Essays
Culture & History

The Dust That Measures All Our Time

The Dust That Measures All Our Time

From the mythical Sandman, who participates in dream and vision, to an irritating grain lodged in the beachgoer’s eye, sand harbours unappreciated power, however mundane. Steven Connor celebrates this “most untrustworthy” type of matter. more

Mermaids and Tritons in the Age of Reason

Mermaids and Tritons in the Age of Reason

For much of the eighteenth century, Western intellectuals chased after tritons and mermaids. Vaughn Scribner follows the hunt, revealing how humanity’s supposed aquatic ancestors became wondrous screens on which to project theories of geographical, racial, and taxonomical difference. more

Circassian Beauty in the American Sideshow

Circassian Beauty in the American Sideshow

Among the “human curiosities” in P. T. Barnum’s American Museum was a supposed escapee from an Ottoman harem, a figure marketed as both the pinnacle of white beauty and an exoticised other. Betsy Golden Kellem investigates the complex of racial and cultural stereotypes that made the Circassian beauty such a sideshow spectacle. more

Picturing Scent: The Tale of a Beached Whale

Picturing Scent: The Tale of a Beached Whale

What can visual art teach us about scent, stench, and the mysterious substance known as ambergris? Lizzie Marx follows a “whale-trail” across history to discover the olfactory paradoxes of the Dutch Golden Age. more

Reading Like a Roman: *Vergilius Vaticanus* and the Puzzle of Ancient Book Culture

Reading Like a Roman: Vergilius Vaticanus and the Puzzle of Ancient Book Culture

How did Virgil’s words survive into the present? And how were they once read, during his own life and the succeeding centuries? Alex Tadel explores Graeco-Roman reading culture through one of its best-preserved and most lavishly-illustrated artefacts. more

Photographing the Tulsa Massacre of 1921

Photographing the Tulsa Massacre of 1921

On the evening of May 31, 1921, several thousand white citizens and authorities began to violently attack the prosperous Black community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Karlos K. Hill investigates the disturbing photographic legacy of this massacre and the resilience of Black Wall Street’s residents. more

The Art of Making Debts: Accounting for an Obsession in 19th-Century France

The Art of Making Debts: Accounting for an Obsession in 19th-Century France

Being in debt was once an artful promenade — the process of eluding creditors through disguise and deceit. Erika Vause explores a forgotten financial history: the pervasive humor that once accompanied the literature and visual culture of debt. more

Propagating Propaganda: Franklin Barrett’s Red, White, and Blue Liberty Bond Carp

Propagating Propaganda: Franklin Barrett’s Red, White, and Blue Liberty Bond Carp

Toward the end of World War I, as the US peddled hard its Liberty Bonds for the war effort, goldfish dealer Franklin Barrett bred a stars-and-stripes-colored carp: a living, swimming embodiment of patriotism. Laurel Waycott uncovers the story of this “Liberty Bond Fish” and the wider use of animals in propaganda of the time. more

<i>Black America</i>, 1895

Black America, 1895

During the summer of 1895, in a Brooklyn park, there was a cotton plantation complete with five hundred Black workers reenacting slavery. Dorothy Berry uncovers the bizarre and complex history of Black America, a theatrical production which revealed the conflicting possibilities of self-expression in a racist society. more

Postures of Transport: Sex, God, and Rocking Chairs

Postures of Transport: Sex, God, and Rocking Chairs

What if chairs had the ability to shift our state of consciousness, transporting the imagination into distant landscapes and ecstatic experiences, both religious and erotic? In an essay about the British and American fascination with rocking chairs and upholstery springs in the 19th century, Hunter Dukes discovers how simple furniture technologies allowed armchair travelers to explore worlds beyond their own. more

The Revolutionary Colossus

The Revolutionary Colossus

As the French Revolution entered its most radical years, there emerged in print a recurring figure, the collective power of the people expressed as a single gigantic body — a king-eating Colossus. Samantha Wesner traces the lineage of this nouveau Hercules, from Erasmus Darwin’s Bastille-breaking giant to a latter incarnation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. more

Lord of Misrule: Thomas Morton’s American Subversions

Lord of Misrule: Thomas Morton’s American Subversions

When we think of early New England, we tend to picture stern-faced Puritans and black-hatted Pilgrims, but in the same decade that these more famous settlers arrived, a man called Thomas Morton founded a very different kind of colony — a neo-pagan experiment he named Merrymount. Ed Simon explores the colony’s brief existence and the alternate vision of America it represents. more

Fungi, Folklore, and Fairyland

Fungi, Folklore, and Fairyland

From fairy-rings to Lewis Carroll's Alice, mushrooms have long been entwined with the supernatural in art and literature. What might this say about past knowledge of hallucinogenic fungi? Mike Jay looks at early reports of mushroom-induced trips and how one species in particular became established as a stock motif of Victorian fairyland. more

Eastern Sports and Western Bodies: The “Indian Club” in the United States

Eastern Sports and Western Bodies: The “Indian Club” in the United States

Although largely forgotten today, exercise by club swinging was all the rage in the 19th century. Daniel Elkind explores the rise of the phenomenon in the US, and how such efforts to keep trim and build muscle were inextricably entwined with the history of colonialism, immigration, and capitalist culture. more

"Theire Soe Admirable Herbe": How the English Found Cannabis

"Theire Soe Admirable Herbe": How the English Found Cannabis

In the 17th century, English travelers, merchants, and physicians were first introduced to cannabis, particularly in the form of bhang, an intoxicating edible which had been getting Indians high for millennia. Benjamin Breen charts the course of the drug from the streets of Machilipatnam to the scientific circles of London. more

Emma Willard's Maps of Time

Emma Willard's Maps of Time

In the 21st-century, infographics are everywhere. In the classroom, in the newspaper, in government reports, these concise visual representations of complicated information have changed the way we imagine our world. Susan Schulten explores the pioneering work of Emma Willard (1787–1870), a leading feminist educator whose innovative maps of time laid the groundwork for the charts and graphics of today. more

Of Pears and Kings

Of Pears and Kings

Images have long provided a means of protesting political regimes bent on censoring language. In the 1830s a band of French caricaturists, led by Charles Philipon, weaponized the innocent image of a pear to criticize the corrupt and repressive policies of King Louis-Philippe. Patricia Mainardi investigates the history of this early 19th-century meme. more

Loie Fuller and the Serpentine

Loie Fuller and the Serpentine

With her "serpentine dance" — a show of swirling silk and rainbow lights — Loie Fuller became one of the most celebrated dancers of the fin de siècle. Rhonda K. Garelick explores Fuller’s unlikely stardom and how her beguiling art embodied the era's newly blurred boundaries between human and machine. more

The Myth of Blubber Town, an Arctic Metropolis

The Myth of Blubber Town, an Arctic Metropolis

Though the 17th-century whaling station of Smeerenburg was in reality, at its height, just a few dwellings and structures for processing blubber, over the decades and centuries a more extravagant picture took hold — that there once had stood, defying its far-flung Arctic location, a bustling urban centre complete with bakeries, churches, gambling dens, and brothels. Matthew H. Birkhold explores the legend. more

H. G. Wells and the Uncertainties of Progress

H. G. Wells and the Uncertainties of Progress

In addition to the numerous pioneering works of science fiction by which he made his name, H. G. Wells also published a steady stream of non-fiction meditations, mainly focused on themes salient to his stories: the effects of technology, human folly, and the idea of progress. As Peter J. Bowler explores, for Wells the notion of a better future was riddled with complexities. more

Lustucru: From Severed Heads to Ready-Made Meals

Lustucru: From Severed Heads to Ready-Made Meals

Jé Wilson charts the migration of the Lustucru figure through the French cultural imagination — from misogynistic blacksmith bent on curbing female empowerment, to child-stealing bogeyman, to jolly purveyor of packaged pasta. more

The Khan’s Drinking Fountain

The Khan’s Drinking Fountain

Of all the things described in William of Rubruck's account of his travels through 13th-century Asia, perhaps none is so striking as the remarkably ornate fountain he encountered in the Mongol capital which — complete with silver fruit and an angelic automaton — flowed with various alcoholic drinks for the grandson of Genghis Khan and guests. Devon Field explores how this Silver Tree of Karakorum became a potent symbol, not only of the Mongol Empire's imperial might, but also its downfall. more

Progress in Play: Board Games and the Meaning of History

Progress in Play: Board Games and the Meaning of History

Players moving pieces along a track to be first to reach a goal was the archetypal board game format of the 18th and 19th centuries. Alex Andriesse looks at one popular incarnation in which these pieces progress chronologically through history itself, usually with some not-so-subtle ideological, moral, or national ideal as the object of the game. more

Divining the Witch of York: Propaganda and Prophecy

Divining the Witch of York: Propaganda and Prophecy

Said to be spawn of the devil himself and possessed with great powers of prophetic insight, Mother Shipton was Yorkshire's answer to Nostradamus. Ed Simon looks into how, regardless of whether this prophetess witch actually existed or not, the legend of Mother Shipton has wielded great power for centuries — from the turmoil of Tudor courts, through the frictions of civil war, to the spectre of Victorian apocalypse. more