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Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
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    Giardini Panteschi are found only on the windswept island of Pantelleria.

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    A windswept speck of land in the Mediterranean boasts a unique innovation found nowhere else on earth: a circular garden wall that creates its own nano-climate. But this invention isn't new: It dates back over a thousand years.

    The remote Italian island of Pantelleria is so far from the rest of Italy that it's actually closer to Africa. On a clear day, you can even see the coast of Tunisia from the island's lofty volcanic peak.

    Pantelleria has a hypnotic beauty that entrances the few travelers who reach its shores: Ancient mule tracks wend through patchwork vineyards dotted with crumbling ruins, while passing cars are so rare that hard-working farmers wave at every one. In all directions, wherever you look, the denim-blue sea sparkles.

    The main challenge faced by Pantelleria’s 7,000 inhabitants, aside from the isolation that sequesters them from the outside world, is the weather: The island is constantly battered by winds, but rarely sees any rain. The soil is dry and full of volcanic rock.

    How to eke out a living in such a place? For thousands of years, different groups have done so during different periods. But at some much-debated point, Pantellerians devised an ingenious garden design now known as the giardino Pantesco: Italian for "Pantellerian garden." What makes these enclosures extraordinary is that each giardino Pantesco was built, with months of backbreaking labor, not to nourish rows of vegetables, but instead to protect a single sprout: the sapling of a lone lemon or orange tree.

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    "Of all agricultural systems, no other architecture involves so much work to grow a single tree," notes Giuseppe Barbera, Professor of Arboriculture at the University of Palermo and one of the world's few experts on Pantellerian gardens.

    "The enclosed tree is a citrus—usually an orange or a lemon—that otherwise couldn't grow on the island without the protecting wall," Barbera adds. "Pantelleria’s windy, arid climate and the total absence of fresh groundwater wouldn’t otherwise allow trees like these to live."

    Giardini Panteschi are almost always circular, and are precisely calibrated to have walls of a specific height: tall enough to block the wind, but short enough to allow in as much sun as possible. For as long as anyone can remember, farmers have expertly employed an age-old construction technique called muro a secco. Without using any mortar, they stack basketball-sized boulders freehand to form five-foot-thick walls that curve to encircle an enclosure 30 feet in diameter. They leave a single small opening through which the builder can crawl.

    "The Pantescan farmer tore the stones from the ground with his bare hands, and used them to construct garden walls," says local vintner and retired politician Calogero Mannino.

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    The top of the circular wall always slopes inward, so the crevices of the volcanic rock catch morning dew and atmospheric condensation, which then drips onto the soil—even on otherwise dry days.

    At the center of all this, the farmer plants just one seed in hopes of eventually growing a full-size citrus tree, which he then allows to branch outward in all directions and fill the whole space with several trunks (unlike the more familiar practice in modern citrus orchards of pruning away all side-shoots to produce a tree with a single central trunk).

    The end result of all this labor is a new ecosystem within the wall's embrace, where the tree experiences temperatures measurably cooler on hot days and warmer on cold nights, an effect confirmed by ongoing studies. "The research has shown the importance of dew condensation on the garden walls, which reaches considerable quantities because of the atmospheric humidity and the porosity of the rocks that increases the surface area,” says Barbera, who is monitoring climatic data being collected at the best-preserved giardino. “This contribution of water is so important that it allows citruses to be cultivated in the total absence of irrigation."

    Giardini Panteschi have been described as self-sufficient agronomic systems, because they create a nano-climate that simultaneously waters the tree, protects it from relentless wind, retains any rainwater channeled into the garden under the access door during rare rainstorms, allows in sunlight, and radiates stored solar warmth on cold nights. Once built, it "operates" without any need for further human intervention.

    Pantellerians were pioneers in sustainability before there was even a word for it. They did not get stones from some far-off quarry, but instead used rocks dug from the enclosed garden area itself. As Pantelleria sits atop a dormant volcano, the terrain comprises basically nothing but fractured volcanic rock, without much topsoil. Every square inch of vineyard and farmland on the island had to be hand-cleared of countless stones; on the island, people joke and conjecture that the garden walls probably evolved as the answer to the conundrum, What do we do with all these rocks we just dug up?

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    A giardino Pantesco—also known as a "jardinu" in local dialect—is only one component of a traditional Pantellerian homestead, each element of which has an immediately recognizable vernacular architecture. At the center is the dammuso, or living quarters, with massively thick walls and a distinctive domed roof. The unforgettable, undulating shape is also unique to Pantelleria, and designed to collect rainwater and channel it down to a subterranean cisterna. A hardened pathway from the dammuso downhill to the jardinu also serves as a rainwater conduit, funneling runoff under the small garden gate. Farmers thresh grain in a nearby aira (another perfectly circular area but with lower walls) and sun-dry grapes and figs in the stinnituri, a south-facing wall with angled buttresses.

    All these architectural features developed to deal with the constant hot winds known as sirocco that blow in from the Sahara and the Levante winds that blow in from the Near East. These winds dominate Pantelleria's weather as many as 300 days per year.

    No one knows for certain who built the first giardino Pantesco: Some attribute it to the Phoenicians, who colonized the island 3,000 years ago. Others cite the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Ottomans, or one of the many other civilizations that occupied Pantelleria over the millennia. Most often credit is given to the Arabic-speaking settlers who invaded in 700 A.D. and stayed for centuries; many of the island place names—such as Gadir and Bugeber, which belong to an ancient Arabic dialect similar to Maltese—date to this period.

    "The surviving gardens were mostly built between the 18th and 19th centuries," Barbera points out, "but it is probable that they have been present on the island since ancient times."

    Despite the relatively arid climate and chronic shortage of fresh water, the slopes of Pantelleria now appear surprisingly verdant. Vineyards dot the island, a situation made possible because the local grape variety, Zibibbo di Pantelleria, has evolved to survive with minimal irrigation. The centuries-old technique for keeping grape vines alive on Pantelleria—extensive pruning so that they hug the ground, behind yet more hand-built stone walls—is the only farming practice UNESCO deems "An Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity."

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    About 400 giardini Panteschi survive today, in various states of disrepair. Of these, 300 are precisely circular, while others are rectangular, pentagonal, or even teardrop-shaped due to the nearby terrain.

    Whatever its shape, there's something almost mystical about entering a jardinu, as if you're entering a temple to the tree itself. The space inside feels set apart from the real world outside. "One enters them bowing, the shade and the coolness immediately felt, the imposing walls giving the feeling of entering a sacred place," Barbera ruminates.

    Why citrus, and not some other tree? As far back as the Middle Ages, it was known that fresh fruit, especially citrus, prevented scurvy. Giardini Panteschi may have provided the only source of vitamin C on the island.

    The only giardino Pantesco officially open to the public is managed by the Fondo Ambiente Italiano in the vineyards of the Donnafugata winery near the village of Khamma. But some of the dammusi rented to vacationers have their own giardini, and any leisurely drive around the island will reveal a few of the unmistakable circular walls (but always ask permission before entering).

    Famed architectural philosopher Bernard Rudofsky visited Pantelleria and became fascinated by the unique design of its gardens, marveling about them in his book The Prodigious Builders. "The Pantellerian giardino represents an unheard-of extravaganza,” he writes. “It embodies the archetype of 'paradise' (originally a Persian word meaning 'circular enclosure'), complete with the tree of sour knowledge."


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  • 04/18/18--11:24: The Day Without News
  • On April 18, 1930, the BBC made a surprising announcement.

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    Imagine you had a very special time machine: one that could take you back to any April 18 in all of history. When and where would you travel to? You could go to Boston in 1775, and watch Paul Revere take his famous midnight ride. You could head to Zimbabwe in 1980, and experience the birth of a country.

    These are good and fine choices. Some of us, though, are tired. We might choose instead to jaunt back 88 years, to a British living room—any British living room. On Friday, April 18, 1930, at 8:45 p.m., people all over Britain settled in to catch the BBC News evening bulletin. But when they flipped on their radios, they heard a soothing announcement instead: "Good evening. Today is Good Friday. There is no news." For the rest of the 15-minute time slot, the station played only piano music.

    From our current point in time—April 18, 2018—it is hard to imagine a day with no news. Writing this in New York City, at barely noon, we have already learned today about peace talks between North and South Korea, a blackout in Puerto Rico, and the death of the last royal Corgi. The BBC, which had a head start, has also reported on a nurse’s strike unfolding in Zimbabwe, a pet raccoon that overdosed on marijuana, and the escape of a Bitcoin heister from custody in Iceland. We hear the news on the radio and from wide-eyed friends and colleagues, and see it on Twitter and Facebook and via alerts beamed to our phones. Constant news consumption is such a part of contemporary life that when people actively eschew it, we put them in the papers.

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    In this context, "the Day with No News is a wonderful historical reminder," writes Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, in an email. "I think it's a great way to think about what the BBC was supposed to be, and how that differs from what news as a category is today."

    In 1930, the BBC was only about a decade old, and had very specific goals. "The BBC's approach was directly counter to what the U.S. was doing with radio, [which was] opening licensing and allowing competition between a wide variety of commercial approaches," writes Zuckerman. Instead, they were the only game in town, chartered by the crown with a monopoly over the airwaves. This model came with a very specific mandate: "Rather than opening things up and appealing to everyone, the BBC aimed on raising the moral character of [Britain]," he writes. "It took on a mission that feels pretty elitist today." (It was a spirit that suffused the endeavor: When the announcer decreed that there was no news, he almost certainly did so in a dinner jacket, even though no listeners could see him.)

    In other words, the BBC decided what was worth reporting on, and according to them, it was better to stay silent than to fail to clear this bar. Radio announcers got their stories from Reuters, the Press Association, the Central News, and the Exchange Telegraph Company, "whose 'tape' machines disgorge their varied treasure into the News Room all day," as the outlet's 1931 Review of the Year explains. They'd then pick and choose from this disgorgement. As the 1930 Review put it, "A very definite standard of quality was aimed at, and ... when there was not sufficient news judged worthy of being broadcast, no attempt was made to fill the gap."

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    Even so, it’s not like there wasn’t anything major happening in and around Britain* that day. In fact, as Zuckerman points out, other historical news sources tell us that there were at least two important things going on. For one, the British government was apparently trying to respond to some allegations that had been printed in a newspaper the day before—and since the papers were taking the Good Friday holiday off, they might have tried to go on the radio. “It's possible that Day of No News was a form of asserting press independence,” Zuckerman writes: “[They may have been saying] ‘We won't be the mouthpiece for the government, and so no news for anyone.’”

    For another, Surya Sen, a Bengali independence fighter, had successfully led a raid against a colonial police outpost in Chittangong. This time, technology foiled the story: Even if they had decided to report on this, “they couldn't have gotten the news, as Sen's forces cut the rail and telegraph lines,” Zuckerman points out.

    There were surely plenty of other things afoot as well. But at that time, "the news wasn't reporting on the vast majority of people's experiences and events," Zuckerman says. "On a day where nothing happened to world leaders and elites, the affairs of the hoi polloi weren't newsworthy." As he puts it, according to the BBC’s judgment, “Nothing happened on April 18, 1930 that a well-to-do, properly cultured British man needed to know about … And if there's nothing worth learning about, some pleasant music will be at least as good for your moral character."

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    Today, of course, things are different. Our sense of what is newsworthy is vastly different than the BBC’s in 1930, in a variety of ways: “If we had a day where Trump did nothing absurd … we’d happily fill the newshole with reports that don’t get enough attention,” such as the opioid epidemic and the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Zuckerman says. Or we’d fill it with a highway pickle mystery. Plus, while newsrooms are often out to change minds, they’re also generally trying to make money. “The notion of a day without news is inconceivable in a commercial context—it’s a bakery without bread,” Zuckerman says. And so there is never no news.

    This year, in particular, it's hard not to look back on the days of empty newscasts with nostalgia. Oh, to open Twitter and be greeted with a blank space and a softly tinkling piano! But as Zuckerman writes, imagining the gatekeeping that led to such silence can also serve as “a reminder of just how political [news-related] decision-making can be.” In that spirit, I would like to wish readers everywhere a happy anniversary of the Day Without News. I wonder what else will happen today?

    *Update: We originally said "England." Apologies to the people of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.


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    For centuries, Russians have celebrated their Slavic roots with kvass.

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    A Russian domestic scene: A mother of two serves her children dinner around a table set for four. Everything is well-lit, pine-paneled, idyllic. Daddy’s arrival seems imminent. The door swings open—and a man who may or may not be Gene Simmons saunters in. (He’s in full Kiss regalia, and clutching a plastic bag of groceries and a bottle of cola, with a star-spangled label.) His wife is stricken; his children equally fraught. “Simmons” holds up the bottle, narrows his eyes, and begins to ululate. The little girl bursts into tears.

    In 10 seconds, the scene has descended into kitchen sink absurdism. The culprit is the brown liquid in the bottle—an American invasion into a Russian home. But there’s a solution. Simmons begins to drink a tall glass of a different brown drink, labelled with the Russian brand name Nikola. (If you say it aloud in Russian, it sounds like: “not cola.”) Immediately, his get-up falls away, and the make-up disappears. Our hero is just another Russian dad, home from work, and his daughter throws herself into his arms. Order is restored. Cyrillic text appears on the screen: “"No to cola-nization. Kvass. To the health of the nation.”

    This is a 2007 television advertisement for kvass, a brewed Russian drink traditionally made from a heady combination of fermented rye bread, yeast, malt, sugar, and water. The result has a tart, fizzy sweetness not unlike kombucha and sits stickily on the tongue. It’s slightly alcoholic—around 0.5 percent—though historically drunk somewhat like a soda. (Commercial brands such as Nikola are sweeter and mostly malt-based.) Kvass fell out of favor as the Iron Curtain came tumbling down, but, in recent years, it’s been marketed as a patriotic alternative to “cola-nizing” American sodas. This approach ties into a rich history of kvass-centered patriotism that dates back to the early-19th century.

    By that time, kvass of one form or another had been drunk in Russia for close to a thousand years—the earliest known reference dates back to 989 A.D. At the baptism of one Prince Vladimir, guests apparently enjoyed “food, honey in barrels, and bread-kvass.” It was the drink of choice of monks (its antibacterial properties made it safer than water), and has a well-established literary pedigree that includes appearances in the writing of both Tolstoy and Pushkin. (The latter describes one character who “has never drunk anything except kvas since the day she was born,” while in his Eugene Onegin, the Russian people “needed kvas no less than air.”) It is, in short, an exceptionally Russian drink—perhaps even more so than vodka.

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    For a long time, kvass seems to have had no particular political inflection. But from the 16th century onwards, foreigners often spoke of the drink in fairly sniffy tones—Medieval Swedes compared their well-to-do compatriots’ wine-drinking habits to the less refined “Russian Voivods [who] sit in their smokehouses and drink kvass and water.” This may have fed into Russia’s Western-oriented intellectuals choosing to snub the drunk, which they viewed as a symbol of Russia’s backwardness, in the mid-19th century. But this anti-Russia, anti-kvass position only increased the drink’s popularity: Russians drank it because they had always done so, but also because it became a declaration of Slavic pride and love for the motherland.

    In the 1820s, under the threat of the rising West, people began making an observable and special point of being “Russian,” which involved drinking a lot of kvass, and wearing what they perceived to be quintessentially Russian garb. This backlash prompted the Russian aristocrat Pyotr Vyazemsky to coin the term “kvass patriotism.” For the past 200 years, it’s been used by scholars and critics to describe a particular kind of Russian “jingoism”—what the Russian economist Anna Sanina describes as a sort of “wrong love to the motherland, when people praise their ‘own’ just because it is their own and reject all the ‘strange’ things just because they are ‘foreign.’”

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    In the 1960s, kvass entered a new era of mass production—and Soviet leaders even hoped it might conquer the world. In 1964, the New York Times reported that then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev announced his plans to launch kvass internationally. “Kvass is to com­pete with Coca‐Cola and the rest of the imperialist brews and is to be pushed by advertising methods barely distin­guishable from those of the hated capi­talists. A campaign slogan has not yet been chosen but, on the home front at least, is likely to be something on the lines of ‘It's fun reaching your production norm with Kvass.’”

    In actual fact, marketing generally centered upon kvass’s apparently beneficial effects on the digestive organs, the cardiovascular system, and “the breathing of the life cells.” Coca-Cola executives were correctly “unconcerned” by this show of Soviet neo-colonialism, the paper reported, and the drink did not take off worldwide.

    Within the Soviet Union, however, where neither Coke nor Pepsi could be bought or sold, kvass had never been more popular. From 1967, vendors sold the drink on street corners out of iconic yellow barrels, labeled квас. Before Pepsi’s three billion dollar deal with the Soviet Union, 240-gallon “tanker-cistern trailers”, originally designed for transporting milk, were filled with the drink and wheeled through Russian cities and towns. The drink was sold out of communal glass mugs, given a quick rinse between customers, and came with horror stories about floating insects and other nasties in the liquid. But that did little to dampen the enthusiasm of drinkers: “Like beer, kvass is drunk chilled, so the appearance of carts with kvass barrels on the streets meant that summer was nigh,” remembers Sergey Grechishkin in his memoir Everything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid. “Kvass was one of the great pleasures of a Soviet kid’s life, alongside ice cream and elusive bananas.”

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    But as the Soviet Union came to an end, Russians were enchanted by all the possibilities the end of isolationism presented—many of which were gastronomic. From the early 1990s, Pepsi and Coca-Cola became readily available. Kvass was left by the wayside—a boring relic of a now irrelevant age. Unlike kvass and its communal barrels, Pepsi was sold from kiosks with free disposable plastic cups, which Russians reused and repurposed variously as drinking vessels, ashtrays, seed pots, or thingummy containers. That “explosion of entirely unknown flavors,” Grechishkin remembers, was a fascinating “first gulp of a faraway world.” The Iron Curtain was on its way down, and cola drinks tasted like the future.

    In the early 2000s, as Russians’ initial enchantment with all things Western began to fade, kvass returned to Russian streets. The barrels were repaired, repainted, and rolled out once again, to explosive effect: Between 2001 and 2009, according to one report, sales of kvass grew by 1520 percent yearly. It was around this time that Nikola first began to air its patriotic, anti-Western ads, variously featuring Michael Jackson, Ronald Reagan, and other “problematic” American figures. Labels often featured bucolic scenes of wheatfields—a promise of the bottled essence of the Russian countryside in each drink.

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    In 2014, Vladimir Putin fanned the fire. In a nationally televised interview, he joked that a journalist was drunk on kvass: In the months that followed, sales climbed once again. Even Heineken announced that it would produce its own version of the drink, keen to capitalize on a domestic market hungry for more Russian goods. “Loving kvass became a way of reclaiming a sense of national pride,” writes Bela Shayevich in Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design. Nearly 200 years after Vyazemsky coined the phrase “kvass patriotism,” the drink has come to stand for precisely the same pro-Russian fervor he first had in mind in 1827.


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    Masterpieces from above.

    As an aerial photographer, Tom Hegen is used to seeing the world from a different perspective. But even he was astonished at how salt ponds look from above. “When I started on doing research for this project, I had a certain look of the result in mind,” Hegen says, via email. “I was then really amazed by the vibrant hues, textures and abstract shapes I observed. The size and landscape of those salt gardens is just overwhelming.”

    Hegen captured his unique take on a centuries-old process using a DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone camera. “The Salt Series explores artificial landscapes where nature is channelled, regulated, and controlled,” explains Hegen. “Salt is a raw material that is now part of our everyday lives, but we rarely ask where it actually comes from and how it is being produced."

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    Hegen’s series was shot around the Mediterranean, which is the ideal climate for salt production. Artificial pools, separated by sand or stone walls, are flooded with seawater. Slowly, the water evaporates, leaving behind brine, which is water with a very high salt concentration. “Each salt pond has a unique salt density,” explains Hegen. "Microorganisms change their hues as the salinity of the ponds increase."

    These microorganisms, which fall under a class of organisms known as halophiles ("salt lovers"), dictate the colors and include different types of algae. Algae-loving brine shrimp also contribute to the process. "As the water becomes too salty, the shrimps disappear, causing the algae to proliferate and the color of the ponds to intensify. The colors can vary from lighter shades of green to vibrant red." At the end, “workers harvest the salt by delicately lifting it up from the floor,” says Hegen, noting that it is often done by hand.

    From the ground, it’s difficult to assess the extent of a salt pond's colors and shapes. They often stretch across a wide expanse of area—one salt pond facility on France's west coast is nearly 5,000 acres. But as Hegen rightly guessed, from the air they are startlingly dynamic. He has a knack for reinterpreting landscapes: his aerial portfolio includes forests that, from above, look like polka dots and farms that appear like a patchwork of lines and squares.

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    In all of his aerial projects, Hegen highlights more than just unique angles or unseen patterns. He also uses aerial photography to investigate landscapes that have been changed by human activity. Several of Hegen’s projects relate to mining. One of the most startling is his Toxic Water Series, which shows pools of bright orange water against earth blackened by coal mining.

    “I focus on landscapes that have been heavily transformed by human intervention and document the marks that we have left on the earth’s surface in order to meet our daily needs,” he says. “Aerial photography is a compelling way to document those interventions because it basically makes the dimensions of human force on earth visible.”

    As part of his ongoing investigation into how humans have altered the natural world, some of Hegen’s work will soon be part of a book called Habitat. “I am fascinated by the abstraction that comes with the change of perspective; seeing something familiar from a new vantage point that you are not used to.” Atlas Obscura has a selection from Hegen’s Salt Series; you can find more of his work on Instagram.

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    He's since calmed down and headed home.

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    These days, Craignethan Castle consists mostly of picturesque ruins. Located around 20 miles south of Glasgow, Scotland, it was built in the 16th century by the Scottish nobleman James Hamilton of Finneart, reportedly to showcase his many architectural and military talents. In its current form, it remains an impressive structure, but one you probably wouldn't choose to live in.

    But a very angry badger begs to differ. One such individual came shambling into the castle’s cellar tunnel last week, and decided he was going to make it his home. The castle is surrounded by woodland, a spokesperson at Historic Environment Scotland told the BBC, and staff believe that the badger may have accidentally lost his way. Whatever the case, he quickly began to "redecorate" the place with artfully chosen rubble by digging through loose soil into the stonework.

    According to the HES spokesperson, staff at the castle spotted the loose earth on Wednesday of last week and attempted to lure the badger out with cat food and honey. Precisely what happened next is unclear, but the cellar tunnel was shut to the public, the badger described by staff as "very angry," and the matter left unresolved.

    At some point late on Friday or early Saturday morning, however, the badger apparently decided that life in a castle tunnel wasn't for him, and headed out into the night. But his renovations have left a lasting impact: The tunnel remains closed, at least until the completion of repairs to the stonework.


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    They're incredibly rare today, but portable girdle books were once very handy.

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    Girdle books had to be small, and they had to be light. From the bottom edges of their bindings extended an length of leather, usually gathered into a knot at the end. This extension of the cover could be used to carry the book like a purse or could be tucked into a girdle or belt. To read, the owner wouldn’t even have to detach the book; when taken up, the book would be oriented correctly, just as if it had been pulled from a shelf.

    Used from the 14th to 17th centuries, these books were texts that their owners needed to keep close at hand: prayer books used by monks and nuns, for example, or law books used by traveling judges. Though they were valuable objects—luxuries, even—these books were meant to be consulted and read.

    “These are books that needed to be specially protected because of a lot of use, a lot of wear. Most of them were probably used daily,” says Margit J. Smith, author of The Medieval Girdle Book. “How many books do you have in your collection that you use every day?”

    Girdle books were once common enough that they appear more than 800 times in paintings and other art of the period. But today there are just 26 girdle books known in the world. In her book, a catalogue of what she calls “relics of an age long gone by,” Smith has measured, photographed, and investigated the history of each one.

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    Smith, a bookbinder and retired librarian who was the head of cataloguing and preservation at the University of San Diego’s Copley Library, first became interested in girdle books 15 years ago, and she took a class in Montefiascone, Italy, to learn how to make one. In her preparations, she found that there was little scholarly work—little information at all, really—on these once relatively common objects.

    The class took place in summer, and usually, after their work was over, the group would go for a dip in the nearby lake. On one of these excursions, Smith was asking an instructor, Jim Bloxam, where to find more research about the books; together, they decided to start collecting images of all known medieval girdle books—just 24 at that time. After some years of work, Bloxam, a conservator at Cambridge University, had to drop out of the project, but Smith, who says she’s interested in “odd things”—she likes to read words backwards and has written about the silverfish that threaten book bindings—continued visiting the world’s few remaining girdle books.

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    When libraries placed these objects, hundreds of years old, in front of her, she felt a sense of awe. “Then you start looking into it, and you see all the debris from 500 years ago. There is dust and hair and fingernail pairings and spots of wax from candles and erasures,” she says. “Some of the books are so fragile that you have to be very careful, especially when turning pages. But if you start measuring, once you get into that, you remember what you are there to do, and you’ve overcome the initial awe.” The books, while still treasures, became objects to be scrutinized.

    The part of the book cover that distinguishes a girdle book often looks like a Wee Willie Winkie hat, flopped on top of the book, or a Gandalf-esque beard, stretching down into a neat triangle. Smith discovered that some girdle books have just one extended leather cover, while other have two nested covers, with the outer one designed for carrying. But it wasn't always easy to tell which category a girdle book fit into. One of the first things Smith learned as a bookbinder was how to tear a book down, to see how it worked. In modern books, it’s possible to tease back an endpaper and inspect a book’s secrets. In the case of the old, rare books, that wasn’t possible, so Smith had to run her fingers along the binding to feel for ridges and other hints to the book’s inner workings.

    “You close your eyes,” she says. “As a bookbinder, I have learned to trust my fingers more than my eyes.”

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    In the course of her research, Smith discovered the existence of two additional girdle books. One is in Scotland, the psalter of Neal McBeath, the smallest of all the known girdle books. Just 2.5 inches by 1 7/8 inch, the book fit easily into the palm of her hand. It didn’t have a spine, just the leather wrapping, and it showed little sign of repair. In Vienna, she found another new girdle book, but this one refused to give up its secrets. Years of repair work on it had concealed most clues about its construction. The girdle cover, for instance, may have been a later addition. “There are unusual bumps and protrusions under there,” she says. “It’s sort of mystery. I’d like to be able to take it apart completely and see what went on before, before the binding was put on.”

    Some of the books had surprises inside, as well. One belonged to a nun, Katharina Röder von Rodeck, who lived at the Frauenalb Convent near Karlsruhe, Germany. She filled the pages with her personal prayers and devotions, as well as notes about her life—when she took her vows, when German peasants rebelled in 1525. At the beginning of the book, she decorated five pages with the coats of arms of her parents’ families, a gray owl holding a red heart, a skeleton holding an hourglass, and motifs of flowers and vines that continued throughout the book. It gives, writes Smith, “a very cheerful and friendly impression.”


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    The question is: Why?

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    For at least 7,000 years, and very possibly longer, humans have been drilling holes in one another's skulls. Trepanning, as it's technically known, today appears mostly in treatment for intracranial diseases or to release pressured blood buildup from an injury. In its earlier forms, it was variously used to ease head injuries and mental disorders, or to release any backed-up evil spirits that might have collected there. (It's also occasionally been employed as a way to induce a constant, if mild, high.)

    But around 5,000 years ago, in what is now France, humans drilled into a skull that belonged not to another person, but to a cow. Why they did it isn't clear—whether it was an attempt to save a sick animal, or an opportunity for a surgeon to hone their skills on domestic animals before moving on to human patients. These questions, and others, are considered in a new study published today in Scientific Reports.

    First pulled from the ground in 1999, the skull was found at a Neolithic site called Champ-Durand, around 80 miles south-east of Nantes. At first, archaeologists thought little of the punctured skull, declaring it likely the product of a fight with another horned creature. But this reanalysis, by the paleontologists Alain Froment and Fernando Ramirez Rozzi from the French National Center for Scientific Research, comes to a more exciting conclusion: The skull may be the earliest known example of a surgical procedure performed on an animal.

    That, the researchers say, is the story told by the hole. Puncture wounds from traumatic blows usually display signs of shock—splintered bone, for instance, or fracturing around the incision. Instead, this is clean-edged and sharp. Whoever made this hole did so with surgical precision. There's no evidence of healing, either, the report says. "The animal did not survive the injury or was killed shortly afterwards," the authors write, "or the trauma occurred once the animal was already dead."

    Which option is more likely is hard to say. Incredibly, people seem to have been quite good at trepanning even in a time before antibiotics or anesthetic, with a remarkable number of ancient skulls showing signs of partial or complete healing. The cow may have been a casualty of developing those skills, or a failed attempt to apply them to a whole other species, in which case it could be considered a very early predecessor to modern veterinary science.


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    Modern science may have an answer to this Russian folk belief.

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    In 2012, scientists in Moscow announced a surprising finding. Of the 76 peptides identified in secretions of common frogs (Rana temporaria), many have antibacterial properties. The announcement and the resulting media from the discovery was exultant. Any discovery of antibacterials is important, given the threat of drug-resistant bacteria. But the study sparked excitement for another reason: the finding propped up a venerable Russian folk belief that putting a frog in milk can keep it from spoiling. (That said, no one's recommending that you start throwing frogs in milk cartons.)

    Preserving food in the pre-refrigeration era was tough. Cellars and salting helped, but even in Russia's cold climate, fresh milk proved tricky. The longer milk stays unrefrigerated, the more bacteria will grow, making milk sour and sometimes dangerous to drink.

    Enter the common frog. In Ariel Golan’s Myth and Symbol: Symbolism in Prehistoric Religions, he notes in his section on frogs that “Russian peasants placed a frog in milk to keep the milk fresh (to no avail).” These days, the belief is well-known but discounted. (A Russian friend of mine, when I asked about the superstition, responded that he had heard of it and it sounded gross.) But where did the belief come from?

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    Frogs in milk appear more than once in Russian folk belief. One proverb tells of two frogs that fall into a milk can. One frog gives into despair and drowns. The other keeps afloat by swimming furiously. By the morning, the milk had been churned into solid butter and the frog escapes. Another story describes Babushka-Lyagushka-Shakusha, the magical, sentient “Grandmother Hopping Frog,” swimming around in a bath of milk. There could even be a more practical association. Frogs are cold and clammy to the touch, and people may have believed those characteristics could transfer to the milk.

    Or the link between frogs and milk may simply come from the ability of frogs, Russian and otherwise, to frequently find their way into milk. In an 1854 letters-to-the editor exchange in the New York Times, a farmer described how submerging his milk cans in a spring to keep them cold inevitably resulted in froggy invasions. The farmer wrote that after fishing out the frog, the milk was still perfectly fine and sent along to customers. Five days later, an indignant reader wrote in that despite reading many accounts of frogs in milk, “the idea of drinking from a frog’s lactal bathing tub is not the most agreeable.” Perhaps the Russian peasant of yesteryear was just making the best of a froggy situation.


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    The problems began with a new variety of mulberry and ended with lumpy thread.

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    In October 1789, during a trip to Connecticut, U.S. President George Washington described some “exceeding good” silk lustring and “very fine” silk thread that were part of a growing domestic industry. In fact, by the time Washington wrote those words in his journal, the area that became the state of Connecticut in 1788 had been practicing raw silk production, known as sericulture, for over half a century—and silk was on the rise.

    By 1826, three out of every four households in Mansfield, Connecticut, were raising silkworms, and by 1826, Congress commissioned a report on the potential for a U.S. silk industry. By 1840, Connecticut outpaced other states in raw silk production by a factor of three. Within the next two decades, however, the industry would collapse, leaving the country to wonder what went wrong.

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    The unlikely development of Connecticut’s silk industry came about thanks Ezra Stiles, the seventh president of Yale University. Stiles was a sericulture enthusiast who experimented with cultivating mulberry trees, silkworms’ primary food source, and even wore gowns made from Connecticut silk to ceremonies. He also sent mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs across the state, and advocated for state-sponsored bounties to encourage farmers to plant mulberry trees.

    One of the biggest triumphs for the early industry was figuring out how to adapt sericulture to cold weather. Such tactics included keeping silkworms warm by raising them in attics, and figuring out how to feed them in cold weather. Michael Cook, a modern sericulturist, describes the intense care and feeding schedule silkworms require.

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    "Rise early, feed the worms before work; feed them again at lunch, feed them again in the evening and clean a dozen or so big trays, feed them again before bed. I was feeding a garbage bag full of [mulberry] leaves and small branches daily. Cocooning was a nightmare,” says Cook. In Connecticut with deciduous mulberry trees, that intensive feeding schedule was a problem in years with early frost. One innovation to extend the feeding season was to dry mulberry leaves, then mix them with water and flour to feed to silkworms.

    Inspired by Connecticut’s raw silk production, local entrepreneurs invested in machinery to manufacture silk thread and fabric from reeled silk filaments. In 1810, the Hanks brothers opened the United States’ first silk-mill in Mansfield, Connecticut, and in 1838, the Cheney brothers opened a mill which would eventually expand to 38,000 spindles, and become the largest silk manufacturer in the U.S. The future looked bright for silk.

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    The problems began with a new variety of mulberry and ended with lumpy thread. Beginning with Stiles, Connecticut sericulturists had always used an Italian variety of white mulberry, Morus alba, to feed their silkworms. However, in the 1830s, as the industry pushed to expand quickly, farmers and investors latched onto a Chinese variety, Morus multicaulis, a subspecies of black mulberry which produced larger leaves and more of them per tree (today M. multicaulis refers to a different plant, a subspecies of M. alba). It could also be harvested more often. The price of M. multicaulis skyrocketed as speculators sought to profit from selling cuttings from these fast-growing trees.

    Samuel Whitmarsh, a “charismatic and unreliable businessman" who owned a silkworm cocoonery in Massachusetts, stoked the M. multicaulis craze with pamphlets trumpeting the benefits of this new type of tree, and letters to various silk trade publications. Daniel Stebbins, Whitmarsh’s business associate during the craze, later recounted the story of one tree that a speculator bought in Massachusetts for $25 and sold in Connecticut to a farmer named Elder Sharp for $50. Sharp then declined an offer for $450 for a quarter share of the tree; within a year the tree was worthless. The bubble had popped.

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    In the bubble’s aftermath in the early 1840s, companies along the East Coast went bankrupt, as did Whitmarsh, and angry farmers tore out their orchards. Joshua Grant, a silk producer in Baltimore, called the collapse a “dire disaster that has overspread the land like a funeral pall.” Then a series of harsh winters, followed by a blight in 1843-44, killed many of the remaining mulberry trees.

    Despite everything, in 1847, Stebbins remained hopeful about the “sequel of the silk industry.” But the region’s sericulture had one insurmountable flaw that prevented this revival: Stiles’ gowns aside, Connecticut’s silk was not industrial grade, so silk-mills could not use it to manufacture fabric. According to cultural anthropologist Dr. Janice Stockard, who has interviewed silk reelers in South China, reeling—the practice of unwinding the filaments of silk from their cocoons—requires observation, training, and practice. In 19th-century Connecticut households, women were expected to learn the skill from pamphlets.

    “In pamphlets, the term ‘spinning’ described the critical technique of reeling silk from cocoons,” Stockard says. “Women in farming households improvised, based on their experience spinning wool and using technology found in the home, including the wool wheel.”

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    The product they ended up with was adequate for sewing thread, but not strong enough for the industrial-silk-manufacturing infrastructure that Connecticut had begun to build. According to one scathing assessment, “Connecticut women in 70 years have not improved their knowledge of reeling.” Another issue, Stockard says, was the expectation that women could reel silk “whenever leisure from other duties permitted.” In other words, women were supposed to wedge a high-skill, time-intensive task into their already full workloads, and the result was sub-par silk.

    “Simultaneously unwinding several cocoons from a basin of near-boiling water while twisting these filaments into one even thread and reeling it onto a wheel was hard,” Stockard says. “If reeling was interrupted to tend to a child or chore, the silk would gum up and lump.” Faced with this weak, lumpy thread, Connecticut manufacturers began to import raw silk from China, Japan, and Italy.

    By 1881, sericulture in Connecticut had been entirely abandoned. The now much older Elder Sharp, who had valued his mulberry tree so highly, said, “Our silk was good, bright and strong, needing only patience to better understand the reeling… let us do what we can at this late day to repair our error.” Instead, silk-mills continued to import from Asia and continued to manufacture silk fabric through the mid-20th century. Today, the legacy of Connecticut’s silk industry can be seen in the white mulberry trees which have spread everywhere and are now considered an invasive species.


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    If cockle bread existed, you wouldn't want it anyway.

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    To a modern ear, cockle bread sounds… kind of funny. But as it turns out, the lore surrounding this bawdy baked good, which later morphed into a children’s nursery rhyme, was just as naughty in its day as it sounds today, just not for the reasons you might think.

    The idea of cockle bread as a product of sexy baking stems almost entirely from the 17th-century writer John Aubrey’s Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, a text from the 1680s that collected a number of folk customs. In his collection, Aubrey describes a sort of performance where young women would hike up their skirts and pretend to knead bread with their butt cheeks, singing:

    My granny is sick, and now is dead,
    And we’ll go mould some cockle bread.
    Up with my heels and down with my head,
    And this is the way to mould cockle bread.

    According to Aubrey’s account, making cockle bread was “a wanton sport” for “young wenches.” As to whether any actual bread was ever made this way, Aubrey mentions that the custom was based on an older tradition wherein a young lover would actually knead dough with her butt and then bake it up and serve it to the one she pined for, like a magic spell.

    Still, historical cockle bread is more of a concept than an actual food, as there doesn’t seem to be any concrete recipe for it. An early mention of “cockle-bread,” in the late 16th-century George Peele play The Old Wive’s Tale, does give some indication as to what it might have been, and how it got its funny name. In the romantic satire, a man's head wearing ears of corn appears out of a well, while a voice flirts with a maiden, saying:

    Comb me smooth, and stroke my head,
    And thou shalt have some cockle-bread.

    Before anyone tries to untangle the suffocating layers of sexual innuendo and historical context in this scene, in the notes of the 1996 edition of the play, editor Charles Whitworth pours some cold water over the passage with his reading. According to Whitworth, cockle bread was likely a type of peasant cornbread that was made with cockle weed, a toxic plant that can grow in corn fields. Any raunchy connotation in the reference isn’t elaborated on.

    We contacted some food historians to find out what they know about cockle bread, but none of them had much to go on. "Sounds like fakelore to me," says Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific and author of the blog Ken Albala's Food Rant. Although as the scholar Rachel Lauden, author of a blog about food and world history, says, “Bread and sexuality is absolutely everywhere once you start looking.”

    References to cockle bread in the historical record go relatively quiet until a version of the verse reported by Aubrey pops up in the Victorian era as a nursery rhyme. By the time the cockle-bread rhyme reappeared in the 19th and 20th centuries, it seems to have lost its steamier subtext and ended up as a simple rhyming game for children.

    So cockle bread as an actual food is essentially lost to history, if it ever existed at all. Considering that it's bread someone made with their butt cheeks, maybe that's for the best.


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    It's clinging to life drip-by-drip.

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    If the roughly 800-year-old banyan tree in Mahabubnagar, India, could talk, it would probably tell you the IV inserted in its branches is saving its life. Termites infested the tree, reportedly one of the oldest in India, and gradually chipped away at its wood until the poor banyan was near the brink of death. Last December, some of the tree’s branches fell down because of the infestation, resulting in officials closing the attraction to the public.

    Known as Pillalamarri because of its many interweaving branches, the banyan tree measures 405 feet from east to west and 408 feet from north to south, according to Mahabubnagar District Forest Officer Chukka Ganga Reddy. The crown of Pillalamarri extends to 1,263 feet and the tree is spread across nearly four acres. Underneath the tree stands a small shrine that supposedly dates back to the year 1200, but the tree's exact age is unclear. Nevertheless, calling the Ficus benghalensis a great banyan tree would be an understatement.

    Such greatness attracts 12,000 tourists per year from every corner of the country to awe at its sheer vastness, but this tourism has also caused some troubles for the tree. According to Telangana Today, when Pillalamarri turned into a tourist attraction nearly a decade ago, the state government cut down branches and built concrete sitting areas around the tree for tourists. Tourists picked at the leaves, climbed on the branches, and carved names into the bark. Furthermore, to keep the area clean, the grounds team burned fallen leaves, which was bad for the soil. A recently installed dam on a neighboring stream restricted water flow to the tree.

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    Pillalamarri’s wider branches are now bending down to the ground instead of growing upwards, which gives floor critters, such as white ants and fungus, easier access to munch away. The termite infestation is yet one more problem weighing on Pillalamarri’s decaying, wooden shoulders. Officials initially injected the trunk with the pesticide chlorpyrifos, but saw no improvement. So they tried another method to prevent decay: hundreds of saline bottles filled with chlorpyrifos, inserted into Pillalamarri’s branches.

    “This process has been effective," Reddy told the Times of India. "Secondly, we are watering the roots with the diluted solution to kill the termites. And in a physical method, we are building concrete structures to support the collapsing heavy branches.” Telangana Biodiversity Board scientist G Sailu added that “the tree site cannot be declared as biodiversity heritage site as it is in reserve forest. The forest department shall give a heritage tree tag and conserve it.”

    Despite the tree's stable prospects, the public won’t be seeing Pillalamarri any time soon. When they do visit in the future, “this time people have to see it from a distance away from the barricades,” said Reddy. For now, drip-by-drip, the banyan tree’s health is returning to its former glory.


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    Sifting through the old, unlabeled, puzzling jars that fill a collection's junk drawer.

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    By the time a natural history museum puts an articulated skeleton, pressed flower, or preserved fish on display, the staff surely knows a lot about it: what it is, where it came from, what it’s made of. But that’s not always the case behind the scenes and in storage rooms. These facilities can serve as a museum’s junk drawer, and may hold a hodgepodge of objects that have been misplaced, overlooked, or unidentified. There might be some interesting specimens in there, either for research or display, but it is impossible to tell until someone sifts through the stacks and tidies things up.

    That’s what Hannah Cornish will be doing over next few months. An assistant curator at the Grant Museum of Zoology in London, she has set out to take stock of some of the 5,000 specimens housed in what they call the wet storage facility, a chilly basement room packed with 26 shelving units. Each of those is crowded with items, most in a bewildering variety of glass jars filled with liquid in a range of colors.

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    Cornish plans to focus on the storage room's 1,000 vertebrate-related specimens. Most of them are pretty well-labeled and organized, she says—marsupials with marsupials, cats with other cats. But then there is a shelf labeled “Miscellaneous.” That’s where the problem cases have been stashed over the years by busy curators who simply didn’t have the time to probe the little mysteries they posed. Some of these specimens are minuscule, such as tiny vials full of marine crustaceans that will only come into focus under a microscope. Others, such as an unidentified organ filling a jar nearly a foot tall, are no less elusive for being so substantial. Cornish has already encountered a handful of head-scratchers.

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    The puzzles presented by the arrayed jars range from the practical (Does the label match our database?) to the more existential (Is this what it claims to be?). Labels are so important for making sense of what is in a museum, and include information about provenance, identification of the contents, and age. But these can fade or fall off, or may have been wrong in the first place. Initial interpretations—even if they had been accurate at the time—may also be due for revisions in light of newer research. Some other things probably shouldn’t have been collected at all, or were just jokes in the first place.

    When jar labels are illegible, it becomes very hard to know what's inside—especially if the contents are degraded or the preservative solution has grown cloudy. Sometimes Cornish can compare a fragment of an accession number against a handwritten registry. For example, she was able to match an unidentified brain specimen to a number in the margin of one register stretching back to 1935. That’s how she learned it had come from a seal.

    She needed digital databases to help crack the mystery of a pair of lumpy organs mounted within an alcohol-filled jar. They were small—each roughly the size of a blueberry—and had gone gray from their long soak. “It took me a while to work out what they were,” Cornish says. In thick marker, someone had written “ASTACUS” on the jar’s label, though that had faded almost completely. She reasoned that the organs—whatever they were—must have come from Astacus astacus, the European crayfish. “I started to work out what the internal organs of a crayfish look like, trying to find the right one,” she says. Her next steps usually include databases such as the Encyclopedia of Life and Integrated Taxonomic Information System. In the best case scenario, the databases agree, and “then we know we're on the right track,” Cornish says. Sometimes the answers are even more accessible. In this case, a search on Google Images told her that they are ovaries.

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    Most of the museum’s 68,000 objects are, as one might expect, zoological—skeletons, mounted skins, microscope slides, and casts. The handful of botanical objects, such as a piece of wood gnawed by a beaver, illuminate something about animal behavior or physiology. “It's all zoology-based,” says Cornish, “apart from a few [things] that have slipped through.” On the miscellaneous shelf, Cornish has encountered a few items that raise questions about taxonomy and collecting: What can be called animal, and how does that change over time? What belongs in a zoology museum in the first place?

    One jar held a piece of bark that had been colonized by Trichia, a type of slime mold that spreads around tree roots. Taxonomically, slime molds are a hot potato. “They used to be considered fungi, and then they were considered to be protozoa, but we now know that protozoa isn't a scientifically sound grouping,” Cornish says. Slime molds aren’t animals, either, but they sometimes appear to behave like them: When they get hungry enough, the sprawling, unicellular organisms ooze toward food.

    Cornish wonders if the slime mold was originally used as a teaching tool to introduce students to the edges of zoology. It’s hard to say for sure, because the original label likely came off in a flood that swamped the storeroom decades ago. “We don't have the information about when it came to the collection and who acquired it, but the jar that it's in is a very old, Victorian-era jar,” Cornish says. “It's a bit of a mystery still.”

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    Another unmarked bottle represents one of the museum’s oddest cases. In 2011, some employees spotted it on the shelf, where it held an orb-shaped object in brownish liquid. Curators and conservators chewed over a number of theories—a testicle, maybe? The latest idea is that it’s actually a pickled plum, originally plopped in a jar of booze—a novelty brandy that somehow snuck into the museum unnoticed.

    Jack Ashby, the museum’s manager, speculates that the jar arrived alongside other things boxed up from an academic’s office, which was likely brimming with Victorian-looking jars that one might naturally assume were specimens of one sort or another. After all, the museum has been absorbing things from University College London since 1828, and nearly all of the items once belonged to researchers or were used in classrooms. The collection came together piecemeal as professors retired or looked for a place to offload things cluttering up their shelves.

    The original fluid that filled the jar is gone, since conservators replaced it with a new cocktail a few years back (mostly ethanol, with a splash of methanol and water), after noticing that the liquid had begun to evaporate and yellow. There’s no way to know now whether it really was brandy, but the conservators did recall a “sweet” smell wafting out when they opened it.

    Now, if someone stumbles across the jar, it will be easy to identify, since it has been relabelled and catalogued. It may not belong in a zoological collection, but it’s part of the collection’s history. “I accessioned it as a plum,” Cornish says. “I made sure that the story was in the record, so the next time someone comes across it, they can look it up in the database and find out what's happened.”

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    Over the years, the museum has fine-tuned its procedures for documenting its acquisitions. When curators accessioned a taxidermy hen for a recent exhibition, for instance, they drew up a form outlining where, why, and how they got it, and how much they paid. It received an identification number right away. “We'll almost certainly always be able to chase the provenance of the chicken,” Cornish says.

    That’s not much help with the old mysteries. Despite her detective work, Cornish has a few uncrackable cases. “There are a few things which are broken down a bit, sort of sludgy in the bottom of jars,” she says. “Maybe if I could open the jars up and get them under the microscope, I might have a better idea. But because my project is quite short, I've left those behind.” Back into the junk drawer they go—for now.


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    The scenes, shown in a silent-film museum, provide a new glimpse of the earthquake's aftermath.

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    Flea markets are wonderful places to find little oddities and quirky trinkets, but the old can of footage antique photographic equipment dealer David Silver bought at the Alemany Flea Market in San Francisco turned out to be lost history.

    After making the purchase he held the film up to the sun and peered at the footage. “And I've seen so many clips of post-earthquake San Francisco. I kept looking at these frames and thinking I'd never seen them before,” Silver told NPR’s All Things Considered.

    David Silver posted his discovery last year on a California history Facebook page run by Nick Wright. When Nick’s brother Jason Wright saw the post, he bought the film from Silver. There was something more to the footage, Jason Wright suspected, and the native Californian was going to find out.

    Jason, a historian and photography dealer who now lives in the U.K., worked with David Kiehn, a historian at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, to identify the film’s contents. Kiehn said in an email that digitized the 8,655 frames—by photographing each one with a digital camera—then cleaned up the images. What the duo discovered was unfathomable.

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    “This is the missing Miles Brothers' film. It's been missing for over a hundred years. We know about its existence, but until now we've not known where it is," Jason Wright told ABC Eyewitness News.

    The Miles Brothers, who included Earle, Harry, Herbert, and Joseph, produced and directed films in the early 20th century. They created their own film company and the 13-minute film A Trip Down Market Street that explored pre-earthquake San Francisco’s Market Street on April 14, 1906. Their studio was destroyed by a post-earthquake fire on April 18, 1906, along with many of their films.

    “They shot almost two hours of film after the earthquake and very little of it survives. I think this is one of the longest surviving pieces,” Kiehn told ABC Eyewitness News.

    One shot shows some people looking at wrecked homes and stores. Another shot displays dynamite blasting in front of a damaged City Hall surrounded by debris. The last one shows a street car trucking through a slightly emptier Market Street.

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    On April 14, the Edison Theater at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum aired the nine-minute earthquake footage on a vintage projector to a packed crowd of 120 people. In attendance was the Miles Brothers’ long line of kin.

    “It's just blowing my mind. It's this whole part of my family history that I grew up not knowing about,” Scott Miles, great-grandson of Earl Miles, told ABC Eyewitness News.

    Before the film rests in the Library of Congress’s archives for posterity, “it will be put back on 35mm safety film for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival where it will be shown at the Castro Theater on June 2 at 2:45pm,” wrote Kiehn.


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    For a time, eating and relaxing among the dead was a national pastime.

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    Within the iron-wrought walls of American cemeteries—beneath the shade of oak trees and tombs’ stoic penumbras—you could say many people “rest in peace.” However, not so long ago, people of the still-breathing sort gathered in graveyards to rest, and dine, in peace.

    During the 19th century, and especially in its later years, snacking in cemeteries happened across the United States. It wasn’t just apple-munching alongside the winding avenues of graveyards. Since many municipalities still lacked proper recreational areas, many people had full-blown picnics in their local cemeteries. The tombstone-laden fields were the closest things, then, to modern-day public parks.

    In Dayton, Ohio, for instance, Victorian-era women wielded parasols as they promenaded through mass assemblages at Woodland Cemetery, en route to luncheon on their family lots. Meanwhile, New Yorkers strolled through Saint Paul’s Churchyard in Lower Manhattan, bearing baskets filled with fruits, ginger snaps, and beef sandwiches.

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    One of the reasons why eating in cemeteries become a “fad,” as some reporters called it, was that epidemics were raging across the country: Yellow fever and cholera flourished, children passed away before turning 10, women died during childbirth. Death was a constant visitor for many families, and in cemeteries, people could “talk” and break bread with family and friends, both living and deceased.

    “We are going to keep Thanksgivin' with our father as [though he] was live and hearty this day last year,” explained a young man, in 1884, on why his family—mother, brothers, sisters—chose to eat in the cemetery. “We've brought somethin' to eat and a spirit-lamp to boil coffee.”

    The picnic-and-relaxation trend can also be understood as the flowering of the rural cemetery movement. Whereas American and European graveyards had long been austere places on Church grounds, full of memento mori and reminders not to sin, the new cemeteries were located outside of city centers and designed like gardens for relaxation and beauty. Flower motifs replaced skulls and crossbones, and the public was welcomed to enjoy the grounds.

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    Eating in graveyards had—and still has historical precedent. People picnic among the dead from Guatemala to parts of Greece, and similar traditions involving meals with ancestors are common throughout Asia. But plenty of Americans believed that picnics in local cemeteries were a “gruesome festivity.” This critique, notably from older generations, didn’t stop young adults from meeting up in graveyards. Instead it led to debate over proper conduct.

    In some parts of the country, such as Denver, the congregations of grave picnickers grew to such numbers that police intervention was even considered. The cemeteries were becoming littered with garbage, which was seen as an affront to their sanctity. In one report about these messy gatherings, the author wrote, “thousands strew the grounds with sardine cans, beer bottles, and lunch boxes."

    Though the macabre picnics were considered “nuisances” in some communities, they did give participants a sort of admired air. One reporter lauded the fact that the picnickers looked “happy under discouraging circumstances,” and even said it was a trait “worthy of cultivation.” The fad of casual en plein air dining among the crypts would soon come to an end, though.

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    Cemetery picnics remained peripheral cultural staples in the early 20th century; however, they began to wane in popularity by the 1920s. Medical advancements made early deaths less common, and public parks were sprouting across the nation. It was a recipe for less interesting dining venues.

    Today, more than 100 years since Americans debated the trend, you’d be hard-pressed to find many cemeteries—especially those in big cities—with policies or available land that allow for picnics. Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, for example, has a no picnic rule.

    But the fad isn’t entirely dead in the United States. The country’s immigrant population includes families carrying on traditions that call for meals with departed loved ones, and cemeteries will hold occasional public events in the spirit of this era. There are still scattered graveyards where you can picnic among tombstones, too, particularly if you know someone with a sizable family lot. In those cases, all you need is a picnic basket filled with treats, and you and your undaunted party can partake in an old American tradition. Just remember to clean up after yourselves. The penalties for doing otherwise may be grave.


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    New images from the Hubble Space Telescope capture majestic billows of gas and dust.

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    As a young priest and astronomer in 17th-century Sicily, Giovanni Battista Hodierna trained his gaze on the heavens. He was a disciple of Galileo, and peered through a 20-magnification telescope to track comets slashing across the sky. Sometime before 1654, he documented what is today called the Lagoon Nebula.

    He didn't see it like it appears in the image above, recently captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Hodierna's view was likely akin to what you would see if you looked skyward through binoculars before dawn and studied the area between the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius: something like a smudge or mist pricked with a pin of light.

    The nebula is a stellar nursery—the territory where stars emerge. It’s all a stormy business: Eddies of dust and scorching-hot gas swirl and swell in formations that look almost geological. Inside, a star dubbed Herschel 36 is growing, already 200,000 times brighter than our sun. NASA calls it a “monster young star,” but the majesty churning around it dims and softens with distance. The gulf is considerable: The nebula is 4,000 light years away. (Each light year is roughly 6 trillion miles.) In a newly released set of images, the Hubble Space Telescope foregrounds the billowing drama.

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    The images illustrate the fascinating fury of star formation. “When the Hubble looks at it, it’s an incredibly beautiful, twisting tornado-like structure of dark dust,” NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller told Gizmodo.

    By using an infrared view, the researchers were able to capture a glimpse of the stars inside the dust and gas, too. It's a compelling close-up—colorful, fearsome, and more than a little trippy.


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    One photographer's four-year project to document the country's aging cinemas.

    The photographer Carolina Sandretto spent the past four years tackling what turned out to be a massive undertaking: documenting 398 of Cuba’s remaining cinemas. It was an experience that, she says, was a source of near constant surprise. “As I never had a precise map of where the cinemas were located or even if they were still existing, each one was a discovery and an achievement on its own,” she says. For this project, now a book called Cines de Cuba, Sandretto scoured the country for remaining movies houses—some of which are still operational, some repurposed, others left to decay.

    “Between the 1900s and the 1950s, Cuba was a prosperous island living under the influence of the United States,” says Sandretto. By 1955, there were 600 movie theaters on the island and 147 in Havana alone—more, by her estimate, than Paris and New York City combined. Some of these cinemas were funded by American film companies, such as the Warner (now Yara), which Warner Bros. opened in 1947.

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    The Yara is one of the few Cuban cinemas that remain operational today. “During the years of the Cuban Revolution the cinemas have been taken away from their owners and remained since in the hands of the government,” says Sandretto. “Unfortunately, the funds have been quite scarce and to maintain such a huge number of cinemas has been impossible for the state. In the last 50 years, almost 80 percent of the cinemas have been closed.”

    Today, only 19 of these movie theaters are equipped to show digital film. Though since she started her project, Sandretto has seen changes. “In Havana, some cinemas have reopened their doors as cinemas, and artists are now using the cinemas for dance companies, like the Arenal and the Mara. In the rest of the country the population is slowly taking advantage of these huge spaces and creating dance schools, senior and junior centers, and reusing the cinemas in various ways,” she says. “It’s going to be a slow process but I personally think that the cinemas will have a new life in the next years.”

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    Her photographs frame the architectural style of each building with some of the surroundings. At the Fenix in Havana, there’s laundry hanging out front for the families who now live inside; at the Apolo, men sit on the step, waiting for a bus. As for the Yara, lit up by night in orange neon, it has hosted shows, sports screenings, and also films. It’s also one of the major venues for the annual International Festival of the New Latin American Cinema. This festival, says Sandretto, “is considered the ‘Festival de Cannes’ of the Americas. During those two weeks, all the cinemas are full of professionals and movie goers.”

    In addition to the book, Sandretto set up a website with an interactive map showing the cinemas she visited across the country, with some notes note about the history and condition of each one. Atlas Obscura has a selection of images from Sandretto’s book, along with excerpts from her map.

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    The answer was hidden in the shadows.

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    When you look at the image above, what do you think of? Most will probably take in the beauty of its subjects, the mountain Denali and nearby Wonder Lake. A photographer might admire the skill of its creator, Ansel Adams. Adventurers may feel the urge to climb.

    Donald Olson sees all that and something else: a mystery. He wants to know the moment it was taken. An astrophysicist and forensic astronomer, Olson uses quantitative methods to answer questions raised by artwork, literature, and historical accounts—not the heady ones, but the basic, surprisingly slippery who, what, when, and where.

    In the past, he and his team at Texas State University have figured out where Julius Caesar landed when he invaded Britain in 55 B.C. (northeast of Dover), why the British didn't spot Paul Revere as he made his Midnight Ride (the moon was in a weird spot), and the identity of at least two mysterious yellow orbs floating in paintings: the one in Vincent Van Gogh's White House at Night (it's Venus) and the one in Edvard Munch's The Girls on the Pier (it's the moon).

    More recently, they tackled two of Ansel Adams's images of Alaska—Moon and Denali and Denali and Wonder Lake—using topographic maps, astronomical software, and webcam archives to figure out exactly when and where the photos were snapped.

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    Adams is a frequent target for Olson's group. Over half a century after they were taken, his black-and-white landscape photographs continue to define the American wilderness. But as Olson writes in a new book, Further Adventures of the Celestial Sleuth, Adams's own selective record-keeping means some of his images are literally timeless: No one knows when they were taken. He often didn't date his negatives, and described himself as "rarely to be able to recall a date," as Olson quotes from an exhibition catalog.

    When it came to Denali and Wonder Lake, no one could even agree on the year: Olson found interviews, autobiographies, collections, and studies that claimed the photo was taken in 1947, and folios, letters, and exhibition catalogs that said 1948 instead.

    But as Olson's team has found previously, the sky itself is a peerless record. In the past, the team had used the moon's shape and position to figure out exactly when and where another famous Adams photo, Autumn Moon, was taken. While Denali and Wonder Lake lacks any celestial objects to hang an investigation on, Moon and Denali, below, features a waxing gibbous moon glowing through the clouds.

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    "We realized that we could use the lunar phase and position of the sky of Moon and Denali to calculate the date of that evening scene," Olson writes. A look at field notes from Adams, as well as from his son and travel companion, Michael, revealed that Denali and Wonder Lake had been taken the next morning.

    To determine these two "whens," they first had to figure out each "where": the exact location of Adams's tripod when he released the shutter. The rippled landscape of Moon and Denali provided clues. "The foreground of [the photograph] includes geological features known as 'cirques,' semi-circular steep-sided hollows shaped like amphitheaters," Olson writes.

    "If the image has foreground objects that we can see aligned with distant background objects, then we can use the alignments to figure out exactly where the artist was located," Olson says, in an email. So he and a student, Ava Pope, got some detailed topographic maps of Denali National Park. By comparing the shapes of the cirques in the photograph with the contours on the maps, they were able to identify the locations of several landmarks in the photograph, and measure how far they were from each other.

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    Using this information, he writes "we wrote a computer program that could calculate the view from any possible spot for Ansel Adams's tripod," correcting for refraction and the Earth's curvature. "Our computer program eventually produced a camera position where the calculated view appeared to match the photograph." They then called up their man on the ground, Jon Paynter, a GIS specialist who works at the park. He traveled to the potential location—a spot on the road about eight miles from the nearest ranger station—and tweaked his positioning until he could reproduce the view himself.

    The team now had the precise location of Adams's camera when it captured Moon and Denali. Using planetarium software, which simulates the organization of the sky at particular moments in time, they asked when during the summers in question the moon's positioning lined up with the photograph. As Olson writes, they found "one possible result: Moon and Denali was captured on July 14, 1948, at 8:28 p.m."

    Next, the team went after Denali and Wonder Lake. They calculated the relevant tripod position in the same manner. Since there was no celestial object to investigate, they decided to focus on an astronomical trace instead: the photograph's deep shadows, which could be used to determine the sun's position in the sky, and therefore the time of day. Their first round of calculations indicated that the photograph was taken early the next morning, between 3:40 and 3:50 a.m.

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    This was not quite exact enough for Olson's team. So they sent Paynter on a different kind of chase: into the archives of the Denali National Park webcam, which has streamed a view of the mountain for years. They found a different July 15, and checked the shadows at a few different timestamps. As Olson writes, "interpolation allowed us to determine that Ansel Adams tripped the shutter for Denali and Wonder Lake on July 15, 1948, at 3:42 a.m." The two classic photographs were taken fewer than eight hours apart.

    "As a scientist, it makes my life richer to consider great works of art, important historical events, or classic literature," Olson says, in an email. A little bit of scientific detective work can make the art richer as well. After all, if a photograph makes a moment immortal, it's nice to know exactly which moment that was.


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    A new standard of beauty led to today’s weight-loss regimens.

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    In the early 20th century, Americans endlessly discussed and debated flappers. The Flapper, a magazine devoted to this new image of womanhood, used this description in 1922: “Bobbed hair, powder and rouge on the face; use of lipstick; ‘plucked’ eyebrows, low cut sleeveless bodice, [and] absence of corset.” All these elements were in their own way revolutionary—in earlier eras, heavy cosmetics were taboo, and clothing covered rather than revealed. But one aspect was left out: The flapper look was lean and androgynous, and maintaining that ideal often required a special “flapper diet.”

    Over the centuries and across cultures, the ideal female body type has fluctuated. In many Western cultures, the pre-flapper generation considered a certain plumpness a sign of health, and fashion called for full skirts. But social reformers and women’s rights advocates had long been wary of abundant cloth, which could easily catch fire, and tight corsets, which could compress and deform women’s torsos. Lighter, shorter dresses became ever more fashionable after World War I, as did comfortable clothing and relaxed social mores. Restrictions on dating, dancing, and sex loosened. The cosmetic changes reflected changing opinions on femininity, and the person who most epitomized the new era was the corsetless, cosmetic-wearing, free-spirited flapper.

    Yet other restrictions surfaced. Designers such as Coco Chanel popularized a slim silhouette. The bathroom scale (patented in 1916) became a household staple. Books, magazines, and the media began depicting fat as the result of insufficient willpower. While people have always dieted to fit their era’s beauty standards, the new female silhouette was a departure from previous buxom ideals. “Though the flapper image minimized breasts and hips, it radiated sensuality,” writes historian Margaret A. Lowe. The slender silhouette seemed modern. Female curves seemed old-fashioned.article-image

    Suddenly, raw vegetables were in vogue. In Lowe’s study of the diet of Smith College students in the 1920s, she quoted a campus warden who noticed that consumption of potatoes had diminished, while students were eating more celery, tomatoes, and lettuce. Outside of Smith, people followed the Hollywood 18-Day Diet—a prototype of modern fads. Inspired by the burgeoning film industry, they ate only oranges, grapefruit, toast, and eggs.

    But strict diets were no easier to follow back then than they are now. Yvonne Blue was a Chicago teenager who came of age in the 1920s. Her parents described her as “the personification of wild modern youth”—in other words, a flapper. In her diary, she recorded days of fasting and longing descriptions of the buttery grilled cheese and lemonade she denied herself. According to historian Joshua Zeitz, “the expectation that they starve themselves in pursuit of flapperdom [was] a very real dilemma for many young women in the 1920s.” It didn't help that the decade introduced new processed treats like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Good Humor ice cream, and Velveeta cheese.

    The actresses that young women imitated were thin—or else. Slender stars such as Colleen Moore ate no potatoes, sweets, or butter. Though film was a newer medium, magazines extensively covered actresses’ diets and struggles with weight. Clara Bow was scrutinized every time she put on weight, and Barbara La Marr, who epitomized flapperdom's wild side, died at age 29 from a combination of drug addiction and extreme dieting.

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    Many stars and their fans depended on diets drawn up by strong personalities. The Medical Millenium Diet, pioneered by William B. Hayes, called for patients to chew slowly, eat one dish per meal, and endure regular enemas. But far more influential was doctor Lulu Hunt Peters. Her 1918 book Diet & Health: With Key to the Calories was the first weight-loss best-seller, and the first book to advocate calorie-counting to achieve a “modern” look.

    With a chatty style and goofy illustrations, Peters told readers to ignore the unhelpful advice of friends and family about the dangers of reducing. Food as fuel was the mantra. “Any food eaten beyond what your system requires for its energy, growth, and repair, is fattening, or is an irritant, or both,” she wrote. A sample lunch consisted of cottage cheese and a French roll (unbuttered). To resist the lure of eating, Peters urged her audience to regard all food as potential calories. The responsibility of watching one’s weight, she wrote, was a worthwhile but lifelong struggle. Diet & Health became the bestselling nonfiction book of 1922. Peters, who was a newspaper columnist as well as a doctor, became “the best known and loved physician in America.”

    Much flapper diet advice sounds familiar. Healthy food and exercise are touted as the best ways to slim down, then as now. But this was still relatively novel during the 1920s. “For a nation unaccustomed to a new ideal of slenderness, this was a tough ideal to achieve,” Zeitz writes. So women turned to laxative-laced weight-loss gums, slimming girdles, and cigarettes. Smoking distinguished flappers from their mothers and grandmothers, and cigarettes' appetite-suppressing qualities were considered an asset.

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    That resulted in one of the biggest ad campaigns of the late 1920s. In 1928, the cigarette company Lucky Strike plastered colorful ads in magazines. In one, a pursed-lip flapper looks at the viewer. “To keep a slender figure no one can deny,” the ad trumpets, “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” The ads featured illustrations of women in long elegant dresses, and major film stars and Amelia Earhart endorsed the slogan. Marketing cigarettes as slimming agents for young women remained standard for years.

    Soon enough, though, the flapper era was over. In 1931, the New York Times ran a story marveling at her disappearance, hastened by the collapse of the economy. She “is only a memory, as antique and romantic … as the Gibson girl,” the author wrote. She mused that the Depression-caused struggle of wheat farmers could be solved if former flappers went back to the bread-eating habits of their Victorian predecessors. But that never happened, and the slender flapper figure remains problematically glamorous today.