Learning to Love Death: New Museum Takes a Walk on the Shadow Side

Returning home from a dinner party one night, I wandered down 24th Street in San Francisco’s traditionally Mexican Mission District. I spied a store display lit up with flashing Christmas lights, and looking inside, I saw a life-size plastic skeleton with red lights for eyes. The skeleton was adorned with a fancy biblical robe and was holding a scythe and metal scale. It was flanked by … (continue reading)

The Last Laugh: Why Clowns Will Never Die

It’s no secret that clowns make people uncomfortable. Believe it or not, that’s the point: Clowns were created to test social conventions and speak truth to power, wagging their gloved fingers at institutional tomfoolery. When they’re right, we cheer them on—and when they’re wrong, usually in the most familiar, human way possible, they get their comeuppance in the form of painful or embarrassing pratfalls. To top … (continue reading)

Who Were the First Teenagers?

Long before the cynical Millennials, the snarky Brat Pack, and bad-boy greasers of the 1950s, teenagers were finding their own voices—and using them to scream at their elders. Most historians pin the origins of teen culture to the 1950s, when adults first noticed that adolescents were dictating trends in fashion, music, film, and more. But director Matt Wolf’s latest film, called simply “Teenage,” challenges the notion that … (continue reading)

Why Aren’t Stories Like ’12 Years a Slave’ Told at Southern Plantation Museums?

Watching “12 Years a Slave,” which won the Oscar for best picture this year, it was almost as if I were there at Edwin Epps’ cotton plantation in the 1840s, walking past the gorgeous white mansion in the lush, green Louisiana landscape. Surrounded by cypress trees, I could hear the cicadas, and very nearly feel the humidity on my skin. But it’s jarring to put … (continue reading)

L.A.’s Wildest Cafeteria Served Utopian Fantasy With a Side of Enchiladas

On a decrepit block of Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, hidden behind a dilapidated, aging façade, lies the ghost of a palatial dining hall filled with towering redwoods and a gurgling stream. Known as Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria, this terraced wonderland recalls a different time, when cafeterias were classy and downtown living was tops. Against all odds, the Brookdale outlasted attacks from notorious L.A. mobsters and decades of … (continue reading)

What’s the Reno Cure for Valentines Gone Wrong? D-I-V-O-R-C-E.

It’s Valentine’s Day, so naturally our thoughts turn to divorce. That’s the odds-even outcome of marriage, if you believe the oft-cited statistic that half of all nuptials in the United States will end up on the rocks. In fact, the overall rate is more like 30 percent, and the frequency of divorce has been dropping since the 1970s, when 37 states amended or repealed their divorce laws, causing … (continue reading)

Dreams of the Forbidden City: When Chinatown Nightclubs Beckoned Hollywood

When “talking pictures” took over the cinema in the early 1930s, America’s fascination with Hollywood blossomed into a full-on love affair. Naturally, little girls and boys across the country dreamed of becoming glamorous starlets and debonair leading men, dancing and singing their way to stardom. It was no different for the first generation of natural-born Chinese Americans, who longed to escape from the traditional values of … (continue reading)

Storybook Apocalypse: Beasts, Comets, and Other Signs of the End Times

It’s tempting to dismiss the mid-16th-century depictions of Biblical miracles, flaming comets, multi-headed beasts, and apocalyptic chaos that fill the pages of the “Augsburg Book of Miraculous Signs” as the superstitious vestiges of the post-Medieval mind. But according to the co-authors of Taschen’s new, 568-page boxed volume called “Book of Miracles,” the Protestant citizens of Augsburg, Germany, were enthusiastic and active collectors of portrayals of … (continue reading)

Selling Shame: 40 Outrageous Vintage Ads Any Woman Would Find Offensive

One vintage ad warns women, “Don’t let them call you SKINNY!” while another promises that smoking cigarettes will keep one slender. If the task of morphing their bodies into the current desirable shape isn’t enough of a burden, women are also reminded that they stink.

“You’re stuck at the party with a ripped stocking, and it’ll probably end your marriage.”
In these vintage ads, a woman may … (continue reading)

Being The Beatles: Untold Stories from the Fab Four’s Legendary North American Tours

Like a lot of people of a certain age, I’ll never forget the night I watched The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It was February 9, 1964, I was 7 years old, and John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr had just invaded America. Coming scant months after the assassination of President … (continue reading)

How We Used to Give Thanks in Wartime

Earlier this month, while browsing the Library of Congress website for Armistice Day images, we came across this provocatively titled 1918 lithograph, created by an artist named A. Hendee and printed by Edwards & Deutsch of Chicago for the United States Food Administration. That agency was established in August of 1917 by the Food and Fuel Control Act, which was designed to, among other things, keep … (continue reading)

A Frenzy of Trumpets: Why Brass Musicians Can’t Resist Serbia’s Wildest Festival

Aside from a certain subset of musicians, most Americans live a day-to-day life that is sadly free of brass music. In Serbia, however, any occasion is an excuse to bring out the horns. The joyous, off-kilter sounds of Balkan brass bands fill the air during weddings, births, housewarmings, funerals, and patron saint days. And every August, even in times of war and strife, Serbians celebrate the … (continue reading)

Women and Children: The Secret Weapons of World War I Propaganda Posters

Armistice Day is a time to reflect upon that defining moment at the end of World War I, at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918, when soldiers stopped shooting at each other along Europe’s Western Front. At its close, most observers assumed that nothing would ever match the “Great War” for its sheer volumes of death and destruction, and for decades after, people around the world stopped whatever … (continue reading)

Can’t Buy Me Love: How Romance Wrecked Traditional Marriage

Despite the fondness among certain politicians and pundits for “traditional marriage,” a nostalgic-sounding concept that conjures a soft-focus Polaroid of grandma and grandpa, few consider the actual roots of our marital traditions, when matrimony was little more than a business deal among unequals. Even today, legal marriage isn’t measured by the affection between two people, but by the ability of a couple to share Social Security and tax … (continue reading)

Treats or Tricks? Unfortunate Vintage Candy Wrappers

According to a recent article on Smithsonian.com, the notion that poison candy is routinely distributed to unsuspecting children on Halloween is a myth perpetrated by advice columnists Dear Abby and Ann Landers in the 1980s and ’90s. But historically, candy meant for young consumers has sported poisonous-sounding, WTF wrappers and packages that most self-respecting 2013 parents would be dismayed to see dumped out of their children’s … (continue reading)