Goat Rituals and Tree-Trunk Gravestones: The Peculiar History of Life Insurance

Once, when I visited my brother, who lives in a small Texas town, he took me down a winding road to a turn-of-the-20th-century cemetery in a forest clearing. There, we found three tall tombstones in the shape of tree trunks, each stamped with an insignia reading “Woodmen of the World.” What were these strange things?
When I got home, I dug into … (continue reading)

How a ’60s Power Couple Taught Architects and Dancers To Find Their Inner Hippie

Dance and architecture are kindred spirits in their devotion to the human form, whether it’s in motion or at rest, within or outside the confines of natural or manmade spaces. Each discipline is governed by a number of self-evident truths—at some point, the feet of even the fleetest dancer must touch the ground; spaces that induce claustrophobia are bad—yet both are deemed at their pinnacles when hoary conventions are … (continue reading)

Our Pungent History: Sweat, Perfume, and the Scent of Death

Consider the sweet, intoxicating smell of a rose: While it might seem superficial, the bloom’s lovely odor is actually an evolutionary tactic meant to ensure the plant’s survival by attracting pollinators from miles away. Since ancient times, the rose’s aroma has also drawn people under its spell, becoming one of the most popular extracts for manufactured fragrances. Although the function of these artificial scents has varied widely—from incense for spiritual ceremonies to … (continue reading)

How America Bought and Sold Racism, and Why It Still Matters

Today, very few white Americans openly celebrate the horrors of black enslavement—most refuse to recognize the brutal nature of the institution or actively seek to distance themselves from it. “The modern American sees slavery as a regrettable period when blacks worked without wages,” writes Dr. David Pilgrim, the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion and a sociology professor at Ferris State University and the author of Understanding Jim Crow: … (continue reading)

Did the CIA’s Experiments With Psychedelic Drugs Unwittingly Create the Grateful Dead?

Trying to write a definitive history of the Acid Tests, a series of multimedia happenings in 1965 and 1966, in which everyone in attendance was stoned on LSD, is like trying to organize an aquarium’s worth of electric eels into a nice neat row, sorted by length. You will never get the creatures to stop writhing, let alone straighten out, and if you touch them, well, they are electric … (continue reading)

At Home With Horror: Metallica’s Kirk Hammett Embraces His Inner Monster

When Metallica lead guitarist Kirk “The Ripper” Hammett was 5 years old, he sprained his arm, and to calm him down, his parents plopped him down in front of the TV. You’d think something like a marathon of Bugs Bunny cartoons would have been the perfect distraction. But young Hammett only forgot about his aching arm when the movie “The Day of the Triffids” came on the … (continue reading)

Sixties Nostalgia Burnout: I’m So Sick of Talkin’ ‘Bout My G-G-Generation

Is it just me, or has the incessant drumbeat of 50th anniversaries for this or that cultural milestone from the 1960s already grown tiresome? I started burning out on my generation’s fixation with itself a couple of years ago, when over-55s like me would find themselves boring younger co-workers with detailed recollections of where they were on November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was shot, or February 9, … (continue reading)

The Sharecropper’s Daughter Who Made Black Women Proud of Their Hair

American history books are filled with stories about titans of industry—invariably, white men like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller—who cornered emerging industries and amassed incredible wealth at the expense of the public and their employees. Yet few know the name of Madam C.J. Walker, a black female entrepreneur who built a hair-care company from scratch and became one of the most powerful African Americans in the … (continue reading)

Female Spies and Gender-Bending Soldiers Changed the Course of the Civil War

After 150 years, America is still haunted by the ghosts of its Civil War, whose story has been romanticized for so long it’s hard to keep the facts straight. In our collective memory of the war, men are the giants, the heroes remembered as fighting nobly for their beliefs. Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia … (continue reading)

Anita Pointer: Civil-Rights Activist, Pop Star, and Serious Collector of Black Memorabilia

At one point, Anita Pointer—lead vocalist and writer for the Pointer Sisters’ Top 10 hit “I’m So Excited”—was one of the most famous women in the world. During the early ’80s, she and her sisters June and Ruth tore up the pop music charts with singles like “Jump (For My Love),” “Neutron Dance,” “Automatic,” “He’s So Shy,” and “Slow Hand.” If you search for the girl group on … (continue reading)

Life on Pluto, Circa 1959

When NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft flew past Pluto and its moons recently, after journeying more than three billion miles over the course of nine-and-a-half years, much was made of the former planet’s craterless surface. The absence of craters indicates that Pluto is geologically active, which means that in this respect, if no other, Pluto is more like Earth than our pockmarked moon.
Perhaps Donald A. Wollheim had an inkling … (continue reading)

Healing Spas and Ugly Clubs: How Victorians Taught Us to Treat People With Disabilities

In Netflix’s “Daredevil” series, a 2015 adaptation of a 1960s Marvel comic, flashbacks reveal that an accident blinding a boy also enhances his other four senses and gives him one more—radar location. That means the adult Matt Murdock can be a lawyer by day and a masked crime fighter by night, using his extra-sharp hearing, smelling, touch, … (continue reading)

Cassette Revolution: Why 1980s Tape Tech Is Still Making Noise in Our Digital World

Most of us old enough to have grown up with cassette tapes have fond memories of recording off the radio, copying albums, or making mix tapes. But we also recall that horrible moment when the tape you’re enjoying suddenly grinds to a halt. You press the eject button and try to pull out the cassette, only to find the machine is holding onto the tape. It takes some doing … (continue reading)

The Magician Who Astounded the World by Conjuring Spirits and Talking with Mummies

Quick: Name the world’s greatest magician, a man who became famous by sawing women in half, making cards rise unassisted from their decks, pulling rabbits from audience member’s coats, and levitating assistants far above the stage. Harry Houdini? David Blaine?

“This pleasure comes from being deceived, and knowing you’re being deceived in an artful way.”
You probably didn’t say Howard Thurston, the sensational performer whose name was synonymous with stage magic a … (continue reading)

At the First Rock Festival, Pianos Fell From the Sky

Now that the orgy of insufferable hipsterism known as Coachella is finally behind us, it’s officially music-festival season, when hundreds of concerts will take over entire cities, towns, parks, and fields across the United States. As everyone knows, events like Lollapalooza, Lockn’, and Bonnaroo follow in the grand tradition of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair held in August of 1969. That’s when a dairy farmer from Bethel, New … (continue reading)