Phrenology bust modeled on a human death mask

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The Morbid Anatomy Museum recently acquired a 19th-century phrenological death mask. Liza Young, a museum studies student at St. John's University, tracked down its history.

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Uncle Sam will defend your stake in any unclaimed bird-poop


If you discover an island covered in guano -- old poop -- an 1856 Federal law that's still on the books obliges the US of A to defend your claim to it.

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A history of Down Syndrome

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From their inclusion in 16th-century paintings to their roles in famous families (including, probably, Darwin's), people with Down Syndrome are part of history.

At the Down Wit Dat blog, there's a 8-part (with more on the way) feature that provides some much-needed inclusion to people who are usually just a footnote to somebody else's history. Naturally, the series delves into ideas like eugenics and the institutionalization of differently abled Americans. But, even there, the story is centered on people with Down Syndrome and, as such, it offers a perspective and information that you likely haven't heard before. Great stuff.

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Here's an excerpt about the short life of Charles Waring Darwin, the youngest child of the Charles Darwin you know. Based off historical records and the surviving photograph that you can see here, historians suspect that he had Down Syndrome.

Henrietta, one of his daughters, had this to say about Charles Waring in her book "Emma Darwin, A century of family letters...":

"The poor little baby was born without its full share of intelligence. Both my father and mother were infinitely tender towards him..."

Charles Darwin himself had this to say about his youngest child:

“He was small for his age and backward in walking and talking.... He was of a remarkable sweet, placid and joyful disposition, but had not high spirits.... He often made strange grimaces and shivered, when excited.... He would lie for a long time placidly on my lap looking with a steady and pleased expression at my face... making nice little bubbling noises as I moved his chin.”

Looking at the photograph of the then 45 year old Emma and her newborn son, it is not hard to see what appears to be a "weakened" bridge to the nose and quite possibly be epicanthal folds. However, the photo is extremely grainy and we will never know for sure. Charles Waring Darwin passed away from Scarlet fever at 19 months of age, never having learned to walk or talk. Darwin Sr. recorded in his journal that day: "Poor Dear Baby Died." He was unable to attend the first reading and publication of his theory of Natural Selection due to the illness and death of his youngest son.

Great profile of a black, female World War II vet

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Millie Dunn Veasey traveled to England through U-Boat-infested waters, saw war casualties in bombed-out French towns, went to college on the GI Bill, and sat next to Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington.

Her life story, some of it centered around her time in England and France working with the first all-female, all-black military unit sent to a war zone, is absolutely fascinating. Kudos to Josh Shaffer of the Raleigh News & Observer for profiling Veasey.

Back in Raleigh, Veasey saw an advertisement looking for female black recruits. Women with work experience were especially prized. At the time, she didn’t think of her role as freeing a man for the front lines. She thought, if a white woman could join up, why shouldn’t I?

Her family didn’t share her optimism. She was small, weighed less than 100 pounds, and she’d been sickly as a child. Her mother doubted she could handle the rigorous training. Her brother, already in the Army, doubted she could pass the test.

But Veasey took a bus to Fort Bragg, where she aced the exam, physical and written; she was one of three selected. Before long, the girl from Bloodworth Street who’d never been out of Raleigh found herself standing at reveille in the rain at Fort Des Moines in Iowa, wearing Army-issued galoshes that didn’t fit her narrow AAA-sized feet.

“I didn’t know how to tie my tie,” she confessed.

Here's a video of Veasey's unit, the 6888th postal battalion, taking part in a parade and drills.

Time-lapse of American seizure of indigenous land, 1776-1887

Rodney writes, "Between 1776 and 1887, the U.S. seized over 1.5 billion acres, an eighth of the world, from America's indigenous people by treaty and executive order. This 1:27 video maps it year by year."

Aerosmith debuted a single on Compuserve 20 years ago

It's been 20 years since the first major label experiment in putting music online: on Jun 27, 1994, Geffen Music put a WAV file of Aerosmith's "Head First" on Compuserve, which waived its hourly fee for people who wanted to download the track over their dial-up modems.

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Gorgeous 18th C sample books from Norwich


In the 18th century, the great textile mills of Norwich produced beautiful sample books that set out their range of wares.

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Thinking about Walt Disney's bench


Grad writes, "According to Walt Disney, the idea for a Disney-themed amusement park came to him while sitting on a park bench."

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Kickstarting a Progress City book of Disney history articles

The excellent Disney history blog Progress City is kickstarting a book of its best articles, including several that are substantially rewritten and polished for the project. $15 gets you a PDF, $30 for a paperback.

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Human skull lyre


19th century, with antelope horn, skin, gut, hair; plucked from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sadly, not on view at present. (via Kelly the Mortal Girl)

The Bionic Men of World War I

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Medical historian Thomas Schlich wrote a fascinating essay for CNN about the history of prosthetic body parts and the "Bionic Men of World War I." From his article:

In all nations involved in the war an emerging generation of so-called "war cripples," as they were referred to in Germany, loomed ominously over the pension and welfare system, and many government bureaucrats, military leaders and civilians worried about their long-term fate.

One solution was returning mutilated soldiers to the workforce. Various prostheses were designed to make that possible, pushing prosthesis manufacturing in many countries from a cottage industry towards modern mass production.

In the United States the Artificial Limb Laboratory was established in 1917 at the Walter Reed General Hospital, in conjunction with the Army Medical School, with the goal to give every amputee soldier a "modern limb," enabling them to pass as able-bodied citizens in the workplace. While the United States remained the largest producer of artificial limbs worldwide, Germany's prosthetic developments incorporated a particular quest for efficiency.

German orthopedists, engineers and scientists invented more than 300 new kinds of arms and legs and other prosthetic devices to help. Artificial legs made of wood or metal, sometimes relatively rudimentary, and often recreating the knee-joint in some way, enabled leg-amputees to stand and move around unaided.

How the CIA got Dr Zhivago into the hands of Soviet dissidents


Working from recently declassified documents disclosed in The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, the BBC World Service tells the extraordinary story of how the CIA conspired with a Dutch spy to publish a Russian edition of Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago and smuggle it into Russia by sneaking it into the hands of Soviet attendees at the Brussels Universal and International Exposition in 1958. Zhivago was banned by the Soviets, who also forced Pasternak to renounce the Nobel Prize in literature, which he was awarded that year.

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How accounting forced transparency on the aristocracy and changed the world


In the 16th century, celebrated Dutch painters did a brisk trade in heroic portraits of accountants and their ledgers. That's because accounting transformed the lowlands, literally bringing accountability to the aristocracy by forcing them to keep track of, and report on, their wealth. As Jacob Soll (author of The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations) writes in the Boston Globe, from the 14th century invention of double-entry bookkeeping until the 19th century -- when accounting became a separate profession instead of something that every educated person was expected to practice -- accountancy upended the social order, elevating financial transparency to a primary virtue.

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America's legacy of post-slavery racism and the case for reparations


Ta-Nehisi Coates's The Case for Reparations is an important, compelling history of the post-slavery debate over reparations, running alongside the post-slavery history of US governmental and private-sector violence and theft from the descendants of slaves in America. Coates's thesis -- compellingly argued -- is that any "achievement gap" or "wealth gap" in American blacks is best understood as an artifact of centuries of racial violence and criminal misappropriations of black people, particularly visited upon any black person who expressed ambition or attained any measure of economic success.

As Coates demonstrates, a series of deliberate government policies, continuing to this day, ensured that unscrupulous American businesses could raid the savings and loot the accumulated wealth of black people. From the millions who were terrorized into indentured servitude in the south to the millions who were victimized by redlining and had every penny they could earn stolen by real-estate scammers in the north, the case for reparations is not about merely making good on the centuries-old evil of slavery. It's about the criminal physical and economic violence against black people in living memory and continuing to today.

This is a long and important read, and the "reporter's notebook" sidebars cast further light on the subject from unexpected angles. Coates makes a compelling case that the racist violence against black people in America is of a different character than other class war and other racist oppression, and deserves unique consideration.

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Kitchens were political in the Soviet Union

Communal kitchens (in communal apartments that had once belonged to wealthy families) were a major feature of early Soviet life. NPR has a neat story about the role food and cooking played in everyday politics.