Essays
Culture & History

Colonizing the Cosmos: Astor’s Electrical Future

Colonizing the Cosmos: Astor’s Electrical Future

During America’s Gilded Age, the future seemed to pulse with electrical possibility. Iwan Rhys Morus follows the interplanetary safari that is John Jacob Astor’s A Journey in Other Worlds, a high-voltage scientific romance in which visions of imperialism haunt a supposedly “perfect” future. more

Jumbo’s Ghost: Elephants and Machines in Motion

Jumbo’s Ghost: Elephants and Machines in Motion

On September 15, 1885, twenty-five years after his capture in Sudan, Jumbo the elephant tragically died when struck by a freight train. Ross Bullen takes us on a spectral journey through other collisions between elephant and machine — in adventure novels, abandoned roadside hotels, and psychic science — revealing latent anxieties at the century’s turn. more

Out on the Town: Magnus Hirschfeld and *Berlin’s Third Sex*

Out on the Town: Magnus Hirschfeld and Berlin’s Third Sex

Years before the Weimar Republic’s well-chronicled freedoms, the 1904 non-fiction study Berlin’s Third Sex depicted an astonishingly diverse subculture of sexual outlaws in the German capital. James J. Conway introduces a foundational text of queer identity that finds Magnus Hirschfeld — the “Einstein of Sex” — deploying both sentiment and science to move hearts and minds among a broad readership. more

Handy Mnemonics: The Five-Fingered Memory Machine

Handy Mnemonics: The Five-Fingered Memory Machine

Before humans stored memories as zeroes and ones, we turned to digital devices of another kind — preserving knowledge on the surface of fingers and palms. Kensy Cooperrider leads us through a millennium of “hand mnemonics” and the variety of techniques practised by Buddhist monks, Latin linguists, and Renaissance musicians for remembering what might otherwise elude the mind. more

“Pajamas from Spirit Land”: Searching for William James

“Pajamas from Spirit Land”: Searching for William James

After the passing of William James — philosopher, early psychologist, and investigator of psychic phenomena — mediums across the US began receiving messages from the late Harvard professor. Channelling these fragmentary voices, Alicia Puglionesi considers the relationship between communication, reputation, and survival after death. more

Little Switzerlands: Alpine Kitsch in England

Little Switzerlands: Alpine Kitsch in England

Far from the treacherous peaks and ravines of Switzerland, Alpine cottages arose, unexpectedly, amid the hillocks and modest streams of 19th-century England. Seán Williams recovers the peculiar fad for “Little Switzerlands”, where the Romantic sublime meets countryside kitsch. more

William Wells Brown, Wildcat Banker

William Wells Brown, Wildcat Banker

A cottage industry, yes, but a barbershop bank? Ross Bullen plots how a story told by William Wells Brown — novelist, historian, playwright, physician, and escaped slave — circulated, first through his own works, and then abroad, as a parable of American banking gone bad. more

Laughter in the Time of Cholera

Laughter in the Time of Cholera

Political instability, popular unrest, and an impending pandemic? Welcome to France in the early 1830s. Vlad Solomon explores what made Parisiens laugh in a moment of crisis through the prism of a vaudeville play. more

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