Sex and Suffering: The Tragic Life of the Courtesan in Japan’s Floating World

It’s difficult to get a window into the world of Edo-Period Japanese prostitutes without the gauzy romantic filter of the male gaze. The artworks in the new San Francisco Asian Art Museum exhibition, “Seduction: Japan’s Floating World,” were made by men for men, the patrons of the Yoshiwara pleasure district outside of Edo, which is now known as Tokyo. Every little detail of Yoshiwara—from the décor and … (continue reading)

New Evidence of Ancient Child-Trafficking Network Unearthed in Maya Sacrifice Cave

One morning, a Mennonite farmer in the Cayo district of western Belize got up like he always did to feed his chickens and milk his cows. Later in the day, like the unmechanized Maya who lived here some 1,200 years ago, he worked up a pretty good sweat tending his winter crops. At the end of his hard day’s work, he headed in for dinner before shuffling off to … (continue reading)

Like Iggy Pop? Thank Your Grandparents

If you had to choose an image to define “rock ’n’ roll,” what would it be? Elvis’ pompadour? A psychedelic rock poster? A Flying V guitar? The last thing you might picture is a young woman in the Great Depression, wearing her Sunday best, smiling modestly as she poses with her saxophone. But when Jim Linderman, a collector of vernacular photography and … (continue reading)

Love Among the Ruins: Traveling Museum Excavates the Artifacts of Lost Relationships

A decade ago, the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” imagined that you could have any relationship that ended in heartbreak erased from your mind. In the film, the central couple, Joel and Clementine, gather all the objects in their homes that make them think of each other and hand them over to the experimental doctor who will zap the memories from their minds.

“After traveling the world, I realized it’s something we … (continue reading)

Laika and Her Comrades: The Soviet Space Dogs Who Took Giant Leaps for Mankind

The dog Laika, the first living being to orbit the Earth, lives on in our memories. Her lethal Sputnik 2 mission, when she was an unwitting pioneer in the USSR’s space program more than 57 years ago, has stuck in our collective consciousness. Her story is central to Lasse Hallström’s 1985 movie, “My Life as a Dog,” and the 2005 Arcade Fire song, “Neighborhood #2 (Laika).” She’s had bands named … (continue reading)

Flipping Out Over Handheld Movies, a Century Before Smartphones

When artist Ben Zurawski sits down at his light table to create a palm-size flip book designed to deliver about 15 seconds of animated action to one viewer at a time, he typically unwraps a fresh pack of 100-pound index cards, places 60 or so before him, picks up a mechanical pencil, and begins to draw. From start to finish, including storyboarding, penciling, rubbing … (continue reading)

Fraternizing With the Enemy: The Christmas Truce of 1914

This year marks the centennial of the Christmas Truce of 1914, in which pockets of German, British, and French troops along the Western Front laid down their arms to share cigarettes, bury their dead, and sing Christmas carols—in some places for a few hours, in others for several days. Between July 28, 1914 and November 11, 1918, World War I claimed upwards of 20 million … (continue reading)

Slut-Shaming, Eugenics, and Donald Duck: The Scandalous History of Sex-Ed Movies

After excusing herself from the dinner table, the 13-year-old girl begins to shout, her excited voice ringing through her family’s Mid-Century Modern home, “I got it! I got it!!” Her mother, in a Donna Reed-type dress, beams, while her 10-year-old brother looks up quizzically and asks, “Got what?” The boy’s father turns to him and says, brusquely, “She got her period, son!”
I saw this film in a middle-school sex-education class … (continue reading)

Ghosts in the Machines: The Devices and Daring Mediums That Spoke for the Dead

The spirits came calling in 1848. Through a series of startlingly loud knocks, a murdered peddler named Charles B. Rosna started talking to two teenage girls in their Hydesville, New York, home. Margaret and Kate Fox, who could be the inspiration for Wednesday Addams with their dark locks and solemn expressions, would ask the spirits questions out loud, and to everyone’s surprise, the spirits … (continue reading)

Will John Lennon’s “Paperback Writer” Guitar Be a Million-Dollar Seller?

There are very few objects relating to the lives and careers of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr that are not coveted by Beatles fans. Some collect one-inch squares of the bed sheets the lads allegedly slept between during their 1964 North American tour. Others prefer brightly colored lunch boxes, from the metal containers manufactured … (continue reading)

The Struggle in Black and White: Activist Photographers Who Fought for Civil Rights

July marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Yet after half a century of adjustment to a world where such discrimination is illegal, the United States still hasn’t overcome its legacy of racism. Photographs and videos taken in Ferguson, Missouri, during the past few months bear a … (continue reading)

The Reclusive, Doll-Collecting Copper Queen of Fifth Avenue

Huguette Clark, the youngest daughter of copper mogul and Montana Senator William Andrews Clark, lived her life in the headlines. Born in 1906 to the senator and Anna LaChapelle—Clark’s second wife, 39 years his junior—Huguette attracted media attention even as a toddler. She and her sister Andrée, four years older, appeared in the “New York Times” and the “Chicago Herald Tribune” disembarking steamships from Paris—Anna’s safe … (continue reading)

What America Can Learn From Berlin’s Struggle to Face Its Violent Past

On the edge of a small park in central Berlin stands a slightly oversized kitchen table and two matching chairs centered on a parquet floor, all cast in bronze. One of the chairs has toppled over backwards—the only sign of something amiss. Along the edge of this domestic scene is the text of a poem, which begins “…Oh the houses of death, invitingly appointed” and ends with “the body … (continue reading)

Why Nerdy White Guys Who Love the Blues Are Obsessed With a Wisconsin Chair Factory

In the 2001 movie “Ghost World,” 18-year-old Enid picks up the arm on her turntable, drops the needle in the groove, and plays a song yet another time. She can’t get over the emotional power of bluesman Skip James’ 1931 recording of “Devil Got My Woman.” If you know anything about 78 records, it only makes sense that a nerdy 40-something 78 collector … (continue reading)

Tiki Hangover: Unearthing the False Idols of America’s South Seas Fantasy

Living the Tiki lifestyle once conjured the gentle sound of distant waves and lilting ukuleles, the rustic comforts of a poolside hammock beneath swaying palms. Those drawn to this Polynesian fantasy decorated their living rooms with bamboo furniture and learned the steps to native dances, while cultivating a taste for exotic foods and sweet rum cocktails. In the mid-20th century, such tropical trends offered a viable escape for those … (continue reading)