Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

15 AUGUST, 2011

A Brief History of Menu Design, 1850-1985

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What vintage restaurants reveal about the economy, creative influences and the evolution of foodie culture.

Last week, the fine folks at Under Consideraton launched Art of the Menu — an ambitious showcase of outstanding menus from around the world. But, as we know, all creativity builds on what came before, which brings us to today’s release of Menu Design in America: 1850-1985 by design writer extraordinaire Steven Heller (previously), Esquire food columnist John Mariani, cultural anthropologist and graphic design historian Jim Heimann, and high-end publisher Taschen (previously) — a delicious history of menu creativity, featuring nearly 800 vibrant illustrated examples of menu ephemera, alongside photographs of restaurants, that together tell the rich and fascinating story of eating out in America.

Apart from the incredible design history, Menu Design in America: 1850-1985 doubles as a curious tracker of American inflation, both economic (who’s in for a $1.50 fine-dining lunch?) and of culinary claims (how did we go from simple and to-the-point food descriptions to foofy foodie-speak?). But however you look at it, the 360-page mega-tome is a rare chronicle of creative evolution and a priceless piece of cultural history.

Images via Taschen

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12 AUGUST, 2011

Salvador Dalí on Decadence, Death and Immortality: The 1958 Interview

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What Freud to antimatter, or what pre-birth memories and lucid dreams have to do with the ego of genius.

Between 1957 and 1960, iconic television personality Mike Wallace — who anchored the first documentary on homosexuality — hosted a series of 30-minute conversations with luminaries from the era known as The Mike Wallace Interview. We’ve previously seen him discuss morality and love Ayn Rand. In 1958, Wallace interviewed the great Salvador Dalí, then 53, making for a fascinating discussion of “decadence, death and immortality.” We see a heavily accented Dalí face a mildly mocking, partly confused, wholly curious Wallace to discuss everything from surrealism to nuclear physics to chastity to what artists in general contribute to the world. The footage is a true time-capsule of the moment, from Dalí’s famous third-person narratives of himself to the extended tobacco commercial prefacing the program, but more importantly, a genuine testament to the power of combinatorial creativity as we marvel at the great painter’s remarkable curiosity and vast pool of cross-disciplinary inspiration, from ancient philosophy to psychology to antimatter.

Dalí paints the Atomic Age and the Freudian Age — nuclear scenes and psychoanalytic scenes.” ~ Salvador Dalí

The interview is almost a caricature, though one that makes you truly grasp the gravity with which Dalí took his work, himself and his delightfully grandiose persona. When asked who the greatest contemporary painters are, he responds in a matter-of-factly manner, “First Dalí. Then, Picasso.” Wallace, half-mockingly, concludes: “The two geniuses of modern times are Dalí and Picasso.”

I cannot understand why human beings should be so little individualized, why they should behave with such great collective uniformity. I do not understand why when I ask for a grilled lobster at a restaurant, I’m never served a cooked telephone.” ~ Salvador Dalí

Scattered throughout the interview are a number of references to 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, Dalí’s excellent semi-biography, offering a revealing look at the mind and creative process of the eccentric genius.

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12 AUGUST, 2011

Digital Humanities Spotlight: 7 Important Digitization Projects

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From Darwin’s marginalia to Voltaire’s correspondence, or what Dalí’s controversial World’s Fair pavilion has to do with digital myopia.

Despite our remarkable technological progress in the past century and the growth of digital culture in the past decade, a large portion of humanity’s richest cultural heritage remains buried in analog archives. Bridging the disconnect is a fledgling discipline known as the Digital Humanities, bringing online historical materials and using technologies like infrared scans, geolocation mapping, and optical character recognition to enrich these resources with related information or make entirely new discoveries about them. As Europe’s digital libraries open up their APIs, techno-dystopian pundits lament that these efforts diminish “the mystery of history,” but such views are myopic and plagued by unnecessary nostalgia for a time when knowledge was confined to the privileged cultural elite. Instead, here are seven fantastic digitization projects that democratize access to and understanding of some of our civilization’s most valuable cultural assets.

MAPPING THE REPUBLIC OF LETTERS

Long before there was Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, there was the Republic of Letters — a vast and intricate network of intellectuals, linking the finest “philosophes” of the Enlightenment across national borders and language barriers. This self-defined community of writers, scholars, philosophers and other thinkers included greats like Voltaire, Leibniz, Rousseau, Linnaeus, Franklin, Newton, Diderot and many others we’ve come to see as linchpins of cultural history. Mapping the Republic of Letters, which we first looked at last year, is a fascinating project by a team of students and professors at Stanford, visualizing the famous intellectual correspondence of the Enlightenment, how they traveled, and how the network evolved over time, bridging humanitarian scholarship and computer science.

The project pulls data from the Electronic Enlightenment database, an archive of more than 55,000 letters and documents exchanged between 6,400 correspondents, and maps the geographic origin and destination of the correspondence — something we’ve come to take for granted in the age of real-time GPS tracking, but an incredibly ambitious task for 300-year-old letters.

For more on the Republic of Letters, its cultural legacy and the networking model it provided, you won’t go wrong with Dena Goodman’s The Republic of Letters : A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment — a book controversial for its feminist undertones but nonetheless fascinating in its bold reframing of the Enlightenment not as a set of ideas that gave rise to “masculine self-governance” but as a rhetoric that borrowed heavily from female thought.

LONDON LIVES

London Lives offers a fascinating record of crime, poverty and social policy in one of the world’s greatest cities between the years of 1690 and 1800 through 240,000 fully digitized manuscript and printed pages from 8 London archives, supplemented by 15 datasets. The nonprofit project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and implemented by the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield and the Higher Education Digitisation Service at the University of Hertfordshire, provides access to historical records containing over 3.35 million names, allowing you to link together records relating to the same individual and to even extract entire biographies of the best-documented individuals.

A wiki invites users to contribute to biographies of 18th-century Londoners, track corrections and monitor activity on pages to which they’ve contributed.

BIBLION

From the New York Public Library comes Biblion — an ambitious iPad app putting NYPL’s 1939-40 New York World’s Fair collection at your fingertips. Though the app is free, its documents, images, films, audio, and texts make it a priceless piece of historical fascination.

From essays by beloved writers like Karen Abbott, William Grimes and Henry Jenkins to the wild restaurant ideas that never made the cut at the Fair to the extravaganza’s designs, uniforms and buildings — including Salvador Dalí’s controversial Dream of Venus surrealist pavilion — the app takes you on an extraordinary journey of wonder and curiosity, not only making previously exclusive artifacts and knowledge available to the world at large, but also presenting them through the kind of rich, immersive storytelling never possible while strolling through the aisles of the physical library. How’s that for the mystery of history, Tristram Hunt?

(In that vein, Alexis Madrigal over at The Atlantic recently wrote a fantastic, must-read article on what big media can learn from NYPL.)

CHARLES DARWIN’S LIBRARY

Charles Darwin is easily one of the most influential scientists who ever lived — so much so that entire collaborative albums have been written about him — and now, thanks to The Biodiversity Heritage Library, the intellectual fuel for his work is accessible to the rest of us. Charles Darwin’s Library is a digital reconstruction of the surviving books Darwin owned, complete with full transcriptions of his annotations and marks — the kind of marginalia essential to fleshing out our thoughts as we ingest ideas. (More voyeurism of great thinkers’ notebooks here.)

The initial release, launched earlier this year, features 330 of the 1480 titles in his library, focusing on the most heavily annotated books, with an ongoing effort aiming to further digitize his book collection.

SALEM WITCH TRIALS PROJECT

Though decidedly unsexy and anything but sleek, the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project from the University of Virginia offers a rich online archive of materials relating to the Salem witch trials of 1692 — court records, books, notable people, and images of the original court documents, indexed according to various archival collections.

A regional accusations map displays the geographic chronology of the accusations, a Salem Village accusations map shows the day-by-day accusations in the month of March, 1692, and a complete alphabetical list catalogs every person mentioned in the court documents.

THE NEWTON PROJECT

Thanks to The Newton Project, 4.2 million published and unpublished words by Isaac Newton are now online as interactive diplomatic transcriptions that show every addition, change or revision the great scholar made to his texts, browsable by subject.

From Newton as a historian to his character and personal habits, the database spans materials as diverse as Newton’s gum water recipe and a list he made of 47 sins he could remember having committed in his lifetime. (More on the love of famous creators’ lists here.)

QUIJOTE INTERACTIVO

From the National Library of Spain comes Quijote Interactivo, a project we first examined last fall — an impressive interactive digitization of the original edition of Miguel de Cervantes’ cult 1605-1615 novel, Don Quixote. Though the site is entirely in Spanish, the sleek interface, rich multimedia galleries and thoughtful sound design make it a joy to explore whatever your linguistic heritage.

A social widget even makes each of the 668 pages from the book shareable via email or on Facebook, and a transcription overlay makes the original 17th-century manuscript legible in Times New Roman.

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11 AUGUST, 2011

The Homosexuals: A CBS “Documentary” from 1967

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A vintage signpost for how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.

In 1967, CBS aired an episode of the network’s CBS Reports series exploring homosexuality, a topic so taboo and controversial at the time that it took three years in the making, several revisions and a change of two producers to finally air the program. Titled The Homosexuals, the hour-long broadcast was anchored by Mike Wallace, whom you may recall from his provocative conversation with Ayn Rand on morality and love as a business deal, and was the first American network documentary to ever explore the topic of homosexuality on national television. It featured interviews with a number of gay men from San Francisco, Philadelphia, Charlotte and New York, legal experts, cultural critics, priests and psychiatrists, as well as footage of young men interacting in a gay bar and a teenager being arrested during a police sting operation, complete with psychoanalysis that pegged it all on the inevitable domineering mother.

Particularly poignant is this short interview with a young man identified as “Warren Adkins,” who is in fact the prominent gay rights activist Jack Jichols, founder of the Mattachine Society:

The innermost aspects of a person’s personality is his sexual orientation, and I can’t imagine myself giving this up, and I don’t think most other people who are sure of their sexuality, whether they’re homosexuals or heterosexuals, can imagine giving that up either.”

When asked about the “cause” of his homosexuality and whether he dwells on it, Nichols responds with a kind of quiet bravery certainly far ahead of its time and in many ways still more evolved than the opinions of many on the subject even today:

I have thought about it, but it really doesn’t concern me very much. I never would imagine if I had blond hair that I would worry about what genes and what chromosomes caused my blond hair, or if I had brown eyes… My homosexuality to me is very much in the same category. I feel no more guilt about my homosexuality or about my sexual orientation than a person with blond hair or with dark skin or with light skin would feel about what they had.”

As part of the research for the broadcast, CBS conducted a survey that found 90% of Americans saw homosexuality as an illness and the vast majority favored legal punishment even for homosexual acts done in private between two consenting adults. But what’s most fascinating is that the segment portrays gay men — and, mind you, completely neglects gay women as part of the homosexual community — as inherently promiscuous, incapable of sustaining long-term monogamous relationships. And yet, even as we cringe at the general trauma and civil rights failures around the issue in 1967, here we are nearly half a century later, still debating gay marriage and questioning the rights of those men and women who do want to legally enact these loving long-term monogamous relationships. One has to wonder whether a documentary on today’s gay rights opponents would sound just as foreign and antiquated half a century from now.

But, hey, one thing we’ve made unabashed progress on is gay rights sign design.

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