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British vs. American Politics in Minimalist Vintage Infographics

A visual time-capsule of political parallels and contrasts.

This month marked the 130th birthday of pioneering Austrian sociologist, philosopher, and curator Otto Neurath, who in the 1930s, together with his wife Marie, invented ISOTYPE — the vintage visual language of pictograms that gave rise to modern infographics. After recently coming upon some fantastic mid-century ISOTYPE infographics comparing and contrasting Great Britain and the United States, I embarked upon a quest to hunt down one of the last surviving copies of the book from which they came — America and Britain: Three Volumes in One (UK; public library), originally published in 1946 and long out of print.

With 53 ISOTYPE charts in color created by Neurath himself and 97 black-and-white photographs from various government archives, the book “brings together all the more important aspects of America and Britain” in three different sections: Only an Ocean Between explores “how Britain and America are alike or are different in their climate, their geography, their natural and human resources, their transport facilities, and other basic conditions of life and work”; Our Private Lives contrasts family life in both countries — “domestic habits and customs, how the British and Americans court and get married, build and furnish homes, shop, cook and eat, work and play, go to church and school”; Our Two Democracies at Work examines political structures in Britain and America.

This having been an election year in the U.S. and thus a boon for political design, I was particularly intrigued by the infographics in the third part of the book. More than a mere treasure trove of vintage graphic design, however, these charts present not only a parallel time-capsule of mid-century politics in Britain and the United States, but also a fascinating and rather visceral reminder of how much has changed over the past half-century — and how much has remained nearly the same.

D. W. Brogan writes in the foreword to the section:

Luck has played its part in the history of Britain and of the United States. Much of their success is explicable in terms of geography, natural resources, the happy conjunction of time and place. But there remains an element that it is and was easy to underrate, especially when a bogus realism and a naive materialism led to a depreciation of the traditional importance given to politics.

It is the basic merit of this book that it calls our attention to the role of political institutions and American and British life. It is made plain here that much of the success of the British and American peoples has been made possible because they found or made institutions that not only suited them at the beginning, but continued to suit them — with necessary and sometimes very expensive adaptations. But a consequence of this process of continuous adaptation is that as each system of government has been modified by historical experience — and has affected the historical development of the country concerned — the political habits of the British and American peoples have diverged more and more.

For a nitpicky observation of the era’s characteristic gender bias, note that all the Senators and Representatives are depicted using the male-figure pictogram — a choice that would be particularly anachronistic today, in the year of binders full of political diversity:

As a lover of famous city grids, I was also delighted by these two maps of London and New York’s growth:

Complement these vintage gems with the story of ISOTYPE’s birth.


The Strange Story of William Faulkner’s Only Children’s Book

A rare vintage treasure, with stunning black-and-white illustrations and a side of controversy.

As a lover of obscure children’s books by famous authors of grown-up literature, I was delighted to discover The Wishing Tree (UK; public library) by none other than William Faulkner — a sort of grimly whimsical morality tale, somewhere between Alice In Wonderland, Don Quixote, and To Kill a Mockingbird, about a girl who embarks upon a strange adventure on her birthday only to realize the importance of choosing one’s wishes with consideration and kindness.

But far more intriguing than the mere existence of the book is the bizarre story of how it came to be: In 1927, Faulkner gave the story to Victoria “Cho-Cho” Franklin, the daughter of his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham, with whom he was still in love. He hoped Estelle would leave her unhappy marriage and marry him instead — which she did two years later.

The tiny book was typed and bound on colored paper by Faulkner himself. (It wasn’t uncommon in those days for authors to hand-craft and publish their own books.) The first page of the book read:

For his dear friend
on her eight birthday
Bill he made
this Book

Faulkner included this beautiful dedication verse:

To Victoria

‘. . . . . . . I have seen music, heard
Grave and windless bells; mine air
Hath verities of vernal leaf and bird.

Ah, let this fade: it doth and must; nor grieve,
Dream ever, though; she ever young and fair.’

On the left-hand page facing the dedication verse, the following text appeared:

single mss. impression

The catch? Faulkner turned out to be an unapologetic, serial regifter: He made another copy of the book for his friend’s daughter, a little girl dying of cancer, and then two more for two other children — his godson and to the daughter of his friend, the actress Ruth Ford — years later. Each child believed the book had been made exclusively for him or her. But apart from the ethical question, a more practical one presented itself when Victoria tried to publish the book nearly four decades later, only to find out she wasn’t the only rights-holder.

Copyright was eventually worked out and in 1964, Faulkner’s granddaughter Victoria, Cho-Cho’s daughter, got Random House New York — who just five years later commissioned Salvador Dalí’s exquisite Alice In Wonderland illustrations — to publish a limited edition of 500 numbered copies, featuring stunning black-and-white illustrations by artist Don Bolognese. I was lucky enough to hunt down one of the surviving copies, number 121.

…if you are kind to helpless things, you don’t need a Wishing Tree to make things come true.

The Wishing Tree, sadly long out of print, remains Faulkner’s only known children’s book. On April 8, 1967, a version of the story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Three days later, Random House released a regular edition, now also out of print but findable used with some persistence.

Thanks, Anique


Richard Dawkins on Evidence in Science, Life and Love: A Letter to His 10-Year-Old Daughter

“All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up.”

When his daughter turned ten, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — arguably today’s most vocal atheist and celebrated skeptic — wrote her a simply worded but tremendously thoughtful letter about how we know what we know, stressing the importance of evidence over blind belief. The letter, found in the 2004 essay anthology A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (UK; public library), is a fine addition to history’s best letters of fatherly advice and an important reminder that it’s never too early for critical thinking.

Dawkins writes:

To my dearest daughter,

Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the Sun and very far away? And how do we know that the Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the Sun?
The answer to these questions is ‘evidence’.

Sometimes evidence means actually seeing (or hearing, feeling, smelling….) that something is true. Astronauts have traveled far enough from the Earth to see with their own eyes that it is round. Sometimes our eyes need help. The ‘evening star’ looks like a bright twinkle in the sky but with a telescope you can see that it is a beautiful ball — the planet we call Venus. Something that you learn by direct seeing (or hearing or feeling…) is called an observation.

Often evidence isn’t just observation on its own, but observation always lies at the back of it. If there’s been a murder, often nobody (except the murderer and the dead person!) actually observed it. But detectives can gather together lots of other observations which may all point towards a particular suspect. If a person’s fingerprints match those found on a dagger, this is evidence that he touched it. It doesn’t prove that he did the murder, but it can help when it’s joined up with lots of other evidence. Sometimes a detective can think about a whole lot of observations and suddenly realize that they all fall into place and make sense if so-and-so did the murder.

He then offers an oblique addition to the finest definitions of science:

Scientists — the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe — often work like detectives. They make a guess (called a hypothesis) about what might be true. They then say to themselves: if that were really true, we ought to see so-and-so. This is called a prediction. For example, if the world is really round, we can predict that a traveler, going on and on in the same direction, should eventually find himself back where he started. When a doctor says that you have measles he doesn’t take one look at you and see measles. His first look gives him a hypothesis that you may have measles. Then he says to himself: if she really has measles, I ought to see… Then he runs through his list of predictions and tests them with his eyes (have you got spots?), his hands (is your forehead hot?), and his ears (does your chest wheeze in a measly way?). Only then does he make his decision and say, ‘I diagnose that the child has measles.’ Sometimes doctors need to do other tests like blood tests or X-rays, which help their eyes, hands and ears to make observations.

Dawkins goes on to warn against “three bad reasons for believing anything” — “tradition,” “authority,” and “revelation” — particularly as they apply to religion.

But perhaps the most moving part of his letter deals with love, exploring the difference between naming feelings with concrete labels and intuiting them from the living fabric, the “evidence,” of experience:

People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise you’d never be confident of things like ‘My wife loves me’. But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

He relates this to the importance of intuition in scientific discovery, something a number of famous scientists have attested to, but only as a starting point:

Inside feelings are valuable in science too, but only for giving you ideas that you later test by looking for evidence. A scientist can have a ‘hunch’ about an idea that just ‘feels’ right. In itself, this is not a good reason for believing something. But it can be a good reason for spending some time doing a particular experiment, or looking in a particular way for evidence. Scientists use inside feelings all the time to get ideas. But they are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence.

After returning to the perils of tradition, Dawkins concludes with some practical advise reminiscent of the Baloney Detection Kit:

What can we do about all this? It is not easy for you to do anything, because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: ‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’ And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.

Your loving,


A Devil’s Chaplain is excellent in its entirety — highly recommended.


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