Essays
Culture & History

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 century. 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

The Dancing Plague of 1518

The Dancing Plague of 1518

Five hundred years ago in July, a strange mania seized the city of Strasbourg. Citizens by the hundred became compelled to dance, seemingly for no reason — jigging trance-like for days, until unconsciousness or, in some cases, death. Ned Pennant-Rea on one of history's most bizarre events. more

Early Modern Memes: The Reuse and Recycling of Woodcuts in 17th-Century English Popular Print

Early Modern Memes: The Reuse and Recycling of Woodcuts in 17th-Century English Popular Print

Expensive and laborious to produce, a single woodcut could be recycled to illustrate scores of different ballads, each new home imbuing the same image with often wildly diverse meanings. Katie Sisneros explores this interplay of repetition, context, and meaning, and how in it can be seen a parallel to meme culture of today. more

Iconology of a Cardinal: Was Wolsey Really so Large?

Iconology of a Cardinal: Was Wolsey Really so Large?

Characterised as manipulative, power-hungry, and even an alter rex, Henry VIII's right-hand man Cardinal Thomas Wolsey has been typically depicted with a body mass to rival his political weight. Katherine Harvey asks if he was really the glutton of popular legend, and what such an image reveals about the link between the body, reputation, and power in Tudor England. more

Made in Taiwan? How a Frenchman Fooled 18th-Century London

Made in Taiwan? How a Frenchman Fooled 18th-Century London

Benjamin Breen on the remarkable story of George Psalmanazar, the mysterious Frenchman who successfully posed as a native of Formosa (now modern Taiwan) and gave birth to a meticulously fabricated culture with bizarre customs, exotic fashions, and its own invented language. more

Illustrating Carnival: Remembering the Overlooked Artists Behind Early Mardi Gras

Illustrating Carnival: Remembering the Overlooked Artists Behind Early Mardi Gras

For more than 150 years the city of New Orleans has been known for the theatricality and extravagance of its Mardi Gras celebrations. Allison C. Meier looks at the wonderfully ornate float and costume designs from Carnival's "Golden Age" and the group of New Orleans artists who created them. more

Pods, Pots, and Potions: Putting Cacao to Paper in Early Modern Europe

Pods, Pots, and Potions: Putting Cacao to Paper in Early Modern Europe

Christine Jones explores the different ways the cacao tree has been depicted through history — from 16th-century codices to 18th-century botanicals — and what this changing iconography reveals about cacao's journey into European culture. more

Brief Encounters with Jean-Frédéric Maximilien de Waldeck

Brief Encounters with Jean-Frédéric Maximilien de Waldeck

Not a lot concerning the artist, erotic publisher, explorer, and general enigma Count de Waldeck can be taken at face value, and this certainly includes his fanciful representations of ancient Mesoamerican culture which — despite the exquisite brilliance of their execution — run wild with anatopistic lions, elephants, and suspicious architecture. Rhys Griffiths looks at the life and work of one of the 19th century's most mysterious and eccentric figures. more

Flash Mob: Revolution, Lightning, and the People's Will

Flash Mob: Revolution, Lightning, and the People's Will

Kevin Duong explores how leading French revolutionaries, in need of an image to represent the all important "will of the people", turned to the thunderbolt — a natural symbol of power and illumination that also signalled the scientific ideals so key to their project. more

Race and the White Elephant War of 1884

Race and the White Elephant War of 1884

Feuding impresarios, a white-but-not-white-enough elephant, and racist ads for soap — Ross Bullen on how a bizarre episode in circus history became an unlikely forum for discussing 19th-century theories of race, and inadvertently laid bare the ideological constructions at their heart. more

Out From Behind This Mask

Out From Behind This Mask

A Barthesian bristle and the curious power of Walt Whitman’s posthumous eyelids — D. Graham Burnett on meditations conjured by a visit to the death masks of the Laurence Hutton Collection. more

The Long, Forgotten Walk of David Ingram

The Long, Forgotten Walk of David Ingram

If three shipwrecked English sailors really did travel by foot from Florida to Nova Scotia in 1569 then it would certainly count as one of the most remarkable walks undertaken in recorded history. Although the account's more fantastical elements, such as the sighting of elephants, have spurred many to consign it to the fiction department, John Toohey argues for a second look. more

Decoding the Morse: The History of 16th-Century Narcoleptic Walruses

Decoding the Morse: The History of 16th-Century Narcoleptic Walruses

Amongst the assorted curiosities described in Olaus Magnus' 1555 tome on Nordic life was the morse — a hirsute, fearsome walrus-like beast, that was said to snooze upon cliffs while hanging by its teeth. Natalie Lawrence explores the career of this chimerical wonder, shaped by both scholarly images of a fabulous North and the grisly corporeality of the trade in walrus skins, teeth, and bone. more

Woodcuts and Witches

Woodcuts and Witches

Jon Crabb on the witch craze of early modern Europe, and how the concurrent rise of the mass-produced woodcut helped forge the archetype of the broom-riding crone — complete with cauldron and cats — so familiar today. more

Lofty Only in Sound: Crossed Wires and Community in 19th-Century Dreams

Lofty Only in Sound: Crossed Wires and Community in 19th-Century Dreams

Alicia Puglionesi explores a curious case of supposed dream telepathy at the end of the US Civil War, in which old ideas about the prophetic nature of dreaming collided with loss, longing, and new possibilities of communication at a distance. more

A Queer Taste for Macaroni

A Queer Taste for Macaroni

With his enormous hair, painted face, and dainty attire, the so-called "macaroni" was a common sight upon the streets and ridiculing prints of 1770s London. Dominic Janes explores how with this new figure — and the scandalous sodomy trials with which the stereotype became entwined — a widespread discussion of same-sex desire first entered the public realm, long before the days of Oscar Wilde. more

George Washington: A Descendant of Odin?

George Washington: A Descendant of Odin?

Yvonne Seale on a bizarre and fanciful piece of genealogical scholarship and what it tells us about identity in late 19th-century America. more

“Let us Calculate!”: Leibniz, Llull, and the Computational Imagination

“Let us Calculate!”: Leibniz, Llull, and the Computational Imagination

Three hundred years after the death of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and seven hundred years after the death of Ramon Llull, Jonathan Gray looks at how their early visions of computation and the “combinatorial art” speak to our own age of data, algorithms, and artificial intelligence. more

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