The Polyamorous Christian Socialist Utopia That Made Silverware for Proper Americans

The first time you heard the word “Oneida,” it was probably in the context of silverware. Perhaps it was before a Christmas dinner, when your mom or grandmother instructed you get out the “good silver” made by Oneida Limited. Even though it was only silverplate rather than sterling, your family probably stored it in a velvet-lined wooden case. Or maybe you saw an ad depicting an elegant table set … (continue reading)

Railway Paradise: How a Fine-Dining Empire Made the Southwest Palatable to Outsiders

Near a dusty stretch of train track on the outskirts of Barstow, California, the imposing Casa del Desierto—or House of the Desert—stands silent, its arched colonnade emptied of the railroad passengers, restaurant diners, and overnight guests who once visited its elegant hotel. The forlorn red-brick façade no longer greets crowds of visitors headed west to the California coast or east to the Colorado mountains, interrupting their journey for a respite … (continue reading)

If You’re Too Young to Remember the Magic of Tower Records, Here’s What You Missed

Listening to music is a deeply personal experience. Some songs will always make certain people happy, while those same tunes will just as reliably make other people cry. Incredible as it may seem today, the mundane act of acquiring music also used to be personal, or at least required a personal investment: You’d hear a song on the radio or see a band at a local dive, decide … (continue reading)

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)