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)

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)