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)

Don’t Call Them Bums: The Unsung History of America’s Hard-Working Hoboes

Despite the ever-widening wealth gap, most of us continue to grasp at the American Dream, which promises financial security in exchange for hard work. In fact, for many workers in today’s economy, attaining middle-class status is exactly that—a dream—while digital technologies have pushed enormous numbers of steady-paycheck employees into the unpredictable “gig economy,” where contracts are the norm.

“If you broke the Hobo Code of Ethics, you would be … (continue reading)

The Dead Files: Rock Art, Artifacts, and Psychedelic Office Supplies Up for Grabs

When people ask me where I went to high school, I often tell them Winterland, the former Ice Follies arena in San Francisco where, from 1966 to 1978, legendary rock impresario Bill Graham produced concerts headlined by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to the Sex Pistols. My friends and I spent many an evening (and early morning) in that gloriously decrepit firetrap, but, in … (continue reading)

From Rubble to Riches: The World’s Fair That Raised San Francisco From the Ashes

When the Panama-Pacific International Exposition opened in 1915, San Francisco looked fabulous: Bedecked with ornate, European-inspired architecture and an array of technological wizardry, the city resumed its role as a West Coast powerhouse less than a decade after near-total destruction. Block after block of property flattened by the 1906 earthquake and ensuing fires had been transformed to make way for glitzy new hotels, sturdy apartment buildings, landscaped parks and courtyards, offices, … (continue reading)

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)