained in GIF by an Old Children’s Toy

With today’s referendum on Scottish independence, the former British empire stands to shrink even further. Mitch Fraas, curator at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Special Collections, recently sent me this image and GIF of a moveable toy distributed by the Children’s Encyclopedia in Britain in the early twentieth century. The toy, which doubles as an ad for the encyclopedia, takes the old saying “The sun never sets on the British empire” and represents it physically, through the medium of a spinning wheel.

Sept. 17 2014 1:04 PM

The War Department's WWII Advice Booklet for Soldiers Headed to Syria

In 1942 the American war machine was in high gear, and soldiers were shipping out across the globe—often to places they knew nothing about. This booklet (one of many War Department guides covering countries from England to New Guinea) offered servicemen a crash course in the Levant’s language, geography, and culture.

Sept. 16 2014 12:15 PM

“Human Life Is Frightfully Cheap”: A 1900 Petition to Make Lynching a Federal Offense

This petition from a group of citizens of New Jersey to Congress, submitted in February of 1900, asked for lawmakers to redefine lynching as “a crime against the United States.” The group asked that the government create “a Central Detective Bureau at Washington with branch offices” in states prone to lynching, in order to investigate these crimes and provide material for successful prosecution.

Sept. 15 2014 3:29 PM

19th-Century Infographic Shows American Mortality as a Cluster of Cute Little Charts

This set of charts shows causes of death in the United States, according to the 1870 census. The page appeared in the Statistical Atlas of the United States, a project spearheaded by Francis Amasa Walker, then the superintendent of the Census. Here, the atlas employs a data visualization technique described by Edward Tufte as “small multiples”—a series of little illustrations presenting bits of a data set.

Sept. 12 2014 12:30 PM

Map Shows All of the Ways You Could Get Around Alaska in 1909

This map of Alaska in 1909 shows all of the transportation and communication infrastructure in the territory at that early date: wagon roads, sled roads, pack trails, railroads, telegraph lines, and even some telephone lines. Wireless stations are noted; the 107-mile wireless radio connection across Norton Sound gets a special mention.

Sept. 12 2014 10:32 AM

The British Painters Who Were Eyewitnesses to World War II

During World War II, the British government’s Ministry of Information funded a War Artists Advisory Committee. During World War I, it had sponsored a smaller project, with a limited range of painters. This larger-scale midcentury program supported artists who traveled with the armed forces, as well as capturing the happenings on the homefront. Kenneth Clark, the art historian who would later become famous for his television series “Civilisation,” spearheaded the project.

Sept. 10 2014 3:28 PM

The Colorful Quilt Squares Chilean Women Used to Tell the Story of Life Under Pinochet 

After General Augusto Pinochet came to power in Chile on September 11, 1973, via a coup d’etat, his military government executed, “disappeared,” or tortured thousands of citizens. The current exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, “Disobedient Objects,” contains a few examples of arpilleras: narrative quilt squares sewn by Chilean women protesting the injustices of the regime.

Sept. 8 2014 8:30 AM

An 1849 Guide to the Philadelphia Brothel Scene

This Guide to the Stranger offered young men visiting Philadelphia guidance in their choice of brothel or “bed house” (where rooms could be rented by the hour, for assignation purposes). The entire text of the 1849 booklet is available here, via the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Sept. 5 2014 1:13 PM

A Late 19th-Century Day-by-Day Commemorative Map of the Mormon Journey West

This pictorial map, printed in 1899, commemorates the 1846-47 route of émigrés from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as they made their way from Illinois to Utah. The map’s particulars are drawn from the journals of LDS elder Orson Pratt, who was with Brigham Young and the smaller detachment of 147 pioneers who first arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in July of 1847.