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)

Black Glamour Power: The Stars Who Blazed a Trail for Beyoncé and Lupita Nyong’o

Nichelle Gainer knows a thing or two about glamour: She spent most of her career working for magazines like “Woman’s Day,” “GQ,” “Us Weekly,” and “InStyle,” with a focus on celebrity, fashion, and grooming. But her true passion is fiction, so she decided to write a novel about black beauty pageants in the 1950s, partially inspired by one of her two glamorous aunts, who was a … (continue reading)

Jem, the Truly Outrageous, Triple-Platinum ’80s Rocker Who Nearly Took Down Barbie

We got cable TV in the 1983, the same year I discovered what I called “rock” music, thanks to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Since the “Thriller” video gave me nightmares, I wasn’t supposed to watch MTV, the all music-video channel that launched in 1981, but I did. Pretty much every kid I knew had it on in the background all the time. Why … (continue reading)

Straight Razors and Social Justice: The Empowering Evolution of Black Barbershops

In a country where institutionalized racism has been the norm for centuries, black barbershops remain an anomaly. Though initially blocked from serving black patrons, these businesses evolved into spaces where African Americans could freely socialize and discuss contemporary issues. While catering to certain hair types may have helped these businesses succeed, the real secret to their longevity is their continued social import. For many African Americans, getting a haircut is more than … (continue reading)

In Living Color: The Forgotten 19th-Century Photo Technology that Romanticized America

Every few centuries, someone rediscovers America. After the first humans arrived from Asia roughly 15,000 years ago, Vikings touched down in Newfoundland in the year 1000. Half a millennium later, Christopher Columbus spotted a small island in what is now the Bahamas, and in 1769, Gaspar de Portolà was the first European to gaze upon San Francisco Bay, whose indigenous people had remained hidden behind … (continue reading)

Guys and Dolls: Veteran Toy Designer Wrestles With the Industry’s Gender Divide

The last time you spoke to a pregnant woman, how long did you wait to ask if she was having a boy or a girl? Thus begins the first of a million moments in which adults bombard those malleable little ones with preconceptions of gender, ranging from unconscious body language to outright sexism. Perhaps the most common ritual is surrounding babies with “gender-appropriate” objects: Specific styles and colors of clothing, patterned … (continue reading)

Meet the Irreverent Librarian Who’s Taking on the Music Nerds

When Sarah O’Holla started her blog “My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection,” its title was a playful nod to the 1,500-album elephant in the room, poking fun at the snobbish seriousness of collectors like her partner, Alex Goldman. Despite packing and unpacking Goldman’s vinyl collection for five different moves over the course of their nine-year relationship, O’Holla had only listened to a small sliver of his music. … (continue reading)

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)